Production on Shusuke Kaneko's 27th feature film has begun! Picking up the reigns of last year's Azumi, Mr. Kaneko is currently lensing its sequel, Azumi 2. Going before cameras on 15 April 2004, Azumi 2 is shooting in the city of Kyoto at Uzumasu Studios and in the scenic mountains and forests surrounding the former Japanese capital. Additionally, the production has spent time shooting in Fukuyama, a city close to Hiroshima.

For the uninitiated, Azumi is the tale of Azumi, a young woman trained from childhood to be the ultimate assassin. Azumi 2, which picks up shortly after the events of the first Azumi, is set around the beginning of the Tokugawa period of Japan (1603 - 1867). In Azumi 2, the sword-wielding Azumi struggles to put to rest the threat of Tokugawa rival Masayuki Sanada in order to maintain national unity and to keep Japan on its destined course.

Azumi is based on the manga by Yuu Koyama and was originally presented in Big Comic Spirits in 1994. Since then, it has been released by Shogakukan in incrementing volumes. To date there are thirty-two manga in the series.

Azumi 2 stars popular actress Aya Ueto as Azumi. The eighteen-year old Ms. Ueto is reprising her character from the original Azumi motion picture. Ms. Ueto got her start in show business when in 1997 she won a special citation at the seventh "Kokumin-teki Bishojo contest," a national beauty competition. Since then, she has appeared in many TV commercials and in several popular TV dramas such as "3 Nen B Gumi Kimpachi Sensei" (01 - 02), "Koukoukyoshi" (03), "Hito Natsu no Papa e" (03), and "Eesu o Nerae!" (04).

Co-starring is Chiaki Kuriyama. The star of such features as Shikoku, JU-ON, and Battle Royale, Ms. Kuriyama is perhaps best known outside Japan for her portrayal of Gogo Yubari, the ball and chain wielding baddie in the film Kill Bill: Vol. 1. For Azumi 2, Ms. Kuriyama portrays Kozue, an assassin with an upbringing not dissimilar from that of Azumi.

Azumi 2 sees the return of several Azumi alumni, such as Shun Oguri (Nachi), Yuma Ishigaki (Nagara) and Kenichi Endo (Isshin Sajiki). Rounding out the cast is Shun Ito as Kizimaru, Shoichiro Matsumoto as Saburouta, Mikijiro Hira as Masayuki Sanada, Kenji Takechi, and Tomonori Tsukada.

Catching up with the production, the Shusuke Kaneko Information Website’s first day on the Azumi 2 set was 29 April 2004. Having just moved from Kyoto to Fukuyama, the staff and cast of Azumi 2 were making use of “Miroku no Sato.” A setting best described as a samurai village, it was originally built for the Zatoichi productions of the 1980s. With the area located in the woods and given over to old style homes and shops it was easy to feel as if having been transported back several hundreds of years — film equipment and the sight of a distant roller coaster jutting over the trees aside!

Scheduled on this day were interiors within the largest building of the village, which for Azumi 2 had been transformed into a restaurant. Actors dressed in colorful period costumes enjoyed traditional meals of vegetables and roasting fish. That is until a band of rowdy samurai burst in to disrupt the peace! Mayhem ensued until one samurai was killed… Or was he?

On this day, Shusuke Kaneko was in top form as he directed Azumi 2 star Aya Ueto and the film's cast and crew within the cramped interior. For the scene, several actors sat around a large rectangular wood basin where real fish cooked on sticks in a style known as "robata-yaki". Ms. Ueto, in her trademark white and purple Azumi outfit, hung toward the back of the scene, enacting Azumi as an innocuous guest.

Working closely with Mr. Kaneko is director of photography Yoshitaka Sakamoto. A veteran filmmaker, Mr. Sakamoto is closely associated with the films of director Masato Harada, having served as DP on many of Mr. Harada's productions. Mr. Sakamoto is utilizing both film and digital cameras for the Azumi 2 production. Digital photography is being employed to aid the film's post-production and its many effects scenes.

In addition to CG, Azumi 2 will feature its share of conventional "analog" effects. For example, on this evening came a violent fight in which blood spraying devices were used to grizzly effect.

The following day, 30 April, saw more meaty action scenes with samurai facing off against ninja in the dusty, windblown streets of Miroku no Sato. Here, stars Ms. Ueto, Ms. Kuriyama and Mr. Ishigaki enacted scenes where their characters find themselves pitted against an over numbering horde that descends upon them remorselessly.

Producer and Azumi 2 storywriter Mataichiro "Mata" Yamamoto arrived this day, having made the trek by car from Tokyo. In addition to producing the Azumi series, Mr. Yamamoto is known for his films Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Winds (1992), and many anime productions. Mr. Yamamoto is the brainchild behind the live-action Azumi series and has a strong passion for the franchise. His wish is for Azumi to bridge the gap between anime and Japanese live-action film. On the set, the outgoing Mr. Yamamoto added a definite spark to the dynamic of the shoot by sharing his filmmaking passion and entertaining tales of past sets.

Much of the morning and afternoon was spent shooting “chambara” action. Chambara is the term given by Japanese to this type of film, the word being onomatopoeic of the sound two swords make when clashing against each other. And while Azumi 2 is set within a real historical frame, being derived from a manga, it enjoys a slight exaggeration of the styles of the period. This could be seen in the designs of some of the ninja costumes. In particular, one ninja features a striking black metal face mask designed to resemble a crow.

Today also marked Chiaki Kuriyama's first day on the set. Thus, the initial order of business was to announce her presence to the production. Loud applause ripped from the staff as the lovely Ms. Kuriyama gave deep bows. From here, a knife-brandishing Ms. Kuriyama slipped into her character of Kozue.

The shoot wrapped at dusk, and was followed by a dinner party with the main staff and cast. As producer Mr. Yamamoto explained, "It’s important for people to let their hair down every now and then during a production so as to cast off tension and to keep good feelings going." The infectious Mr. Yamamoto even managed to break the normally cool demeanor of Mr. Kaneko by giving the director a huge hug for his hard work on Azumi 2. During the evening, Ms. Kuriyama shared tales from the Kill Bill set, while Ms. Ueto, despite being presently ranked as one of the top ten female stars in Japan, showed that deep down she’s just a levelheaded young woman. And the twenty-one year old Mr. Ishigaki impressed everyone with an incredible knowledge of horror films, both western and Japanese.

The last day of the SKIWS visit, 1 May 2004, was another action packed one. One of the first scenes up was of a wired Mr. Ishigaki leaping to a second story balcony in order to protect Ms. Kuriyama from the arrows of a killer ninja archer. Mr. Ishigaki enjoyed his first experience at wirework action despite being hoisted high into the sky repeatedly as the staff worked out the mechanics of the shot.

Azumi star Ms. Ueto was in top sword swinging form as she defended herself from the day's ninja onslaught. Between shots, Ms. Ueto was gracious, easy going and ready to chat with anyone who cared. As with most Japanese sets, the Azumi 2 production enjoys a very strong camaraderie and a definite belief that every job no matter how small is important to the success of the film.

Between shots, the samurai gang of Mr. Endo, Mr. Oguri, Mr. Matsumoto, and Mr. Ito passed the time by practicing sword and spear moves. Throughout the shoot, despite the long hours, the actors remained in high spirits, laughing it up during setups, getting serious during takes, and basically just enjoying the chance to add another chapter to the long history of Japanese chambara movies.

Azumi 2 will wrap on or around June 10, 2004. The completed film is set to play theaters in Japan in the first quarter of 2005.

For a photographic look at the Shusuke Kaneko Information Website's visit to the set of Azumi 2, please click the arrow: