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“No matter how much I try to escape, I can’t avoid it… I am forced to kill.”

The moment that I heard this female samurai pic was from the director of Versus, I started drooling uncontrollably. [See the Trash City review for why] And if the end product is a slight disappointment, it is only because it doesn’t quite replicate Versus‘ imaginative splatter. Sure, the body-count is massive – it makes The Bride vs. The Crazy 88’s look like Lilo and Stich – but I wanted, and expected, arterial spray. Lots of arterial spray. However, in every other way, this is excellent.

Azumi (Ueto) is one of ten orphans, raised by a warrior (Harada) for a mission to slay the warlords who have thrown Japan into chaos. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, this won’t be easy. Indeed, at one point, Azumi abandons her samurai ways and tries to be semi-normal, joining the sole survivor of a travelling circus. This doesn’t work out, needless to say, leading to the quote above.

Cutting to the chase; the action is excellent, with several sequences which would be fitting climaxes to any other movie. When you see this one’s finale, you’ll realise why they’re not: Azumi’s master is captured, and an entire town of sword-wielding rogues and assorted scum is in her way, plus villain #1, a rose-wielding psychopath who dresses in white (Odagiri). Settle back, and pass the popcorn. While the swordplay itself is mostly nothing special (save one Very Special decapitation), Kitamura captures it beautifully, the visual highlight being a full circle around two characters – vertically. The sound is also fabulous; you could close your eyes and just listen to the battles.

Especially early on, the pacing is kinda slow (it is a 143-minute movie), but Kitamura’s fabulous sense of style means you’re never bored. The villains, in particular, are all larger-than-life characters and enormous fun to watch – for example the Sajiki Brothers, who attack anyone even faintly resembling their target. Curious to know the budget: I’ve heard both “low” and “high”, without specific figures. Certainly, it looks amazing, every bit the equal of The Last Samurai, though I doubt it cost a fraction of $140m. If any 2004 Hollywood action heroine can match Azumi, I’ll be very, very impressed.

Dir: Ryuhei Kitamura
Stars: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Joe Odagiri, Masato Ibu

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