A sword that doesn’t kill. A sword to protect. That is the new age which you fought for.
Last month, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final – the first part of the saga’s final chapter – debuted in Japanese theaters to great box office success and rave reviews. It’ll be followed on June 4th by Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning, a prequel which will mark both the beginning of a legend, and the end of a franchise. This series has been a personal favorite of mine since its first movie, which then led me to seek out the fantastic anime, and as it comes to an end I figured it was time to start a review series on the saga. While there’s yet no date for the final two installments to debut on the United States, they’ve been confirmed to be distributed in Latin America and a handful of Asian countries via Netflix, with Netflix Philippines confirming The Final for as soon as June 18th. Considering that, it shouldn’t be long before whichever remaining countries announce their release dates for the films, so I feel it’s the right time to start this retrospective on the saga.
Rurouni Kenshin – also known in the U.S as Rurouni Kenshin – Part I: Origins, but not to be confused with the upcoming prequel – was only the second feature film effort by director Keishi Otomo. He’d gained most of his experience directing a lot of TV dramas, and after finally making his feature film debut with Hagetaka, Otomo goes on to do RuroKen and right in the first scene he stuns you with his very particular, resolute vision for this saga and this world. Through his aesthetics, the director grounds this fantastic realism tale to an ever so believable level – it’s a gritty jidaigeki reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins with a level of speed to its action unlike any Samurai film I’d ever seen. Once, talking about John Wick: Chapter 2 , I compared the approach to gunplay in the Wick series to RuroKen‘s swordfighting, and this remains a good example to illustrate it: Rurouni Kenshin was to Samurai films what John Wick was for American action hero movies when it came out. It re-energized the genre with a unique, hypnotizing signature and breathtaking inventivity.
But beyond the action, RuroKen‘s biggest strength is indeed the characters. First and foremost, I don’t get the feel that these characters inhabit a world whose tone they need to abide by; instead, the character themselves set the tone. When we’re in Kenshin’s past as the ruthless assassin Hitokiri Battousai things are bleak and punctuated by the string of a violin as sharp as the Manslayer’s blade itself, but when we’re in the present led by the wanderer sworn to never kill again wielding a reverse-edged sword, there’s a levity to it signifying a sense of hope for the future – this contrast also skillfully illustrates the different atmosphere of setting between Japan’s Tokugawa Bakufu and the Meiji Era as portrayed in here. With these two extremes established, the tone organically fluctuates from one to the other throughout the film driven mainly by the protagonist’s psychological state.
If this was a Hollywood production, the flashback showing the origin of Kenshin’s first scar would be deemed “unnecessary for the plot” and probably “cut for pacing” by the studio, but thankfully it’s not, and the way Otomo transitions from present to past and back via editing is nothing short of masterful as he visually lays down the foundations of the wanderer’s character and the traumas that defined him – mainly the crying woman that haunts his thoughts, as of yet faceless and voiceless in a genius move by the director on setting up a ghostly figure who’s gonna loom over Kenshin in this and upcoming movies without revealing the complete truth of that past up until it’s the right time. No one who’s watching RuroKen unaware of the story – like I was when I first saw it – thinks for a second that this is directly setting up future films, because the scene serves a specific role in this movie, but it is most definitely sowing seeds that will eventually be reaped in the upcoming final two entries of the franchise – especially The Beginning. And yet, it does so without compromising this film as a closed, self-sustaining story. Hollywood should take notes.
The cast is simply incredible. Takeru Sato and Kenshin Himura is one of the most perfectly matched pairings in any manga or comic book adaptation. He has the range to perfectly embody the sweet kindness of the wanderer and the cold-blooded mercilessness of the Battousai, as well as the stunning agility required for the role. There’s a very specific balance that needs to be struck with Kenshin and Sato nails it in his performance. Starring alongside him is Emi Takei as the inspiring Kaoru Kamiya, whose good heart shines through the actress, but Takei goes beyond that on a dramatic level to deliver one of the most emotionally cathartic moments ever put on an action film during the climax. Acting oppose Sato is Koji Kikkawa as the villain Jin-e Undo, who in all honesty is not that interesting a character in the anime, but the way he’s portrayed here, enriched by elements of different arcs of the original story that are seamlessly combined in the film, is phenomenal. Jin-e is a terrifying badass that makes bones chill and and one can’t help but to fear for the characters’ lives every time he’s onscreen – and his final showdown with Kenshin is a masterclass in fast climatic action with nerve-wracking stakes as the sword battle grows more and more tense to the backdrop of a ticking clock that dictates a fatal time-limit for their fight.
Thematically, the approach to Kenshin’s non-killing vow is unmatched. On the Western side of things I’m a die-hard Batman fan, and I’ll always denounce and/or mock other Batman fans’ adamant latching to his “no-kill rule” as I’ve never been able to take it seriously, given how poorly handled it’s been in both comics and movies – it being treated with either laughable naivety or thinly-veiled disregard. This is different. The way the story tests Kenshin’s commitment to his vow and how the script always finds sensible resolutions to that recurring conflict constantly adds to the stakes and feels right. The film is never afraid to put the character in tricky crossroads, and not once does it resolve those stand-offs with less than ideal sensitivity. There’s weight to it and not a shred of dishonesty to its approach. Like so, Kenshin’s testing-arc lays bare the story’s themes of violence and death in a incomparably satisfying manner.
In all of its incredible action directing and in-depth character exploration, the final main star in Keishi Otomo’s Rurouni Kenshin is Naoki Sato’s score. How do you know that a film score is perfect? When it feels that it absolutely cannot be replaced. Sato’s music feels as precisely designed for RuroKen as the movie itself feels designed for its music. It captures the feel, atmosphere and rhythm of every scene with surgical accuracy, and whenever the main theme “Hiten” plays, it just makes you soar in epic excitement. It complements the cinematography’s relentless camera movements and the breathtaking fight choreography for the perfect action experience.
Any flaws in the film are but a few technical nitpicks – one or two editing transitions don’t land as surgically as every other one; Otomo hadn’t yet cracked the execution of Saito Hajime’s signature technique like he did Kenshin’s speedy fighting style… Small imperfections of a franchise starter, but nothing that causes an impression anywhere near as strong as the film’s revolutionary action or its intricate character work. A legend started here, a beautiful instant classic that I’ll never not come back to. Welcome home, Kenshin.
When one person kills, hate is born, and hate leads to killing again. To break that vicious cycle is the purpose of this sword that cannot kill.
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