Live action adaptations of long running manga are more miss than they are hit. A great majority of filmmakers attempt to condense years of story and character development into a relatively short runtime, typically leading to rushed, inconsistent films.
Maybe that's why news of an adaptation of the 28 volume long Shonen Jump series, Rurouni Kenshin, was a bit troubling.
I would imagine that most people shudder at the thought of trying to adapt a Shonen Jump property into a live action film. Nobody out there wants to see a live action Naruto, One Piece or Bleach; we all know how poorly that would end. Yet Japan has always done well with period pieces and samurai film, making Kenshin seem like the perfect fit.
And fit it does.
Rurouni Kenshin loosely adapts the first two story arcs from Nobuhiro Watsuki's original manga. Our hero's story starts off with a flashback depicting the final battle that Kenshin fought in as the feared "Hitokiri Battousai", a deadly assassin. At the end of the revolutionary war when confronted by Saito Hajime, Kenshin throws down his blade and walks away from the battlefield. Ten years later and Japan has entered a period of peace save for one caveat; a man referring to himself as the Hitokiri Battousai has been murdering innocent people. Kenshin has a run in with the fake Battousai after saving the young Kamiya Kaoru from certain death, kicking off a string of events that put the fate of Tokyo in his hands. Will Kenshin be able to protect the people he cares about most without drawing blood?
Going into the film, I was expecting relatively big changes to character back stories and even personalities. Fortunately, Rurouni Kenshin is actually quite faithful to the source material. The Jin-e and Opium arcs are tied together in ways that allow them to both exist within the film yet remain separate at the same time. Jin-e is hired as a bodyguard by the calculating industrialist, Takeda Kanryu. However their goals never really intersect, allowing both characters the time to spread their wings as very different antagonists. Jin-e has some of the best scenes in the film, giving the audience a fantastic and bloody look at what it means to be a man-killer in the Rurouni Kenshin world. Kanryu sits on the other end of the villain spectrum, stealing the spotlight with his quirky behavior obsessive personality.
Yet it's Emi Takei's Kaoru and Takeru Satoh's Kenshin that steals the show. Emi Takei's performance hits the mark, portraying a strong, willful young woman in an age when those weren't very common place. Her initial face off with Jin-e leaves a strong impression right off the bat, making it easy to root for her throughout the film. Kaoru trusts Kenshin because she sees her father's sword style and beliefs in the wanderer. Much like in the source material, her refusal to give up is one of the reasons that Kenshin is able to shine as a character.
Takeru Satoh's version of Kenshin will be instantly recognizable to fans of the original series. Portrayed as a care free, stoic but sometimes silly wandering swordsman, Kenshin's best moments in the film are when he gets serious. He understands how ridiculously idealistic he's being when he vows never to cut down another man. Despite questioning himself, he realizes through Kaoru that it's worth giving a shot. Being such a physical role, I was genuinely impressed by how well Satoh handles it; I never once doubted that his Kenshin was a swordsman beyond all others.
While the rest of the cast is never quite as fleshed out as Kenshin and Kaoru, they're nonetheless memorable. Fan favorite character, Saito Hajime (Yousuke Eguchi), is introduced in the opening minutes of the film, bringing with him an unmatched level of coolness. The film version of Saito is significantly less belligerent than Watsuki's character, coming off as more of a hard boiled police officer. His disdain for Kenshin is still strong as ever though and he's a thrill to watch whenever he appears onscreen. Sagara Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki), one of Kenshin's closest allies, also plays an important role in the film. His introduction differs slightly from the source material in that he challenges the former battousai to a duel to prove his own strength to Kanryu. The film never delves into his back story, but this is very much the Sanosuke from the original manga.
Takani Megumi (Yu Aoi) plays a crucial role in the film as the doctor creating the modified opium for Kanryu. Her story arc plays out very similarly to her manga counterpart's and I'd love to see where they take the character in future films. Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka) is also present throughout most of the film and although he never gets a chance to really shine like the rest of the characters, his cocky, immature but caring personality is left intact. I was pleasantly surprised by his conclusion considering I suspected he'd only appear as a brief cameo.
There are a lot of little changes here and there, ultimately adding up to a familiar but different experience than fans might be used to. Characters are introduced early, the order of certain events are changed and some sequences are shifted around to feel more organic. I believe the film is better off because of this; the manga and anime's pacing would simply have no place here. Rurouni Kenshin is a long movie (134 minutes), but I never felt like it was dragging its feet.
As I had suspected from the initial trailers, the action in Rurouni Kenshin is handled gracefully. Familiar poses and techniques are used tastefully without ever resorting to the use of awful CG. Kenshin's speed is successfully recreated onscreen and his fluid movements are almost like a type of dance. The big group battles are all extremely entertaining, but the best action moments in the film come in the form of the one on one duels. The final battle in particular left me on the edge of my seat. My single problem with the fight choreography however was in the use of wirework for certain larger than life moves. For the most part it's used unobtrusively save for a couple of very awkward moments that pull you out of the experience. It wasn't such a huge deal, but it bears mentioning.
Another issue I had with the film was its lack of a memorable score. The only times I ever found myself making note of it was when I consciously forced myself to listen carefully to see if anything interesting was happening. There's one theme in particular that plays three times in the film. Out of those three instances, only one sequence actually works, with the other two creating a very awkward disconnect between the onscreen action and the score. There are a few tracks in the film that utilize the koto and I found myself wishing that composer Naoki Satou had opted for a more traditional Japanese sound.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; if there's one genre that the Japanese film industry can consistently get right, it's the samurai film. Rurouni Kenshin is not without flaws, but Otomo nails the feel of the source material. This is the Rurouni Kenshin that I read and watched years ago as a kid. It's not quite as funny as the manga and anime could sometimes be, but the tone of the film ends up being more consistent as a result. The crew has commented in earlier press materials that they're hoping to turn this into a series of films. I can only hope that this initial entry brings in enough to warrant the risk; there're still a ton of stories worth telling and Kenshin leaves plenty of potential sequel hooks throughout. I can't imagine folks out west will be waiting too long on this one; I'd give it until the end of the year before somebody picks it up for western distribution.
Fellow fans, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief; Rurouni Kenshin is a great film and a wonderful adaptation of the franchise you know and love.
8.5 - Great. A perfectly executed film that defines its genre without resorting to cliches.
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