Rurouni Kenshin live-action movie: the things they did right (and wrong)
Title: Rurouni Kenshin
Author/Creator: Keishi Otomo (director, screenplay co-writer) adapted from Nobuhiro Watsuki‘s original manga
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Martial-art fantasy, Drama
Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.
When news break of a live-action adaptation of a manga, the usual reception from the fans is dubious at best. I was especially terrified when the live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin, arguably one of the most beloved manga of the 1990s, was set to be released in fall 2012, and I think I had all the right to.
Where comic books, manga, and animated features differs greatly from live-action movies is how well they suspend disbelief. They are themselves fantasies where surrealism is permissible. People can stand around and analyze somebody for a good full minute without much damage to the audience sense of time when in real-life it should have taken a blink of an eye. A movement can be as fast as you want without breaking any limit of bio-mechanics. Characters can get away with fighting each other with light balls when we obviously know that those light balls doesn’t exist in real life. (I’m guessing some of you might already know which manga-turn-movie I’m talking about.) In that sense, many live-action adaptations were doomed to fail from the beginning as there is no justifiable way of connecting them to the human experience.
Then there are the grey-zone stuffs that might be possible to adapt into something believable either because they were already set in the world as we know it or in a science-fiction setting which in itself is a more believable fantasy (or it should be, at least). Rurouni Kenshin is one of those. If I have to fit the story into any particular genre, it would be martial-art fantasy which has its peak in East and South-east Asia from the late sixties to early nineties when Rurouni Kenshin series started. In a sense, the story is the last wind of the classic martial-art fantasy parade before it got mixed up with highly artistic but less realistic list of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of the Flying Daggers and so forth.
In other word, they have been pretty high on the fantasy side lately.
Rurouni Kenshin is also unique in that the first part of the story is quite political. Set in 1878, eleven years into the Meiji Restoration, Japan was just starting to adapt to democracy after the feudal system under the Shogun was overthrown in a long period of war and turmoil called the Bakumatsu. Samurai, the much esteemed sword masters of the bygone era, were stripped of their swords, honor, and prestige. Money was the new game in town. Japan, while at peace, was fighting to find its way among old and new values that came about the first contact with outside civilization in over two-hundred years.
In that complicated historical backdrop is also a complicated set of characters. Kaoru Kamiya is a young woman who just recently lost her father and trying her best to live and fight by his principle of ‘the swords that give life’. Yahiko Myojin is an orphan from a samurai family whose livelihood was taken with the turn of the tide in the Bakumatsu. Megumi Takani is a doctor and a chemist whose family served and died in the war leaving her to fend for herself from a young age. Sanosuke Sagara is a son of a farmer and a thug who seemed to brawl in every possible opportunity. The central figure of the story is Kenshin Himura a wandering swordsman who carries a curious sword with reversed edge and vowed never to kill.
Telling just how these five characters come to connect warrant a movie-length feature of its own. Essentially, this movie is about just that. The story mashed the early character arcs into 134 minutes with multiple villains involved and a massive storyline of its own. This has the potential to go wrong in a lot of ways, but surprisingly the director Keishi Otomo had this beast under control.
And here are what he got right:
1.Find the core
Mashing up four volume worth of material and then some can result in a grand disaster on screen. What Keishi Otomo did was he put the focus mainly on Kenshin and his oath. This weakens some of the characters but makes the story much more tractable. It makes sense not only because he is the main character, but his motivation is much more complicated than others. Why would a great warrior who is praised as a hero by his colleagues and the Meiji government chose to be a homeless, penniless vagabond? That would make absolutely no sense if time is not properly spent on establishing who Kenshin is as a person and why he chose this life of obscurity. Otomo also made Kenshin’s oath of not killing the underlying conflict of the story by introducing Hajime Saito, Kenshin’s rival from the Bakumatsu, to be his antithesis within the first five minutes. While they are essentially on the same side, Hajime Saito is a pragmatist who sees Kenshin’s pacifism as an unrealistic and unpractical goal, pushing Kenshin to prove himself over and over that while sometimes violence is needed, killing is not. The concept is also challenged multiple times by multiple people throughout the movie.
