By Dr. Craig D. Reid
How many times have you thought how cool would it have been to watch the likes of Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi or Tomisaburo Wakayama as Itto Ogami to burst out of their routine fight seams against a handful of frozen faced attackers and go completely ballistic against 200 crazed slicing and dicing marauding ronins? Well wait no more; Azumi has arrived. What’s so refreshing about Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura’s samurai swashbuckler Azumi, is the film’s rebirth of Akira Kurosawa’s classics from yesteryear mixed with Kitamura’s fascination for Western cult cinema, sushi rolled into a highly stylized swordplay actioner never before tackled in Japanese jidai geki (period drama; movies set before 1868 Japan) or chambara film.
“I didn’t want to make a polite samurai film,” Kitamura shares with me during a Los Angeles visit to wrap up a film deal, “I wanted to make it more like (George) Miller’s Mad Max meets Road Warriors. I would also have to say that I draw influence from (Russell) Mulcahy’s Highlander (1986) and in terms of samurai film, definitely from the Baby Cart films because they’re nuts, chopping everybody in half and just crazy action.”
Shot in 90 days with a Japanese record budget of $6.5 million and based on the manga series created by Yu Koyama, Azumi takes place after the Battle of Sekigahara (September 15th, 1600) when a samurai is ordained by the Ieyasu shogunate to raise a handful of assassins (not ninjas) whose mission is to kill three warlords that threaten Feudal Japan with an agenda of war and bloodshed. Beautiful teenage girl Azumi, played by pop starlet Aya Ueto, must rise up beyond her doubts and pangs to be a normal woman to become the ultimate assassin and save war-torn Japan.
“I had always wanted to become an action film director,” Kitamura admits, “and years ago when I tried to do an action film, all the Japanese producers told me that I can’t beat Hong Kong or Hollywood action, and the only action you can do in Japan is anime. So since no producer would let me do action, I got money from all of my friends, including my ex-girlfriend, and made my first feature Versus, a kind of zombie, yakuza, samurai film, where I wanted to put in every kind of action and cool stuff into it. Anyway Versus captured the attention of Mata (producer Mataichiro Yamamoto), famous for his film The Man Who Stole the Sun (1980) and so he asked me to do Azumi.”
However, when Kitamura read the script he told Yamamoto that although this was a great opportunity for him to direct Azumi, the script was wrong he just couldn’t do the film. So what was wrong?
“When I had my first meeting with Mata, he had the script all finished and when I read it, it had no action and it was like a ninja film,” Kitamura recalls, “I said this wasn’t right, Azumi is not a ninja. But the big thing missing was the great opening from the original story. When I asked him why, he said it was too strong. I replied what’s the point of making Azumi without this? Mata has been developing this script for seven years but he was willing to start over. He’s a man of his word, and he made all the changes and of course I did the film.”
From the film’s psychotic opening to Kitamura’s off beat characters and wry sense of humor, at the end of the day, it’s Kitamura’s exciting stylized violence, bizarre camera work and outrageous sight gags that impresses and makes Azumi the best action movie out of Japan in over 20 years. Unlike its Hong Kong and Hollywood action counterparts, Azumi is inherently an honest film, a film that doesn’t try to fool you with fight scenes heavily seeped in wirework and special effects. However, there is a price Kitamura pays for going physical with his action; compared to the Kurosawa classics, it’s obvious that most of the leads in Azumi lack sword savvy.
“There was no use going back to the great samurai movies of old because it is very hard to find actors who can really use the sword like Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai,” Kitamura points out, “I didn’t want to go back to doing that because their techniques and strengths are completely different. Times have changed, kids nowadays don’t touch or play with swords anymore. So I ended up creating my own style of fighting with Yuta (action director Yuta Morokaji) and we trained the actors for two months. They had no idea how to do the movements, but in the end, they did quite well.”
Three days after the release of Azumi, Kitamura was approached by Toho to shoot the 28th and final installment of their Godzilla franchise, Godzilla: Final Wars. Kitamura reflects on why this is the last Godzilla film, his approach to the movie and if he felt any pressure being the last director to do a Godzilla film.
“No, there was no pressure doing this film,” Kitamura avers, “in fact it was really fun for me. I loved the Godzilla films back in the ’70s but I have hated them over the last 20 years. I told the producers they were getting boring, boring, boring every year and that I don’t think I’m the right person for this film. But they said I was.
“I think Godzilla’s popularity has gone down because no one has done any updated Godzilla movies, so they’ve been losing audiences over the past 20 years. I told the producer that every film, not just Godzilla but also the chambara films, have to be updated, but you guys keep doing the same thing again and again, and that is why losing audience. The audience is not so stupid and that is why you are losing the audience, ordinary people don’t go see this film anymore. If you chose me as the director i will make the film for international audience and make the film for ordinary people.”
When asked for his opinion of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) he sighs and says, “I liked it as a movie, but not as a Godzilla movie. Admittedly so, it’s a much better film than the Japanese Godzilla films for the past 20 years, but maybe they should have called in a remake of the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).”
If you’ve never seen Final Wars, there is a definitive negative nod to Emmerich’s Godzilla as Toho’s Godzilla ends up “fighting” SONY’s version. It’s comparable to Godzilla’s fight with Bambi except it is not very “endeering” to the loser.