Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi features one of the most sinister examples of the buddy system ever committed to film. Early on, 10 elite fighters trained since childhood to be unstoppable, unthinking killing machines are asked by their mentor to pair off, then kill their partners to prove they're worthy to assassinate the warlords wreaking havoc on Japan. Of course, any mission that begins with the arbitrary slaughter of beloved friends is morally suspect from the get-go, but the rightness of the surviving quintet's mission gets muddier at every turn. In that respect, Azumi resembles Munich, another film about assassins faced with the dilemma of whether strategic violence prevents bloodshed or perpetuates it.
Wildly popular singer and pop icon Aya Ueto stars as one of the assassins, a lithe warrior whose petite frame, youth, and clean-cut good looks belie her deadliness. As members of her team meet gruesome ends, Ueto increasingly begins to doubt the legitimacy of her mission and the usefulness of violence.
Ueto boasts a striking presence—at one point, she single-handedly takes on an entire village—but she's upstaged throughout by unforgettable villain Jô Odagiri, who steals the film by virtue of his out-there fashion sense alone. With a vibe and look that's part geisha-girl, part glam-rock androgyny, and part late-period Elvis, the white-clad, giggling, rose-toting Odagiri seems to derive a lurid joy out of creating carnage. Kitamura (Versus) tries to wrestle with serious moral issues concerning vengeance and its consequences, but Odagiri and his monkey-styled cohort Minoru Matsumoto keep pulling the film back into the realm of deliriously over-the-top comic-book camp. "Your bad taste creeps me out!" Matsumoto yells to Odagiri late in the film, but Azumi could use a little more bad taste and a little less reflection. As a moody drama, it falls short, but as lightweight escapism, it sets off sporadic but irresistible explosions of pure cinematic delight.