Being a fan of the anime series and the film “Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal”, I was ecstatic to learn that a live-action adaptation of “Rurouni Kenshin” became one of Japan’s highest-grossing film of 2012 and an international success in Asia. Based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki, the film follows the adventures of a young man named Kenshin Himura during the Meiji period. Watsuki discovered and was inspired by the story of Kawakami Gensai who was a hitokiri battousai (man slayer) who was executed by the Meiji government. According to the writer, Kawakami maintained a sense of duty to his comrades that he decided to create the title character.
Fans of the anime series would be satisfied with this live-action version as it does capture the mood, tempo and style of the anime series. The film features superb swordplay that I have seen since “Azumi” and while newcomers may see it as a ‘hack and slash’ affair, I am impressed with the amount of effort that went through its production, that director Keishi Otomo truly expressed love for the source material.
The film has been inspired by seasons 1 and 2 of the anime series. After living the life of an assassin since the tender age of 14 and fighting in the Bakumatsu war, Himura Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) has gained a reputation as a legendary swordsman that he has earned the much feared title of “Hitokiri Battosai”. Now a wandering samurai, he seeks to atone for his sins by taking an oath of not killing and protecting those in need. In his travels, Kenshin comes across the daughter of a deceased dojo master, Kaoru (Emi Takei) and aides her against her assailants. The two have formed a unique form of friendship, as Kenshin realizes a chance to find peace. But when a crooked businessman named Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) has plans of his own for taking over the harbor where the dojo stood, Kenshin must do what he can to protect what he has found. With the aid of Sagara Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki), he must confront the forces of Takeda and save the life of a young woman named Megumi (Yu Aoi). But his past just continues to haunt him as a master swordsman called Jin-ei who delves in the Jutou mystical arts, wants Kenshin’s blood.
Director Otomo manages to keep the essence of the anime alive when it came to tempo, mood and style. I do have to admit that deviations from the source material was inevitable for editing and pacing purposes. I could say that the movie was loosely based off the first couple of seasons of the anime series, as characters such as Sagara, Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka), Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi) and Kaoru all make appearances to drive the film’s plot. There were also flashback sequences that seemed to emulate scenes in "Trust and Betrayal" to give Kenshin his needed groundwork. Sadly, while I really enjoyed this film, I cannot deny that characterization was a little too light and the screenplay opts to put all its energy in the fight choreography and action set pieces. The emotional content of the material was admittedly a little lost, as the movie revolved mainly on Kenshin and Kaoru.
Villains such as Gein (Gou Ayano) and Banjin Inui (Genki Sudo) were easily recognizable by fans but they were a little underwritten into the script. They became a little more than tools for flamboyance, and became devices to drive the action. This is not a complaint, but an observation. The motivations behind the Jin-ei Udo’s actions weren’t sold into the screenplay that the only tension I felt between him and Kenshin was the coming climactic showdown. There was a missed opportunity in developing the 'sword that spilled a lot of blood' and just how Jin-ei got his mystical skills. The screenplay should've done well in developing that part of its narrative. I know fans of the anime could easily connect the dots, but this does leave newcomers left with little more than what was presented to them by the film.
Be that as it may, the film does succeed in a way that it intended. Mild humor was brought forth by Sagara and while lacking in development, it was easy to get interested with the film’s plot as it moved briskly and never lost its energy. The swordplay was truly the film’s top draw, Otomo shot the scenes in a way that mimicked the style and intensity of the anime series. It was also never a loss for blood, as the swordfights were brutal at certain moments, and yet it never lost that feeling of rhythm in the emotional drama with each hack and slash. There was a certain identity to its swordplay that I enjoyed, while there was no gore, it had the sense of poignancy that I have to expect from samurai films. I do have to say that Otomo did his homework in selling the film through the fight choreography, there were mild uses of special effects but they were only used to enhance the speed and strength of the struggle. The signature moves of Sagara and Kenshin also came into play, and if this was any indication, there may be a lot of room for a sequel since Kenshin had only began to fight. The costumes and set designs were all done in the spirit of the anime, and the colors leaned towards Earth colors as with any other jidai geki film. All these elements combined with its fantastic soundtrack gave the film a cinematic feel that is familiar and yet fresh to fans of the Jidai Geki genre.
The performances were decent for the most part. Satoh made for a very credible Kenshin Himura. He had the look, the posturing and the personality to pull it off. With Otomo’s cool editing tricks, he made the Kenshin character come alive in all the fight sequences, and Satoah looked really cool in performing the moves. Emi Takei makes for a very convincing Kaoru Kamiya, as the woman with the strength to influence a conflicted Kenshin. Aoki was fun as the cocky Sagara, but I had mixed feelings with Kagawa as Kanryu Takeda; he was a little too manic for his own good. Koji Kikkawa was magnificent as the creepy Battousai even though his character lacked depth, he was effective in the build up to the final showdown.
“Rurouni Kenshin” the live-action film may be flawed, but it was one of the better ones I have seen along with “Azumi”, “Death Note” and “Shinobi Heart Under Blade” (Lord knows there is a lot of them out there that are bad). The film was made with love of the source material, and the action swordplay was just fantastic. It was fast, hard-hitting and exciting to watch that it did not feel like a 134 minute film at all. Newcomers may feel a little lost with the lack of characterization and development, but fans of the original material and the anime series would feel right at home. I would advise those who have no prior knowledge of the anime series to take a look at “Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal”, as it will give you much needed background to the character (really seeing the first two seasons of the anime series would be more beneficial). This film is fine companion piece to the anime film and the series, that fans will not be able to stay away. Me, I am a fan so it gets a High Recommendation from me to its fans. To non-fans, at the very least, it is a solid hack and slash affair, that is really well done. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
Being a fan of the anime series and the anime film, I do hope that this live-action movie delivers. All I hope is for its quality to be on par with Azumi and I will be happy. Hopefully an English subtitled movie comes out soon.... Update: Full Review can be read here.