Azumi 2: Death or Love Review
Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi, released theatrically across Japan in 2003, earned itself a lot of recognition across the internet, creating a storm almost as big as his first major hit Versus, three years prior. The film was quite faithfully based upon Yu Koyama’s successful manga series that followed the adventures of a young assassin, set against the backdrop of feudal Japan. Azumi managed to pull in enough yen to ensure a sequel in 2005. Kitamura would not reprise his role as director; he had spent a year working on Godzilla: Final Wars which would conflict with pre-production on Azumi’s sequel. At least I suspect that’s why he never got involved. After all he’d established a loyal fan base and managed to do justice to Koyama’s creation, even if the film wasn’t quite so perfect; suffering from a slightly awkward pace, while chucking in as many villains and plot twists as possible and in turn sacrificing some much needed character development. For Azumi 2: Death or Love Shusuke Kaneko, who was responsible for the rather fun nineties Gamera trilogy and had even enjoyed a stint in America with “The Cold” as part of 1994’s Necronomicon, came on board to put rising star Aya Ueto through her paces once more.
Azumi 2 picks up almost immediately after the events of the first film. Inoue Kanbei (Kazuki Kitamura) has been hunting down Azumi (Aya Ueto) in an attempt to take revenge on her for killing his master, Lord Kato Kiyomasa (played in the first film by Naoto Takenaka). Azumi, along with her only surviving friend Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki), must finish their appointed mission by taking out the last threat capable of starting a war. That man is Sanada Masayuki (Mikijiro Hira). Ten years ago the Tokugawa Ieyasu banished Masayuki to Mount Kudo, where he now resides with his son Yukimura and his mistress, the head of the Ueno Koga Clan, Kunyo (Reiko Takashima). Managing to escape from Kanbei, Azumi and Nagara get some much needed rest before heading back out. They’re soon cornered by several members - including Hattori Hanzou (Kai Shishido) and Kozue (Kuriyama Chiaki) of the Iga clan - who have been sent by the high priest Nankobo Tenkai (Shigeru Koyama) with orders of aiding Azumi on her mission. After meeting with Tenkai, Azumi and Nagara, along with Kozue make their way to Mount Kudo. On their travels they run into a group of bandits led by a man named Ginkaku (Shun Oguri). Azumi is immediately thrown by his appearance, due to the very nature that he looks exactly like her old friend Nachi, who died by her hands and to this day causes her to have nightmares. They soon part, but when Ginkaku and his men sign up with the House of Sanada in order to take out some assassins they cross paths again, but as luck would have it they form an alliance. With a little help from her friends Azumi will face her toughest mission yet as her past comes back to haunt her and those around are knocking at death’s door.
As with many Japanese fantasy ninja/samurai tales the Azumi writings take stock of several real-life historical figures and then takes certain liberties with them. In the case of Azumi 2 the central story revolves around the Sanada Clan, which although existed, never went through the same motions as seen here. Instead it’s used as a basis for Azumi to finish killing off warlords, with the first film having already taken care of Asano Nagamasa and Kato Kiyomasa. In addition we have our hero figure Hattori Hanzou, a loyal Tokugawa ninja, who helps to round of an eclectic mixture of characters. Unfortunately it all amounts to so very little; you certainly won’t find the same kind of energy and amazement as seen in Azumi, or the likes of Samurai Resurrection, or any number of classic eighties offerings such as Ninja Wars and Legend of the Eight Samurai. Azumi 2 fills itself to the brim - just as its predecessor did - with loads of characters, only it struggles somewhat to give them all enough attention within a two hour span, and just like Azumi that feels thirty minutes too long. Given such a run time it should be able to provide a much more fleshed out piece of work, but our director is far more concerned with providing a slew of action sequences which kill any chance of meaningful developments, only to then indulge himself for the final thirty minutes as Azumi ploughs through a series of individual and whacky fights (including another monkey man), takes down a hundred strong army, half of which would sooner stand and gawk at her, and then face an obvious final showdown with Masayuki. Sound familiar? Sure it does. It’s all so very predictable, following a similar path to Azumi, only having far less style.
Kaneko doesn’t attempt to emulate Kitamura’s style too much, and he shouldn’t have to. Kitamura has always been prone to repeating himself, using similar techniques for each film, understandably so, and he might not be the greatest visualist ever, but that’s not the main focus here. Kaneko takes on Azumi 2 with enthusiasm, though the fight sequences themselves are quite a departure from what Azumi fans are already used to; there are no fancy camera tricks and Raimi-esque sequences. That said he does retain some familiarities: the CG blood-letting and novelty set pieces, which this time around involves characters with calling cards such as boomerang blades and razor wire. Azumi 2’s biggest problem in terms of action is that it’s far too repetitive; every ten minutes offers some running through forests and ninjas with big claws and stuff. There’s enough to please hard core ninja fans, but certainly not enough depth and excitement to turn the heads of most.
