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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.