If “Azumi 2: Death or Love” does anything, it’s convince fans of the series that Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of the 2003 original, was one heck of a director. Surely, we thought while watching “Azumi”, Kitamura’s style just isn’t right for such a straight samurai film. How wrong we were. Apparently Kitamura knew what he was doing all along; he knew how to frame the shots, how to get the most out of his untrained actors (in particular lead Aya Ueto), and how to keep only the shots that impressed, dumping all else in the editing room. All for the sake of style, you say? After watching “Azumi 2”, a little more Kitamura-esque style would have been welcomed.
Coming two years after the first, “Azumi 2” continues the adventures of diminutive swordslinging assassin Azumi (Aya Ueto), who we find on the run with fellow killer Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki), the two being the only ones still alive after the events of the first movie. The pair is dogged by Kanbei (Kazuki Kitamura), a vengeful samurai whose own lord was killed by Azumi. Determined to get payback, Kanbei has hired himself a gang of high-tech ninjas armed with pistols, mesh armor, and groovy masks. Still determined to complete her mission (she has one more target to go), Azumi and Nagara sets out to finish their job or die trying.
Along the way our battling twosome encounters Ginkaku (Shun Oguri), a petty bandit who bears a striking resemblance to Nachi (the fact that they’re played by the same actor helps), who we saw Azumi kill in the original film as her final test into assassinhood. Apparently for no reason other that he thinks she’s quite purty, Ginkaku makes it his mission to convince Azumi of her misguided ways, but ends up tagging along with her and Nagara as they continue their trek to take out Lord Sanada (Mikjiro Hira), the last name on the hit list. And oh yeah, Chiaki Kuriyama, still living high on the hog off her schoolgirl killer role in Quentin Tarantino’s bloodfest “Kill Bill”, tags along as a giggling ninja girl with a knack for the bow and arrow.
Although it’s a just a little bit shorter than the first film (which clocked in at well over two hours, as Kitamura’s movies are wont to do), “Azumi 2” actually has even less to work with in terms of story. The screenplay by Mataichiro Yamamoto is mostly random in nature, providing just enough Teen Movie-level romance and broad emotional investment to get the characters to the next swordfight. Like the first, the sequel is chock full of swordfights, but something is missing here — namely, credibility. Without Kitamura’s flash and editing chops, “Azumi 2’s” bloody fights (and they are oftentimes quite bloody, including the usual spraying blood and a lot of CGI-assisted bodily dissections) seem straightforward and lacking punch.
Even star Aya Ueto, who you would imagine must have improved in the two years since the original, seems to be moving in quicksand, looking much slower and less in control of that sword of hers. Unfortunately she’s not alone, as there isn’t a convincing swordsman (or swordswoman) in the entire cast. The director is Shusuke Kaneko, a man more familiar with helming rubber costumes via the Godzilla films (ironic, then, that Kitamura left “Azumi 2” for “Godzilla: Final Wars”) than swordslinging girls. The film suffers from lag time, with the background politics (the whole reason for Azumi’s mission) coming across as utterly dull.
One of the film’s biggest problems is the script by Yamamoto, the screenwriter of the ninja anime “Ninja Scroll”. As in that movie, “Azumi 2” has a small band of “super” ninjas, all of whom seems to have super powers. Mind you, not that their seemingly super attributes help them any, as Azumi easily slices and dices her way through all of them without much trouble. Except for one ambush inside a forest underneath some bamboo trees, our super ninja villains are really more “show” than “tell”. By film’s end, Kaneko attempts to resurrect the strangely ecstatic vibe one got from watching Azumi obliterate a village full of soldiers in the original by having her hack her way through yet another legion of soldiers in the sequel.
Although quite pointless and seemingly random in its attempts to tell a coherent narrative, “Azumi 2” does have a pretty heroine, and the swordplay, while lacking any real excitement, are plentiful. The movie’s best moments (some of it comical) usually involves those armored and pistol-packing ninjas, but like most of the villains in the film, our ninjas get killed off much too quickly. At one point, perhaps to stimulate a faux sense of creativity, Kaneko mounts a camera behind Aya Ueto’s shoulder as she battles in the film’s climactic swordfight, giving us a semi-POV shot from Azumi’s perspective. It’s a minor point of interest, but Kaneko seems to get tired of the gag about 5 seconds into it.
The film also offers up a surprise twist toward the hour mark, when a character is revealed to be a spy for the super ninjas. Then again, if you know what 2 times 2 is, you’ll probably guess the spy’s true identity well before the revealing moment. Truthfully, the whole spy subplot is as subtle as getting stabbed in the eye with a spork by a 500 lb gorilla wearing a propeller hat. Which probably also describes “Azumi 2’s” stab (ahem) at social criticism via the ongoing war between the Japanese Lords.
Shusuke Kaneko (director) / Mataichiro Yamamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Aya Ueto …. Azumi
Yuma Ishigaki …. Nagara
Chiaki Kuriyama …. Kozue
Shun Oguri …. Ginkaku
Kai Shishido …. Hanzou
Kazuki Kitamura …. Kanbei
Mikijiro Hira …. Masayuki Sanada