2. Find the main relationship
With five core characters on screen, telling their relation in 134 minutes on top of everything else would be a mind-boggling task. Only one of the relation could be made clear in a movie and obviously, to the fans, it has to be between Kenshin and Kaoru. For someone who had been alone for a long time, wandering without a family, a friend, or a home, accepting somebody and being accepted in turn is a big deal. This also means that other relations have to stay in the shadow for the time being, namely the friendship between Kenshin and Sanosuke which is also an important dynamic in the manga. That is not a problem for me. The problem I have is with how Sanosuke is portrayed in this movie. That would actually go on the list of things gone wrong coming up below.
3. Keep it real
The backdrop of the story is very realistic. Along with that, the conflicts in the story are also relatable in the present day. In the early volumes of Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki emphasizes a lot on the conflict between cooperates and people, between the good of the many and the good of the few, between extreme capitalism and ethics, between the powerful and the powerless, between new and old ways of life, and between idealism and pragmatism. Granted that a lot of these conflicts are exaggerated either by the exaggeration of the characters who are the symbol of each value or the scenarios themselves, they still ring true to audiences everywhere. This, I think, make the drama in the story realistic enough to pass as a live-action feature.
An achievement in this movie that I must applaud is keeping the action sequences as realistic as possible. Rurouni Kenshin‘s original manga is quite well-known for the fancy sword moves and surreal techniques which in the context of a live-action movie would be awkward at best. Instead of going by the presentation style of the manga, the director went with Hong Kong style action using slings to make the movements more fluid. The emphasis is then not on the fancy moves, but the speed and accuracy in which Kenshin delivers his blows. The treat is that Otomo sneaked in a lot of original choreography and moves from the manga while making it believable. There are some movements that are awkward, but in general the fight scenes are just great joy to watch. If you don’t know what a Hong Kong action looks like, here’s a clip from the movie demonstrating just that:
4. Be original but stay true to the source
Because of the massive amount of material, the story has to be written to tie everything together. This means the scenes that are used are modified and many are written in to make the transitions smoother. Those fillers don’t actually feel much like fillers at all because the script is well-crafted enough that there is no distinction between the scenes that are taken from the manga and the ones that are not. It does not hurt either that Otomo manages to keep the scenes that are fans favorites in the movie almost word by word and frame by frame.
Another unique thing about this live-action feature is the soundtrack. They seems to deliberately avoid any sound that is typically Japanese. Some anime fans don’t like that because the anime has a certain Japanese sounds in it and that has worked very well. I’m going to take the opposite camp and say this is actually the correct decision. With a more modern and orchestral sound, the movie strikes the balance between surrealism and contemporary. If they had gone with traditional Japanese sounds, the movie will become a period piece which is not at all what it is. The story of greed, loss, beliefs, and redemption is a universal story and the sound they use only demonstrated that fact.
Now for what they got wrong:
I won’t say that their take on Kaoru is absolutely wrong, just mildly disappointing. Kaoru is still a strong young woman who had her own opinion about life and honour. She is also the gentle and innocent soul who becomes the balm to the weary and wounded Kenshin. My problem is that we don’t get to see her in action at all; i.e. she is more wimpy than the Kaoru Kamiya I remember. Although Kaoru is not even close to be in the same league as Kenshin or Sanosuke, she is still a fighter in every sense of the word and I would love to see her hold her own. There are a few places in the movie that the director could have put in a few minutes of that in but didn’t. Having that would actually help build a stronger connection between Kenshin and Kaoru by the fact that she is not just the damsel who occasionally got in distress but in a lot of ways Kenshin’s own equal.
The characters that suffer the most from limited screen time are Sanosuke Sagara and Yahiko Myoyin. For Yahiko, this might not be too much of an issue because it would not change the dynamic between him and other characters so significantly and there is always another opportunity in a sequel. With Sanosuke, however, the way they presented him in the movie might make it a little more problematic if his character is going to be flushed out in the sequel. The reason is that his background and his personality tie in very closely to how his friendship with Kenshin develops. Otomo showed the first step of that friendship by showing us that Sanosuke, despite being a rowdy thug, has a heart of gold and maintaining that image throughout the movie. But for the fans, we know that there is more to Sanosuke than his fist and his giant horse-cutting sword. This, of course, can be flushed out in the sequel if not for the fact that Sanosuke doesn’t react to the knowledge of Kenshin being the legendary Battousai in the same way he does in the manga.
