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Library Wars: The Last Mission
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by Jay Seaver

"Still fighting censorship with machine guns, less concerned about princes."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The first live-action "Library Wars" film was a curious thing, a seemingly natural venue for sharp satire that instead focused on light romance to the exclusion of what would seem like more unique material. In some ways, its sequel over-compensates, mission-focused in nature as well as name, but it is overall a strong follow-up that expands on its premise in interesting ways while also making for an enjoyable visit with favorite characters.

As before, the film takes place in an alternate timeline where the Japanese government has a "Media Betterment Act" and a well-armed censorship bureau to enforce it; the loophole is that local libraries are allowed to defend themselves. In the eighteen months since a rookie squad including Iku Kasahara (Nana Eikura), Mikihasa Komaki (Kei Tanaka), and Hikaru Tezuka (Sota Fukushi) faced a trial by fire, things have mostly gone fairly well: The Musashiro Library where they work is seeing more visitors, and there's a planned freedom-of-information exhibition in Kasahara's hometown that plans to use the sole remaining first edition of 1950's "Foundation of Library Law" as a centerpiece. But as plans for the exhibition come together, there are clouds on the horizon: A disgruntled employee has burned books critical of the Library Defense Force and claimed Kasahara was involved, and Tezuka's older brother Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka), who quit the LDF and went into politics, is talking about consolidating the libraries and Media Betterment Agency under the Department of Education, pointing out that the public has had enough of two branches of the government shooting it out on a regular basis.

There's a nifty hook in there that at least offers the potential for a timely and typical story while also clearing up something that made the series seem far-fetched even allowing for its satirical nature - it turns out that the MBA is a national agency while the libraries are local, and the combat rules are thus a bizarre political compromise. Elements of Satoshi Tezuka's arguments resonate as a result; it's a potentially potent stew of recognizing how destructive the conflict can be but still having real concerns about compromising important principals. That can be a difficult thing to make into an action-oriented plot, and the film's writers struggle with it a bit, although sometimes the dissonance can be intriguing: It can seem bizarre that the scenes of people excitedly using the library can exist side-by-side with huge amounts of troops willing to shoot the place up, but that's probably as good a description of life in the twenty-first century as any.

There's not a whole lot of punching and shooting between the big fights at the start and finish, though they're smartly conducted as well. Director Shinsuke Sato uses the action at the top of the movie - a team including Kasahara trying to break through an MBA blockade to deliver forbidden books to the library - as a contrasting inverse to the finale, where the LDF must outlast a siege bent on their utter eradication, before returning to Kasahara having to get the book to the exhibition. This, after all, is what librarians do, connecting people with what they need (while censors destroy in order to consolidate power and influence), although Sato disguises this with a lot of steel armor and military vehicles. Like the first film, this one features a lot of bullets fired without any really seeming to get that close to characters with faces, but Sato stages it very well, as the revelation that the mission is potentially more rigged against the LDF than they thought starts an impressive process of having the walls close in.

Toning down the soap opera material makes it a little easier to enjoy revisiting the characters. The pairing of Kasahara and her training officer Atsushi Dojo still feels a bit weirder than it should - even though there's not that much age difference between actors Nana Eikura and Junichi Okada, he plays older even without the patting her on the head like she's still a kid - so it's good that is mostly saved for when there's room for a little comic relief and otherwise kept in the background. Eikura still makes a winning, upbeat lead while being a little more confident in the action scenes, while Okada continues to find a less-stuffy side to the strict officer. Tori Matsuzaka and Sota Fukushi are something of an odd match as the Tezuka brothers - the filmmakers feel the need to remind us what their deal is in dialog fairly often, and there just isn't a lot linking Fukushi's amiable performance and Matsuzaka's tendency to push the villain notes. Koji Ishizaka still exudes kindly authority as the founder of the LDF, and Chiaki Kuriyama enlivens every scene she's in as Kasahara's gossipy (but pretty much always right) roommate.

I must admit to being a little curious how the fans of the first film and the franchise's other incarnations (novel, manga, and anime) respond to "The Last Mission"; as much as I welcome the new focus on action and a little more attention to the central concept, some folks are going to miss the romance. I think it's a notch above the first movie, even if it is a somewhat different beast.

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originally posted: 07/26/16 14:54:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinsuke Sato

Written by
  Akiko Nogi

  Junichi Okada
  Nana Eikura
  Kei Tanaka
  Sta Fukushi
  Tao Tsuchiya
  Tri Matsuzaka
  Chiaki Kuriyama

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