Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Stray Dolls: Azumi 2: Death or Love (2005)

This disappointing follow-up to the thoroughly entertaining and violent chambara (Japanese slang for historical swordplay films; a sub-genre of the jidai-geki or historical film genre) Azumi (2003), is not without its charms or excitement, but there’s something lacking here. Aya Ueta returns as the kawaii (cute) assassin Azumi who, with her loyal compatriot Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) still by her side after the monumental bloodshed finale of the last film, are hired by another lord to take out the evil warlord Masayuki Sanada (Mikijiro Hira), who wants to wage war across Tokugawa Japan and destroy anyone foolhardy enough to stand in his way. Director Shusuke Kaneko (Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe and its sequels; Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) replaces Ryhuhei Kitamura (Versus, Godzilla: Final Wars) from the first outing, and the difference couldn’t be more obvious. Kitamura’s swift, stylish epic (especially in the 142 minute Japanese cut and not the shorter international version) beautifully mixed action and emotion, character-development and manga-inspired melodrama to make for one hell of a Saturday afternoon matinee bonanza. Kaneko’s take on the material, unfortunately, never really finds its footing and when the action sequences do kick in—which isn’t too long of a wait—they’re frequently un-involving and ponderously staged.

There are some surprises and treats here, though, including the casting of fan-boy favorite Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Kill Bill: Vol. 1) as an assassin who joins up with Azumi and her new rag-tag killer misfits. And though she pretty much steals every scene she’s in, even Kuriyama has trouble fighting her way out of screenwriter Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s clunky dialogue and clich├ęd plot.

I realize it sounds as if I really disliked Azumi 2: Death or Love, which couldn’t be farther from the truth (I'll take a mediocre Azumi over none at all). It’s just that the first film was so good, so enjoyable, that perhaps my expectations were a little too high. Oh, well. Considering that Death or Love ends with a wide-open window for another installment, I’m sure I’ll get another chance to see my Azumi dreams turn into another serving of bad shio-zuke.

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