Rurouni Kenshin is a manga series that takes places a decade after Japan’s final civil war as it entered the modern era. The story follows Himura Kenshin, one of the greatest assassins in the war, now a nameless wanderer seeking to live a peaceful life abstaining from killing. Despite his wishes, fate finds a way to draw Kenshin back into conflict as figures from his past return and he is forced to do battle with a great threat once again to save someone very close to him.
The movie, along with a new anime, was announced as part of an anniversary celebration back in early 2011. General reactions seemed to be unimpressed, though it should be noted this is an opinion prevalent in the anime community. Not to bash that community, but it is one not aware of the various talents out there in live action films and TV shows from Japan. Director Keishi Otomo was announced and I was pretty optimistic. Otomo had a lot of experience in filming period pieces with his work on Ryomaden, the latest Taiga Drama at the time. Taiga Dramas are a series of shows, each focusing on a different historical figure from Japan’s past. The shows are produced on a year after year schedule much like Super Sentai and have been produced at that rate since the 60s. The shows all have high and movie-like production values. What particularly interested me was that Otomo worked on Ryomaden, one of my favorite of the Taiga Drama. I was excited, but cautious. The Taiga Drama shows have tons of action, but it’s action grounded in reality. Rurouni Kenshin was to have a fantastical style of fighting compared to that.
Following the announcement of the director, the star of the film was announced. And who was the star? None other than Takeru Sato, also known as Ryoutarou Nogami in Kamen Rider Den-O. Pitch perfect casting right there. Sato has the ability to play Kenshin’s shy and reclusive personality to a tee. He would also need to play Kenshin’s fierce persona, the one that comes out in the heat of battle. I was even assured that Sato could do well in that second role that playing Kenshin calls for, the one that’s still stuck in the past as the assassin. After all, he had to play multiple personalities in Den-O and Momotaros, another red-haired, sword wielding fighter with a tough as nails attitude, wasn’t too unbelievable for what the role required. The role of Kenshin, though, required something so much more, a realistic and understated fierce persona that only comes out in battle. I was cautiously optimistic and waited and waited, becoming more excited as each new trailer came out. Well! I’ve finally seen the movie and it’s time for the review!
As a whole, it’s a pretty good movie. Rurouni Kenshin covers roughly the first two story arcs from the manga and moves along at quite a decent pace. I’ve noticed with a lot of manga or anime to live-action adaptations that the films play as more of a clip show of the main story. Rather than playing out like an actual movie, a single narrative, it’s easy to see where things where picked from the manga and strung together to give a the viewer an idea of what the story should be. Unfortunately, it’s often just that, an idea. This was my biggest fear with the Kenshin movie, and some of the early reviews even said this was something it suffered through, so I had to temper my expectations.
Luckily, the movie was nothing like what I feared it might be. It actually plays like a movie, a single, cohesive narrative that you can follow along and not feel lost by the end of viewing. The movie integrates some flashbacks, many that don’t appear until well into the manga’s story and that some might consider rather spoilery. You’re not supposed to learn how Kenshin gets his scar until much later on in the story, but this movie tells you how he managed to get at least half of it on his face. Despite this, I feel that scenes like this help to punctuate the life Kenshin is trying to leave behind and the struggle that he’s having to bear because of his actions in the past. The flashbacks are placed during points in the movie a viewer might find themselves becoming a little bored otherwise, and thanks to their tone – that of heavy action – it’s quite easy for the movie to steal the viewer’s interest back as we get a few more glimpses into Kenshin’s sordid history.
An astute reader of the manga will be able to pin point the compression for certain major story elements, yet, they don’t feel compressed or as if anything vital has been left out of the presentation. The initial confrontation with Hajime takes a couple of chapters in the manga and nearly two episodes in the anime. The movie takes this scene and compresses it down to a couple of minutes. Thanks in large part to Sato’s emotive capabilities, you don’t lose out on much in the experience. You’re able to see the anguish Kenshin is going through, knowing that there’s trouble brewing for the government again thanks to an opium dealer with a new weapon, a Gatling gun, but also knowing that he has to stay true to his vow. The anime plays this moment as one that nearly breaks Kenshin into a monster, but the movie plays it as something that has an emotional toll on him, yet not one that would make him falter in his wishes to live a peaceful life. My favorite aspect to the character is the stark contrast in personalities between the two Kenshins. The peaceful one that serves as the hero of the movie speaks in an absurdly polite manner and refers to himself using the very passive “boku” pronoun while in battle he drops the niceties, his voice takes on a more confident tone with conviction and he switches to the boastful “ore” in referring to himself.
The story here isn’t too deep on the surface, some might even find it insulting to women. Kaoru, played by Emi Takei, is supposed to be a well-trained swordswoman able to fend for herself. This movie strips her of nearly everything that makes her Kaoru in that aspect. She always had that soft side to her, but it was hidden under the exterior of a warrior trying to prove herself. Here we’re exposed to what’s merely a damsel in distress who has, at the most, a couple of scenes showing off her fierce personality from the manga at the start of the film when she first encounters Kenshin and knocks him on his butt. Without a doubt, this is the movie’s greatest flaw. We lose a very interesting character, with multiple layers of depth to herself in favor of someone who needs rescuing all of the time.
Right under Sato, Aoi Yu, playing Megumi, the doctor who happens to know how to make opium, is one of my favorite characters and cast members. I can’t help but feel that Aoi Yu doesn’t quite capture what Megumi is supposed to be – this sort of world wary fox of a women who plays herself up to be more than she actually is. That said, I do like the Megumi this movie shows us quite a lot. Here we have a character play in such a raw manner that it’s almost impossible for her to hide her past from the others. This is absolutely the upside of having live actors portray these characters compared to the TV budget animation of, well, a TV series. I actually think this portrayal of the character captures her essence closer than the anime and really “gets” the character as seen in the manga. She might seem a little young for the role, but I think that’s part of its charm, she is supposed to be young for everything she’s experienced.
Yosuke Eguchi as Hajime Saito, Munetaka Aoki as Sanosuke and Taketo Tanaka as Yahiko round out the rest of the main cast. Of these, Eguchi is my favorite. He’s one of Kenshin’s contemporaries from the war and lives as if he’s still stuck in that era. Unlike Kenshin, he hasn’t been able to move on from a lifestyle that involves fighting. Hajime’s mantra in life is “live by the sword, die by the sword,” and believes that this is something Kenshin needs to understand, and fast, lest others he cares for fall into danger for being around him. Sato is actually about ten years too young for Kenshin, which means he fits perfectly. Kenshin is actually about 32 years old but is said to have this eternal beauty about him. Hajime shows his age and wears it on his sleeves, letting it carry him in life. They’re two different sides of the same coin, both people who fought for the new era, but sadly Hajime, like most of the samurai in this new world, doesn’t quite know how to live in it. This is one of the key themes to the movie, finding your place in the world is one thing, but finding your place in a changing world is entirely different. The samurai that once fought for peace and prosperity are now street beggars, crowding anyone who happens to find it in their heart to throw a few grains of rice their way.
Sanosuke is one of my favorite characters from the manga and I feel like Aoki managed to capture his character pretty flawlessly. Unfortunately, like in the manga, he sort of falls to the wayside as the movie moves along. He’s Kenshin’s sidekick but beyond his initial introduction, he doesn’t feel like too much of an important character. Yahiko comes off a little better. While he isn’t an staunch idolizer of Kenshin, he’s still a kid in a hurry to grow up and defend people he cares for, he’s rough and brash and manages to get the character. I find that, of the main cast, Sanosuke and Kaoru’s characters are the ones that suffer the most and that’s a bit of a shame because, at least Kaoru is one of those characters you just need to get right. Though thanks to Kenshin’s accurate portrayal, the impact of her character is still there. It’s a little odd, but it’s there. Kenshin finds a new ideology to champion and will do what he can to protect it because, sadly, it can’t protect itself.
The movie continues its streak of fusing elements from far off in the manga in the form of the character called Gein. Played by Gou Ayano, who you might recognize as Sawada, the spider Orphenoch in Kamen Rider 555, the character of Gein is actually a fusion of two different characters. Gein is a character originally introduced much later on in the series in the final story arc, but here he’s a combination of that character and another mask wearing villain named Han’nya who fought for Kanryu in the manga’s version of this story arc. It’s going to be interesting to see what the movie series does with this character later on if it ever gets to the point where it can adapt the Enshi arc.
On a different note, this movie boasts a sizable cast of actors who cut their teeth in tokusatsu productions. We have Sato and Ayano, but we also have Genki Sudo, the Luna Dopant, playing another character fusion in the role of Banjin Inui, who appears to be a fusion of Inui and Shikijo. Masataka Kubota, Keita from Keitai Sosakan 7, plays one of Kenshin’s victims in the movie, the one who gave him the first half of his scar. Jin-E, another survivor from the days of the civil war, is played by Koji Kikkawa, known for his role as Kamen Rider Skull. This is definitely a good movie if you want to see tokusatsu actors in important roles. I was most fond of Genki Sudo’s character, helped along greatly by Sudo being an MMA fighter in his own right, his action scenes carry a sense of competency thanks to his skills.
Action in this movie is great all around, actually. Thanks in large part to action director Kenji Tanigaki. Tanigaki has worked with Donnie Yen numerous times in the past and it’s the hope of the director that Tanigaki would bring a level of authenticity to the film that was needed. They were trying to keep the action in the film as grounded as possible, which isn’t difficult to do. Rurouni Kenshin as a manga didn’t have unbelievable action, most of the time. There feats of acrobatics you would be hard pressed to see someone pull off in real life, but most of the action was your standard (as far as trained assassins go) chambara action. Tanigaki, trained for many years in sword play himself, and it shows in the cast. Tanigaki trained much of the cast himself, leaving them better off in the end for their new sword skills.
But beyond the sword action, this movie has amazing action in general. Keep your eye on those action scenes while you watch and you’ll notice long cuts, signifying the actor’s ability to pull off long and complicated fights without messing up. Going even further still, the movie boasts very few stunt actors for the main cast. When you see someone flying through the air, they’re doing it themselves, and often without wires as they’re simply launched. It makes Sato’s role all the more impressive as he takes some serious hits throughout the filming. Sato has a history in dance, so he can pull off a lot those complicated moves, but the fights in this movie just take that to a different level. There’s meticulous adherence to minute aspects abound during the fights. My particularly favorite move involves Sato running up a wall, kicking a mounted sword off the wall, landing, and then catching it as he goes straight into battle.
So, all in all, it’s a movie well worth watching. It falters in the presentation of one of the more important characters, but everything else more than makes up for it. Visually, it’s a beautiful movie. The costumes and action are all exactly what you would expect them to be with something from this period. You might find yourself bored from time to time, I know I nearly feel asleep during a couple of scenes, but the movie quickly picks up and throws you back into the action. It’s not the movie I was expecting, not by a long shot, but it’s still a very good movie. It’s supposed to be the start of a series and with nearly 70 million dollars in theater ticket sales across 64 countries, I can’t imagine that we won’t be getting movies to cover the rest of the series.