Romaji: Rurouni Kenshin
Japanese Title: るろうに剣心
Release Date: August, 25th 2012 (Japan)
UK Release Date: August 2013 (UK)
Running Time: 134 mins.
Director: Keishi Ohtomo
Starring: Takeru Sato, Emi Takei, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Taketo Tanaka, Munetaka Aoki, Yosuke Eguchi, Koji Kikkawa,
The live-action adaptation of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic chanbara manga Rurouni Kenshin is the latest release from Warner Bros. Japan. The company is building a large portfolio of live-action adaptations of anime and manga for the big screen. Previous projects from the Warner Bros. include releases like Wild 7, Ninja Kids!!!, the Death Note films and the Berserk anime. These are titles which are popular in and outside of Japan, safe properties which come with an in-built fan-base. A safe bet if you will and it seems to have payed off because Rurouni Kenshin was one of the highest grossing film in Japan in 2012 and not without reason because it is one of the best adaptations of an anime or manga that I have seen in a while. This post is full of Gifs so apologies for slow loading times.
The film opens with subtitles:
140 years ago, during a time of chaos in the final days of the Edo period there was an assassin known as Battousai the Manslayer. Under the order of the Imperialists, he worked from the shadows in the previous capital of Japan, Kyoto. Everyone feared him for his devilish strength and cold-blooded demeanour. It is the Boshin War, the decisive battle…
January 1868. We cut from the subtitles to the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in full swing as the forces of the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogunate clash for control of the country. Cannon and rifles blast samurai to pieces. Then… one samurai with a distinctive cross shaped scar on his cheek cuts a path through the enemy!
He is the elite swordsman Kenshin Himura. Battousai the Manslayer. He dances and dodges all incoming attacks, slitting throats, breaking rifles and cutting down all who stand before him. He is part of the forces fighting to maintain the current power structures but he alone cannot stop the battle from being lost and a new era for Japan starting…
1878, The early Meiji period in Japan is a time of rapid industrialisation and modernisation as western ideals and science take a hold. It is also a time when samurai like Kenshin Himura are either finding a new place in government or being consigned to the history books.
Kenshin Himura now finds himself as a wandering samurai who has taken an oath not to kill and offers aid to those in need as atonement for his past actions. During his travels he meets Kaoru Kamiya, an instructor at her father’s Kendo school. She offers Kenshin a place to stay at her dojo and their relationship begins to blossom but Kenshin’s past will soon catch up with him as he discovers that somebody has been using the name “Battousai” while committing murders in Tokyo. This person works for an evil businessman named Kanryu (Kagawa) who is using foul means to build an empire. But Kanryu is a minor threat compared to the mysterious man. Just as Kenshin survived the battle, others have survived and they are using their skills for evil. Even if the world changes one thing holds true for these warriors: Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Rurouni Kenshin is a hugely popular title as shown by the fact that its manga ran for five years (1994 – 1999) and accrued 28 volumes which have sold over 55 million copies in Japan (according to Wikipedia) and spawned a TV anime, films and numerous OVAs, videogames and light novels. Fear not, you don’t need to be a fan of the manga or anime to understand what is going on here. The story cleverly adapts large amount of the original material but remains easy to follow. Furthermore, although firmly rooted in Japanese history you do not need to be an expert in that either because all the relevant events and history are sketched quickly and efficiently. The prime purpose of the film is to be a fun and colourful historical action film and in that regard it succeeds brilliantly.
In complete contrast to 47 Ronin it eschews trying to be portentous and drops the overambitious and distracting fantasy elements and instead focusses on simply being entertaining action film. It holds onto the story of Japan’s transition into a modern state and fates of characters caught up in these changes.
The cast bring to life Japanese taking on new roles and customs as their world changes. Businessmen rub shoulders with people carrying shrines, a newly created police force look after traders and housewives in traditional dress. There are numerous examples of samurai either adapting to the Meiji era by taking up positions in the police or roving around as packs of brigands.
