The “Rurouni Kenshin (2012-2014)” trilogy review.

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Rurouni Kenshin (2012)” was released in the United States as “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins“, even coming out after the sequel- “Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno“- because…reasons? I had initially heard about the flick when it premiered in Japan and my immediate thought was: “Oh yeah, I remember that anime that was popular like…15 years ago?“. It seemed strange that they would do a live-action adaptation of a property that has been mostly irrelevant for years, but not quite as strange as the enthusiastic reception it received. A live-action anime adaptation that was almost universally considered to be GOOD?! Even the better ones, such as the two “Death Note” movies, tend to be divisive. So I was debating with…myself, because I do that…whether or not I should review each of these movies, as I felt like I didn’t really have a lot to say about any of them as individuals and reviewing is no longer an obligation for me. Yet whenever I discuss the trilogy as a whole or more specifically, as an adaptation of an anime that I’m somewhat familiar with, I become a chatterbug. But before we enter the critique, you should be warned that I’ve never read the manga and I only watched chunks of the anime- and my memory is a little fuzzy when it comes to the details. I do remember watching “Rurouni Kenshin: The (animated) Motion Picture” (but strangely, I do not remember anything which occurs within it) and the “Trust & Betrayal” OVA’s (which were really good), so I’m only a part-time casual fan, which might discredit me in your eyes. I could get some information wrong or maybe I’m biased, either in favor of the adaptation or against it, so please keep all of this in mind.

Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” is the only entry in the trilogy that works as a standalone film and is probably the best from a storytelling perspective, even though I personally favor “Kyoto Inferno“. The Boshin War was a historical event that ended with the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and more-or-less abolished the Samurai class. Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh)- now we’re entering fictional territory- was a highly dangerous assassin for the victorious side, earning the nickname ‘manslayer’. Once the war concluded, he swore that he’d never kill again and cements his ideal by wielding a sword where the blade is facing the wrong way. He wanders the country as it gradually becomes more westernized and eventually encounters Kamiya Kaoru (Emi Takei), a feisty kendo teacher whose dojo is in ruin because an alleged ‘manslayer’ is claiming that he uses her style. In the anime, the imposter is just a disgruntled former student, but the movie gives this role to Jin-E (Koji Kikkawa)- who had his own arc in the source material. Kenshin and Kauru become friends though, helping him ease into the peaceful life. Meanwhile, Kenshin’s Boshin War rival Saitō Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi) has joined the Japanese Police and is investigating Takeda Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa- who is having a blast with this role) for Opium smuggling. Kanryu has hired Jin-E to be his Chief henchman, but Jin-E’s bloodlust is gradually getting out of control and eventually Kenshin will have to step in. This is actually a very pragmatic adaptation, as Kenshins’ sagas are either too thin on material to be adapted into film or too dense on material to be adapted into film, so the filmmakers wisely chose to switch things around. “Rurouni Kenshin” is ultimately an adaptation of the Oniwaban arc, complete with Megumi (Yu Aoi) and Kanryu, but Aoshi has been swapped with Jin-E as the primary antagonist. This makes sense to me, because I think Jin-E makes for a better starting villain than Aoshi did, as he’s more of a shadow archetype for Kenshin, making their conflict more personal. Yet this will eventually create problems for the sequels. The Oniwaban Group has also been changed to a band of fallen Ronin, which also fits a little more snugly into the overarching theme of being unable to move on from the past. Interestingly, Gein (Gou Ayano) has an identical design to Hanyou, although their personalities and origins are different. I don’t remember Saito being apart of the Oniwaban arc either, but the film chose to introduce him early on and have him play a pivotal supporting role. Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka) and Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki ) also make their introductions, although Yahiko is already Kaoru’s student when we first meet him (in the anime, he joins her dojo a few episodes in). These changes are drastic, but I think most viewers will at least understand why they had to be made. I would still argue that “Rurouni Kenshin” is incredibly faithful to the source material, arguably to a fault…

Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” has so many characters and story threads that the narrative starts to feel really crowded before the first act even ends! I thought Saito was incorporated really well throughout the first half, but he’s phased out of the story during the second half and his absence becomes even more noticeable when he randomly returns for the finale. Sanosuke is arguably even more problematic, because even though he gets a lot of screen-time, his presence isn’t really necessary and his connections to any of these conflicts are tenuous at best. Yet I’m not sure if I can complain, because I thought Munetaka Aoki’s performance as the roguish brawler was one of the most entertaining parts of the movie. He’s so funny and charismatic that I was perfectly content with him being there, even if he didn’t serve the story at all. Keep in mind that the film is also dealing with the character arc of Megumi, which remains intact if a bit hurried, as well as the madness of Jin-E…and Kenshin’s relationship with Kaoru…and his own internal conflicts, which includes the origins of his scar…and Kanryu’s ambitions. “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” is just trying to be faithful by including so many elements from the source material and at times, I was even reminded of “The Last Airbender” because both films are encumbered by their accuracy in the story department (yes, I just said that). But the difference is, “The Last Airbender” lacked the spirit of its source material, getting the tone and characterizations all wrong. “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” might have too much content, but it captures the charm of its source. The characters all retain their personalities, have defined motivations and undergo their own journeys, sometimes which lead to their own destruction. The filmmakers are even able to expand upon the original characterizations, such as with Jin-E and Kanryu, making them more interesting than they were in the anime. The only (arguable) misstep comes in the form of Gein, as they establish some kind of bond between him and Megumi, which gets no pay-off and has nothing to do with the reveal of his own motivations. Yet…it added mystery to the character and maybe even some depth, so is that a bad thing? An argument can be made either way and I personally favored the mystery and depth this time around, even if I wish Gein and Megumi’s past was explored a little bit more. “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” is that rare adaptation that has its flaws, but I don’t think I’d want any of them to be fixed, because each one accompanied by a reminder as to what the movie is doing right!

The cast is phenomenal in their roles and the costuming department did a great job at recreating their looks, but grounding them in reality. I enjoyed watching everybody interact with each-other so much that I didn’t really care when the narrative got too ambitious with their inclusions. “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” might be a bit talky because there is a lot of exposition we have to process, but the action more than makes up for it.The fight scenes are plentiful and exhilarating, with even the choreography being faithful to the characters move-sets. They do tone down the superhuman elements a little bit, but that only made the sword fights seem that much more intense and exciting. The editing and camerawork are (mostly) seamlessly woven into the choreography, making every battle breathtaking. The art direction is also faithful to the source, showcasing a lot of familiar locations and just…looking…awesome. I’ve always been fond of the Meiji Reconstruction period in film, because the visual contrast of the East meeting the West is so eye catching. The score was a bit jarring at first, as the music seemed to draw more influences from the west than the east (there’s a lot of techno, ominous chanting, etc.), but it grew on me and helped give the movie its own identity- even separate from the manga. “Rurouni Kenshin: Origins” is just so great that even its weaknesses ultimately work in its favor, so can the sequel keep up?

