If there is one theme that has persisted for me more thoroughly than any other in Rurouni Kenshin, it is the idea of the end of one way of life and the beginning of another, and of the kind of person needed to enter that new age. A new world demands a new kind of human being. Not all of us will be suited to enter a new age; some will refuse to become the new person demanded of the new age. Some will prefer the cruelty of old to the birth pangs of the new — better the devil they know, because they are that devil, than they devil they don't know.
The live-action Kenshin films do at least partial justice to this idea, but first and foremost they provide easily the best anime/manga-to-live-action adaptation seen thus far. That promise is fulfilled far more thoroughly in the first movie than it is in the second two, but the fact we get it fulfilled at all is a miracle. With all the ways this incarnation of the franchise could have pandered or sold out, it avoids the vast majority of them with grace — even as it invents a few pitfalls of its own.
Out of the shadows...
As a manga franchise — and later, a TV series and multiple OVAs — Kenshin delved into the first years of Japan's Meiji period (1868-1912), when the country opened itself to the West, albeit literally at gunpoint, and transitioned from a feudal monarchy to a parliamentary democracy patterned after those in Europe. It wasn't an easy transition; it was marked by resistance and violence, with some of the resistors (e.g., the Shinsengumi, a corps that pledged to defend the Emperor at all costs) idolized in modern-day Japan not for their specific cause but for the intensity of their devotion to it.
Himura Kenshin was one of the agents of that change. As a young man — "Hitokiri Battōsai" — he assassinated countless defenders of the old order, but with the rise of the Meiji era, he elected to leave behind his sword and vanish into the murk of history. When he resurfaces, years later, he's a changed man in many ways. In place of the sword he once carried, he now wields a sakabatō — a "wrong-way" sword, with its blade on the inner edge. In his hands, it's wielded more like a club than a cutting weapon, and when he does wield it, it's to incapacitate an enemy rather than kill him.
Kenshin, the film, opens with Kenshin's last battle in the name of the new order, a grueling struggle in the snow that leaves scores dead on both sides. Among those arrayed against him are Udo Jin'e, an assassin with a ninja-esque techniques for paralyzing his victims with only a glance. Neither man is one to forget a face, especially not one like Battōsai's, with its distinctive cross-shaped scar on one cheek. When Battōsai, now Kenshin, arrives in Tokyo a decade after that battle, he's still scarred on both the outside and inside — although with that happy-go-lucky a demeanor, who would ever know about the latter?
Certainly not Kaoru Kamiya, the also-spirited young woman who inherited a dojo from her late father only to have its name sullied by someone calling himself "Battōsai of the Kamiya style". When this Battōsai finally comes gunning for Kaoru, it's Kenshin who dives in to save her (his purported motivation for doing this is itself a fun gag). The two of them repair to Kaoru's dojo, now barren of students save for the urchin Yahiko. But Kenshin has nothing disparaging to say about a dojo run by a woman and with only a dirty kid for a student. He, an outsider himself several times over, feels at home somewhere at last.
... and back into them
The bogus "Battōsai" turns out to be Jin'e, still a murderer, now in the service of businessman Takeda Kanryū. A stomach-turning example of Japan's nouveau riche for the age, he has introduced a new and lethally addicting form of opium to the country. William S. Burroughs comes to mind: "The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client." The same goes for the dozens of former samurai who have found employment with Kanryū as enforcers and assassins. The degradation of taking Kanryū's drug money means not starving, since they believe the new age of democracy and Westernization has nothing to offer them. Better old demons than new gods.
Sentiments like this couldn't be further from the mind of Kanryū's chemist, Megumi Takani. All she wants is to get out from under Kanryū's greasy thumb, and she seeks protection with Kenshin and his new friends when Yahiko stumbles across her. (It's hard to tell if he's looking for an excuse to be chivalrous, or just trying to stick it to his teacher.) Kenshin isn't sure how to solve a problem like Megumi, but he's not about to sell her out — especially not when Kanryū walks into the restaurant where they're eating and literally dumps money into Kenshin's lap to buy his strength.
Kanryū isn't the only one Kenshin won't sell out to. The new government he helped found isn't getting any of him, either. When the authorities seek to enlist Kenshin to help them stop Kanryū's growing opium empire, they send over someone out of Kenshin's past to talk sense into him: Saitō Hajime, once a defender of the throne who squared off against Kenshin, now a policeman for the new order. But not even a sword-duel beating from Hajime is enough to get Kenshin to say yes. It's not that Kenshin doesn't believe in justice; it's that his hesitation to do evil all over again is the far greater urge. Hajime, however, utters the words that lodge most deeply under Kenshin's skin: "Without killing, who can you protect?" It's a question Kenshin has been ducking out on for years, and he's fast approaching a point where his new identity as a drifting do-gooder will not shield him any longer.
Others are only too willing to sell themselves. One is Sanosuke Sagara, a streetfighter with a head as hard as his fists and a giant club of a sword, allegedly designed to kill horse and rider on the battlefield at the same time. He's only too happy to take on Kenshin for the promise of Kanryū's money, although Kenshin is the better fighter by no small margin. But Sanosuke and Kenshin end up on the same side when one of Kanryū's henchmen poisons the neighborhood well, and the two of them scramble about to help Megumi concoct an antidote. The two of them may have entirely dissimilar personalities, but they have the same passion for justice, and they make a great team when they wade into Kanryū's mansion to rescue Megumi when she's stolen back. When Karou falls under Jin'e's lethal spell, it's Kenshin who has to face Jin'e alone, as a way to dispel the demons from the past both inside and outside of him.
Aiming high, hitting high
With all the good things worth enumerating in the first Kenshin film, it's most worth noting first what the movie wisely does not try to accomplish. It doesn't attempt to do justice to every single nuance of the storyline over the arc of the manga that it's adapting; that would be a waste. The movie also doesn't attempt to be needlessly literal in the way it reproduces the look of the original story. Kenshin's red hair and scar don't look foolish when translated one-for-one to the screen, but other things like Sanosuke's street-fighting gear or the elaborate garb of Kanryū's henchmen have been toned down to match the new milieu. When a really manga-esque exaggeration does make it to the screen intact — Jin'e's bizarre eyes, or some of the more wire-fu-style fight movements — it's not lingered in to the degree that it becomes distracting. It's there just long enough to make the needed impression.
This is tough to get right, because I don't think there's a hard-and-fast line for how to choose between the realistic or theatrical/cinematic way to show something from a manga or anime property. Kenshin benefits from being that much more on the realistic side of the line in its first two-thirds or so. By the time things cut loose in the last third and go as over-the-top as might be expected in a film like this, we're fully vested in the goings-on. Showing things like Kenshin and Sanosuke dodge bullets from Kanryū's hand-cranked machine gun makes us lean forward with excitement instead of roll our eyes with derision.
As cinematically inspired as Kenshin's reverse-blade sword moves are, though, the best action sequence in the film is Sanosuke's, in big part because it is also the funniest. One of his opponents in Kanryū's mansion is another bare-knuckle bruiser; the two of them go at it at such exhausting length it becomes hilarious. Doubly so when both of them agree to break for a quick bite to eat, with Sanosuke lustily sucking down a raw egg and swilling liquor. Another potential pitfall avoided: the humor arises out of opportunities presented by the material, rather than being imposed on it. When there are nods back to the original material's comedy, they're not overbearing: Kenshin's verbal tic "oro?" comes and goes quickly enough that you might miss it, but it's there. The single biggest laugh in the whole series, though, is when Kenshin actually bothers to remove his footwear when stepping into the dojo, as a pointed rebuke to a gang of thugs who are making a mess in there.
What the movie needs to get most right, and does, is the characters themselves. There's solid casting all around: Takeru Satō has not only the right build and willowy look for Kenshin, but the right poise and attitude. When he smiles, it's for real; when he's holding back his rage — or when he lets it surface — we buy it. Teruyuki Kagawa, a veteran actor I recognized from many other excellent Japanese films (e.g. Sway), is suitably oleaginous and hissable as Kanryū. And Emi Takei and Yū Aoi are also great as Kaoru and Megumi, respectively, although their fine performances are at the mercy of a story that ultimately makes them both into distressed damsels who have to be rescued. It's not the intention, but it's how things work out.
That last point is perhaps the film's largest failing, albeit one lifted more or less intact from its source material. It's also partly compensated for by how Kaoru proves not to be completely helpless; she doesn't face down Jin'e with a weapon, but with the kind of personal strength Kenshin responds to more deeply than he does physical prowess. It's she who keeps him in the present and facing the future, even when he's surrounded by any number of good reasons to turn back to, and plunge headlong into, the past. All of this is what Kenshin was about at its heart, and it's all up there on the screen.
What the first Kenshin film got right, though, the second and third movies try to get more right, and end up only getting half right. Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends suffer from a key problem that have afllicted many a pair of Hollywood sequel shot back to back: they're essentially one long movie split in two. All the downsides you've come to expect from such a strategy are here — meandering interstitial plotlines, an agonizingly drawn-out conclusion, but most of all the feeling of doing less with more. What's supposed to be new territory turns out on closer inspection to be the same old ground with different landscaping.
