Manga Madness: Rurouni Kenshin Trilogy (2012-2014)

Rurouni Kenshin: ***

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno: ****

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends: ***

In the golden days before mangaka Nobuhiro Watsuki experienced his undeservedly brief fall from grace in 2017, the phrase Rurouni Kenshin only conjured thoughts of exciting samurai action rather than uncomfortable conflict about the ethics of consuming a story created by a man who gets his own excitement from pictures of underage girls. Well, for a brief moment, we return to those days with the live-action trilogy based on the iconic manga and anime series, directed by Keishi Ohtomo and released in 2012 and 2014.

If the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy can be put down to treating the films as thrillers rather than another superhero movie, then the successes of the Rurouni Kenshin movies can be attributed largely to the decision to treat the story as less of a manga adaptation than as a samurai epic. With lush settings, naturalistic performances, and an evocative score, the trilogy evokes serious historical drama more than more than it does your average anime cash-in. This approach has its downsides – the more fantastical elements, such as Jin’e’s hypnotic paralysis eyes, feel a little out of place in an otherwise non-magical samurai drama – but by and large it ensures the films feel grounded, and allows them to lean in to some of the darker aspects of the story; in particular, its protagonist’s past misdeeds.

Kenshin Himura’s past as an assassin in the Bakumatsu War is an ever-present shadow in the manga and anime series, but the reality of the murders he committed and their effect on him takes a back seat to the struggle to defeat his enemies without breaking his vow not to kill. These movies take the themes of guilt and redemption and bring them to the forefront, giving more weight to the choices Kenshin has made and making the viewer face the reality of his past violence like the source material never does. It’s a shame, then, that the conflict within him is barely visible in Takeru Satoh’s unemotive performance. With Kenshin’s happy-go-lucky personality essentially absent, there is little delineation between his new, caring persona and that of cold-hearted Battosai the Manslayer, whereas the conflict between the two sides of Kenshin, and his desire not to slip back into old ways, was such a key component of his character in the source material.

Opium-chemist-turned-doctor Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) also benefits from the narrative focus on guilt and redemption, as a brief flashback to her days working for the villainous Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) shows firsthand the misery her opium created, and an emotional heart-to-heart with Kenshin gives her motives and regrets some depth. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast receive none of the same development. Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki) is reduced to comic relief, with his tragic backstory being given to Aoshi (Yûsuke Iseya) in the second film. Emi Takei is a sympathetic and believable Kaoru, but she is given too little to do – the battle at the Aoiya Inn, where her character really shines in the anime, is one of the key moments cut in the transfer to a feature film trilogy. The unflappably cool Saito is played wonderfully by Yôsuke Eguchi (also a highlight in Bleach), and generally fairs well considering the radical cuts to his backstory.

As would be expected of an adaption of such an iconic swordfighting manga, the action is great, with dynamic choreography and energetic camerawork improving the anime’s famous swordfights tenfold. The only fault is that some fights seem to take place simply because they were expected by fans, despite having little purpose in the re-structured story. This is most evident in the first film, where fights between Kenshin and Saito, or Kenshin and Sanosuke, are slotted into the story with little reason or consequence.

Despite this, the first film does an admirable job of creating a single, multi-layered feature narrative out of the many simple, stand-alone stories of the anime’s first season. Primarily based on the storyline that sees Kenshin and his allies take on opium dealer Kanryu Takeda, the film also incorporates the serial killer Jin’e (Kôji Kikkawa), who here has been merged with the murderer bringing Kaoru’s Kamiya Kasshin style into disrepute, and introduces secondary characters Saito and Sanosuke. It’s a solid, if not flawless, script, and one that manages to cut the fat from an overlong and simplistic anime arc.

It is the second movie, subtitled Kyoto Inferno, that is undoubtedly the strongest of the three. An atmospheric night raid on the Settsu Mine sets the stage for the arrival of the franchise’s biggest baddies: the vengeful Makoto Shishio (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara of Battle Royale and Death Note fame). Benefitting from a stronger story arc to draw upon, Kyoto Inferno sticks somewhat closer to its source material than its predecessor, following Kenshin as he returns to Kyoto to stop the inheritor of his Battosai name from plunging Japan back into the chaos of war.

While not a total disappointment, the trilogy’s third act fails to up the ante on the thrilling second instalment. Beginning with Kenshin’s training with his Master Seijuro Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), a plotline that goes nowhere due to the elimination of Kenshin’s Ultimate Attack from the final battle with Shishio, the final film takes far too much time with slow and unrewarding scenes of training, travelling, and a rather pointless fight between Kenshin and Aoshi. When it does pick up, there are some more of the impressive fight scenes we’ve come to expect by this point, but the late-stage appearance of the Juppongatana highlights a missed opportunity to develop Shishio’s villainous henchmen. Indeed, this final instalment of the saga fails to offer any further development to the characters (Sano, Kaoru) that were neglected in the first two.

As a whole, the trilogy manages to stand firmly above the flow of lazy anime tie-ins, creating an engaging action drama with potential to appeal even to those not familiar with the source material. With stylish design, direction and cinematography, alongside a dramatic score, the three Rurouni Kenshin movies balance incredible fight scenes with hefty thematic overtones of guilt and redemption, and the end result is a story that would sit comfortably amongst other samurai films and historical dramas perhaps more than it would with other manga adaptations. While the script and performances are somewhat of a mixed bag, there is much to appreciate in this adept big-screen conversion of an anime classic.

The Rurouni Kenshin Trilogy is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.