In the movie, Sanosuke barges in and challenges Kenshin for the glory of fighting a great warrior. What that scene does is showing Sanosuke as a mere thug. In the manga, we get a sense that Sanosuke doesn’t always pick fights because he wants to, but because he will not stand down for any kind of injustice by people of any rank or background. He is a decent gentleman in most scenarios. His motivation for challenging Kenshin is not because Battousai was the strongest, but what Battousai symbolized. During the later part of the Bakumatsu, Sanosuke joined the civilian force called the Sekihotai and became the personal assistant, almost like a younger brother, to the Commander of the Sekihotai, Souzou Sagara. In Japanese history, Souzou Sagara was an obscured figure which I think is partly from the controversy surrounding his death. He was executed by the Meiji government whom he fought for during the Bakumatsu due to his disobedience. Souzou Sagara was one of the idealists who did not bend to power and had to pay for it with his life. Disillusioned by the death of his hero, Sanosuke resented the government for what he perceived as an ultimate betrayal to the ideology of a free world the Sekihotai desperately fought for. Battousai, being a hero of the Bakumatsu, is a part of that evil identity Sanosuke hates and thus someone he wants to beat.
That background is an important part of their friendship because it brings out the contrast and similarity between the two. Both Sanosuke and Kenshin joined the same side in the war at a very young age with the intention to create a new world of peace and freedom. Both were disillusioned by the war and became outsiders. Both still believe and fight for the world they envisioned when they were younger. At the same time, they are very different. Kenshin prefers subtle and humble approach in solving a conflict, while Sanosuke is brash, loud and fearless in the face of any confrontation. The movie shows how the contrast between the two cements them as a team. Kenshin has more experience in both fighting and leading a fight. He’s more calm and analytical. Sanosuke is impulsive but smart and can keep up with Kenshin in all situations. That is why they work so well together and, despite all odds, trust each other quickly and implicitly.
Sanosuke being smart is also another point I miss in the movie. There really wasn’t much time for him to shine but the ‘use your head’ joke while headbutting his opponent really doesn’t cut it. It is actually not a surprise given that the latter part of the manga tend to portray him that way as well. I have to admit that I, too, forgot that Sanosuke can quote Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and discusses opponents and strategies over a game of chess with Kenshin.
How would the connection between Kenshin and Sanosuke be played out remains to be seen in the sequel. Sanosuke is a complicated and interesting character, so I really don’t want him to be reduced to a crazy fighting machine. He deserves some story arc of his own especially pertaining towards his friendship with Kenshin. Right now, their connection is superficial at best and formed mainly on mutual respect, but the real friendship they are going to have runs deeper than that. I do hope it will not flop in the next movie.
3. The Villains
This is almost always the weakest link in action-driven movies: the villains. The original Rurouni Kenshin has a fair share of the crazy and the surreal lining up for a beating. Otomo picked two from the early arcs to be the main villains: Kanryu Takeda the merchant, and Jin-e Udo the assassin-turn-serial-killer.
They are, in my opinion, two of the best. Kanryu symbolizes greed and power-lust, while Jin-e is the downfall of human soul. They can potentially have strong characterization, but the movie fails to do so. Kanryu is a great over-the-top character but he isn’t effectively presented. There are too many moment spend on making Kanryu crazy than making him more realistic. Jin-e suffers a different issue. He is rather over-the-top in the manga, but Koji Kikkawa portrayed him with simmering madness that gives his character a whole new dimension. Sadly, his motivation for killing or for serving Kanryu is not clear. I can sort of see that Jin-e and Kanryu can be tied together. Kanryu, afterall, would have a use for the murderer in the age where violence is still a prevailing method. But this relationship is not conveyed at all in the movie. Again, this is partly screen-time issue brought about by introducing two more villains who are absolutely unnecessary to the story. (There might be a little debate over this, but I think they are there mainly to allow for more action scenes). What might have been better is spending some time really establishing both characters, their goals, and just show how they work together.
Despite all the rant you see, I’ll say this movie is a treat. It is made for the fans as much as it is for the non-fans. The actors also does a great job in portraying the characters especially Takeru Sato who took the formidable task of portraying Kenshin Himura. I must admit that I was dubious about the choice at first, but after the first trailer came out, I was at ease. He nailed the balance between the comical and the serious Kenshin without difficulty. There are some scenes of him being Battousai that I feel are slightly off, but that might be just his interpretation and it does not bring down the movie in anyway. For others who are just looking for an action flick, this is a great one in terms of choreography. I have no idea how much I miss Hong Kong action flick until I watched this. But then, I might just be sentimental. Let me know what you think if you’ve watch it.
If you haven’t, I hope this trailer can entice you: