Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.
But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.
(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)
My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.
But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)
Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.
Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)
I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.
Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.
At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.
The Beginning (2021)
Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)
The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.
But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.
Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.
Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.
In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.
Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.
The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …
Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)
Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.
Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.
Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.
Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.
Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.
The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.
If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:
I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.
Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.
The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.
I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.
Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …
Kyoto Inferno (2014)
Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)
Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.
Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.
On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.
If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.
Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …
The Legend Ends (2014)
Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)
The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.
Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.
Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.
Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:
I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.
That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …
The Final (2021)
Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)
Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.
Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.
Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.