Ryuhei Kitamura’s swollen samurai epic is many things—a live-action manga, a teen melodrama with swords, a single-handed attempt to keep the Karo syrup industry afloat—yet his 2003 take on Yu Koyama’s cartoon series feels less like an adaptation and more like an attempt to match Tinseltown’s penchant for overdoing pop pulp. Thus, whenever our micromini-sporting heroine (Ueto) wanders into a battle zone, the movie starts out faithful to its already fantastic source material. And then, just to sweeten the pot, Azumi slathers on even more violent set pieces bursting with inexplicable wire-fu and turns the screaming Stratocasters up another notch. Take that, Paramount!
For those who haunt the import DVD bins, the question of “How do you solve a problem like Kitamura?” has always been a tough one. He’s clearly a whiz when it comes to mounting action, as evidenced by the kinetic thrills of Azumi’s superhuman showdowns against slashing armies and a creepy nemesis (Odagiri). But after showing promise with his oddball yakuza-zombie film hybrid Versus (2000), the director has done nothing but make increasingly flavorless calling cards for Hollywood studios. A young lady portrayed as a kimono-wearing killing machine certainly speaks a universal film language. So does selling out your uniqueness for cheaper thrills. (Opens Fri; Village East.) — David Fear