Watsuki Nobuhiro’s “Rurouni Kenshin” has long been one of the most loved manga in Japan, telling the story of the wandering pacifist samurai of the title and his many adventures. Known as “Samurai X” in the West, the manga has already been adapted across multiple formats, including a hugely popular anime series, several OVAs and audio books. Finally, it arrives on the big screen courtesy of writer Fujii Kiyomi (“L Change the World”) and director Otomo Keishi (“Taiga drama Ryomaden”) as a big budget live action film, with young television actor Sato Takeru (“Rookies”) as Kenshin. Also bringing the well-known roles from the comic to life are Takei Emi (“For Love’s Sake”), Aoi Yu (“Patisserie Coin de rue”) and Kagawa Teruyuki (“Kaiji 2”), with action choreography by Tanigaki Kenji, who previously worked with the one and only Donnie Yen on the likes of “SPL”, “Flashpoint” and “Wu Xia”.
As the start of a planned series, the film is unsurprisingly an origin story of sorts, starting off in 1868 with samurai warrior Battosai (Sato Takeru) giving up his life of violence after the battle of Toba-Fushima. Some ten years on, the country has changed, with samurais now destitute or without masters, forced to take employment as bodyguards or mercenaries. Battosai, now going under the name Kenshin, travels throughout the land, having sworn a vow of peace never to kill again. He arrives in Tokyo, and runs into kendo instructor Kaoru (Takei Emi), who is struggling to stand up to local merchant and drug baron Kanryu (Kagawa Teruyuki), who lords it over the people and is scheming to flood the country with a new brand of opium. After drug chemist Megumi (Aoi Yu) escapes from Kanryu and hides out at Kaoru’s school, Kenshin is thrust into the conflict, and it quickly becomes obvious that he’s going to have a hard time keeping his vow.
Without being familiar with either the source manga or anime, it’s a little hard to say how close an adaptation the live action “Rurouni Kenshin” is, though it certainly comes across as having been made as a faithful effort to capture its spirit and scope. The wandering pacifist premise is a good one, Battosai/Kenshin makes for an interesting protagonist, and the film has a fun gang of supporting characters, from the likeable and earnest Kaoru through to the over the top villain Kanryu, who makes for a decent adversary, even if his scheme is a touch on the far-fetched side.
Sato Takeru looks the part in the lead role, adding just the right touch of pathos and never playing Kenshin either too moody or pretty-boy, with Takei Emi appealing as his possible love interest and Kagawa Teruyuki amusingly camp as the evil merchant. Though obviously the plot revolves mainly around whether or not Kenshin will start killing again, there’s enough character development and distractions thrown in to hold the interest, with an assassin killing people and using the Battosai name, a conspiracy subplot, plus the general theme of the changing of the times, the way of the Samurai giving way to guns and machinery.
Though the pace does slow down a little in the middle and the film is perhaps 15 or 20 minutes too long, Fujii Kiyomi and Otomo Keishi do a solid job of keeping the viewer engaged, and it’s rarely dull or too meandering. Partly this is due to some excellent action scenes, particularly during the final act, which packs in some spectacular mass battles and one on one duels, Kenshin being backed by rowdy streetfighter Sanosuke (Aoki Munetaka, “Hara-Kiri”) as he lays into Kanryu’s hordes. Tanigaki Kenji’s fight choreography is superb, and the film has a much more dynamic and often hard edge than other manga adaptations, with some surprisingly bloody and violent scenes. The sword fights are fast and furious, and the ways in which Kenshin uses his reverse edge non-lethal sword are fun and creative, and this helps to also give the film a bit of a different feel.
Whether viewed as a live action manga or a samurai actioner in general, “Rurouni Kenshin” is a lot of fun and several notches above most of its peers. With lots of sword action and a solid cast, it certainly feels like the start of an on-going series, and it’s to be hoped that it will be successful enough to inspire the sequels it deserves.
Keishi Ohtomo (director) / Kiyomi Fujii, Keishi Ohtomo (screenplay)
CAST: Emi Takei … Kaoru Kamiya
Yû Aoi … Megumi Takani
Takeru Sato … Kenshin Himura
Teruyuki Kagawa … Kanryuu Takeda
Yôsuke Eguchi … Saito Hajime
Munetaka Aoki … Sanosuke Sagara
Kôji Kikkawa … Jine Udo
Taketo Tanaka … Yahiko Myojin