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)” arguably enhances the flaws, as it’s trying to cram EVEN MORE STORY- along with continuing the previous ones- into its limited running-time and some of these subplots distance themselves from the source material, even when being faithful could’ve fixed some of these issues. There are more characters, more conflicts, more drama and more revelations about Kenshin’s past, added to the characters and conflicts of the first film. Kenshin is trying to live his life in peace, but the rise of another manslayer named Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) forces him out of retirement. This sounds simple, right? Well, throughout the duration of the sequels’ running-time, Kenshin has to track Shishio down, deal with his equally deadly henchman Soujiro (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), find the blacksmith who forged his sword, find the son of said blacksmith to forge his sword, rescue the son of the son of said blacksmith from Cho (Ryosuke Miura)- another one of Shishio’s men, align himself with the Oniwaban Group, along with Misao (Tao Tsuchiya)  and unite with all of his allies to defend the country against Shishio’s forces. Meanwhile, Kauru, Sano and Yahiko are searching for Kenshin, but they aren’t alone. A mysterious swordsman named Aoshi (Yûsuke Iseya) is also tracking Kenshin…and this isn’t even the detailed description, as I’m not including the young boy whose parents are slaughtered by bandits, who gets an entire segment dedicated to him. I could’ve also brought up Kenshin’s teacher, who appears in the stinger and Saitoh’s involvement within the conflict. Once again, “Kyoto Inferno” can be criticized for cramming in too much story, even moreso than the first film. But also once again, “Kyoto Inferno” can praised for continuing to capture the spirit of the source material. Every character and storythread interested. engaged and entertained me on some level. Whereas the first had a balanced pace, this one moved a lot more quickly, being intent on displaying its incredible swordplay and colorful characterizations. The fight choreography and cinematography have improved, but I think the main reason why I love “Kyoto Inferno” more than “Origins” is that it has the superior villain. Shishio is bad-ass, awesome and sinister, with the actor upstaging even the heavy makeup prosthetics. Who would’ve thought that the kid who delivered ‘questionable’ performances in “Battle Royale” and “Death Note” would grow up to conquer a challenging role such as this, much less steal the show from everyone else? If I have any complaints about “Kyoto Inferno“, it’s that Aoshi’s backstory has been changed so drastically for absolutely no reason. Yeah, he was replaced with Jin-E in the Oniwaban arc of the first film, but it wouldn’t have been a stretch to give him a connection to that group. They can reveal that after the Oniwaban members were defeated, they committed suicide, which would weld the continuities together. Instead, the groups have nothing to do with each-other and now Aoshi’s motivations have to be completely re-written. Furthermore, didn’t Aoshi and Shishio make an alliance in the anime? Here, Aoshi has no real connection to Kenshin (his motivations are weak) and his mission is completely independent of Shishio’s, making his entire subplot feel like filler…Admittedly, this wouldn’t become too big a problem until the next sequel and…Oh f@ck it, “Kyoto Inferno” is just one awesome scene following another awesome scene. Even though I understand why most viewers consider this to be a step down, I think it functions kind of like “The Empire Strikes Back” did. It might be designed to connect the first and final films, but there are so many memorable and cool moments I found myself preferring it over the rest.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends” is the weakest of the trilogy, even though it wears its budget the most proudly and continues improving upon the already exceptional choreography. Kenshin now must reunite with his estranged master (Masaharu Fukuyama) in order to overcome Shishio, who has conspired to turn the entire Government against Kenshin. “The Legend Ends” has a steadier narrative than the other films, primarily because the plot is less episodic than the others. Even though there are still a lot of characters and subplots, they felt a little more organized this time around…So why do I think it’s not quite as good? “The Legend Ends” struggles more than its predecessors because of the sins of its predecessors. All of those suplots and characters now demand satisfying pay-offs, but they had to cut out too much of the character development (from the source material) in order to make room for said subplots and characters, meaning that the resolutions lack impact. The most obvious case is with Soujiro, who undergoes a similar journey to his anime counterpart. But his mental breakdown and crises of faith don’t really work because they aren’t properly foreshadowed. In the source material, Kenshin and Soujiro had been having this clash of philosophies, which gradually builds up to Soujiro’s downfall. Here, a single line reveals he doesn’t feel any emotions and after his defeat, he still asks the same question as to ‘who was right’…even though they’ve never had this discussion about ‘who is right’ or ‘who is wrong’ before (in the film). So as I said, it wasn’t a good pay-off…well, unless ‘super awesome fight scene’ is enough to function as a good pay-off, in which then “The Legend Ends” is awesome. The same goes for Aoshi and Shishio’s other henchman, in that from a storytelling perspective, the conclusions of their character arcs were weak because we weren’t even aware of these character arcs until they’re about to be concluded….But at least their fight scenes are f@cking awesome and that is the main reason why I enjoyed “The Legend Ends“. The final battle where Shishio takes on…everyone, is definitely the highlight of the entire trilogy. I’m not even sure how to describe it, other than f@cking awesome.

And I think that is how I’d describe the trilogy as a whole: F@cking awesome. Yes, so…Uh…I’m not going to lie, I have absolutely no idea how to end the ‘review’. So I’ll conclude my opinions with this: The “Rurouni Kenshin” trilogy made changes to the anime, but the majority of them were necessary in order to adapt into film. The source material was not designed for this medium and sometimes these movies struggle to fit in all of the elements that defined the manga and anime. Yet all of it still works because every piece of this cinematic puzzle carries a charm with it, a desire to recreate the magic of the source. That isn’t to say that the ‘flaws’ should be ignored, as they do eventually catch up with the trilogy by the time they reach “The Legend Ends“. At that point, the narrative is so bloated that the film doesn’t quite resonate on an emotional level, at least as much as it wants to. But I still enjoyed the 3rd entry for the style, spectacle and respect for the source material, even if it’s not as exceptional as its predecessors. These films represent what adaptations SHOULD be, not crap like “Assassin’s Creed” (for video games), “Dark Tower” (for books), “The Last Airbender” (for cartoons), “Suicide Squad” (for comics) or “Dragonball: Evolution” (for manga/anime).

Origins-Rating: 3.5/4 ★★★½ 

Kyoto Inferno-Rating: 3.5/4 ★★★½ 

The Legend Ends- Rating: 3/4 ★★★☆