If after more than 10 years and your heart still spikes at news of a favorite story coming to life in the big screen, you know it is love. The strategically scarred samurai was part of a childhood marked by the first Asian wave—together with Ghost Fighter, Hana Yori Dango, Oguri Shun and Arashi. Kenshin’s shojo-shonen mix story though was a special kind of personal obsession, so it was with a special kind of anxiety too that I held my breath for the film.
Showing exclusively in SM Cinemas for a limited run, the Rurouni Kenshin live action movie brings to the big screen one of the most beloved stories in all of manga-dom. Warner Brothers Japan gives comic book geeks a movie they have forgotten they wanted, and I see no good gained in stalling the announcement that it was a virtually perfect transition.
Plot and pacing. Director Keishi Otomo wields a cunning, precise hand in lifting Nobuhiro Watsuki’s tale of the legendary assassin turned remorseful wanderer. A cold-blooded mercenary who killed (ironically) for peace, Kenshin Himura drops the name Hitokiri Battosai and his bloodied katana after the Battle of Toba-Fushimi wins the Bakumatsu War. For years he disappeared into legend, until he meets Kaoru Kamiya in Tokyo in the 11th year of the Meiji, wherein as Watsuki writes, this tale begins.
The movie sews together plot lines from the first three volumes of the original manga with elements of later story arcs, starting with that fateful day the wanderer hopped off his boat and collided with Kaoru’s wooden sword. The frightening sorcery of Udo Jin-e was put in place of the Hiruma brothers, and he led the private army of the swine-cum-businessman Kanryu Takeda instead of Aoshi’s Oniwabanshu. Personally, I muse that maybe they did not want to run out of good-looking villains in case of a franchise, but cinematically, it made for good sense and pacing. The slapstick comedy in the original print was toned down without neglecting a few light moments, to put focus on the emotions and weight of the story. One pleasant surprise also was the inclusion of the back story of one of Kenshin’s scars, which originally does not make it until the OVA. Newbies to the story will not feel out of place, and I dare say even hard core fans find little to complain on the storytelling.
Fleshed out drawings. The first quicksand most live action adaptations meet is in the casting. The common mistake is spending grueling time and money finding somebody to fit into the drawings down to the last strand of hair, in the process foregoing the necessary acting chops. Otomo skips this mistake, finding the perfect Kenshin in the slender and unassuming Takeru Sato. The Kamen Rider Den-O actor assumes a character older than he is, but was able to exude Kenshin’s strength and his alternating childlike charm and glint of steel. Sato’s Kenshin is polite and dignified, humble and tortured. He is the Kenshin that we know even before he put on his inherited red and white uniform. He mutters Kenshin’s signature “oro” and “de gozaru” and I can’t help a grin.
I didn’t know that Kaoru was supposed to be only 17 when she met Kenshin until I saw Emi Takei in her fencing uniform. She was appropriately young, wide-eyed yet tough and stubborn to a fault. Emi’s Kaoru could have been a bit more the tomboyish country bumpkin, but her chemistry with Sato was palpable, heightening throughout the plot until the scene where she poignantly welcomed him home.
Director Otomo chose to add and subtract strategically with his characters, altering a few bits to fit his plot. That and the rest of Otomo’s choices agreed with me, save for a few small pickings. Jin-e’s deadly glare was even more freakishly terrifying on screen, making me squirm in my seat. I wished Sanosuke Sagara was more handsome and street-fighter tough and did not remind me of Robin Padilla. He always cut a dashing reckless figure in the anime. But he swung his zanbato and chewed on a fishbone like he means it, so I believed him. Megumi Takani was supposed to look older, but actress Yu Aoi did play the beautiful, double-edged opium woman to the hilt. Saito Hajime could have been leaner, and Yahiko Myojin less frail, but then that’s just me being the fan girl with loud drawings in her head. In the end, the ensemble delivered what the comic book characters do in each page.
Hiten Mitsurugi-ryū. Manga writers tend to go crazy with humanly impossible fight sequences which fans in turn expect to be done perfectly by humans. Kenshin’s ancient fighting art of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryū is a perfect example. I was gnawing my nails in fear that the movie will resort to awkward wirework or out-of-place CGI, or just plain fail like any other B ninja movie with too many gory blood squirts. In the end it was my mind coming short of the creativity of the experts behind this movie. The stunts looked authentic and the fight choreography graceful, depending on artfully used wirework and the actors’ commitment and athleticism. Sato, for one, scaled walls and spun with his sakabato like a master.
Another impressive thing was that in a movie with fight sequences in every other scene, no thrust of blade or spurt of blood felt random or overindulgent. My favorite scenes are all those that showed Kenshin fighting alone against many, showing off the power of his Hiten Mitsurugi-ryū. Notable is the scene that had Kenshin against about twenty drunken thugs trying to overtake the Kashin dojo, a fight that Kenshin nearly finishes with his two bare hands and a couple of wooden swords. There was Kenshin and Sano’s tag-team purging of Kanryu’s mansion, ending with a gattling gun, the help of Saito’s Gatotsu, and Kenshin landing from a chandelier to point his sword to Kanryu’s trembling nose. And then the climactic battle between Kenshin and Jin-e, lifted panel by panel from the comic in all its mild gore and full glory. If it had you gasping at the edge of your seat, you were not alone.
The score. The music started with the first clash of swords, the shout of arms and morbidly familiar sound of blade through flesh. Then Kenshin plunges his bloodstained katana down the frozen ground and a haunting score drifts him to the 11th year of the Meiji. Cue the goosebumps down the back of my neck. Music can make or break a film, specially a historically derived action film like Rurouni Kenshin wherein they cannot rely on J-pop hits. Overall, it had a compellingly good score. My only wish was that the credits rolled to L’Arc~en~Ciel’s 4th Avenue Café instead.
Like most of my favorites, Kenshin Himura was an unassuming, uncorrupted hero, this despite the blood in his hands and the power of his blade and his lithe frame. Raised with swords in a violent world, his innate integrity protected his conscience while the child in him protected his sanity. I think it is this inner turmoil and his imperfections that we fans somehow connect to. And the amazing thing is these values translated in 134 minutes of cinema magic, completing the cycle that started with that first tankobon. At the final scene when Kenshin’s eyes crinkle and he smiles and says back “Tadaima” to Kaoru’s “Okairi,” you may want to dab a tissue, sniff a little, or take a manly clearing of the throat. For sure you will want to watch it again. Subarashi, indeed.