Western releases of Japanese films are erratic and unpredictable at best, hoping for a sequel to be released when the original never even made it is downright lunacy. If you're betting on watching Shinjuku Swan II [Shinjuku Suwan II] on DVD or on your favorite streaming service, please don't hold your breath. Sono might be a household name amongst fans of Asian cinema, that doesn't mean it's easy to keep track of his work. It's a shame, because I'm sure there's a sizable audience for films like this if properly promoted.
Shinjuku Swan II is a direct sequel to the first film, released in 2015. While it's possible for seasoned film fans to catch up along the way, it's probably best to sit own for part I first before you attempt to watch this one. These types of Yakuza stories can be quite intricate and more than a little confusing, so knowing who's who before things get moving is a real plus. Part II is still a stand-alone story though, it's not a single arc split into two, but the background of the first film is essential to understand the world these characters inhabit.
Where the first film was firmly set in the world of hostess scouts, slyly mimicking traditional Yakuza drama, the second one crosses over in Yakuza territory more explicitly. That doesn't change an awful lot, except that there's not as much frivolous brawling going on. The criminal violence in this film is actually life-threatening, so there's more at stake than a banged-up head, some bruises and a broken leg. It changes the dynamic ever so slightly, edging it away from the Crows franchise and giving the film a more defined and unique feel.
Shinjuku Swan II swaps the streets of Kabukicho for those of Yokohama. The Burst scouts hope to expand their business in Yokohama (a city controlled by the Wizards), following the openings of some new high class bars there. The Wizards, led by Taki, don't just want to give up their turf and Taki leverages his Yakuza contacts to fight back. Things get pretty hairy for the Burst boys, but when Taki overreaches the Burst clan is given a fighting chance. There's some more character-driven drama fleshing out the plot, but at the core of the film lies a classic turf war.
This is clearly one of Sono's more commercial outings, meaning the cinematography is a little less adventurous. That said, Sono is at that point where even his safer work showcases an unmistakable level of competence. Don't expect anything crazy of too surprising, but overall the film is visually appealing and there are some clear stand-out shots. Lighting, colors, camera work and mise-en-scène are all top notch and contribute to an attractive looking film.
The score on the other hand is not as successful. Much like the first film, the music is largely functional and fails to make any kind of statement. That's a shame coming from a director like Sono, who is known for the often playful and unique handling of music in his films. He is one of the few directors out there who can actively use a soundtrack to shape a film, losing that is a more than a little disappointing. That's not to say to score is bad or distracting, it's just that I expect more from a guy like Sono.
Acting-wise this sequel got quite a boost though. While the first film had its own share of stand-out performances, getting Tadanobu Asano on board for one of the principal parts is a godsend. It's nice to see Asano take a break from more serious and arthouse-oriented films, returning to the type of parts that made him famous. Go Ayano is back to take up the lead role and matches his strong performance from the first film, while the supporting cast is doing a fine job too.
Shinjuku Swan II finds itself right in the middle between Yakuza cinema and high school brawlers. Interestingly enough, it's structured in such a way that by the end of this second film, the Yakuza elements are starting to fade again. While a more traditional setup would've moved the story from scouting to Yakuza territory over the course of two or three films, the escalation here is not an excuse to have a darker and/or more spectacular finale, but it is leveraged to steer the entire film in a different direction without losing the uniqueness of the source material.
Even though Sion Sono dislikes being compared to Takashi Miike, Shinjuku Swan II moves Sono's career path even closer to Miike's. It's Sono's first straight-up sequel, handling established manga material, executed in a more commercial but still recognizable style. Miike (and Crows Zero) fans are probably experiencing a deja vu right now. That said, Shinjuku Swan II is a quality production from start to finish, propelled forward by Asano's strong performance and handled capably by Sono. It's not his most definitive film, but it's solid proof that he can handle more commercial projects without losing himself in them. If you like the first film, this should be an easy recommend.