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Shinjuku Swan II
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by Jay Seaver

"This sequel is no equal."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Maybe it's just a filtering effect - Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono makes enough movies that only the really good ones make it to American festivals, theaters, and home video - but I can't recall ever being bored by one of Sono's films before, certainly not the way I was by "Shinjuku Swan II". Maybe he's at that point in his career where he's having a harder time producing outrageously creative material on a regular basis but still needs to pay the bills (and, as you get older, those bills get larger, requiring more and better-paying work), or maybe something like this isn't unusual but being a sequel got it past the filter, but whatever the reason, this feels like the first time he's truly mailed it in.

It picks up a year after the events of Shinjuku Swan; Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) is still a successful "talent scout" in Tokyo's Shinjuku district but he's a bit less cheerful than he was - one friend is dead after the brawl between rival agencies and the gangs that support them and his friend Yosuke (Yuki Kubota) has disappeared. In terms of pure business, the merger between two agencies that ended the war leaves the "Burst" agency Tatsuhiko works for with too many scouts and not enough clients, a solution they propose to rectify by expanding to Yokohama, with Tatsuhiko accompanying Gensuke Seki (Motoki Fukami), who left the island some time ago, to get things started. Of course, Yokohama already has its own scouting business, headed by Masaki Taki (Tadanobu Asano), and his response to having his territory invaded is to attack Burst on its own turf.

Where the first Shinjuku Swan captured some interest in part because it was an introduction to the "scout" business, and there was a certain sense of discovery from seeing how this process worked, a second film inevitably digs into less vital minutia, from which organizations are protected by which yakuza groups and other questions of how the business works, especially in terms of the country's liquor distributor supporting clubs and whatnot. Maybe if you're getting 20 pages of the manga every week, it holds greater fascination, or if this story comes relatively quickly on the heels of a revisit to the first, the details will still be fresh and hold one's interest. But maybe not; it's a deeper dive into material that was not considered important enough two years ago, and it shouldn't be taken for granted that viewers excited to learn the basics and enough detail to tell a story want more details.

it's also impossible to omit that this is a relatively sanitized continuation of the story told in the first movie, where Tatsuhiko was a new scout and occasionally had to confront that the girls he recruited to work in the clubs of Shinjuku were not necessarily just going to have fun, but were being exploited. That angle is barely visible here; a new client's debt is mentioned but plays out off-screen, and the eventual climax of half the story is a beauty pageant with relatively little irony to be found. Ayano seems to carry a little more burden at the start, but it's quickly pushed aside. Alice Hirose is playing Mayumi more as a potential girlfriend than a woman with her own troubles much of the time, so when that is brought to the fore, there's not much for the audience to grapple with.

The other half of the story, involving Tadanobu Asano as the head of Yokohama's main scout agency, is even more dreary, playing out in the background, waiting for a moment to take on more pivotal part at the end. Like Sono, Asano is a guy with a long history of interesting projects who seems to be doing less exciting work these days, and he's barely got anything noteworthy to do here. There's a history between his character and Motoki Fukami's Seki, but both are playing somewhat aloof and mysterious, and don't get much chance to make flashbacks more exciting. Taki's colorful gang of enforcers offer up a bit more fun - you need to add new flashy thugs every once in a while, as the old ones either die or get weighed down by becoming more complex characters.

There are moments, especially toward the end, when Shinjuku Swan II feels like something more akin to a Sion Sono movie where anything can happen - there's a rumble where it almost feels like they didn't close the street but just started shooting and letting the pedestrians run for cover, for instance. Asano and Ayano get a fight scene that careens all over the place at the finale, and the pageant just gets peculiar. You see hints of the creative anarchy that Sono usually brings to a project then but there's not as much soul to it: The first film was about exploitation, both the type that Tatsuhiko facilitated and how others preyed on his own desire to help, with a group of entertaining characters to pull the audience in; the second not only has little new to say about that theme, but it can't even say as much because that might turn the audience against the characters that they're returning to see. It's a hollowing-out in the name of continuing with fan favorites.

The first of these movies was no masterpiece, but it was about something in addition to being a fast-moving Sono film; this is just a sequel that adds a new foil, strips out the hard parts, and elaborates on the relatively unimportant details of the first. Everyone involved deserves better than that, especially the audience.

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originally posted: 09/08/17 02:44:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sion Sono

Written by
  Rikiya Mizushima

  Gô Ayano
  Tadanobu Asano
  Yusuke Iseya
  Yu Yamada
  Kosuke Toyohara

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