The tug in the 2003 girl samurai flick Azumi between that J-cult of kawaii, cute — as embodied by the button-nosed, bee-stung-lipped assassin Aya Ueto, who resembles a pert Japanese version of Jessica Alba — and the particularly cutthroat scenario fueling the manga-based, CGI-ridden film make it the perfect pop vehicle for director Ryuhei Kitamura. His mission: drag the Japanese swordplay genre into the 21st century if it kills him — and leaves him choking on his own blood in the most mangled yet decorative way possible. Kitamura, who mixed swordplay with yakuza and zombies in his 2000 debut, Versus, ransacks as many flashy devices from cinema, TV, and games as he can.
To enact what might be considered the perfect post-9/11 scenario, Azumi and her otherwise all-boy crew of adorable youngsters have been trained from birth as killing machines in order to "neutralize" the warlords vying to destroy the tenuous peace in Tokugawa-era, 19th-century Japan. They're forced to ignore the down-home atrocities committed in random villages under the orders of their stern samurai teacher, Gessai (Yoshio Harada). But when the kids are put to their final test and forced to kill or be killed by their favorite fellow student, Azumi begins to question her training-slash-brainwashing.
From her school uniform–like tunic to her eager-to-excel mien, Azumi is as much a child of Charles Darwin — a fresh-faced schoolkid of Kinji Fukasaku's soon-to-be-remade Battle Royale (Dakota Fanning swinging an ax versus Emma Roberts toting an AK-47?) — as she is the daughter of Japanese cinematic swordswomen like Lady Snowblood. Comparing Azumi to other female-centered revenge fantasies such as the Snowblood series, Lady Vengeance, and Ms. 45 will ultimately disappoint: Her gender seems almost incidental; her empathy, yet another self-preserving tool. Flirting with pacifist — and sadistic — subversion but ultimately succumbing to blood and conditioning, Azumi proposes that a kind of unjust justice is its own justification. If that ain't kitsch — and if Azumi isn't a signpost in a decadent period of samurai filmmaking — what is? (Kimberly Chun)
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