R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Ninjas and Assassins Pt. 2 – Azumi

With the end of the year coming up soon, I can pretty much go on record to tell you that I think that 2009 has been pretty exemplary for the most part, especially on an action/sci-fi/horror movie level. This past year has given us some high-calibre crowd-pleasers such as Star Trek and Zombieland, some thinking man’s action films like The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds and District 9, and a handful of throwbacks such as Taken and Black Dynamite. Now mind you, there’s been plenty of duds too (I’m looking at you Wolverine and Transformers 2), but there’s still been a lot to love.

I tell you what I could have done with more of this year though – just some straight-up, absolute crazy.

I’m talking about the nonstop adrenaline rush that you get when you watch a movie like Hard Boiled or Blade II or Shoot ‘em Up. At least once a year I need something that is entertaining and violent on an absolutely preposterous level and not only throws caution to the wind, but rips its throat out before its done. Anyone that reads this column knows I’ve got a soft spot for movies like Wanted or Rambo; movies with heroes that just seem to not give a f*@#, and let their fists and machine guns do the talking. Unfortunately, the only movie I can say that really hit me on that kind of level was Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak 2. With its non-stop fights featuring muay thai, samurais, crocodiles, elephants, pirates, and vampires, no movie went for broke like that one did, even the action movie I had some of the highest hopes for this year, Ninja Assassin.

With my bloodlust turned up to 11, I was hoping the new James McTiegue movie would absolutely shock me with just how awesome it could be, but unfortunately it only managed to pull that off for about half the time. While I do like the movie, I’m sad to say that the film commits the biggest sin a modern action movie can make in my eyes; you can’t tell what’s going on for most of its fight sequences. Oh sure, I can see where this benefited some of the scenes in the movie, especially where there is supposed to be an absurd amount of chaos, but after a time you’re just not seeing anything. It’s obvious that many sequences were put together with amazing choreography, so why not try to properly capture it on film? It really goes to show that there’s a fine line out there between movies that can pull off fight scenes like this (the Bourne movies) and those that frustratingly can’t (Batman Begins) and too often Ninja Assassin falls in the latter category.

This is despite an incredibly gruesome opening scene, which may actually hurt the film a little. Watching a Yakuza outfit get obliterated by ninjas, the sequence features some pretty awesome violence with gangsters literally getting cut to pieces, but then the movie never really goes back to that motif, preferring to just use CGI blood spurts, which only gets the job done convincingly some of the time. Instead of building its violence in a matter like Rambo, Kill Bill Vol. 1, or something like Rikki-Oh was able to do, this movie gives you all the goods up front, but doesn’t have enough for the long haul.

Its too bad too, because I think Rain actually shows some leading man goods, some of the melodrama is effective, and I always seem to go for training sequences, of which this film has plenty. The film makes great use of Sho Kosugi, the star of countless ninja films from the 1980s, who I think is actually one of the best villains of the year. This is a terrific role for the former action star and could have served as a nice testament to his career in the same way that Sonny Chiba and David Carradine were honored in Kill Bill, but the movie isn’t half as cool as Kosugi is on screen.

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With better camerawork, we’ve got a whole other level of B-movie greatness on our hands, but as it stands we can only think of what might have been. Fortunately, for those that felt the same way I do, I’m here to offer you an alternative; a movie packed with well-shot and thought out action that you can actually see, but still with a ton of energy and insanity. With ninjas and samurais and craziness galore, where Ninja Assassin fails to fill its potential, Azumi does not.


Azumi Starring Aya Ueto and Minoru Matsumoto. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura.

Let me tell you, as someone that absolutely loves Samurai movies, there was a time period when it was tough to really get a hold of lot of stuff on DVD. While there has been a much bigger outpouring of films hit the format since movies like The Last Samurai and Kill Bill hit theater screens and stirred up some interest, it was slim pickings out there other than when Criterion would throw us a bone and release a classic by Akira Kurosawa. Part of the problem also, was that there weren’t many new films on the subject being made.

