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.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Dead or Alive (1999)

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The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

Re:Born (2016)

From the opening scene of a special forces team being taken out by a mysterious figure, to the final climactic showdown, “Re:Born” is a martial-arts action film that pulls no punches. Early on in the film we meet Toshiro, who lives a fairly mundane life managing a convenience store and taking care of his niece Sachi. We soon discover that Toshiro has a dark past, possibly in the military, as he tells his psychologist that he has recurring dreams of killing. Soon Toshiro’s peaceful existence is brought to an end when a team of assassins is sent to kill him. We learn that Toshiro, codenamed “Ghost”, used to be a member of this group before splitting with its leader “Phantom”. Now he must fight against his former boss in order to save himself and his niece.

This is a film that knows exactly what it is setting out to do and attacks it with gusto. Director Yuji Shimomura worked previously as a stunt coordinator on a number of films and it shows here with some impressive action and fight sequences. It reminded me of Metal Gear Solid in parts, with the legendary protagonist fighting his way through a group with codenames such as “Newt”, “Fox” and “Abyss Walker”. Early in the film we are given an introduction to the character of Sachi as she carries a dead cat along the road to a beach to bury it, along with some sombre shots and a voice-over discussing the horrors of war. This may lead you to think that this will be a more contemplative film that it turns out to be. In fact, this set-up is only a pre-amble to the main feature which is a string of fight sequences held together with the slim plot of “super soldier getting revenge on former boss”. I didn’t find this too much of a problem, although I would have liked more of the character stuff we see early in the film to carry on through it. However, I can’t complain when they have a sequence of a man taking out a team of soldier with a shovel. Worth noting at this point that the sound design of the film was great, with whistling throwing stars, the metallic clang of aforementioned shovel as it strikes a face, and the usual selection of martial arts weapon noises. Kenji Kawai provides an energetic score that also has its thoughtful moments. There are some great performances by Tak Sakaguchi as Toshiro, the legendary super soldier, Akio Otsuka as Phantom, the leader of this band of mercenaries, and the young Yura Kondo as Sachi. Mariko Shinoda also appears as one of the team sent to kill Toshiro, further expanding her range after her role in Sion Sono’s “Tag”.

Ultimately, the film intends to be nothing more than a solid action film and throws most of its energy into the fight sequences. While the middle part of the film suffers a little, leaving behind characters and plot for the sake of an extended action scene, it cannot be denied that the fantastic choreography, and innovative fighting styles utilising guns, knives and hand-to-hand, does make for an entertaining watch. The film does attempt some message about heroism, but to be honest it is not worth troubling too much about the meaning here. Instead just sit back and enjoy this fun, well-directed, violent martial-arts thriller.

Casshern (2004)

Casshern is a sci-fi action film with some great ideas, but which sadly get lost amongst an overly convoluted plot. The film is set in a future world where the countries of Asia have merged into a huge empire which has crushed the European Union. This totalitarian superstate is engaged in a war with outlying rebels. A young man, Tetsuya, disobeys his family’s wishes and goes off to fight. Meanwhile his father, Dr. Azuma, is working on developing ‘new cells’ which mean that limbs can be regrown and the dead brought back to life. When Kazuma’s experiment results in an army of undead breaking out from the laboratory, being violently gunned down and vowing revenge it sparks a war between the recently re-animated corpses and the government forces.

The film has a number of problems, but first I’ll list a few positives. This is a science-fiction film which does bring up some interesting ideas, with the new lifeforms wishing for acceptance from their creators, before turning on them because of their violent ways. It also has a strong anti-war message and there are some moving scenes towards the end when the naïve young soldier realises he was misguided in believing that joining the war would end it. On the downside many of these ideas and philosophies are lost amongst the myriad competing plots and subplots, some of which are mentioned once and never again, others only skimmed over. Often plots are re-introduced which you have forgotten about and have no interest in. It would have been better to focus on one story, either the ‘new human”s or Tetsuya’s fall and redemption.

The film is based on an anime series from 1973 and it certainly felt at points as though it rushed parts of the story or didn’t explain them. It seemed like there was too much story to tell. An example of this is the fifteen minutes in which the new lifeforms escape, flee to a mountain castle, build a robot army and attack the city again. The film changes tracks between story arcs with no attempt to tie them together until the final scenes, by which time you are not sure what film you are watching.

The set design and some of the effects work is impressive on what is evidently a limited budget. There is a steampunk feel to the visuals, and as with many Japanese films heavy metaphorical hints with sunsets and flowering gardens indicating the fall of empire or the flourishing or dying of family ties. There is an odd mix of black and white photography, pure CG and more natural shots which don’t really blend well. I think the film would have benefited from being less ambitious, focussing on fewer characters and telling the story through action without long exposition scenes, or scenes laying out the themes of the film.

Honestly, when I think back on the movie I’m inclined to forgive its sins as a noble effort at a thoughtful science-fiction epic, but I feel that the script and some of the directing decisions killed off what chances this had of being a great film. There were a few scenes where it was not clear whether this was a comedy or drama and more than one occasion when I hoped that it would soon be over.