Director Keishi Otomo’s second feature, Rurouni Kenshin is a bold and ambitious live-action adaptation of the celebrated manga and anime series of the same name (for those unfamiliar with Japanese animation: manga = comic book, anime = cartoon).
It’s late 19th Century Japan, the dawn of the post-shogunate Meiji period, as the film opens with the final throws of a decisive battle as rebel forces fight to oust the remaining warlord’s armies. Among these rebels is ‘Battosai the Killer’, a feared assassin, his deadly skills with the samurai sword renowned. We’re shown his prowess with the sword as he slices through all those in his path with a chilling calm and clinical accuracy.
When challenged to a duel by fellow samurai Saito, who fights for the other side, the Emperor’s banner is suddenly raised and the war is over. Battosai’s mission is complete and he renounces killing, refusing Saito’s challenge and planting his sword deep into the ground. As he staggers away from the battlefield we get the first glimpse of the dichotomy that is Battosai: part killing machine, part man.
Ten years later we meet Kenshin Himura, a wanderer who cuts a remarkable likeness to our old friend Battosai the Killer. We learn that Kenshin carries a sword, which is strictly forbidden in this new post-samurai era, but that his sword is not quite what it seems. This is Kenshin’s ‘back-blade’, a customised weapon that has the cutting blade on the wrong side, so he cannot kill. This serves as the ultimate reminder of Kenshin’s past and symbolizes his journey throughout the film, as Saito later tells him, ‘the weapon that faces towards you, one day will hurt you’.
As Kenshin (literally) leaps to the aid of local girl Kaoru, he is embroiled in a battle against maniacal crime boss Kanryuu and his evil minions. An unlikely and charming partnership forms with mercenary street fighter Sanosuke and sees Kenshin in an all-out war to save Kaoru in a thrilling and action-packed finale.
And it’s the action that ultimately decides the film’s success. Although we have the love story between Kaoru and Kenshin, and the main narrative of his quest for redemption, it’s the stunning action scenes that make this a convincing and enjoyable conversion from animated series to the big screen.
The decision to keep the live-action ‘live’ was a good one with no (or extremely limited) wire work, camera tricks or CGI to propel the fight scenes but instead the actors, wherever possible, performing their own stunts. This lends itself to a more believable and engaging action sequence, as we see that actor Takeru Satoh (Kenshin) is actually dicing with death and dishing out justice himself rather than a stunt double in a dodgy wig.
Although some of the characterisations come across more as caricatures, villain Kanryuu especially, this is an adaptation of a manga/anime series so it plays into the authenticity of the film and belies its dedication to the original. This dedication is no better evidenced than in the first meeting of Kaoru and Kenshin, which is close to a direct replica of the corresponding scene from the opening episode of the anime series.
Despite its dedication to the original, sumptuous cinematography and impressively realistic action sequences it’s the overt and laboured delivery of its core message that lets Rurouni Kenshin down.
‘Can you help those that you love and seek to protect without killing?’
This is Kenshin’s ultimate struggle and although it is a beautifully choreographed journey it is overplayed, with it being painfully spelt out on numerous occasions throughout the film. None worse than the climactic sequence, as Kaoru repeatedly screams at Kenshin that he doesn’t need to kill again, which would have had more visceral impact had we not already had this message drilled into us over the preceding two hours.
Where it lets itself down through repetition of its core themes, Rurouni Kenshin more than compensates with its beautiful aesthetic and an enjoyable roster of young character actors. Once you get over the initial clash between the conventions of live-action filmmaking and the absolute freedom of an animated world then you are in for an exhilarating ride through post-samurai Japan at the hands of Keishi Otomo. And you are in capable hands.
Die-hard fans, as is always the case, will find holes to pick in any adaptation but the true success of this attempt is that it works as a stand-alone film. Whether you’re a fan of the original, know something of Japanese animation or have no previous on Rurouni Kenshin whatsoever, this film is an enjoyable piece of cinema in its own right.
The final word goes to Nobuhiro Watsuki, the author of the manga on which the film is based, ‘it does the original justice’.