As in the manga, the old master Jiji is tasked by the Tokugawa shogunate to raise a band of assassins. Their task is to finish off Toyotomi Hideyoshi's three allies: Nagamasa Asano, Kiyomasa Kato and Masayuki Sanada, to prevent an outbreak of the new civil war.
Azumi is discovered as a little girl kneeling without visible emotion next to the body of her dead mother by Gessai and his entourage of young students. She is then raised by him in the martial skills of sword fighting and the art of assassination. Azumi and her classmates, now at young adult age, are constantly being told about a "mission" they must accomplish, though they have no idea what this mission is yet. Prior to setting out on their mission, their master orders his students to "pair up" with each other's best friend and proceed to kill each other, thus out of ten students only five will remain to proceed with the mission: Azumi pairs with and is forced to kill Nachi. More questions and internal conflicts begin to arise amongst Azumi and her comrades as it seems their mission even prevents them from saving a village of mostly women and children from being massacred at the hands of a group of bandits, as they need to keep a low profile in order to achieve their primary mission.
The first leg in their mission, assassinating Nagamasa Asano, goes well. Upon hearing about Asano's death, Kato tasks his general Kanbei Inoue with his safety. Kanbei assesses the threat with a convoy containing a body double of Kato, in which his company fails to keep the double alive. The group of young assassins is given leave to see a small traveling circus troupe, where Hyuga falls in love with Yae, one of the troupe's actresses. After his assessment, Kanbei enlists help from three rogueish brothers who, eventually confuse Yae's circus troupe for the assassins, slaughtering them all until Hyuga, Azumi, and Nagara arrive. By the time the three dispatch the rogues, only Yae is left alive. Kanbei then sends his monkey-like henchman Saru to make a deal with the insidious and narcissistic mercenary named Bijomaru Mogami, previously imprisoned and under constant guard. Kanbei promises Bijomaro that should he successfully kill the assassins, his past crimes will be forgotten. Bijomaru agrees and quickly gets to work hunting down the five assassins, with Saru as his guide. Bijomaru's bloodlust, much to the chagrin of Saru, is such that he often kills allies in battle along with his enemy.
As Hyuga walks his beloved Yae back to the main road after saving her from the three brothers, he is confronted by Saru and Bijomaru, and a battle between the assassin and the mercenary ensues. During the battle, Bijomaru uses psychological warfare in addition to swordplay as he explains to a frightened Hyuga that his sword does not contain a hand-guard since he has never had to defend another's blow. As Hyuga lays bleeding and defeated, Bijomaru forces Yae to watch him toy with the dying boy. Saru, uncomfortable with this lack of respect for another warrior, finishes Hyuga off as an act of mercy, and gives Yae leave to bury him. Azumi soon finds Yae by Hyuga's body, and Yae manages to convince her that the violent lifestyle must be left behind. Together they begin a journey over the mountains and out of the valley to go and live in peace with Yae's kin in Tangou. Yae socializes Azumi during the journey, dressing her in a kimono and adorning her with make-up, perfume and hair treatment. Just as they begin to get comfortable during their journey, a band of brigands finds them as they sleep, and attempts to gang rape the young women. Azumi, who has not slept beside her sword as her training normally dictated, is caught off guard, but eventually steals the sword of a would-be captor, killing all of the brigands and saving Yae. The experience leaves Azumi understanding that she must obey her training, and complete her mission. She sets off to find her master and comrades, and tells Yae that she will meet her later, in Tangou.
Meanwhile, the master, Nagara and Ukiha attempt to strike another target. The plan is foiled when it is revealed that the enemy has sprung a trap, reinforcing his samurai with common mercenaries. The master is captured and placed on a cross in anticipation of Azumi's arrival. She finds Kato's compound and starts her attack by turning some cannon on the area. She then proceeds through the compound, wreaking havoc enough to attract and impress Bijomaru, who decides to warm up by attacking the common mercenaries while Kanbei and Kato escape to sea. The mercenaries then attack Saru's men, and Azumi's task is made easier by the infighting. A final battle takes place between Azumi and Bijomaru, where he claims he is forced to defend for the first time. Upon Bijomaru's defeat, Azumi releases her dying master from the cross and he uses his last breath to tell her to abandon their mission and go live her life.
Later, Kanbei and Kato are on their boat, congratulating each other about overcoming the assassin threat and plotting their next move against Tokugawa Ieyasu. Azumi appears as if from nowhere, and finishes the warlord in one blow, diving into the sea immediately afterwards. Kanbei is stricken with disbelief and frustration and lashes out at his men. Azumi then returns to the scene of her epic battle with Bijomaru to find that Nagara had indeed survived and has just made his way out from the rubble he was buried under during the battle. The two resolve that, having killed Asano and Kato, they will complete their mission, and pursue Sanada.Aya Ueto as Azumi
Yoshio Harada as Gessai
Kenji Kohashi as Hyuga
Aya Okamoto as Yae
Kazuki Kitamura as Kanbei Inoue
Minoru Matsumoto as Saru
Joe Odagiri as Bijomaru Mogami
Shun Oguri as Nachi
Yuma Ishigaki as Nagara
Hiroki Narimiya as Ukiha
Takatoshi Kaneko as Amagi
Naoto Takenaka as Kiyomasa Kato
Masatō Ibu as Nagamasa Asano
Eita as Hiei
Ryō as Mother being attacked
Kei Sato as Tenkai Nankôbô
Azumi opened nationwide in Japan on May 10, 2003 opening at #4 grossing $1,304,864 playing at 253 screens. In total the film grossed $6,668,719 in Japan. In the United States, the film opened in limited release grossing $2,848 in one theater, It was distributed by its writer and co-producer's Mataichiro Yamamoto's company, Urban Vision, on their label AsiaVision, with a DVD home release 1, 2006. In total the film grossed $41,803 in North America. It gained its first international exposure when it was aired on the WOWOW satellite television network.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 43% of critics gave Azumi positive reviews, based on 28 reviews, with the consensus that "this adaptation of the popular manga series offers exquisitely choreographed violence—and little else." Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 49 out of 100, based on 14 reviews.
Awards:2003 Japanese Academy Awards
Newcomer of the Year (won): Aya Ueto and Jô Odagiri
Popularity Award (won): Aya Ueto (Most Popular Performer)
Award of the Japanese Academy (nominated): Aya Ueto (Best Actress)
2004 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Special Jury Prize (won, tie): Ryûhei Kitamura (Narrative)
2004 Philadelphia Film Festival
Audience Award (won): Ryûhei Kitamura (Best Danger After Dark Film)
In the sequel, directed by Shusuke Kaneko and set immediately after the final events of the first film, Azumi and her remaining partner Nagara are stalked by the men of a warlord she recently assassinated. Upon escaping, they are forced to join forces with a local resistance and a group of bandits in order to kill the last remaining warlord and bring lasting peace to Japan. To make things even more complicated for Azumi, she must also confront her emotions in regards to a fighter who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nachi.