Movie Review – Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Roman Tan (Samurai X) (2012)
Rurouni Kenshin (2012) achieves the impossible by being a near-perfect live action adaptation of a famous manga/anime that will have diehard fans crying tears of joy while newcomers will certainly be sucked into the wonderfully paced narrative that features mostly fully rounded colourful characters and exquisitely shot action sequences. At the same time, the movie pushes its unabashed message of peace and non-violence forward in almost every scene yet director/writer Keishi Ohtomo manages to make it seem organic, as if naturally flowing from the characters and their predicaments rather than needlessly bashing viewers with the moral sledgehammer.
Rurouni Kenshin begins with an altogether harrowing sequence that takes place right at the end of the Bakumatsu (think Japanese Civil War) as a massive battle takes place amongst the dense forest foliage. The raw emotions on display here are exemplified by the desaturated colours and the violence is at its highest as limbs and arterial spray fly in every direction. We are introduced to a rather thin unassuming figure dressed in black garb that basically eviscerates everyone in his path with razor-like precision who only stops when he realizes that the victory cry has been sounded signaling the end of the war that will see Japan end its isolationist policies typified by the feudal shogunate system. This is the man known only as the Hitokiri (manslayer) Battousai, a feared warrior with unsurpassed skill but as the fight subsides he instead throws away his blood-soaked sword and leaves the battlefield never to be seen again…or not.
Flashing forward a decade the movie picks up in the new Meiji era where the samurai way of life is a thing of the past as the fearsome warrior class has now been reduced to either beggars or malcontents who find that they cannot even wear their swords in the public due to new laws. However, while some samurai have integrated into society there are some who directly oppose the new era and so it happens that someone claiming to be the legendary Hitokiri Battousai has appeared in Tokyo and has brought with him a killing spree of sheer brutality. Obviously, this cannot be condoned and the police place wanted signs up around the city asking anyone with information to come forward but to watch out for anyone suspicious. Concurrently, the Battousai has revealed that his sword style is called Kamiya Kashin Ryu as a kind of challenge to anyone who opposes him.
Into this climate walks a wandering ex-samurai named Himura Kenshin, dressed in beaten rags and looking as fearsome as a bunny rabbit. While spying the nearby bulletin board that is prominently displaying the Battousai’s wanted poster he pauses while reading the blurb that the killer utilizes the Kamiya Kashin Ryu style when he is suddenly accosted by a maniacal woman who brazenly accuses him of looking suspicious and summarily attacking him with her wooden sword. Avoiding her strikes with ease he pleads to her that he is nothing but a wandering “Rurouni” and that she has the wrong man to which she relents. This is Kaoru Kamiya the heir to the Kamiya Kashin Ryu style and now the only owner of the Kamiya dojo due to the passing of her father. Near destitute she is in a fix as she cannot keep the dojo in the black as all of her students have left as none of the locals want anything to do with her school since it allegedly produced the hated Battousai killer. What will happen to Kenshin and Kaoru? As Rick said to Louis in Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Rurouni Kenshin is a skillful retelling of the first two story arcs of the manga with a dash of material from the critically acclaimed OVA series. Specifically, it melds the revenge plot featuring a former Hitokiri named Jine who wields semi-supernatural powers with the narrative about Kanryuu Takeda, a quasi-maniacal rich businessman who thinks money can buy everyone, including samurai honor. Instead of separate arcs the movie crafts a new take on the manga by aligning the two plots together so that now Jine is merely helping Kanryuu and his demented plot to sell drugs to gain power and riches. At the same time, the movie plays loose with the timeline set in the manga/anime by introducing Kenshin’s main “frenemy” Saito Hajime incredibly early in the film even though he doesn’t show up as a major character in the original telling until well past these two initial arcs.
Keishi Ohtomo, who does double duty as director and co-scriptwriter with Kiyomi Fujii, has condensed the two huge arcs together by focusing on just the key narrative beats and essential scenes that are necessary to both introduce all the characters as well as present the main obstacles that need to be surmounted. In fact the sheer amount of almost verbatim dialogue taken from the manga/anime is staggering as Keishi Ohtomo has managed to incorporate most of it word for word especially during some of the more famous segments.
Obviously, the film cannot cram everything in that fans are looking for and it is to that end that certain characters end up on the short end of the stick namely two supporting members Sanosuke and Yahiko which have greatly reduced impact. Fans of either of these two will probably not be too thrilled at their relatively lean screentime but there’s really nothing that can be done when one realizes that the main narrative thrust in these storylines focuses on the budding relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru.
Although Kenshin’s trademark catchphrases are present such as his “Oro” being muttered from time to time the movie itself is much less concerned with the humour than the seriousness of the plot. This is, after all, a narrative built largely on the concepts of honour, redemption and of course the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu’s philosophy which states that swords are meant to protect not kill. That does not mean that all the levity is gone but that it is not as front and center as in the early manga/anime installments which often times featured much playful infighting between the main characters.
While the film has its plot tightly sewn up it is left to the young cast to really bring the characters to life and they do not disappoint. I have to admit to being wrong about Takeru Sato playing the lead role but that’s merely because the only piece of entertainment I had ever seen him in previously was the God-awful Japanese Drama Bloody Monday which I awarded an ignominious zero out of four in my review. Sato nails Kenshin from his generally clueless bumbling incarnation as the wandering rurouni to the more tortured ex-killer who felled men without remorse. Still, he does get some help from the script due to the fact that he really doesn’t get a truly meaty scene in which to show off his acting acumen rather than just hitting the key emotions fans expect of the character. Therefore, he basically vacillates between both emotional extremes from being brooding and introspective one moment to seemingly vacant in the next.
Emi Takei as Kaoru is more hit than miss but that is probably because those expecting the exact character from the manga are going to be a bit frustrated since this film’s version isn’t as overtly bubbly or openly chastising of others as previously written. Those expecting her to launch into a violent trashing of Yahiko for being a naughty boy will be disappointed. At the same time, Emi Takei is obviously quite attractive herself which plays havoc with the subplot about her romantic hijinks with the playful seductress Megumi (Yû Aoi )who crashes into her household unannounced. This romantic tension is woven throughout vast tracts of the manga and one gets the impression that the way it was originally presented boiled down to a distinct difference between the more common looking Kaoru against the more exotic Megumi. In this film I would venture an opinion that Kaoru ends up visually appearing much more the “catch” to Kenshin than Megumi does which makes the intended romantic tension feel ridiculously contrived.
As one of the main antagonists, Teruyuki Kagawa as the conniving businessman has a field day with the role hamming it up to the nines presenting his character as an overblown pompous ass that is true to the manga. While he tends to go chew scenery in virtually every scene his sleaziness contrasts well with the more menacing glares of his hired Hitokiri Jine played with appropriate menace by Kôji Kikkawa.
As mentioned both Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki) and Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka) are basically sidelined in this movie and though both actors portraying them visually look the part there just is insufficient screentime for either to shine. Of the two poor Yahiko is reduced to a mere stage prop with scant few lines of dialogue that only really establish his feistiness. Munetaka Aoki as Sanosuke at least participates in three long action scenes the standout being his mano a mano fight with Kenshin yet once again viewers are not given enough of his backstory to really form a bond with his plight.
The decision to rework the narrative in such a way as to introduce Kenshin’s major “frenemy” Saito Hajime early does pay off by providing the movie an easy avenue in which to present a character that openly challenges Kenshin’s new look on life. Yôsuke Eguchi does a decent job as Saito exuding a calm cool demeanor that harkens nicely with the original manga right down to his frequent smoking of a convenient cigarette.
Nevertheless, the movie is not without flaws with two major problems, the first being the odd decision to essentially ground the action in reality for a good 95%+ of the running time but then suddenly veer into more manga-inspired hocus pocus in awkward moments. For example, the sword fighting scenes are augmented by wirework but these moments are incredibly sparse. This is a samurai movie not one that takes place in Ancient China so it is not as if Kenshin will suddenly fly over the tops of trees with the greatest of ease but it is more in the vein of flipping backwards in a more balletic fluid motion to accentuate his skill. However, the main perpetrator of the occult here is the character of Jine who retains his Shin no Ippo skill from the manga where he can basically hypnotize people at the blink of an eye with calamitous results ranging from paralysis to even death. While this is keeping in line with the manga it is jarring to see everyone fight naturally with swordplay when all of a sudden the reality is broken by a skill that requires suspension of disbelief.
