Swordplay costumer based on popular manga about a young girl assassin, “Azumi” reps Japanese indie enfant terrible Ryuhei Kitamura’s (“Versus”) first foray into studio production. Though Kitamura wades into blood-and-guts spectacle with panache and infinite death-dispensing ingenuity, the wraparound moral tale feels weak, igniting dramatically only when oddball villains appear. Centering the mayhem is teenybopper idol Aya Ueto who, like some fantastic ninja Barbie doll (with acting skills to match), mows down forests of foes, a spray of blood fanning out across her flawlessly-complected cheek. A B.O. disappointment for Toho, pic seems unlikely to expand beyond ever-faithful DVD following.
On the corpse-strewn field of a particularly costly battle, master swordsman Gessai (Yoshio Harada) vows to end the killings by training young orphans to become assassins and exterminate hawkish leaders. The children grow up together in the mountains, strong and battle-eager.
Forced to watch an entire village slaughtered without lifting their weapons (they must save themselves for their mission), some members of the small band begin to question Ninja ethics. At one point, a disillusioned Azumi takes off with an actress to sample the delights of womanhood, but an attempted rape soon sets her back on track.
Meanwhile Kiyomasa (Naoto Takenaka), a wily warlord tagged for extinction, dispatches a series of evil assassins to eliminate the good ones.
While villainous strategist for Kiyomasa, Inoue (Katsuki Kitamura), and his monkey-outfitted sidekick Saru (Minoru Matsumoto) confront the kid killers in kosher ambush fashion, the mercenaries are far less straightforward. An oafish duo, whose idea of a good time is to arm-wrestle each other into piercing, sharp objects, proves no match for the teens, so Saru ventures into a heavily guarded prison to liberate Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri), a white-robed, rose-carrying androgynous purveyor of death so twisted that he makes other killers sick.
At this point pic shifts into high gear: Limbs and bodies go flying, though none so spectacularly as Saru’s, exploded upward into the camera lens like some simian version of Esther Williams at the climax of Busby Berkeley’s “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
Inevitable comparisons to Quentin Tarentino’s femme-centered carnage extravaganza “Kill Bill” are not unwarranted insofar as both films feature an abstract, self-conscious, and decidedly post-modern approach to a moribund genre.
A mano-to-mano faceoff between sicko Bijomaru and an intrepid member of the youthful hit squad, where Bijomaru delights in slowly carving up the youngster in front of his would-be ladylove, is just the appetizer for the final piece de resistance wherein Azumi finally confronts Bijomaru. Helmer Kitamura now deploys his most daring pyrotechnics, sending his camera off on vertiginous cycles of 360° vertical pans around the combatants, who are perched on a planked overhang.
Widescreen lensing by Kitamura regular Takumi Furuya plusses the action kinetically, but unfortunately Taroh Iwashiro’s annoyingly generic, poorly accented score works even harder in the other direction.