Azumi 2: Love or Death

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/13/06 09:38:33

"Not as flashy as the first, but in some ways more solid."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Wouldn't it be a kick if Shusuke Kaneko shot "Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack" at the same time Ryuhei Kitamura made the original "Azumi", and then Kaneko wound up making "Azumi 2" at the same time Kitamura made "Final Wars"? The times don't add up, but the reversal is fun to ponder. Fans can debate which director served which series the best, but all four permutations have wound up working pretty well.

As you may remember from the first film (and for those who don't, it's recapped), Azumi was one of ten orphan teenagers raised from early childhood to be assassins, with the intent of snuffing out ambitious warlords and preserving the peace. Then, on the eve of their first mission, they were paired up and ordered to kill their partners to prove their resolve; Azumi was paired with Nachi, her first love. Now, of the original ten, only Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) remain to take down the last warlord, Masayuki Sanada (Mikijiro Hira), in his heavily-guarded mountain fortress. Well, they're not quite alone - they make contact with the priest who sponsored their training, Tenkai (Shigeru Koyama), picking up a perky new sidekick, Kosue (Chiaki Kuriyama) to act as their guide. They also meat a Robin Hood-style bandit, Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) who could be twins with Nachi.

Kaneko is probably best known for his work in the kaiju genre, where his 1990s Gamera trilogy and his entry into the Godzilla series gained raves for not only being action-packed city-flatteners, but for the genuine sense of danger present - those buildings the monsters crushed were pointedly occupied. Here, he's clearly working with a smaller budget than Kitamura had for the first film, but he's able to make up for it by focusing more on Azumi's emotional burden. The kids were na´ve and their minds were programmed but good before; now that they've been out in the world a little, they're starting to realize that they've done horrible things, to the extent that Azumi and Nagara are OK that attempting to kill Nagara is likely a suicide mission, not just because they're good, brainwashed little soldiers, but because they're not keen on living with that much blood on their hands.

Of course, executing that mission is going to be tough. Azumi and Nagara have new allies, but they've got new enemies as well. The Ueto Yaga clan has supplied Sanada with a veritable army of ninjas. Preternaturally fast-moving leader Yune (Toshie Negishi) commands several super-powered subordinates, including one musclebound monster of a man and Tak Sakaguchi as a killer with a spider motif. The action is fast-moving but clear, although not quite up to the level of the first. Ms. Ueto occasionally appears a little less convincing with her swordplay than she was with Kitamura directing, but the big scenes with a number of warriors fighting against each other are still a blast, as are the final battles between the exceptional ninjas. Most of the movie takes place in gorgeous forest settings; cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto certainly makes that work.

The cast is pretty decent. Aya Ueto isn't the world's greatest actress, but she remains more or less ideal for this part; a great combination of youthful beauty and justified confidence. She handles Azumi's new introspection well, and generally moves quickly enough that she's believable in the action scenes. Chiaki Kuriyama actually seems younger and more girly than she was in Kill Bill; I almost didn't recognize her as having been Gogo Yubari. As Tenkai, Shigeru Koyama is very good at giving the impression of being a good, righteous priest but in actuality being scheming and ambitious.

One thing that Kaneko does manage to capture well is that many of these characters are still children, even as they wander feudal Japan on their own on missions to kill. So they're liable to be diverted onto a mission by a pretty girl, or whisper about who "likes" who. A little angst keeps characters from seeming like monsters. The politics are a little more complicated this time around, as Azumi starts to leave childhood behind and recognize that the world has more shades of gray than her trainer/father figure presented her. It's something that could be perceived as a weakness, especially in comparison to the adrenaline rush of the first film, but I think it's interesting to see Azumi starting to recognize the cost of blind obedience even as she's clearly frightened of where she'd be without it.

The film ends with her in a new place, and if Toho decides to make a third installment, it will be interesting to see where they go from there. Kakeno has done a very good job of retaining much of the first movie's feel while increasing the emotional stakes.

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