Review for Azumi 2: Death or Love
If you're the kind of person who looks to the numbers and ignores all the words in a review, you probably don't think that I liked the original Azumi all that much. Nothing could be further from the truth, as it was the quality of the disc from Optimum Asia that offended me, not the content. Of course when the review was ported over from the old site, the technical and content scores were lost, leaving just the overall score. To summarise, an enjoyable film was hampered by squeezing two discs worth of content onto one disc, resulting in compression artefacts, edge enhancement, a simple stereo soundtrack, and burnt in subtitles. When Azumi 2 was subsequently released, it looked a lot more promising, with around half the content of the first film giving it room to breathe on a dual-layer disc, with surround audio and player generated subtitles. Thinking fondly of the first film, I made a mental note to watch the sequel when time allowed. The problem is that I write my mental notes on mental post-its, with watery mental adhesive. It didn't take long for the note to fall into the ever increasing detritus of my psyche. It was only pure chance that I spotted it last year in a sale, and finally remembered that I wanted to watch it. I shouldn't have bothered...
Azumi had a more traumatic childhood than most. An orphan, she was 'rescued' by a man with a mission. Together with nine other children, she was raised by this man, trained to be a lethal assassin. The aim was to ensure peace in Japan. The fledgling Tokugawa Shogunate was barely holding onto power, still threatened by their Toyotomi rivals who could spark up the embers of civil war once more. Azumi and her fellows would seek out and assassinate these rivals, thus forever banishing the spectre of war from Japan. But to demonstrate their commitment to the cause, the young warriors' first mission was to kill their best friends. Azumi killed her closest friend Nachi, and so the ten became five, but in the missions that followed, against Nagamasa Asano and Kiyomasa Kato, they almost fell at the first hurdle, their patron was killed, and of the five warriors sent on this mission, only two survived, Azumi and her friend Nagara.
As the second film begins, Azumi and Nagara are fleeing from a band of black clad assassins, sent by Kiyomasa's bodyguard Kanbei Inoue to exact vengeance on those who killed his master. But for Azumi and Nagara, the mission is not yet complete. Of their Toyotomi targets, one warlord remains, the strongest of them all, Masayuki Sanada, who sits exiled on Mount Kudo. Azumi and Nagara make contact with the priest Tenkai who originally assigned the mission to their master, and reaffirm their commitment to complete this task, and assigned to help them is an Iga ninja girl named Kozue. But the more time they spend in the outside world, the more questions they have about their mission, and this time it's made all the more complicated for Azumi when she encounters a gang of bandits, led by a charismatic thief that is the spitting image of her childhood friend Nachi. The life he leads, a carefree and joyful existence is very appealing, and she begins to have second thoughts. These couldn't come at a worse time, as Sanada is contemplating a move against the Shogunate, spurred on by his passion for the Kouga ninja woman Kyuka. She lusts for the glory of war once more, and with her Ueno Kouga cohorts, she'll do whatever it takes to achieve that.
I had thought that all that extra space on the disc would mean a more agreeable image. If anything, Azumi 2's 1.85:1 anamorphic PAL transfer is worse than that of the original film. The image is soft throughout, lacking in detail and resolution, and more reminiscent of a VHS image than a DVD quality presentation. The image is also hazy, low in contrast and with blacks tending to greys, it actually makes the film a chore to watch. It's a shame as the production design for the film is excellent, the stunts and the action, while not quite up to the standards of the first film, are still noteworthy, and some of the more detailed scenes, like the wire web sequence, are hard done by when it comes to the transfer.
Audio is a little more pleasant an experience, although the disc confusedly offers you the alternatives of DD 5.1 Japanese and the 'original' DD 2.0 stereo track. A film from 2005 with just a stereo audio track sounds implausible to me, although I can envisage a situation where the stereo track was what Optimum received, and they upmixed a 5.1 surround mix from that. Having said that, the 5.1 audio does sound a little more than a mere upmix, especially during the film's action sequences, where discrete placement of sounds and a robust envelopment are most apparent. Otherwise the dialogue is clear throughout, while the music is appropriate to the film, if forgettable. Alas, Azumi 2 gets player forced English subtitles. You can't turn them off, which makes this disc hardly an improvement over the first film in that area. Also the cast credits have no subtitling at all.
The disc gets a 'slightly' animated menu, from which you can take a look at trailers for other Optimum Asia product, including Appleseed, Arahan, Azumi, and Doll Master.
For film specific extras, you'll find a brief trailer for Azumi 2, and The Making of Azumi 2: Death or Love featurette, which runs to 32 minutes. By far the most significant contribution here is the interview with star Aya Ueto, but we do get taken behind the scenes of the film, with a look at the characters, and with brief interview snippets with the actors. It's notable that the image quality of the film clips here, albeit in letterbox format, is significantly better than that of the film itself.
Something odd has been happening in the last decade or so in cinema. Sequels have started to improve on the original properties. I think it began with X-Men and its sequel X-Men 2, but more and more often, follow up films are delivering more than their originals. Thankfully someone is still upholding the old traditions in the face of such blatant disrespect to the cinematic conventions. Azumi 2 is worse than the original film, although it has to be said, not by much.
It continues right from where the original left off, with the titular assassin still on her mission to clear out the enemies of peace and order in Japan of the early Shogunate period. After having eliminated the first two warlords on the list, only one remains, although he's said to be the toughest of them all. In that respect, it's a movie in the same action vein as before, with plenty of samurai swords a-swinging, and blood sprays aplenty. Added into the mix this time are the ninja, with the Iga ninja siding with Azumi's faction, and the Kouga ninja assisting, indeed goading Sanada. The Kouga and the Iga ninja dominate popular period fiction, and I have to admit, having just watched yet another Seiji Chiba ninja movie, I was rolling my eyes at seeing them pop up yet again. But when it's Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill and Battle Royale) as the ninja girl, there's a lot more to appreciate.
Where this film differs from the first is the dilemma that Azumi faces, Death or Love, when she encounters the doppelganger of her best friend, the same best friend that she had to kill to complete her assassin training. Now it's almost as if she has a second chance, and with Ginkaku's outlook on life so different to the way that she's been raised, she starts to see the world through his eyes. She finds reasons to change her way of life, to put aside her quest for vengeance and try to be a normal girl. Of course, as is the way in these movies, that's not going to happen, and the real world is bound to come crashing in, resulting in swords being drawn, and rivers of blood flowing.
The problems with Azumi 2 begin with the characters. First off, while Kanbei remains from the first film, and he still has that taciturn desire for vengeance, the other villains of the piece just don't match up in intensity compared to those of the first film. The Kouga ninja in particular are more comical than menacing; while Sanada's obsessive mania fails to translate to an effective dramatic intensity. Worse, however is how Azumi herself fares. In the first film, she was raised to be a lethal killing machine, unstoppable with a sword, and that came through in Aya Ueto's performance, and in the way that the fights were choreographed. Here she allows more of the character's humanity to creep through, and by doing so loses that lethal intent, while the action choreography fails to match that of the first film. Here she just looks like a pretty girl with a sword.
The action in this film is another comparative disappointment. The first film had action that was intense, brilliantly choreographed and big. The final sequence in the village, where Azumi faced an army of hundreds, with buildings exploding everywhere, concluding with the face-off with the white-clad insane villain, was memorable to say the least. Azumi 2 never approaches that in terms of its scale, or its budget. It feels like just another small action movie, entertaining it's true, but not quite big enough.
All of that, coupled with the frankly dismal visual transfer on this disc serves to make it quite the letdown. And yes, I have gone back and 'corrected' the score on the first movie now.