The main characters are all familiar archetypes – Kenshin is a good-looking hero with a dark past, Kanryu is a sneering villain and Kaoru is a bit of a damsel – but they do have points of interest as some are the results of the trauma of previous wars and the new age. Kanryu is a parasitic industrialist who has taken advantage of the modernisation that is going on. Money is the dominating factor and he hires samurai as protection and treats them like dogs, reversing the power structure of the old age where trade was looked down upon by samurai. Kenshin is a former elite assassin full of regrets and accepting poverty and shunning violence and his past to atone for his violent past. Kaoru is a bit of an emancipated woman, a tom-boy who is willing to fight and mostly getting in over her head, but upholding traditional values such as honour.
Despite Kaoru being a damsel she has a major effect on the story as her acceptance of Kenshin begins to show him that change is possible, that men like him are still needed in the modern age.
The characters are all well-portrayed and they have enough quirks and detail written into them and acted out that they appear larger than life and memorable for it. Pretty-boy idol Takeru Sato (BECK) does a good job as the titular samurai. He moves with a litheness and skill that fits the character and maintains a humble look and good-natured personality.
When he has to go dark and turn to the path of violence it is convincing. As Kaoru Emi Takei (Ai to Makoto) playing Kaoru is hardly pushed in the role but her performance provides a steady and vital emotional heart beat that makes Kenshin’s development feel real and the ending that much more effective at evoking the right emotions.
That written, my favourite female character was Megumi who was portrayed by Yu Aoi (Memories of Matsuko, Honey and Clover) who was just so seductive and sexy.
Teruyuki Kagawa (Key of Life, Tokyo Sonata, Serpent’s Path), an amazing actor is a bit of a pantomime villain as Kanryu. He constantly sneers and is prone to veering between glowering and yelling but it fits the tone of the film and fun. Gou Ayano (The Story of Yonosuke) plays a particularly cool dagger-wielding scarred assassin named Gein and his fight with Kenshin was my favourite as it features flurries of furious action.
The film’s cinematography, editing, and direction are just fantastic. The costume and set design are perfectly detailed and breathe a lot of life onto the screen and create a feeling of verisimilitude. The film begins on a gritty battlefield but takes in a lot of locations that reflect the changes in Japanese society and the encroaching westernisation.
The contrast between the humble looking Kenshin and the people around him, those who wear yukata/kimono’s and live in small, simple, traditional houses, could not be more different to Kanryu and his mob of preening attendants who wear western suits and reside in a white-walled mansion made of classical architecture. Just as an elegantly simple dojo gets wrecked in a fight, so do the richly-furnished libraries and studies, with walls adorned with ceramics and numerous windows and glass objects which help make fantastic sets for the good guys to throw the bad guys around in.
The fight choreography is hugely entertaining. This is old-school stuff, wirework and committed physical performances, quick and clean editing and direction which maintains a fast pace and captures the drama and chaos of situations through smart intercutting of moments to create overlapping drama and a growing senses of desperation. Everything is well-designed. Kenshin makes a point of using the reverse-blade technique so as not to kill. Indeed he tries not to draw his sword or fight and relies upon his speed and grace. The bad guys use a variety of weapons, fists, guns, daggers and swords and are all out to kill. Seeing Kenshin up against the villains is thrilling because the fights look realistic, brutal and there is little CGI involved to distract. Every fight scene had me grinning with excitement and were enjoyable affairs much like the movie as a whole.
Before I headed to London to attend the Raindance Independent Film Festival I had found out that the live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin was going to be released across the UK in various cinemas including the one I usually visit. I had already persuaded my mother and sister, two people with no idea of what Rurouni Kenshin is, to watch it with me and it turned out to be a good decision because we all enjoyed the film and found it easy to understand. What we got was a visual treat with awesome action, great fight choreography and great actors to create hugely enjoyable action movie, one that I would recommend for anyone. There are two sequels on the way and I am eagerly anticipating them.