Japanese cinema has a grand tradition of samurai movies, from Akira Kurosawa’s lauded classics like Rashomon to more recent entries like Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Rurouni Kenshin is a little different, however, in that it’s an action romance clearly aimed at a slightly younger audience. First published in 1994, Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original Manga was a hit among both male and female readers, resulting in successful anime adaptations, videogames, and now a live-action movie. Director Keishi Otomo adapts the story with flair, offering up a lavish period piece that’s as full of swooning romantic drama as it is katana-swinging violence.
A beautifully-staged opening battle in the mountains of Kyoto sets the scene: it’s 1868, and the forces of the Meiji government have defeated the military shogunate, ending years of bloody civil war. With the samurai order disbanded and its once proud warriors roaming the Japanese countryside, a young warrior, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh), has vowed to atone for his violent history. Once a fearsome assassin nicknamed Battosai, Kenshin’s guilt at his murderous past has turned him into a committed pacifist – he even carries a special ‘back-facing’ sword, with which he can injure an opponent with a bruising blow without cutting them in two.
A decade after the end of the war, the wandering Kenshin ends up in a rural part of Tokyo, where a sociopathic killer is offing members of the community under Kenshin’s old title, Battosai, while a cruel opium baron has plans to build a drug empire with the help of his army of former samurai. When Kenshin falls in love with Kaoru (Emi Takei), a young woman who owns a now deserted old fencing dojo, he vows to protect her and the town from the killer and the opium baron.
Making the most of Japan’s timelessly beautiful country locations, Rurouni Kenshin is stylishly shot and lit. Its opening battle sequence might hint at a harsh, uncompromising war story – and admittedly, an entire film devoted to this snow-bound battle could have been incredible all by itself – but the rest of the story is much lighter in tone, contrasting intense combat scenes with reflective drama and welcome flickers of broad humour.
Much of the film’s threat comes from Jin’e (Koji Kikkawa), a one-man army with almost supernatural fighting skills. An early scene where he hunts down a fleeing woman through a police station results in a bloodbath of almost Terminator-like proportions, establishing him as a real force to be reckoned with. On the reverse, Kanryu the opium baron provides cackling comic relief – as played by Teruyuki Kagawa, who’s clearly having fun in the role, he wears huge stack-heeled boots to hide his diminutive stature, and spits out angry commands through an absurd set of false lower teeth.
Takeru Satoh’s charismatic, athletic good value as the lonely-eyed hero, as is Emi Takei as the good-natured, resourceful Kaoru. In fact, there’s not a weak link to be found among the mostly young cast, with everyone digging into their roles with evident enthusiasm.
The action scenes are staged and edited with precision, with some great framing from cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka, and ably assisted by Naoki Sato’s lush score. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that it takes a little too long to tell what is really a very simple story; at 134 minutes, the narrative could possibly have been tightened a little, with Kenshin taking rather too long to finally confront his nemesis, Jin’e.
Despite this, Rurouni Kenshin is still an immensely entertaining film, and in a rare move, it largely succeeds in balancing its action sequences with engaging drama. It’s when the final credits roll that you realise how much fun you’ve had spending time with this essentially quite sweet collection of characters, and that’s surely the sign of a great film.
Rurouni Kenshin is out in selected UK cinemas on the 4th October.
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