Rurouni Kenshin – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Former legendary assassin Kenshin Himura has now become a wandering samurai, offering aid and protecting those in need as atonement for his destructive past deeds. During his journeying, Kenshin Himura comes across and aides Kaoru Kamiya. Her father opened the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu, a kendo school located in Tokyo and Kaoru is now an instructor there. Kaoru then invites Kenshin to stay at her dojo. Their relationship develops further, but Kenshin is still haunted by his violent past.

Based on the popular manga series of the same name by Watsuki Nobuhiro, Rurouni Kenshin is definitely one of the better manga-to-live-action film adaptations to come along in quite some time. Unfortunately, many other live-action films based upon manga and/or anime series aren’t particularly effective in garnering a wide appreciation on part of certain viewers unfamiliar with the original source material, but Rurouni Kenshin does something quite different in that introduces the story of Kenshin Himura in a matter that is respectable towards its source material while still providing an exceptional foundation for newcomers unfamiliar with the manga or anime series.

Helmed by relative novice director Keishi Ohtomo, Rurouni Kenshin is awashed with mythos surrounding Bushido, the Meiji Restoration, and the modernization and westernization of Japan, with much of the film effectively utilizing the historicity of the time as the backdrop in which to explore the plight of Kenshin. As a man caught between his past role as an assassin in the Bakumatsu era of civil warring, juxtaposed with him living in its relatively peaceful aftermath, the demons of his past are ever present, as he must continuously confront threats deriving from a new and socially conflicted era within Japanese history. In this respect, the film is very earnest in nature, allocating much of its time towards being as serious as possible considering the scope of events that transpire. We see very little of the comedic antics primarily witnessed in the anime series, which is not necessarily a negative element of the film, but it may surprise individuals expecting the film to be somewhat humorous as well.

But this choice to focus on bringing about a more serious tone provides Rurouni Kenshin with considerable poise as an adaptation. Director Keishi Ohtomo, alongside writer Kiyomi Fujii, deliver an excellent portrait of the character of Kenshin Himura as an individual showcasing restraint and fortitude, offering up a superb reflection upon the source material. With the psychological effects of previously living as a trained killer, we find Kenshin trying to find a place within a world that doesn’t necessarily call or need individuals of his caliber anymore. This is one of the main themes that run throughout the film—as well as the manga—with Kenshin and many other warriors attempting to find their way in a newfound society that is steadily moving away from the past towards a future of immense western influence. We even witness such individuals as Kanryu Takeda (portrayed by the wonderful Teruyuki Kagawa) exploiting the samurai as cheap labor in order to gain immense personal wealth and influence.

Surprisingly, Rurouni Kenshin also does a fantastic job in bringing to life the visual qualities of its characters. Practically all the characters look identical to their respective manga and anime counterparts, which should please viewers and fans alike. This coincides with the accurate performances as well. Perhaps the most impressive performance though belongs to Takeru Sato as Kenshin Himura. He delivers all the subtlety and flair that one would expect from a real-life interpretation of Kenshin, bringing about a performance that complements the source material in almost every regard. Other notable performances are Koji Kikkawa as Udo Jin-e, who delivers the viciousness behind his character’s longing to defeat the famous Hitokiri Battousai, and Emi Takei as Kaoru Kamiya, who gives a more pronounced performance here than many of her other films. But, as with most adaptations, much is to be desired concerning a variety of characters. Prominent individuals such as Yahiko and Sanosuke are given little time and relevance to the actual plot here, being seen more as servicing fans more than anything. In fact, some characters are completely removed from the film, which is unfortunate but also somewhat understandable given how much of the manga’s story—essentially the first arc—had to be compressed in order to fit into a roughly two-hour film.

And besides the faithful appearances of the characters, Rurouni Kenshin also showcases some impressive action sequences that are sure to please viewers. Whether this is Kenshin having a lighthearted romp with Sanosuke, to the ferocious and deadly sword duel with Jin-e, the film delivers these scenes of action at seemingly the appropriate moment, equally focusing upon the drama that surrounds them. Ohtomo carefully uses slow motion to during these scenes that never really forced, highlighting the urgency of Kenshin’s battles. There is emotional weight given to the battles as well, as they aren’t simply viewed as excuses for the Kenshin and company to simply slice through enemy upon enemy. Given Kenshin’s desire to never kill again, he takes appropriate and creative measures not to seriously harm anyone, using a sakabatô (a reversed-edge blade) in order to do so. This aspect of his character lends a certain merit to the violence that he participates in, creating a uniqueness not often seen in other films concerning samurai and the like.

While other directors have faltered in bringing about their source material to film, director Keishi Ohtomo skillfully handles it with immense care and attention to detail, bringing about Rurouni Kenshin as a film that will sure to please viewers and fans alike. One could go as far as to suggest that it is one of the more impressive manga-to-live-action film adaptations released thus far, truly delivering a fantastic homage to Watsuki Nobuhiro’s manga. While the film isn’t perfect—some characters are oddly absent and some of the few that are present add very little to the overall narrative of the film—it showcases an appreciable effort to capture the Rurouni Kenshinuniverse in a respectable manner. Overall, Rurouni Kenshin provides a positive step in the right direction in terms of live-action adaptations of manga and anime—let’s hope that future films can view Rurouni Kenshin as a shining example of how to properly implement such material into the realm of cinema.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Justin

    Live Action adaptations get a bad rap, and generally, it’s deserved. But there has been a lot of praise for Rurouni Kenshin, and I would think this review definitely helps. I like that the staff for this film cut out the comedy — maybe it would have been a nice element for fans, but it may not have helped the film be any good, or in fact just be out of place. It shows they did their research and figured out what to have in the film above all else. Yeah, I should definitely check this film out when I get a chance. Great review!

  • Miguel Douglas

    Indeed, it was a choice that surprised me when I watched it. There is one scene that one could classify as comedy, but the remainder of the film is very serious. Definitely check it out when you can, it is one of the best adaptations I’ve seen in awhile and the production values are excellent! Thanks for the comment about my review as well.

  • Makai

    Nice review. I’ve heard some very great things about the film such as it being successful in box offices in Japan. This will probably one of the few Japanese live-action films that I’ll be looking out for if/when it does get released in NA. Also I heard a sequel to the film has been green-lit. Being a long-time fan of the original manga by Nobuhiro, I was pleasantly surprised that the series would getting a modern live-action adaptation. I’ve also heard that since the release of the new live action film, Nobuhiro will be rebooting the original manga series. Judging from the trailers and from what I’ve heard/read, the film looks well done and I will be looking forward to it. Keep up the reviews!

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the comment Makai. Fantastic news concerning sequel getting green-lit, one can hope it will follow in the same tradition of the first film.