At last year’s Fantastic Fest, I was introduced to an unkillable teacher (nicknamed “UT” by students) and his class of assassins-in-training who must execute their tentacled mentor before he blows up the Earth. The movie was Assassination Classroom, and the tone was manga-inspired, coming-of-age weirdness at the hand of a borderline superhero/supervillain. YA empowerment with a Japanese flair – but could director Eiichirô Hasumi capture the same outcasted significance in the film’s sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation? Yes and no, but thankfully with a stronger emphasis on “Yes.”
Hasumi’s sequel returns to Kunugigaoka Junior High School, where UT’s E-Class continues to learn from their assassination-happy alien teacher – but with graduation approaching, the severity of their actions begins to kick in. Besides figuring out what career path to take, the students are running out of time to kill UT, thus saving humanity from a fiery destruction. The government continues to bring in new hired guns (a sniper dubbed Red Eye), yet UT still stands. To make matters worse, students like Nagisa Shiota (Ryôsuke Yamada) have begun debating if UT’s death is even necessary, and the class begins to divide between sympathetic dreamers and stone-cold killers. As the clock ticks down, a decision must be made – even if the government has to make it.
Where Assassination Classroom was more a hybrid between alien invasion chaos and kicked-around underdog dramatics, Graduation works to dismiss assumptions from the first film, and shed light on UT’s existence. In short, there’s actually no alien mythology at all, as scientific research into energy-harnessing tentacles turned a skilled assassin (known as “God Of Death”) into the inflated smiley face responsible for Class-E’s training. We learn this because writers Yûsei Matsui and Tatsuya Kanazawa spend entirely too much time on a love story between pre-yellow UT and his lab technician watchdog (Class-E’s original teacher). Everything ties back together, but at the expense of structural assembling that drones on and on. Compared to Hasumi’s first movie about acrobatic action and personal growth, Graduation trudges through murky connective plotting that has us daydreaming about better times spent with the mischievous Class-E “killers.”
That said, when Assassination Classroom: Graduation maintains that bubbly sense of kill-or-be-killed J-Pop madness, it still delights. UT’s strange rationale rarely justifies his actions, but we laugh hilariously anyway. Does he really need to wear a dog costume to sniff out one of his student’s scents? No, but we laugh. Does he need to split into numerous, purple-skinned mini-UTs whose perverted desires cause them to keep shouting “Boobs!” as they try and sneak a more revealing peak at Class-E’s English Teacher/Super-Assassin? Probably not, but God bless Japan. Are his costume changes always on-point, and goofily characterized? Of course. There’s just a lot more seriousness surrounding Graduation and UT’s fate, which leaves less time for playful banter.
The children of Class-E suffer from Graduation‘s same single-minded focus, as assassination attempts turn into government conspiracies and evaluations of survival. Without the challenging task of taking down UT, typical school children find themselves in a much more mundane environment. We’re thankful for the more outlandish personalities – a deadly-sexy English teacher, a lying student who turns into a monster, more tentacled beings – but performances miss that undercutting sense of silliness Hasumi previously championed. Dare I say Graduation plays it a bit too straight, even with governmental experiments harnessing humans as oil-replenishing sources?
Then again, it’s not all straight-cut dramatics. When Class-E advances on a military base, the students call upon UT’s teachings to defeat soldiers while striking anime-inspired poses. Rocket launchers blast while schoolgirls leg-sweep adult militants, like a youthful uprising that proves anyone is capable of finding success. Whereas Assassination Classroom was more about “rejects” finding their voice, Graduation is about the maturation into something greater, and finding more than purpose. Again – by way of YA material, Graduation is still in favorable graces.
So while Assassination Classroom is the stronger title, Assassination Classroom: Graduation is still a fun-enough follow-up that toes the same line for as long as it can. Eiichirô Hasumi is forced to tell a story people already know, so expected manga beats need to be worked in – albeit a lengthier endeavor than necessary. UT’s origin could have cut in half, causing less of a time-differential between background fan-servicing and forward-moving excitement – but have no fear. It’s a necessary completion, and a suitable film in its own right. Plus, we all need a little more UT in our lives, and in that aspect, Assassination Classroom: Graduation certainly delivers.
It's not as infectiously wacky as the first film, but AC: Graduation is still a worthy closing chapter for one of the most unique YA franchises you'll ever see.