Films, Japan, Live-Action Manga, Reviews, Wuxia / Swordplay

Rurouni Kenshin

A live-action adaptation as exhilarating as any Samurai film, with enough sword play and fast-paced action to keep the most avid anime or manga fan happy…

Rurouni Kenshin (るろうに剣心) is a thrilling narrative with fantastically choreographed fight scenes, alongside Sato Naoki’s (Ryômaden, Carnation, K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces) mesmerizing mix of techno beats and a classical score that pierces with every strike of the blade! We are taken to 1868, on a Japanese battle field surrounded by death as we hear, ‘A new era has finally come’, the words of legendary assassin Hitokiri Battosai (Takeru Sato, Goemon, Rookies, Bloody Monday, Kamen Rider Den-O: The Movie) – shortly before he abandons his bloodstained weapon; only to hear the voice of Jin’e (Koji Kikkawa, Sunao ni narenakute), assassin number two, declaring, this fight isn’t over yet.

Ten years later; despite donning a cross-shaped scar upon his cheek, Battosai has now become the peaceful re-invented, Kenshin Himura carrying a sakabatō (逆刃刀, a reverse-blade sword) to remind him of his vow never to kill again. Kenshin’s new, stark yet quiet life as a wanderer is threatened when he comes across a wanted poster for his former self. Promptly propositioned by Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei, For Love’s Sake, Lair Game 2, W no higeki) seeking revenge for Battosai killing in the name of her late father’s Dojo, ‘Kasshin-ryu’. However, being accosted by a wooden sword (sword prohibition in the new age) becomes the least of Kenshin’s problems after the notorious drug lord Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa, Serpent’s Path, Key Of Life, Penance, Tormented 3D, 20th Century Boys) discovers his true identity.

Due to this feature being based upon the popular manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki translating this extensive series on screen proved difficult, resulting in many sub-plots, flashbacks and an overly dense narrative. Luckily, writer Kiyaomi Fujji (Death Note: L Change the World, Take Five) and director Keishi Ontomo (Royomaden, Chursan, Jiro Shirasu: Man of Honour) make a good team when it comes to expressing story lines on screen; yet can leave you lusting for the throat slitting brilliance that are the sword fights. Although, it certainly feels like there is a balance of both plot driven scene and action sequence throughout, perhaps due to Ontomo’s history of success in TV drama.

After the idealistic ‘Miss Kaoru’s’ Dojo gets attacked by Takeda’s men, the shaken up Karou offers Kenshin to stay with her until she discovers that Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi, Hula Girls, Redline, Memories of Matsuko), the chemist behind this highly addicted Opium that Takeda wants, has already made herself at home – ensuring the Dojo to be an ideal target. As Jin’e promised this becomes a ruthless fight, ensuring that there can be no plausible end other than for Kenshin to break his vow.

The fast paced edit compliments the quick paced story. You are immediately engaged and involved as Kenshin takes on numerous opponents with pure skill and deft technique. In the comics, Kenshin is said to be using combinations or hybrid of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, an ancient form of Kenjutsu. All this he combines with his own, original and innovative sword technique. After watching the intense fight scenes, I wanted to pop out, grab a sword and find the nearest dojo for a quick session. I think my only real issue with this film would be the edit, which was periodically a tad fast. I, for one, would have appreciated rather more scenes being edited at a slower frame rate, to capture the martial arts in the classic anime/manga style. Having said all of this, the direction and camera angles really highlight the diversity of choreographed moves, portraying just how dedicated the entire cast were in studying and practising the moves for their role. Not forgetting Naoki’s creative and energetic soundtrack that makes Takuro Ishizaka’s (Sakuran, Lost in Translation) cinematography all the more effective.

When Takeru Sato was cast as Kenshin, being a fan of the widely popular comic, he really wanted to challenge himself in this role so he didn’t let any fans down, including himself. Taking into consideration how much time and practice that goes into executing precision sword movements perfectly and ultimately making them look aesthetically pleasing on camera. Evidently his work paid off. He looks the part, acts the part and is utterly credible with sword in hand. This dedication to the fight scenes is apparent throughout the rest of the cast. We see Emi Takei (Kaoru), Munatakaaoki Aoki (Sanosuke) and Koji Kikkawa (Jin’e) all fighting with confidence, adding yet more energy to this feature. Takeru, whilst throwing himself into the fighting aspects of his character, was also able to give a very likeable and charming performance through Kenshin’s development from the man who lives by the sword to the man carrying a back-bladed one. Not forgetting the outstanding acting of Teruyuki Kagawa, despite the hideous hairstyle and terrifying teeth of the merciless gangster, Takeda.

