Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional  zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.

Azumi (2003)

Ten children are taken when they are young and trained to be assassins, among them Azumi. On the last day of their training, their master tells them they must pair up with their favourite person and kill them, thus qualifying them to be useful assassins. Set in feudal Japan, when the country is torn apart by warring factions, the film follows a group of assassins as they are tasked with killing a number of clan chiefs, allies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, in order to restore peace to the country. After defeating the first of their targets, the second sends a skilled swordfighter, Bijomaru, of his own to defeat the band of assassins.

The plot of the film will perhaps be better understood if you know a little about the Tokugawa shogunate, and this period of history, as it is a fictionalised version of that time. The story is not too complicated, basically the assassins are tasked with taking out the clan chiefs, while avoiding death themselves. I had a couple of issues with this film, largely relating to the tone. There are many comedic scenes, cartoonish violence, even almost slapstick comedy, while other scenes are sombre, dealing with death and tragedy. The film never really seems to pull these two distinct characters together, instead veering wildly from one to the other. This is not helped by the rock score and direction at times, which make it seem like a pop music video. It is hard to know whether you are meant to be taking any of this seriously. The photography likewise seems to lurch from being well shot, with a real cinematic feel, and looking like a home movie (sometimes it looks as though the actors are just role-playing here, rather than feeling like real people). The costumes and set design are all good and the acting is good for the most part (if you can get over the sudden shifts in tone from tragic to comic acting).

This period of Japanese history is the subject of many films, and this one takes a fairly light-hearted approach to events. The story looks at whether it is morally right or even possible to prevent war by killing those who cause war. The main character of Azumi is somewhat conflicted during the film, having killed her friend early on, and being forced into this life of death, causing suffering to others. There is also a scene in which another girl attempts to make her more feminine and cease killing, but Azumi finds that being an assassin is now the only thing she can do. The film is a real shame, because there are some great fight scenes and really interesting ideas let down by scenes where the filmmakers seem to have applied little effort.

Sakuran (2006)

Kiyoha is a popular young prostitute and much envied in the brothel. After being taken in there as a child she at first resists her fate and hopes to escape. However, she soon realises she must embrace her position in the brothel whatever that may entail. As well as struggling against the jealous matriarch she begins a relationship with a client with whom she forms an attachment.

The film is directed by Mika Ninagawa and her visual style is evident her with bright vivid colours and well established shots. Her weakness as a director is in any lack of evocative movement or awareness of using the camera other than to frame shots. At times the film would benefit from a more dynamic style. This coupled with the complete lack of plot leave this film feeling hollow despite a number of attempts to grab attention with dramatic turns of event. The music is provided by Shina Ringo and suits the modern-slant of this historical drama. The film attempts some heavy-handed, and as it turns out entirely inconsequential, metaphor and it’s clear from the lingering shots of the lead that this was intended to have a serious side. The problem is that you feel almost no sympathy for the character’s struggles as they rarely express any desire to do anything. While the film is set in a brothel it is rather tame, particularly Tsuchiya Anna’s scenes and excepting the scenes of the women bathing.

The film is an examination of sex and love and of being stuck in a life with little purpose or chance of salvation. You can view it either as a successfully depressing look at life in a brothel where nothing ever really changes and the soulless objectified women are servile to a ruling class of similarly cretinous men. Or as a failure that set aesthetic values above storytelling, so interested in the concept of a prostitute as heroine that the filmmakers forgot to write a compelling script.

Based on the manga by Moyoko Anno.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

three outlaw samurai

A ronin happens across a village suffering at the hands of a greedy governor. Finding a house of three farmers who have kidnapped the governor’s daughter as a bargaining chip he decides to help. One farmer’s daughter has also been taken by the governor, leading to a stalemate. The ronin is joined by two rogue samurai from the governors guard. Various conflicts ensue as the situation becomes increasingly violent.

The film is based on a long running T.V. series and as such is packed with incident as the characters struggle and scheme against each other. As such the film moves rapidly from one set-piece to another, feeling like a round-up of a series rather than a story which has time to breath. It’s well-shot, in black and white, with plenty of sword-fighting and not a little melodrama. Occasionally it feels cheap compared to other films of the period. Not for the faint-hearted, the film actually  gets surprisingly violent and the treatment of the daughters is fairly shocking.

Violence begets violence is the moral at the heart of this film. The ronin character is played as a hero rescuing the villagers, but their treatment of the daughter is of cause for concern. To what extent should conflict be allowed to escalate. A fast-paced action story with a few powerful scenes which you will remember.

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

shinobi heart under blade

1614, Japan. At a waterfall a young man and woman from rival warrior tribes, known as “Shinobi”, meet for the first time and fall in love. The Emperor, Ieyasu Tokugawa, has summoned the heads of the two tribes to his castle. Promising them sanctuary and a place beside him in the castle he decrees that their tribes must fight to the death. The two leaders return and select five fighters each. The two young lovers are both chosen to fight.

A forbidden love story reminiscent of  traditional theatre the film begins with great swooping shots of the landscape and throughout looks fantastic with it’s highly stylised cinematography, set-design and costumes. Once the fighting begins the film is littered with slow-motion and CG which detracts a little from the story and makes it feel more like a video game adaptation. This is heightened by the fact each character has a special ability and multiple gravity- and logic-defying stunts put this firmly in the fantasy genre. However, towards the end the film has a couple of powerful scenes and the acting is good.

The story maintains the focus largely on the two leads, although other characters are brought on briefly as foils or to fight. Their story is moving, particularly in it’s resolution and in the exploration of love and loyalty. If you don’t go in expecting a realistic drama you might enjoy the camp action scenes and anime sensibilities of this film.