Rurouni Kenshin live-action movies: the sequels gone wrong

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To think that the poster looks promising…


Movie Info

Title: Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Kyoto Taika-hen), Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (Densetsu no Saigo-hen)
Author/Creator: Keishi Otomo (director) adapted from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original manga
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Martial-art fantasy, Drama

Warning: Super-spoilery breakdown of a good chunk of the movie/story. Be warned.

I’ve been debating for a while on how I should approach this review if I’m going to review these movies at all. Essentially, the problem is I can go on and on about the mess that is Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Kyoto Taika-hen) and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (Densetsu no Saigo-hen), but that is not at all interesting to anybody. While, yes, these two movies culminate in to a giant mess, they are not all-around bad movies. They are well-acted (for the main cast at least). The production is beautiful. The cinematography is marvelous. It just doesn’t have one thing: a direction.

To director Keishi Otomo’s credit, I think he kind of knew. Then why did he not do something about it? Well, he tried at some point, but the biggest problem with these movies is actually at the story level. It doesn’t need to be fixed as much as to be redone, and there are certain complications when you’re trying to adapt a story from a franchise with a global following. You can’t please everyone, so where is the line you want to walk. The movies don’t seem to know what they want to be and where they want to go, which is the opposite of the first Rurouni Kenshin movie that came out in 2012. What they ended up looking like movies made to capitalize on the success of the first one, which is a pity considering they are made by the very same team.

That is not to say there is nothing good about the story or the script; there are. There are interesting plot points that Otomo reinterpreted with a fresh perspective. They just aren’t enough to outweigh the other messes. It’s actually better if I break away from the good list and bad list and just compare the good and the bad point by point. This is going to be spoiler-y so brace yourselves for the ride.

The Cardinal Sin: the Story

Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends are adaptations of what is now referred to in the franchise as the Kyoto arc. By this time, Kenshin Himura, a wandering swordsman who once was an assassin, has finally stopped wandering and settled down in a kendou dojo of the young Kaoru Kamiya. While students in the dojo want Kenshin to teach them some of his techniques, he insists that what he knows are outdated and not needed in the new era of peace and prosperity. He earns his keep instead by taking care of the house and of Yahiko Myojin, Kaoru orphaned student. Sanosuke Sagara the lively street fighter still comes by for food, and Megumi Takani is now working as an assistant in a nearby clinic. All in all, they are one big happy family of people who had survived the war and hardship of the Bakumatsu era and are continuing to thrive in the brave new world that is modern Japan.

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A family doesn’t have to be about blood relation, does it?

Except a shadow is cast on the bright and hopeful future of the Meiji Restoration by another assassin, Makoto Shishio, previously thought dead at the end of the war. Shishio’s death was in fact ordered by the Meiji government as the higher-ups deemed him too dangerous and untrustworthy, and his body was burnt to cover up the deed. But the man somehow survived, and now after ten years he is back to overthrow the same government that betrayed him, effectively attempting to turn the clock back to the turmoil of the Bakumatsu.

Now, if that sounds like ‘the villain wants to destroy the world as we know it and rules it in chaos and destruction’, that’s because it is. And that’s a D-grade mission statement for a villain anywhere. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of goal that every manga writer one time or the other would fall back to. I think Nobuhiro Watsuki walked right into this trap rather blindly when he started the arc. He had been writing largely about the socioeconomic effect of the Meiji Restoration up to that point, but, as tradition of the Shounen Jump Magazine dictates, the series had become popular enough that they needed a long arc, and by long I mean something that takes years to serialize in a weekly magazine. Considering Watsuki had been producing 19 pages of black-and-white artwork every 7 days on top of developing the plot and the character for a year or so, I don’t think he really had time to give his villain a solid goal at that point.

Funny enough, none of us are truly bothered by that. I think that’s at least in part Watsuki’s genius as a writer. He somehow made Shishio’s goal a non-issue by shifting our focus to the smaller stories that comprised the Kyoto arc, and he was right to do so because that was what he was good at. Therefore, the Kyoto arc is not one big continuous story line, but rather a collection of stories threaded together to becomes one story line, and that is perfect for a medium like serialized manga where there is no time limit; it is not for a movie.

The inherent problem of adapting the Kyoto arc is then how do you tie the stories together. This is made more complicated by the fact that this arc is the fans’ favorite. Changing it too much will alienate the fans. Not doing so will destroy the movies. And the movies were destroyed by the reluctance not only at the story level but at the emotional level as well.

