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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

This Lara Croft packs no punches


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Running time: 142 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 10

Foreigners who come to Japanese cinema through Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and other masters often have an elevated opinion of jidai geki (period dramas), particularly those set in the Edo Period (1603-1867). But from the silent days to the 1950s Golden Age, most jidai geki were formulaic entertainment for the masses, with simple good vs. evil storylines, often climaxing in rousing sword fights. As the genre migrated to television in the 1960s, period dramas on the big screen become more grandiose and dwindled in number, while B-grade chambara eiga (samurai swashbucklers) fell out of favor.

News photo
Aya Ueto and Jo Odagiri in "Azumi"

Now, however, the jidai geki is back, and with a CG-assisted bang. Films like "Fukuro no Shiro (Owl's Castle)," "Red Shadow," "Makai Tensho (Samurai Resurrection)" and, now, Ryuhei Kitamura's "Azumi" aren't exactly like the chambara programs of yesteryear, though. Instead of being inspired primarily by traditional stories and informed by generations-old acting conventions, they owe more to the phenomena of postwar pop culture.

"Azumi" is based on a Yu Koyama manga series in Big Comic Spirits All that has run since 1994, while selling 8 million copies in 24 paperback editions. The story is yet another variation on the band-of-brothers-on-a-mission theme that has fueled many a manga ("Dragonball") and game ("Final Fantasy") over the years. The "brother" in the title role though, is a teenage girl, played by pop idol Aya Ueto. Her type of kick-ass heroine in a skin-tight costume may buck genre tradition, but is hardly a novelty anymore, what with Milla Jovovich ("Resident Evil") and Angelina Jolie ("Lara Croft:Tomb Raider") glaring down from all those video boxes.

What, if anything, is new? Kitamura, who shot to cult fame (and a directing deal with Miramax) with the martial arts actioners "Versus" and "Alive," has poured his formidable technical skills and pop-fed imagination into the fight-choreography of this film. Though there is rarely a dull moment, "Azumi" is little more than the manga transferred to the screen.

As such, it has a 12-year-old's idea of what makes for a happening fight scene. Instead of the dozen or so opponents the hero commonly faced in the old chambara eiga, Azumi takes on as many as 200, while the camera swoops, leaps and, in one memorable shot, does a 360-degree vertical turn to capture the mid-air gyrations of Azumi and a white-robed opponent. This may be intended as good, mindless fun, but I found the heroics of Azumi and company irritatingly insubstantial, perhaps because they were more like arcade-game than movie characters.

Azumi begins the film as the only girl among 10 warriors who have been trained from childhood by Jiji (Yoshio Harada), a gray-bearded samurai. One day, Jiji tells them they must pass a final test before they embark on the mission they have prepared for all these years. He pairs them up and . . . only five survive, including Azumi. Led by Jiji, this small band descends from the mountain that is the only world they know.

Their mission, we learn, is to stop a nefarious plot to unseat the current shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, by the supporters of Hideyori, the son of deceased warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In other words, they are out to prevent a civil war of the kind that devastated their own families before Ieyasu wrested power from his rivals at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and imposed peace.

Their first target is Asano Nagamasa (Masato Ibu), a lecherous lord who was one of Toyotomi's allies. He proves easy prey for Azumi's charms, and she and her band dispose of him and his entourage in spectacularly short order.

Soon after, they encounter a troupe of traveling acrobats. One, the gentle-spirited Yae (Aya Okumoto), attracts the attention of the band's bluff, pure-hearted Hyuga (Kenji Kohashi). Though this encounter is brief, Hyuga and the rest later rescue Yae from a trio of assassins. The assassins are three brothers who had dallied for a bit of rape and pillage on their way to their latest assignment: to dispense with Jiji and his young warriors. Their employer is Tobizaru (Minoru Matsumoto), a curly-haired ninja working for Inoue Kanbei (Katsuki Kitamura), the slithery second-in-command to Kato Kiyomasa (Naoto Takenaka), the lord of Kumamoto -- and a key antishogunate plotter.

Kato is Jiji's ultimate target, but he is a wily foe, who is willing to expend hundreds of underlings to keep himself out of harm's way. His ultimate weapon, though, is Mogami Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri), an Oscar Wilde-ish fop who is never without a long-stemmed rose -- and a deadly long sword.

Needless to say, Jiji's band must first get by Mogami and Kato's other minions before they can face Kato himself. It is Azumi's sword, however, that gets the most strenuous workout.

As Azumi, the diminutive Ueto is not required to do much more than look cute and act spunky. The film's wire-work and CG specialists take care of much of the rest. Meanwhile, Kitamura puts on a virtuoso performance with his strobing, spinning and otherwise ceaselessly moving camera. But all the visual gee-whizzery cannot disguise the fact that, beside Jolie and Jovovich -- not to mention the chambara stars of old -- Ueto looks underpowered and overwhelmed. Even with a sweet face and a fetching pair of shorts, a few elementary sword moves won't get you past 200 armed men -- unless you are riding a tank.

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