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Azumi: Interview with Ryuhei Kitamura

The film Azumi is based on Yu Koyama's popular Japanese manga of the same name. Koyama's manga, or Japanese comic, debuted more than a decade ago and has sold more than 8 million copies of its 28 serialized volumes. Its avid following also made it an attractive property to adapt to the screen.

The story takes place in 19th century war-torn Japan. Azumi is a young girl raised with nine other orphans. Master Ji has been commissioned by the Shogun to turn these young children into lethal assassins that can eliminate dangerous warlords before they can stir more violence. After ten years of rigorous training, the youths have become formidable warriors. But their master has one last cruel test.

He orders them to kill their best friends to prove they have the discipline to be assassins. Filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura was hired to turn Azumi into a live action feature after producers were dazzled by the wild energy of his Asian extreme zombie film Versus . Kitamura was attracted to the story's action potential, but he also saw the dramatic possibilities as well.

RYUHEI KITAMURA: "It's the concept. The master picked them when they were six years old, and he isolates them and they don't know the outside world. They just train to kill for more than ten years and that's a strong concept. So they are not bad people but they don't know what they are doing."

Kitamura employs dazzling stuntwork and fight choreography to convey the lethal skills of his young assassins. But he didn't want the action to play out like some video game. He wanted audiences to see that these actions carry an oppressive weight for Azumi, and that sadness is reflected in her eyes. As she sees both good and bad people die, Azumi begins to question her mission and the need to kill so many so ruthlessly.

RYUHEI KITAMURA: " This is a story of a kind of terrorist. She doesn't know what to do, she just believes what her master tells her to do just go down mountain and kill warlords. And she never doubts that it's a bad thing. As the story goes on she starts to doubt that what she's doing is the right thing."

For those willing to look beyond its comic book surface, Azumi does touch on themes about the futility of violence, and the sad isolation of these young assassins. At one point, the young killers see a troupe of street performers entertaining a crowd.

For a brief moment they see a happier life that they could have had. But that was not their destiny. Their fates would lead them into brutal combat and that's something that director Kitamura looked forward to staging for the big screen.

Azumi is an epic samurai swordplay film that Kitamura hopes will revive the tradition of Japanese action films of the sixties. To creates these battle scenes whether it's between single combatants or an army of soldiers--Kitamura mixes the period setting with a contemporary sensibility that reflects his own personal tastes.

RYUHEI KITAMURA: "When the producer ask me what kind of movie did I want to make from this comic, and I said I want to make samurai version of Mad Max ."

Mad Max , the Australian film that launched Mel Gibson's career, is actually the film that set Kitamura on his path of becoming a filmmaker.

RYUHEI KITAMURA: "When I was seventeen I just love Mad Max too much that's why when I was seventeen I go to Australia to study filmmaking. Just simple reason it's the country of Mad Max ."

Kitamura's passion for Mad Max reveals that action films travel well because action needs no translation, it plays in any language. With Azumi and the earlier Versus , Kitamura proves an aptitude for action.

RYUHEI KITAMURA: "I just wanted to make biggest non-stop, longest action sequence of these samurai movies in history."

Kitamura aspires to the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa and it's not bad to aim high. But don't expect Kitamura's work to reach Kurosawa's heights - at least not yet. In the mean time, he does make Azumi a youthful pop entertainment epic.

Companion viewing: Versus, Seven Samurai, Samurai Seven (anime version of Kusrosawa's film)

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