AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2006)
While this sequel isn’t a bad flick, it is a disappointment after the comic book-style roller coaster ride that was the first installment. Sequel is also directed instead by The Gamera Trilogy’s Shusuke Kaneko and Kaneko creates a more somber and traditional feel for the movie which also seems to be done on a lesser budget and scale.
Story picks up after the first movie with Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) vowing to finish their mission to assassinate their final target, Sanada Masayuki (Mikijirō Hira). Things get complicated for Azumi when they join a group of bandits whose leader Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) bears a strikining resemblance to Nachi…the man Azumi loved and killed. Now the pretty assassin once again begins to doubt her occupation and path in life as she is falling in love all over again.
Kaneko is obviously a good director as his Gamera flicks prove, but may not have been the right choice to follow up the kinetic and colorful first flick. Kaneko has a more traditional style and we get a more laid back and sometimes somber story this time and one that appears to be far smaller in scale and possibly budget. The pace is a lot more moderate though it does have it’s share of top notch sword fights and there is plenty of bloodshed. The film seems to focus more on the dramatic aspects than the action, though and it’s characters are far more subdued even with more comic-ish characters like Roppa (Kengo) and the spider-like ninja Tsuchigumo (Tak Sakaguchi). The script is again by Mataichiro Yamamoto who co-wrote this time with Yoshiaki Kawajiri and seems to focus more on the character interplay and intrigue, this time, creating a more intimate story as opposed to Azumi‘s epically scaled tale. It does’t quite have the uniqueness Kitamura’s style of directing embellished his film with and stands out far less from the more routine sword flicks from Japan. The cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is a bit more muted in color thus further removing the more comic book/manga feel from the movie which overall is still a well made and satisfying conclusion to the story began in Azumi.
Again it’s Aya Ueto’s show, though she shares a lot of time with the other characters and is more part of an ensemble this time. She is solid as she was in part one and still gives Azumi a nice conflicted personality when hardened assassin collides with the young woman who dreams of a normal life she may not be able to have. The rest of the cast are very good, especially the returning Yuma Ishigaki as her only surviving teammate, Nagara and Kazuki Kitamura as Kanbê Inoue, who has now aligned with Sanada. The characters are less colorful, but performed well.
While the film is a disappointment when compared to Kitamura’s original, it’s still not a bad flick on it’s own. It has some good action and the cast, especially Ueto, do perform well, it just a more moderately paced and scaled adventure that tones down the more comic book aspects for a more traditional samurai flick approach. It does complete the story arc satisfyingly while giving us a Sergio Leone-esque ending that leaves the door open for Azumi to return someday. As Aya Ueto is still in her early thirties and Kitamura hasn’t had much success in his US film career, hopefully that happening is still a possibility.
The story takes place in ancient Japan where the Heike Clan rule after a bitter struggle with the rival Genji Clan. Gojoe bridge is the entrance to their capital city and each night the guards watching it are murdered by someone, or something, unseen. The bridge separates the city from The Devil’s Wood which is a burial ground for the corpses of the more unsavory members of society. This fuels the locals to think it is a demon that haunts the bridge and has set it sights on their city. Enter Benkai (Daisuke Ryu) a swordsman and killer who has put down his blade and taken vows as a monk. He hasn’t used a weapon in seven years, but gets a vision that destroying the demon of Gojoe bridge, will bring him enlightenment. As he investigates, he soon discovers it is no demon that haunts the bridge, but master swordsman and heir to the Genji Clan, Shanao (Tadanobu Asano) who seeks revenge on the Heike. Can Benkai defeat this ‘demon’ when he still has quite a few of his own?
As directed by Sogo Ishii, and co-written by he and Goro Nakajima, this is a very dark and borderline apocalyptic swordplay thriller with a subtle yet strong supernatural undercurrent. The villain of Gojoe bridge may indeed be a mere man, but he believes he is a god come to restore the Genji and the power of that belief seems to make him virtually invincible. Ishii has already crafted an intense and bleak film that, despite being a bit too long, remains intense and atmospheric during it’s entire running time. This added supernatural element only serves to add an air of mystery and power to the already tense flick. The power of belief also seems to be a theme here as both Shanao and Benkai have strong spiritual beliefs that seem to strengthen them in their missions…or in Benkai’s case weaken him as his violent past still haunts him. There is also much said about man’s true nature as many innocents in the film meet violent ends at the hands of the evil that men do and Benkai is only truly ready to face Shanao when he casts off the monk and embraces the killer. Is Ishii saying that despite how hard he tries, man will always be destructive in nature? Maybe!..though he does conclude his film with what could be viewed as a slight glimmer of hope…or maybe it just means the cycle will just begin all over again, someday. The answers are not spoon fed to you. Despite the dark and grim tone and more moderate pace, there are some very thrilling sword duels and the final showdown between our two principals is worth waiting over two hours for. It’s very physical, very bloody…as is the rest of the film…and the supernatural overtones come out of the shadows for an explosive finale. The cast are all very good, Ishii has a stunning visual eye that is only heightened by Makoto Watanabe’s cinematography and the film gets added atmosphere from Hiroyuki Onogaw’s score.
In conclusion, despite a very long length and a more moderate pace, this is an intense, atmospheric and bloody film. It takes some interesting characters, especially our flawed hero and puts them in a very tense setting surrounded with supernatural elements. There are some dark themes running through it and even it’s conclusion may indicate that man’s destructive nature is a cycle, though depending on how you view certain events, there may be a glimmer of hope. An intense and involving film with some really strong action scenes and a darker tone than usually found in these type of movies.
3 and 1/2 swords!
Couldn’t find the trailer, but did find the whole movie