To compound matters the one truly heinous shot in the entire film comes in the third act when Saito Hajime actually uses his Gatotsu vertical slice move from the manga in an altogether cringe-worthy sequence which features frankly awful shot composition which certainly mirrors the manga/anime yet looks painfully pedestrian in live action. If director Keishi Ohtomo really intended to show the more flamboyant moves from the manga/anime it would have been a better strategy to introduce the fantastical elements early in the movie to establish the lore and mythology rather than to merely dump them into his final reel without much exposition explaining their worth. As it stands, Saito’s Gatotsu looks completely out of place which not only devalues the sequence but also lessens the impact of his actions.
The other stumbling block is that the film spends far too long building up Kanryuu Takeda as the primary antagonist much to the detriment of the far more menacing Jine. It won’t take a rocket scientist to understand that Kanryuu is nothing but a privileged braggart with a propensity to bark to compensate for his physical shortcomings. It is plainly inconceivable that the weasel could ever stand up to Kenshin or any of his cohorts so when the movie focuses too many scenes on him strutting around being an ass it ultimately is grating as each segment is merely reinforcing the same negative character traits. It would have been a much wiser decision to cut back on his screentime and concentrate on either Jine or any of the other underused supporting cast.
Technically the film is a real surprise with standout production design that mirrors its source material well along with a wonderful original score by Naoki Sato who eschews the music found in the anime for a fusion sound that combines historical musical cues along with more modern sensibilities. While the decision to not utilize any music from the anime is a bit of a downer Naoki Sato’s score more than compensates providing the film with just the right amount of emotional resonance needed whenever the narrative beats demand them.
Additionally, kudos has to go to director Keishi Ohtomo for crafting a film with a consistent pace but also for not going bananas like other filmmakers often do when the plots calls for an emotional high point. This is a mostly grounded movie that takes its plot seriously and thankfully he doesn’t fall prey to some lesser manga adaptations by falsely trying to create suspense through creaky old plot devices or overly sappy music which swells to inappropriate heights at precisely the wrong moments.
At the same time, barring the aforementioned forays into the more flamboyant fighting moves from the manga, the action sequences are clearly a step above most others precisely because Keishi Ohtomo does what I’ve always preached in letting the camera run at normal speed while the action is going on and only minimally resorts to hoary old slow motion enhanced shots that do more to send the pace into the floor rather than excite. Take for instance the nifty swordfight between Kenshin and a knife/pistol wielding assassin late in the movie as an example where nearly the entire sequence is shot normally allowing both actors to really immerse themselves in showing off the exquisite choreography so much so that the audience can feel the energy from each strike and parry while at the same time be cognizant of the facial expressions each thespian is showing. I just wish more directors realize that profuse use of slow motion is actually detrimental to building tension.
Rurouni Kenshin is that rare example of a manga to live action adaptation that not only stays faithful to the source material but succeeds on its own merits as a feature film. Keishi Ohtomo and his cast and crew should be commended for treating the original work with enough reverence and stature that it deserves and it shows in the final product that they all were committed to bringing this particularly story to the silver screen with impressive results.
On a different note Rurouni Kenshin was co-produced by a major Hollywood studio, namely Warner Brothers, which undoubtedly resulted in a major budget boost which is apparent by the high production values on display. Hopefully, in the future this results in more co-productions as long as Hollywood studios do not take full control of the property and turn it into cinematic bile such as the ridiculously shameless Dragonball adaptation. Now, where is my live action Neon Genesis Evangelion film? In the meantime, manga/anime fans should make it a mission to go and watch Rurouni Kenshin and hope that the already announced sequel lives up to the quality set forth by this installment.
***1/2 out of ****
2012, Japan, 134 Minutes, Warner Brothers/C&I Entertainment/IMJ Entertainment
Directed by Keishi Ohtomo
Screenplay by Kiyomi Fujii, Keishi Ohtomo
Based on the Manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Produced by Shinzô Matsuhashi
Executive Producer William Ireton
Original Music by Naoki Sato
Cinematography by Takuro Ishizaka
Takeru Sato: Kenshin Himura
Emi Takei: Kaoru Kamiya
Yû Aoi: Megumi Takani
Teruyuki Kagawa: Kanryuu Takeda
Yôsuke Eguchi: Saito Hajime
Munetaka Aoki: Sanosuke Sagara
Kôji Kikkawa: Jine Udo
Taketo Tanaka: Yahiko Myojin
© 2013 The Galactic Pillow