As I touched upon momentarily before, Azumi 2 should have been able to provide a well rounded story. Sadly all it manages to do is scrape the surface of its characters. Azumi struggled to divide its time between players, only managing to be truly effective during the opening ten minutes, with one or two incidental moments cropping up at later intervals. This time we see Azumi as a clearly haunted young woman whose past visions cause her considerable anguish. She is still inexperienced in many ways; aside from battle she knows little about life and this is something that Kaneko attempts to delve into. Certainly Aya Ueto tries her best to portray Azumi in different shades, maintaining her bubbly personality but also succumbing to that tragic side. There really is little going for Azumi as those she loves pass on and she’s left to wander in a world riddled with despair. Yet there never is a perfect opportunity to show more and the further that Azumi goes the more hopeless life seems for her. The film’s title “Death or Love” signifies both sides of the spectrum, only the choices aren’t quite so clear and in the end it’s all so very depressing. While Azumi at least ended on some kind of uplifting note, its sequel ends on an ambiguous one, which asks a question that might never be answered. A film such as this really shouldn’t take itself quite so seriously.
Aya Ueto’s been doing alright for herself lately. She’s a good choice for Azumi and it’s not her fault that she has little to work with. I can’t say that I agree with many that she’s a poor actress to begin with; she carries herself well, but I think that the main problem stems from the fact that she’s cute and kind and naïve – not necessarily qualities you expect from heroine figures. But that seems to be the point. Joining the ranks is Kuriyama Chiaki and if anything her character is quite a let down. Although she initially plays her part with a cheerful and energetic gusto, later on becoming a whole lot more serious, she’s given very little do, which is perplexing considering just how integral her character is to the story. Once set up Kuriyama drifts in and out, uttering a few lines here and there, before leaving in quick fashion. The same can be said for Kazuki Kitamura, who this time around is ridiculously underused as Kanbei. Kai Shishido, although given a small role, comes away with top honours, while Yuma Ishigaki commendably adds a little humanity and honour as Azumi’s naïve friend Nagara. Overall the support is made up of some fine character actors. Miike regular Kenichi Endo injects some much needed life as Kinkaku and veteran actor Shigeru Koyama makes for a decent enough villain, though nowhere near as memorable as Joe Odagiri’s sadistic and over the top baddie in Azumi.
Optimum presents Azumi in an anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Aside from that things don’t look very good. I imagine that the budget for this film was smaller than the first, but I’m hard pressed to believe that this is how it should look. Without being able to see the Japanese release, which are usually solid, I can’t quite guage just how bad this is. The image is very soft overall, for both wide and close up shots. Detail is generally poor; leaves on trees are a good example seeing how so much is set against them, as well as armour and rocky terrain. Black levels lack depth, compression artefacts are evident, as is a stupid amount of edge enhancement (as if that was really going to make any difference here) and night scenes lack definition, which makes a few fights and transitions almost impossible to view.
Japanese 5.1 Surround and 2.0 tracks are our choices here, and at least that’s a lot better than the picture quality. Azumi 2 has a few nice, dynamic moments that make some worthwhile use out of the rears from time to time. Dialogue doesn’t have a great deal of separation, with emphasis placed mainly on the centre speakers, but it comes across without any problems.
Optional English subtitles are included for the main feature. These are a little large, but I can’t complain too much over that.
Aside from a trailer for Azumi 2 we get one main feature. This is The Making of Azumi 2, which runs for just over thirty minutes. All I can say to Optimum’s treatment is that this is disgraceful, because they have neglected to include English subtitles, though they included them for the trailer! This is unacceptable, pure and simple. The piece looks into Azumi's comic history and touches upon the first film and then gets into interviews with cast and crew members, with an enthusiastic Aya Ueto getting most of the attention. There are also plenty of behind the scenes footage. While I usually score extras on Japanese and Korean releases, as I gauge their overall worth, I flat out refuse to do so here. This is a UK release and has no excuse to be so shoddy.
Azumi 2: Death or Love is a disappointing follow up to the first film. Director Shusuke Kaneko can’t quite get all of his priorities right, try as he might to present an interesting film. While there’s plenty of action there’s just not enough excitement, and when it comes to the main storyline it manages to elude the viewer and fails to make the most of the film’s tag.
With that said I am sure that Azumi 2 has its fans and sadly for those people Optimum has well and truly dropped the ball on this release with lazy quality control. A major disappointment all round.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:38:48