Upon release in summer 2012, the film was well received in its home country; Watsuki himself spoke very highly of the adaptation, praising the performances given by the entire cast. He described, in particular, Sato (Kenshin) and Koji Kikkawaw (Jin’e) as chillingly similar to his original characters. The first live-action adaption of the popular manga, it was so successful that it later became Japan’s 16th highest grossing film of 2012; resulting in two more films being commissioned. Provisionally named Rurouni Kenshin: The Great Kyoto Fire Arc and The Last of a Legend Arc, the first sequel is set to land in cinemas in 2014. (The final titles being Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends.)

Rurouni Kenshin will be released in selected cinemas from Friday. It will be interesting to see just how the western world reacts to this very eastern tale of redemption but I am confident that I will not be the only one waiting for the next instalment.

Rurouni Kenshin is released on UK DVD and Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook with UV copy on Monday 17 February 2014 by Warner Bros, and already available to download on iTunes.

Review originally published 3 October 2013.

An industry perspective (Brice Longnos)

Over the past few years, Warner Bros. seems to have slowed down on investments in local productions. However, if there is one local office that remained very active, it’s the Japanese one (Death Note, Summer Wars, Paradise Kiss, Outrage Beyond). That same office was at the origin of the great film Rurouni Kenshin that proved very successful at the box office across Asia, and has been recently reaching Europe. The film was even released theatrically by Warner Bros. itself in the UK on October 4.

Based on Nabuhiro Watsuki’s hit samurai swashbuckler manga, the film had already secured a worldwide release in 64 countries when it was completed, in August 2012. However, it does not seem to have happened in most countries: IMDB for instance lists only a few countries outside of Asia. The UK might be the first European theatrical release for the film. That would be really disappointing given the existing fanbase worldwide derived from the animation series and comic books.

Battosai is a very highly regarded character in Japanese culture as it embodies the noblest side of the samurai spirit – which has gained appeal worldwide (The Last Samurai, 13 Samurais, Hara-Kiri) and continues to do so with the upcoming 47 Ronins film by Universal to be released in September.

With the backing of Warner Bros. and such a strong fanbase, the film had what was needed for success. To the point that they took the risk of casting young rising actors, such as Takeru Sato (Kamen Rider Den-O, Rookies) for Himura Kenshin, Emi Takei for Kamiya Kaoru, Yuu Aoi (Hana and Alice, Honey and Clover) for Takani Megumi and Munetaka Aoki (The Last Message Umizaru, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). The film is also directed by Ohtomo Keishi who made most of his experience in TV, which tends to be very locally focused in terms of fiction series.

Such conditions made it certain a box office smash in Japan, but for its international potential, the film was limited by a low recognition of the talents involved outside the island. In that light that might be understandable why the international releases may have been delayed: although a big samurai production, talents attached still matter for the foreign audiences.

That is a pity because the storyline is really solid and the script well executed by Ohtomo. Without knowing the story told a hundred times in mangas and animations, the film suffices in itself to understand the background.

The action scenes are really impressive with excellent techniques, building on lot’s of strategy and an appropriate amount of CGI that give it a real look of cinematographic film – which is often looks a bit quirky with adaptations from iconic mangas (Goemon for instance).

Acting is solid with a great performance from Takeru Sato in the lead role, which will surely prove a boost in his career. Seeing he has been cast for the sequels definitely proves it.

Finally, a slight and shy romance provides a balance to the film that is really action-focused, making it more appealing to a wider audience.

All in all, Rurouni Kenshin takes the best from samurai-themed movies and leverages on a very strong character. Given the buzz that had been going on around the film since July 2011, it was sure to be a big production. Local TV actors and director attached may have reduced its international potential, but the production values, good acting and interesting storyline shall be able to compensate that and seduce foreign audiences.

Home media details

Distributor: Warner Bros (UK)

Edition: Blu-ray Steelbook (2014)

The Blu-ray release comes as a immaculate transfer; a superbly sharp picture and bouncy, full range audio. But then it , as it is a Warner Bros film. Sadly the only extra included, other than a UV digital copy that you'll need to access through the Flixster app or website, is the trailer. (A quick scan of the original Japanese release reveals that it included a cast and crew visual commentary, interviews, and more.)

The Steelbook is metallic in colour and comes nicely packaged with a striking minimal design.

About the author

Gloria Daniels-Moss
A former student and graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University where she had the pleasure to study English and most importantly Film! Her main love for Japanese Cinema comes from seeing Spirited Away when it was screened at Pinewood Studios for Club 7 at the mere age of 11... more

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