A case to point is the first pivoting point of the arc: the assassination of Oukubo Toshimichi, one of the founding fathers of modern Japan. Being in the forefront of the Meiji Restoration, Oukubo was an easy target for people who disagreed with the changes brought about by the new era. In the story, he is the one to ask for Kenshin’s help in stopping Makoto Shishio, a request Kenshin’s friends are against. After all, this is essentially asking Kenshin to go back to be the government’s hitman, and all of them know he doesn’t want to. Oukubo gives Kenshin a week, saying he will come in person for the answer, but Shishio’s man got to him first, and he is murdered on his carriage. The carriage is then mobbed by another group of samurai attempting to take his life. The group ultimately takes the credit for killing him. Kenshin, however, knows that it is Shishio’s doing and decides that he really has to act.

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How does he know? Well, the killer’s right behind him. Soujirou Seta is played wonderfully by Ryunosuke Kamiki.

The conspiracy theory intrigue aside, the buildup and Oukubo’s death in the manga is enough for us to feel that indeed Kenshin needs to make a move. In the movie, however, it falls flat. There is not enough emotional momentum to make Oukubo’s death the tipping point. And Otomo knew this. He had to throw in a few scenes of Shishio being evil, crazy, and destructive to try to build up that tension. I am sorry to say that it doesn’t work. In fact, I think showing Shishio as evil, crazy, and destructive has more of the opposite effect. The bogey man is scarier when we don’t see him, and that was what Watsuki did. He made Shishio’s the history’s bogey man. Movie-Shishio is more like his weird cousin.

The Almost-Got-It: Makoto Shishio

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Makoto Shishio is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara, but we don’t get to see much of him.

While the villain’s goal should have been reworked into something more solid, the villain himself has some surprising layers to him, although he still feels much like a missed opportunity simply because there are too many ‘Shishio is crazy’ moments and not enough scenes that truly dive into his character. The scene that I like is in the beginning of The Legend Ends where Shishio invites the high-ranking officials of the government to dine with him at gun point. The end result is predictably pretty chaotic and violent, but Shishio asks a good question towards the end: why him? Why didn’t they kill Kenshin Himura as well? A perfectly fair question all things considered. Kenshin is, by skill and reputation, more dangerous than Shishio. What exactly did the government tried to accomplish by killing one and not the other? Unfortunately, there is no satisfying follow-up.

The movies also leave out the answer to another big question: why so many people follow Shishio? The obvious answer if we’re talking about the manga-Shishio is that he is a charismatic leader and a man who knows what it is like to be left behind as the world keeps progressing forward. People around Shishio are actually the flotsam and jetsam of history: a sex worker who watches her profession made illegal, a monk disillusioned of the human nature, an illegitimate son made orphan by the war, a transgender swordsman who has never been accepted until she met Shishio, warriors who no longer have a place to wield their swords and are robbed of their identities and dignities. He is not a good man by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t think he helped any of them out of good will necessarily, but he is smart enough to work them all like puppets on his strings, and that’s what make Shishio a very dangerous man.

Unfortunately, none of that comes through in the movie. Timing issue and character difference aside, Otomo just couldn’t seem to decide how he wanted to portray Shishio until that dinner scene, but by then it’s too late and a lot of time were wasted not building up Shishio’s character which is a shame. If Kyoto Inferno was instead Shishio-centric, it might have been a better movie.

The Bad Addition: Aoshi Shinomori

There are many characters introduced in the Kyoto arc, so obviously there are not enough time to go into the story of everyone of them. But the character that I think suffers the most from the lack of time and under-polished script is Aoshi Shinomori, the last captain of the Oniwabanshuu — the Shogun’s ninja.

While Aoshi and Kenshin have important moments in Kyoto arc, the problem of putting him into the movies is that he is largely irrelevant to the story line. Sure, he drives the character development of Misao Makimachi who becomes the next leader of the Oniwabanshuu and contributes significantly in Kyoto’s arc, but we don’t really get to see that in the movies. He helps Kenshin defeat Shishio in the end, but at no other point does his story ever get tie into either Shishio’s or Kenshin’s story in a significant way. So why bother with Aoshi at all?

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The fact that I can’t seem to find a great picture for Aoshi Shinomori (played by Yusuke Iseya) really tells us something.