While ninjas and samurai had continued to be a part of the Martial Arts genre in Hong Kong films such as Swordsmen II or Shanghai Express, the Japanese had seemed to grow tired of the Samurai movie in the early 1970s, much like Westerns hadn’t been in style in Hollywood since about the same time period. Sure, much like the Western, some classic Samurai tales would be produced every so often, such as Kurosawa classics like Ran and Kagemusha, but for the most part the genre lay pretty dormant until recently. Thankfully, someone looking for some bad ass Ninja on Samurai action shouldn’t have to look long.

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While some may be looking for a more serious look at Bushido and the ancient world of Japan in films such as Twilight Samurai or The Hidden Blade, those that are simply looking for fun Samurai sword fights should look no further than Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi. Now, I’ve mentioned Kitamura before, as the man started out with an audacious debut in the low budget zombie/yakuza/sword fighting/shootout movie Versus, where a doorway to hell had opened and immortals battled it out while zombiefied mob victims rose from the grave, guns and all. Its well worth seeking out if that description sounds enticing at all, as it shows just how much energy that the director puts in his films. That same amount of energy can be seen in Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, which was in the running for best horror film of 2008. Here, I think that the director presents his best movie to date, a picture that manages to take all the crazy energy and kinetic action of his lower budgeted initial effort and expand it into some epic Manga/Anime-inspired awesomeness.

Based on the Manga of the same name, Azumi is the story of a young girl who has been brought up within a group of deadly assassins. Their mission is to kill any radical lords before any possible uprising can take place, but when the group has to start killing in order to further their cause, including eliminating the weakest of their band, seeds of dissention start to build. Also, when one of the assassinations goes awry, their intended target sends out his own killers in order to trap Azumi and those with her, the losses on both sides start to mount up, leading to a showdown where all the director’s action talents are on full display.

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Now, again, if you’re looking for some modern pictures that are in tune with the classics of Kurosawa or Kon Ichikawa, I’d go with the amazing works of Yoji Yamada or something along the lines of Yōjirō Takita’s When the Last Sword is Drawn. If you’re looking for some kick ass sword fighting, ninja battles and some blood-soaked/wire enhanced mayhem then Azumi is what you’re after. Think something more in the vein of ’70s exploitation classics like Shogun Assassin or Lady Snowblood and maybe the closest thing you’ll ever get to seeing a live action version of an Anime such as Ninja Scroll.

Take for instance a sequence where our title character Azumi and her band of assassins kick a palanquin over the cliff in order to kill its occupant, only to find out the transport has a ninja inside who jumps out, explodes the palanquin and then reveals a whole troop of ninja at the basin of the cliff. The two sides battle it out in a visceral, almost 300-like sequence while other of Azumi’s associates battle samurai at the top of the cliff. The whole sequence overloads you with action and excitement but never pushes too far to the point where you can’t understand what’s going on.

The movie also features a classic Anime-style villain in Minoru Matsumoto as Saru, an unstoppable killer dressed in all white who doesn’t even use a hand guard on his sword, because no one has even come close to him before. When we meet him, he’s actually been locked up for killing scores of people, but has been promised his freedom if he can kill Azumi and her clan. I don’t really understand the Japanese predilection for effeminate bad guys, but Matsumoto absolutely pulls this character off and makes him a terrifying heavy, and a wild contrast to the almost stoic Azumi, herself struggling with her femininity when she’s been trained to be a killer since birth.

The finale featuring a whole town of bandits, ninjas and Saru versus Azumi is a showstopper to say the least. I’d say the sequence even outshines Kill Bill Vol. 1’s “Crazy 88″ showdown for sheer energy and impact, even if it doesn’t match it for gore. Where Ninja Assassin relies too much on heavy editing, director Kitamura indulges in ridiculously long camera shots, one where the camera completely encircles combatants to the point of almost giving the audience vertigo. This is a movie that knows what it does right and keeps doing it right up to the end.

If you’re looking for more examples on this front, may I also recommend The Princess Blade which is a Japanese production choreographed by Donnie Yen, and features samurai swords galore, any of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Swordsman II with Jet Li, and Duel to the Death which is probably in a tie with Shogun Assassin for the greatest movie ever made featuring ninja action.

That’s all I got for this week. See you guys as we start to wrap up this year and start looking forward to the decade to come.

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