It has been a long time since I have been blown away by a movie. Some like Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, I watched with mild fascination. Others, like Disney’s Frozen, I genuinely liked and could see more than once. Yet, since 2012, I haven’t seen any that I have loved. I find it ironic that this film was made the same year I fell in love with Life of Pi, Les Miserable, and Lincoln and I didn’t know about it. Since it is a Japanese film, gaining popularity in the U.S. is problematic. Since the U.S. is the birthplace of popular film, for some strange reason films made in other countries tend to live in obscurity. Films like Seven Samurai (1954) directed by the famous filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, the Swedish film The Seventh Seal (1957), the French fantasy classic La Belle et la Bête (1946) and the works of legendary animation director Hayao Myazaki have received world wide recognition and accessibility. However, the same can’t be said about many others. Rurouni Kenshin had a limited international release and advertising period so it is no wonder that hardly anyone knew about it.
The story is one of redemption and absolution. The question that resounds throughout is “Is it possible protect others without killing?”. Based on the widely acclaimed manga series written and illustrated by Nobuhiro Watsuki (1994-1999), the movie takes place during the early Meiji era and centers around the character Kenshin Himura, a wandering swordsman. Ten years prior, he had been known as Hitokiri Battōsai, or Battosai the man slayer, but at the end of the Bakumatsu war he renounced his role as an assassin and disappeared. In order to atone for the many lives he had taken, he vowed to protect others using a reverse blade sword specifically designed to keep him from ever killing again. Though it doesn’t follow the original story verbatim, the film still carries that awe inspiring roughness and depth. As Kenshin became involved in the conflicts in Tokyo, glimpses of his old life meshed into the new, creating a intricate story framework and engaging plot development throughout. His arrival coincides with the climactic plans of the opium businessman Takeda Kanryū as well as the swordsman Udō Jin-e who had also survived the war but continued murdering under Kenshin’s old name.
The director Keishi Ōtomo took the meticulous artistry of Watsuki-san’s original work and fit it to real life screening brilliantly. The action scenes are smooth and lifelike and retain a spark of wonder as Kenshin time and time again demonstrated masterful technique and agility. Many times when popular manga or anime are adapted into films quality is overrun by popular demand and the plot and execution falls apart (example, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos 2011). This is a film that fans can appreciate, and it also delivers quality performances and entertainment. What makes it stand out is its moments of high adrenaline and quiet contemplation. The ebb and flow between these contrasting forces of modulation, 祁 動 (intense motion) and 宁映 (calm reflection), gave the film a depth and preeminence that is inevitabliy lost when they can’t peacefully coexist. A similar feeling permeates throughout Myazaki’s animated film Spirited Away (2001) where the moments of quiet and solitude hold as much if not more merit as the tumultuous chase scenes.
Before I watched this, I was afraid that the characters in the film wouldn’t be able to match up to their predecessors. For example, when I watched a live-action remake of the spectacular series Mushishi (1999-2008), I was dissatisfied with how forced and two dimensional the characters were throughout the movie, with the exception of Ginko. By the end, I finished it upset and disgruntled. Thankfully, the actors and actresses picked for Rurouni Kenshin didn’t disappoint. I was especially impressed with Takeru Satoh, who played Kenshin, because of his gentleness and authenticity. Kenshin is a difficult role because of the perception needed to capture both his reversion to the man slayer Battosai and his more peaceful personality as Kenshin Himura. The struggle between who he was and who he became was constant. He was ridiculed and reprimanded because of his resolve to never kill again by swordsman he knew before and those he meets later. The commander Saitō Hajime especially opposed Kenshin’s path believing that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”, meaning man slayers like them could never escape a violent death. Though there is opposition to his ideals, he meets others who believe that the sword can be used as a modem of protection. Emi Takei did a wonderful job as Kamiya Kaoru and portrayed the innocence and ideal nature of the character affably. I especially liked the scene near the end right before Kenshin reverts back to being the Battosai when she broke free from the paralyzing jitsu placed on her by Jin-e. The amount of emotion and realness she had as she begged for Kenshin to not kill Jin-e took me off guard. I remember her as being a really annoying character in the anime series. Takai-san should be praised because she persuaded me to actually like Kaoru as a character.
The cinematography was beautiful and smooth without being overbearing. I liked the earthy tone as well as its authentic timber, or feeling. One scene that caught my attention showed Kenshin’s memory of killing a young man during the war and watching the young man’s fiance sob over his dead body. To me, at this moment Kenshin realized that the peace he fought for in his naivete by killing came at a high price. As the young man stood up over and over again, it became harder for Kenshin to go back in for the kill, especially as the young man cried “I have important people I need to live for”. Finally, as the young man ceased moving, Kenshin walked away emotionally torn, shaking and questioning the morals of his mission. What made this scene stand out to me was how simple it looked and how easily the emotions resonated throughout. The colors in his memories were darker and contrasted well with the brighter bamboo thicket that Kenshin stood in as he reflected over his past.
The music, written by Naoki Sato, matched the tone and setting of the film wonderfully. Music changes the perception of a film completely and if done wrong can lead to disastrous results. It shifted between moments of high intensity and emotion remarkably without taking attention away from the story line or the characters.
PERSONAL ENJOYMENT: 5/5
It is a shame that more people don’t know about this film. It is rare for me to find a story that captivates me from beginning to end and leaves me wanting more. After I finished, I wanted to start it over again but resisted (it was 12:00 AM). I highly recommend this film, but acknowledge that not everyone can appreciate it or watch it. It is too violent for children under thirteen, because of the blood and intense action. Purists who can’t watch movies in any other language except their own most likely won’t like it either because it only comes in Japanese with English subtitles.
OVERALL SCORE: 5/5
“The moment you find the courage to give up your life for someone, would be the moment you understand love.”