The setup for films #2 and #3 are a reworking of the "Kyōtō Arc" from the original story, and it's curious how in this incarnation it feels less like an expansion of the material and a retread of a now-familiar story. As before, the peace Kenshin and his friends enjoy is threatened by a figure out of his past, one who becomes a menace to far more than them alone, and whom only Kenshin can face down. This time, it's Makoto Shishio, another assassin of Kenshin's stripe, hatching a plot to overthrow the new government. Shishio himself is as theatrical a grotesque as this series ever produced, a walking mummy shrouded in bandages after he was burned and left for dead by the people who hired him for their dirty work.
Again, Kenshin's first impulse is to not get involved, and to the movie's credit it manages to not make him look like an irresponsible fool for doing so. This is in part accomplished by having him realize sooner rather than later that any attempt to hide will only have dire consequences for his friends. But Shishio has surrounded himself with a top-tier array of swordsmen — such as the boyishly handsome Sōjirō Seta, who breaks Kenshin's sakabatō without even working up too much of a sweat. Symbolic as the sword is — for Kenshin as much as it is for the audience — he is thus compelled to find not only the man who forged it, but also the man who taught him how to wield a sword in the first place. Once re-armed and with skills re-sharpened, Kenshin might at last be a match for both Seta and Shishio after all. But Shishio gets the upper hand, by extorting the government into having Kenshin captured and executed as a criminal — although being captured might give Kenshin access to Shishio's inner sanctum, an ironclad warship out of every steampunk's wettest dreams.
Cumulative length aside, the biggest problems with the second and third movies are that they don't find a way to put Kenshin to the test in a way that's as resonant or significant as the first film did. Originally, he was trying not to devolve back into being a monster; now, he's merely trying to up his game and not get killed — whether by Shishio, one of his lackeys, or even his own former teacher, who's only too happy to threaten him with death as a way to get him to level up. It's something of the same problem evinced by The Dark Knight Rises, where the painful inner struggles of the preceding film were replaced with something a whole lot less urgent. The big revelation here is even in the same vein as that movie: "You need the will to live you find only in that moment when you yourself fear death," says Kenshin's mentor; in Rises, the blind prisoner tells Bruce Wayne "You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak."
In the end, done more right than wrong
There are good things in the second and third films, but many of them are in the margins. One of the fan-favorite plotlines from the original story — female ninja Misao Makimachi and her unrequited love, Aoshi Shinomori — is presented here. It's been rendered in miniature, much the same as any of the other elements from the series, but that also means it's presented without histrionics. By contrast, Seta provides histronics aplenty in one of the climaxes, when Kenshin makes him realize his might-makes-right philosophy isn't his. Misao subplot works because it's understated; Seta's ends as a total huff-and-puff exercise. (The way Kenshin lectures his opponents in the wrongheadedness of their ways gets to be a real drag.) Even an attempt to promote Kaoru from the sidelines and into the thick of the action proves to be abortive. At the end of the second film she gets to demonstrate her dojo-honed skills, but she ends up sitting out the vast majority of the third film either in a coma or peering in from the sidelines.
But again, there are so many things all three movies do get right. Apart from the flavor of the characters and their distinctive presences, there's the whole atmosphere of early Meiji-era Japan, where Western dress and manners (check out Kanryū's collections of Occidental bric-a-brac) are either complementing Japan's or edging them out. Everything has a weathered, lived-in flavor, something that a manga or anime production can typically only hint at without breaking its budget.
What is best here, and what even the morass of the latter two films can't complete undo, is the way director and screenwriter Keishi Ōtomo finds ways to take the material seriously without translating that into lowest-common-denominator fan-pleasing. Before Kenshin, Ōtomo worked in TV, with many of his credits being historical dramas — e.g., Ryōmaden, also set in the Meiji period — and so he already had a good sense for how to create the right atmosphere. When he allows the material to wink knowingly at its fans, it's through little things, like the way Hajime always has a lit cigarette. The story and its people stay front and center, even when the ponderousness of the story threatens to swamp them.
Of the live-action adaptations of anime and manga that I've seen so far, two others have stood out for me. One was Helter Skelter, whose movie version was as acid and surreal as its manga incarnation. The other, the live-action adaptation of the manga Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime), found ways to be true to its material without also alienating those not in the know. Kenshin, the first, edges out all of them, and sets the bar high enough that it's little wonder its own sequels could barely follow suit.