Japan, 2003, dir. Kitamura

On the surface, Azumi is little more than a kickass action movie. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus), the film opens with a little girl, Azumi, getting orphaned. Skip ahead a few years, and the teenaged Azumi (Aya Ueto) has been raised by Master Gessai (Yoshio Harada), a samurai who's decided to train Azumi and nine other kids as assassins in order to end the rule of Japan's feuding warlords. Thus, the stage is set for Azumi to start with the killin'--which she does, in some kinetic, bloody, and incredibly filmed fight sequences. Through it all, the manga-inspired Azumi's buoyed by the same infallible concept--hot girl kicking ass--that's worked so well for everything from Buffy to Kill Bill.

Beneath the surface, however, there's some weirder stuff going on. While the film played at 2004's Sundance Film Festival and was met with wide (if mixed) response from import-minded DVD websites, it's yet to gain any recognition in America. Or: Azumi boasts possibly the only cameo ever from a videogame developer (rumor has it that developer Hideo Kajima shows up in one of the epic fight scenes). Weirder still: Harada plays a subdued samurai here, but also played the hilariously costumed "Captain Banana" in 2000's bizarre Party 7 (Ueto, on the other hand, is more famous as a Japanese pop idol than as the blood-splattered Azumi).

Marking Kitamura's first big-budget effort, Azumi's also a huge departure from his previous schlock-fests. Some view it as maturation, others view it as selling out, but ultimately, Azumi stands as a weirdly appropriate example of where Asian chambara-type action films currently stand. Balanced between traditional methods and the pervasive influx of CG, Azumi is a weird--but utterly enjoyable--amalgamation of current and traditional film techniques.

You won't find Azumi at the Blockbuster, but it's worth tracking down--try checking the shelves at some of Portland's more esoteric video havens, like Videorama, Trilogy, or Just Be Video. ERIK HENRIKSEN