Genre: Samurai Ninja Action
review in one breath
Azumi and Nagara, the last remaining assassins of Gessai's trained group, attempt to complete their mission against all odds. When old rebel alliances join with formidable ninja warriors, the demise of our noble-willed assassins seems assured. Unless...
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was virtually the last shogunate diamyo of the Sengoku (Warring States) Era and was crucial in solidifying much of the nation's factional power. His great efforts ushered in the Tokugawa Era following his succession by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 AD. Toyotomi's goal of military "unification" inevitably resulted in various uncooperative factions being hunted down and decimated. Thus tales of this era generally take sides, one way or another, with either the broader, nationalistic goals of Toyotomi (and later, Tokugawa) or with the particular regional daimyos being persecuted as rebels.
In the Azumi films, Gessai's band of young assassins are fighting on behalf of Toyotomi and those daimyo's loyal to him. Their enemies consist of plotters and rival assissins seeking to undermine Toyotomi's momentum toward a unified power. In the prequel Azumi, the primary enemy was Kato Kiyomasa (Takenaka Naoto) and his violent right-hand man Kanbei Inoue (Kitamura Kazuki).
In the sequel, currently under review here, Kanbei Inoue teams up with Masayuki Sanada (Nagasawa Toshiya) an aging anti-Toyotomi daimyo banished to the wilderness of Mount Kudo. Although Masayuki no longer has his armies, he has a deep alliance with a ruthless clan of formidable ninja with nearly super-human powers.
Azumi and Nagara, the only two remaining survivors of Gessai's original band of assassins, seek to finish their mission with the death of Masayuki Sanada, a deposed daimyo exiled to Mount Kudo. Doggedly following them is Kanbei Inoue and a band of highly-skilled soldiers, seeking revenge for the death of his lord Kato (in the sequel). When Kanbei creates a strategic alliance with Masayuki and his band of infamous ninja, the defeat of the two lone assassins seems quite certain.
Azumi and Nagara report to the aging Tenkai, friend of Gessai and ally of the Toyotomi cause. There Azumi pleads their case that Tenkai allow them to pursue this dangerous mission despite the odds. After hearing their determination, Tenkai agrees and sends along with them the young girl Kozue (Kuriyama Chiaki) as a guide to Mount Kudo. On their way they encounter a band of affable ruffians led by a young man who seems eerily familiar to them.
This nostalgia and the contented lifestyle they witness among the band cause both Azumi and Nagara to recognize, if not admit, they hold more humanity in their hearts than mere steel-eyed assassins. (And hence the film's overly dramatic subtitle: "Love of Death".)
Eventually both Nagara and Azumi are faced with decisions based on the heart rather than on the "mission", and the cascade from those decisions prove irreversible.
I enjoyed this film. It maintains the high production standards of the original and the overall narrative here is pretty good. The action is also easily as good if not better.
The real beauty of the original Azumi was the convincing blend of innocence, sadness (pitifulness), and sheer skillful fate all wrapped into the Azumi character. This sequel tries very hard to maintain that effective balance, and perhaps does so to a good extent. But I admit, director Kaneko Shusuke (of Cross Fire fame) seems not quite able to juggle as many elemental balls as prequel director Kitamura Ryuhei.
If I go into detail regarding plot "juggling" spoilers will inevitably spill out. So let's just say you may recognize, as I and other reviewers have, a slight difference in narratival impact and quality between Kitamura's original and Kaneko's sequel.
But I still wholly recommend this. The quality and narrative here easily surpass any other recent Japanese film in this genre. It should be absolutely NO surprise to anyone that in comparing the directorial work of heavyweight Kitamura with Kaneko, keen eyes see differences. It would be a shame to interpret such differences as a justification for under-valuating Kaneko's work here.
This is a good film, and Kaneko has just easily climbed a full two rungs on the Japanese ladder of director-hood. (In other words, rather than solely compare this film with Kitamura's original, compare it with Kaneko's own prior work, and you will see undeniable development of skill.) This remains wholly fun and effective (and contemplatively sad).
Version reviewed: Region 0 subtitled DVD.
|Non-descript tale of Toyotomi advancement.||Generalized samurai warfare. Some "graphic and unusual" slice-and-dice action involving razor sharp wires and a humongous pointy boomerang.||You wish.||Medieval Nipple Rings!! And why does Tak Sakaguchi keep getting unbelievably strange roles?|