Two years after the success of the Japanese Jidai Geki swordplay action film; "AZUMI" (2003), comes its sequel, Azumi 2: Death or Love. The sequel once again features the beautiful Aya Ueto as the young female assassin, but how does this sequel fare without Ryuhei Kitamura at the helm as director? One thing that Azumi had proved about Kitamura, the man can handle a samurai film; the director can indeed make his actors look fantastic, he can frame shots that most directors can dream of, and he knew when to cut the unnecessary scenes in the editing room. Azumi 2 (2005) features Kaneko Shusuke as the director and Mataichi Yamamoto as the storyteller. Yamamoto is also the screenwriter of the anime classic "Ninja Scroll". Were they able to fill Ryuhei Kitamura's shoes? I loved the original "Azumi" as you can judge with my review of it.
The film takes place sometime after the original film with Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Kazuki Ishigaki) being pursued by the ninjas of Kanbei (Kazuki Kitamura), who was shamed by the beautiful assassin in the first film. Joined by a beautiful female ninja (Chiaki Kuriyama, Kill Bill), the duo is adamant in completing their mission in pursuing Masayuki Sanada (Mikijiro Hira); the last remaining lord of the Toyotomi bent on rebelling against the Tokugawa. The remaining lord is protected by elite killers that they have to cut through to finish their mission. Along the way, they cross paths with a small band of bandits with Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) as its leader. Ginkaku resembles Azumi's childhood friend; Nachi, who she killed as her "rite of passage" (in the first film). Just who is Ginkaku, and what is his relationship with the late lamented Nachi?
Azumi is based on the manga of the same name. While the original director's cut clocked in at 143 minutes, this sequel is significantly shorter; since it does have so little to work with in terms of plot. There is a lot of action and swordplay in this sequel, and although they are decent in their own right; the swordfights just cannot match the quality of the action, the style and the "wallop" of Kitamura's awesome action sequences. The swordfights are bloody and slashing but without Kitamura's excellence in filming these sequences, the action sequences are missing something. It didn't have the "WOW" factor omnipresent in the original that the sequences lacked credibility. Aya Ueto looked a bit awkward in some of the scenes, proof that without Kitamura's editing and quick cuts, the actress is missing a lot of the "punch" she exhibited in the original film.
The villains in this installment seem to carry more of the anime influence than the previous film. Specifically, the ninja who engages Azumi in combat and the big guy who throws the huge spear around, they do look heavily inspired by "Ninja Scroll". Director Shusuke Kaneko is known for directing "Godzilla" films so expect his style to be very different from Kitamura's style. (It is very ironic that Kitamura wasn't available to shoot this sequel because he was directing "Godzilla final wars"). The villains in Azumi 2 have a some manner of mystical powers, but unfortunately, they are more for show than actually giving our heroine that much trouble. Aside from random action sequences, screenwriter Yamamoto attempts to hide the limited premise in adding his variation of a budding teen romance; of course it is no surprise that Ginkaku finds Azumi very attractive, that he makes it his goal to show her the error of her killing ways.
Director Shusuke redeems himself by once again pitting Azumi against an army as in the original film. Azumi slices and dices her way through a gauntlet of Kanbei's foot soldiers near the climax. He even attempts to do something different in regards to camera work by placing a camera behind Ueto's shoulders while she cuts down foot soldiers. Thank goodness he abandoned the idea after a few seconds. I suppose Shusuke intended to rival Kitamura's terrific 360 degree camera work that was done in the duel between Bijomaru and Azumi is the original film. Shusuke tried but he just couldn't attain the original‘s visual impact.
Ultimately, this sequel isn't a lost cause. There is an effective twist near the climax and it does close the story of Azumi. People who are hyped up for this sequel and expecting the same quality of action and story in the original "Azumi" will be disappointed. Despite its faults, the film does present a moral commentary as to how people can make hard choices and why there must be people like our beautiful heroine. It also questions as to how people like Priest Tenkai can name who lives and who dies.
The film ponders the moral question: When all a person had ever lived for is one mission, after all is said and done, where does she go next? Who is Azumi…an assassin or a savior?
Recommended timidly, rent it first. [3 ½ - Stars]
Note: I gave the original "Azumi" 4 ½ + Stars.
What did you think of this review?