Once the greatest assassin in Japan, the hitokiri battousai carved a swathe through loyalists and helped to usher in the more peaceful period of the Meiji Restoration. Now a wandering swordsman going by the name of Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato) he walks the land with a reverse blade sword, as a part of his vow to never kill again. Arriving in town he meets Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei), the young master of the Kamiya Kasshin Dojo. After a brief case of mistaken identity, circumstances find Kenshin defending Kaoru against brigands and revealing his past. Accepting of his bloody history, Kaoru promises a home and place of peace for the now docile and kind former manslayer. Just as he thinks peace is within grasp, faces from his past call upon his skills to stop a weaselly businessman from spreading opium and destroying the peace for which he has worked so hard. Taking up arms once again, Kenshin uses his godlike fighting ability to protect others, but will his vow of non-killing withstand opponents who have no qualms and perhaps even enjoy taking life?
The Rurouni Kenshin series, in its manga and anime versions was once upon a time my favorite. While my tastes have changed and such a bold distinction may lie with other properties these days, Nobuhiro Watatsuki’s megahit creation still has a nostalgic place in my heart. It was action-packed, funny, dramatic, and filled with terrific well-developed characters. Considering the pedigree of high profile live action anime adaptations in the past and the amount of investment I had with the source, I had more than a little trepidation when the film was announced. Well, I’m happy to report that Rurouni Kenshin is a solid adaptation of the source and a perfectly fine action film in its own right.
Director Keishi Ohtomo helms this big budget and sprawling first entry in what is most certainly going to become a film franchise. Sets seem straight out of the anime with recreated locales like the dojo, the Akabeko, and the bridge recreated accurately and with great detail. Character look and act just as I would have expected and though there are bit of the exaggerated humor of the original manga present, it is toned down a bit to a much more realistic level. For those familiar with the anime, it is a happy medium between the entertaining TV series and the super dark OVA prequels. Memorable scenes are also recreated accurately with a standout for me being the flashback detailing Kenshin’s legendary facial scar. It is artful, well depicted, and truly remains a turning poit for the character. Generally well cast as well, the film has some great talent on display. Of particular note is the large numbers of good action setpieces and choreography. It’s thrilling and well done though it does lean closer to modern sensibilities than those of classic chanbara and jidai geki.
Takeru Satoh’s Kenshin is terrific; he’s like two different people when he is in ‘peace’ mode versus his bloodthirsty self from his assassin days. He has good mannerisms and vocal cues down and certainly looks how I imagined Kenshin would be in flesh and bone. Emi Takei is very cute as Kaoru and while she has a bit of a reduced role compared to her original depiction, it does provide her with some decent material and I can see her growing into the role, especially considering where subsequent films may tread in terms of plot. Yosuke Eguchi’s take on Saitoh Hajime is very good and though he has little to do this time out, he definitely makes an impression. Munetake Aoki probably looks most like his character and to see him wield his signature weapon has like seeing the character come to life. The character of Jin-e was one creepy character in the anime ajd Koji Kikkukawa is somehow able to recreate that for the film. He’s intimidating, tough, and a memorable villain. Faring less well however is personal favorite, Yu Aoi as Megumi. I really wanted to like her performance and while she is solid to a point, I just feel that her seemingly eternally young face is miscast for the worldly and conflicted woman doctor. She does an admirable job but I just didn’t buy her in the role. Also, Teruyuki Kagawa annoys the heck out of me as the aforementioned drug pushing businessman. He’s played for laughs and his character theme greatly belies his dark nature and manipulations. Also, his severe underbite was more than a little distracting.
A weak point in the film was the music. The misplaced ‘battle theme’ clearly did not evoke the period and was presumably an attempt to keep it more accessible to modern tastes. Besides this gaffe, the score is solid. Purists may dislike the way characters are introduced but it is a much more logical way to do it in a 2 hour film as opposed to 100 manga chapters. The concessions made are by no means dealbreakers and in fact serve to streamline the picture and give much needed focus for uninitiated viewers.
In the end, Rurouni Kenshin is a much better than average modern Japanese action film and perhaps one of the best comic to screen adaptations ever. It’s great scope and attention to detail should satisfy fans despite the necessary changes and it is more than accessible enough to new viewers. With the best storyline yet to come, I can’t wait to see the already announced sequels.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Azumi, Shinobi, and Dororo