Action / Thrillers, Films, Historical / Period, Japan, Live-Action Manga, Recommended posts, Reviews, Wuxia / Swordplay

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Pacifist swordsman Rurouni Kenshin returns in the second instalment of Otomo Keishi’s blockbuster trilogy…

Following on from the 2012 hit manga adaption Rurouni Kenshin comes sequel Kyoto Inferno, shot back to back with The Legend Ends, the third part of the trilogy. Again directed by Otomo Keishi (Platinum Data), the film sees Sato Takeru returning as the wandering swordsman trying to make amends for his former life as an assassin, here having to face down a crazed killer trying to bring the country to its knees. With Takei Emi also back as his love interest and internationally renowned choreographer Tanigaki Kenji (Special ID) on hand again for more spectacular action, the film was another success, opening at the top of the domestic box office.

Continuing with the ‘Kyoto arc’ from the manga, the film opens with Himura Kenshin (Sato Takeru) leading a quiet life with Kaoru (Takei Emi), a peace which is shattered when a disfigured government assassin called Shishio Makoto (Fujiwara Tatsuya, Kaiji) decides to take revenge after being betrayed, burned and left for dead by the authorities. Raising an army of disgruntled samurai and swordsmen, the ruthless Shishio takes over town after town, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake as he heads towards Kyoto, aiming to raze the city to the ground. Though reluctant to join the fighting and to risk breaking his vow never to kill again, Kenshin agrees to take on the mission of stopping the madman, seeing it as the only way of upholding the fragile peace of the new Japan.

While there are plenty of samurai action films every year from Japan, the Rurouni Kenshin series continues to prove itself one of the most accomplished, in part due to its interesting protagonist. Though there’s nothing too original about the idea of a former assassin turning his back on killing, only to be dragged back into the fray, Kenshin is a multi-layered and at least vaguely complex figure, the clash between his former identity as Battosai the Killer and his new life making for satisfying dramatic tension and giving the film somewhat of a philosophical grounding. Sato Takeru is again solid in the lead role, giving a genuine sense of internal conflict which works as a counterpoint to the audience’s desire to see him let rip with his sword.

Shishio is similarly a strong villain, and Otomo Keishi does well to flesh out his character and to make him more than a pantomime fiend, doing a good job of building anticipation towards his inevitable clash with Kenshin. Of course, this being the second part in a trilogy, it inevitably ends on a cliff-hanger note and lacks a real finale, though there’s more than enough here to engage and to ensure that most viewers will be keen to catch The Legend Ends when the credits end – hopefully when it does arrive, the third film won’t come with quite so many flashbacks, Kyoto Inferno taking its time to get going due to an opening act filled with reminders from its 2012 predecessor. Though to be fair this does mean that audiences don’t really need to have seen the first film, most likely will, and these scenes only serve to overstretch the film and make it feel a touch overlong at nearly two and a half hours.

Though the pacing is a little off at times, this is a relatively minor criticism, and Otomo Keishi works in plenty of action along the way, gradually upping the ante before the large scale set piece finale in Kyoto, for which more than 5000 extras were apparently employed. The film certainly looks great, with a polished feel, top notch production values and a seamless integration of CGI and practical effects, giving it a far more impressive look than most of its peers. Tanigaki Kenji’s choreography is excellent throughout, and both the duels and mass battles are handled expertly and with thrilling impact – though the film shows more restraint than perhaps would have been liked, on the other hand this does work to further underline the hope that The Legend Ends will be more of a full-on sword slinger.

Such problems are common to almost all mid-parts of a trilogy, and Kyoto Inferno is a very enjoyable and effective film in its own right, definitely standing as one of the better Japanese genre films of the last few years. Though the final verdict won’t be in until after The Legend Ends, Otomo Keishi’s take on Rurouni Kenshin at this stage certainly looks to be definitive, and it’s hard to imagine many fans being disappointed.

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno is available on UK DVD and Blu-ray Steelbook from Monday, 6th April. Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends opens in UK cinemas from 17 April.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
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