Ten children are taken when they are young and trained to be assassins, among them Azumi. On the last day of their training, their master tells them they must pair up with their favourite person and kill them, thus qualifying them to be useful assassins. Set in feudal Japan, when the country is torn apart by warring factions, the film follows a group of assassins as they are tasked with killing a number of clan chiefs, allies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, in order to restore peace to the country. After defeating the first of their targets, the second sends a skilled swordfighter, Bijomaru, of his own to defeat the band of assassins.
The plot of the film will perhaps be better understood if you know a little about the Tokugawa shogunate, and this period of history, as it is a fictionalised version of that time. The story is not too complicated, basically the assassins are tasked with taking out the clan chiefs, while avoiding death themselves. I had a couple of issues with this film, largely relating to the tone. There are many comedic scenes, cartoonish violence, even almost slapstick comedy, while other scenes are sombre, dealing with death and tragedy. The film never really seems to pull these two distinct characters together, instead veering wildly from one to the other. This is not helped by the rock score and direction at times, which make it seem like a pop music video. It is hard to know whether you are meant to be taking any of this seriously. The photography likewise seems to lurch from being well shot, with a real cinematic feel, and looking like a home movie (sometimes it looks as though the actors are just role-playing here, rather than feeling like real people). The costumes and set design are all good and the acting is good for the most part (if you can get over the sudden shifts in tone from tragic to comic acting).
This period of Japanese history is the subject of many films, and this one takes a fairly light-hearted approach to events. The story looks at whether it is morally right or even possible to prevent war by killing those who cause war. The main character of Azumi is somewhat conflicted during the film, having killed her friend early on, and being forced into this life of death, causing suffering to others. There is also a scene in which another girl attempts to make her more feminine and cease killing, but Azumi finds that being an assassin is now the only thing she can do. The film is a real shame, because there are some great fight scenes and really interesting ideas let down by scenes where the filmmakers seem to have applied little effort.