Aoshi Shinomori is actually an important side character in the series. It’s just that he tends to come in and out of the arcs not quite being the main part of any. In the manga, he is in the Kyoto arc in part to up the ante but also to finish up a subplot that had been dangling since the Kanryu arc. Aoshi originally appears beside Kanryu as the leader of his mercenary along with four former Oniwabanshuu members who have been with him since the Bakumatsu. By the end of the arc, all four of them have sacrificed themselves for Aoshi to live. Seeing no way out of the grievance, Aoshi marks Kenshin’s head for revenge, which Kenshin makes no opposition to. Sanosuke even remarks that Kenshin is too kind to put his own life on the line so Aoshi can have a reason to live.

So in Kyoto arc, Aoshi returns a changed man to kill Kenshin. That is the long and short of what Aoshi does in the arc. But as fans, we were all for it, because we knew what was at stake: Aoshi’s soul and Kenshin’s conscience. Their fight is easily the best fight in the entire Rurouni Kenshin series. But from the movie perspective, that deep introspective combat is not going to happen. Aoshi’s character was taken out of the Kanryu’s plot in the first movie, so when he shows up in the sequel he is just some character wandering about in the background like a ghost of under-developed subplot. He should have been taken out. True that by doing so, the Shinomori fans would have been outraged and Otomo would have to change the story in the Kyoto arc quite significantly, but he has to rewrite it anyway. It wouldn’t be the first time that Aoshi got dropped.

The VERY Good: Kamiya Kaoru

If Aoshi Shinomori is a character done wrong, Kaoru Kamiya is the character done right. And the most important point is that the changes made to her work to foster a deeper connection between her and Kenshin even though they are barely in the same scene in Kyoto Inferno. And Emi Takei owns Kaoru in this one, so I really can’t ask for more.

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No more doubt about Emi Takei being Kaoru Kamiya, especially when she’s in the scene with Takeru Satoh.

Not only does Kaoru gets her own fight scenes in this movie –that’s hardly the most important thing — she gets a depth. I made a comment before that Kaoru is supposed to be a fighter in life, a woman that knows how to hold her own, and Otomo gives her moments of that by reinterpreting the scenes from the manga. While Kaoru in the manga worries when the news of Shishio comes in, Kaoru in the movie is clear in her opinion that Kenshin should not be made to serve the government again, and she voices it to Kenshin directly. Otomo also made an interesting choice of changing the time for the scene where Kenshin says good bye to her and leave Tokyo. In the manga, the scene happens at night. The effect is that when Kenshin turns his back and walks away, he disappears into the darkness. As much as Kaoru in the manga wants to chase after him and brings him back, she can’t, not to mention she is too shock to do so. In the movie the scene is done in broad daylight. The effect becomes the opposite. Kaoru is letting him go, is respecting his decision and letting him walk out of her life. The aftermath of that break up also turns out differently. The manga-Kaoru is dumped out of the blue, so she becomes understandably depressed. The movie-Kaoru just carries on, hiding her pain by making her life normal, as much as it irritates everyone else in her little family.

When she is persuaded to follow Kenshin to Kyoto, she doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that Kenshin is cold towards her. Slightly intimidated, probably. She knows he keeps her out of the whole Shishio business for a reason and she just basically barges in and makes his life harder than it already is. Their conversation after they meet again seems more restrained in the movie that the manga, but it fits perfectly with this interpretation of their relationship. And Kaoru isn’t just there to run around after Kenshin as he and Hajime Saito tries to save Kyoto from Shishio, she’s there to do her share as well. I love the scene where Kenshin and Kaoru meet each other by accident during the chaos in Kyoto, each was fighting their respective enemy and defeating them. When he saw her, he pauses and looks at her like he is taking her in. Even with all the blood, sweats, and tears, and not a single word exchanged, that scene is seriously romantic, more romantic than anything Watsuki has written about these two.

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“Let’s go home.” (Gif from burning-butterfly.tumblr.com) from the end of The Legend ends.

The Bad: The Action Scenes

It’s actually pretty sad that the selling point is actual a weak link. This is made sadder by the fact that the action scenes in the first movie are good. And the difference between them, I think, is the lack of drama and action-reaction sequence. In the first movie, the hits mean something. You almost wince at the impact. In these two movies, I feel like there are more arms flying around but not much impact at all emotionally or physically. They are too drawn out, too fancy, too messy, without really moving the story forward. And that seems to be an easy trap to fall into given how many action movies from either side of the Pacific have the same problem.

The Good: Cinematography and production.

One thing I definitely have to give it to the team is these movies are beautiful. Hands down.

Maybe not so much for The Legend Ends when they go a grittier look, although the production value on that movie is still high. There are scenes in Kyoto Inferno that looks like they are artistically composed and shot, so much so that a screenshot would have looked like a painting.  My favorite would be the scene where Kenshin and Misao stumble upon a small village that Shishio rules, a miniature version of what would have been if Shishio wins. The color scheme were so well-selected that it seriously looks like an art piece, but unfortunately I spent the time cringing about everything else. The story, while being a very powerful piece in the manga and an important plot point, doesn’t fit right in the movie. The story also hinges on the character named Seiji, a ten-year-old boy who loses his family to Shishio, but the role is so badly acted the story has no emotional impact. I don’t blame the child actor so much as feel bad for him. Seiji’s character isn’t as well-written as the manga to begin, and it does take a skilled actor to convey the complexity of Seiji character in that short, short time.

The Disappointing-But-Okay: Sanosuke’s and Kenshin’s friendship

So, my hope for some bonding between Sanosuke and Kenshin did not come to past. Then again, since Sanosuke’s character got toned down so much he’s basically this guy who fights a lot, a deep friendship between them would have no basis. And Otomo was probably right to not overplay it. However, because this friendship is not as strong, Sanosuke’s decision to get into a fight with Aoshi Shinomori to protect Kenshin (kind of) and almost die doing so seems a little odd. If anything it makes him look like a brainless maniac who would use any excuse to get into a fight. His decision to follow Kenshin to Kyoto also feels weaker than the manga, but within the context of the movie it is all right. If there’s any scene between these two that I have to give it to Otomo, it would be their reunion where Sanosuke punches Kenshin the very moment they meet again in Kyoto. It’s so marvelously done I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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You know he’s your best friend when he travels across the country just to tell you that you’ve been an asshole.

The Awesome: Saito’s and Kenshin’s friendship

While the warrior-bond between Sanosuke and Kenshin doesn’t exist in the movie, Otomo pushes Saito’s and Kenshin’s friendship up to the forefront instead. This relationship doesn’t exist in the manga. There are camaraderie between them, but Saito and Kenshin are never as close as they are in the movies. And it is actually a very good decision to go with. We’ve established from the very first scene of the first movie that Saito and Kenshin both fought in the Bakumatsu. They understands each other as only people who were on the battlefield together would. The movie-Saito is also a very different from manga-Saito even though they both have the same no-nonsense attitude. In the manga, we get the sense that Saito never fully accepts Kenshin as a friend. The movie-Saito has no such reservation. He even defends Kenshin behind his back to a commanding officer at one point, something the manga-Saito wouldn’t be caught doing. And there’s no need for many words to show the warrior-bond between the two. A scene where they wait together in silence for Shishio to attack Kyoto is the epitome of that. Not only were the scene artistically beautiful with all the light-and-shadow play. The two also show the stillness that only both of them have in the middle of the unnerving situation. You can see they are in a different head-space that only they share and no other. It feels as deep as what Kenshin and Sanosuke share in the manga, and I’m grateful that Otomo keeps coming back to them through out both movies.

 

So, what is the final verdict for Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, you might ask. If you are not a fan, don’t bother. They are not good movies in and of themselves, so there isn’t much for you there. If you are a fan and you love Kyoto arc, you’ll probably have a go no matter what I say, but be mentally prepared for the disappointments, because there will be disappointments. In the end, I think us fans still get a good rush out of it anyway. If you’re looking for something to convert your friends to the fandom or to Kyoto arc, these are not the ones. Just pick the first movie or stick with the manga. The latter is always the superior option anyway.

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Rurouni Kenshin live-action movie: the things they did right (and wrong)

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Movie Info
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:

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Goro Fujita, A.K.A Hajime Saito played by Yosuke Eguchi. While he looks nothing like the drawing in the manga, he is startlingly similar to the historical Hajime Saito.

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.

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Kaoru Kamiya played by Emi Takei.

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:

1. Kaoru

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.

2. Sanosuke

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.

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Sanosuke Sagara played by Munetaka Aoki got the brashness right, but the rest…

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.

Kanryu

Kanryu Takeda played by Teruyuki Kagawa. The shoes say it all.

Jine

Jin-e Udo, the killer, played by Koji Kikkawa.

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: