- Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji kenkaku roman tan (according to IMDB)
- Year: 2012
- Availability: Not yet “officially” available here, but DVD acquisition is easy, and a localization is absolutely inevitable.
The art of the live-action adaptation is a most difficult and unforgiving field. Anime, almost without exception, is an art form that takes advantage of its unreality to tell stories that would otherwise be impossible to tell in another format. Maybe they’d require unrealistic staging or locations. Maybe the characters need to go through some shit that no real person could feasibly go through. Or maybe someone needs to get punched through several miles of earth, and well, with the exception of Hong Kong legend Lo Meng, I can’t think of anyone in the real world who could handle THAT particular stunt.
Because of this, most anime adaptations tend to run the gamut from “decent” to “holy shit, my brain eyes are on fire, summon the lord for the end-times have come” Some of them are uproariously bad/good times, like the old Fist of the North Star movie with Gary Daniels and Malcolm McDowell. Others are just depressingly bad, like the horrific Blood Plus movie made a few years back. And still others are just, well, BORING, like Mushishi (based off one of my absolute faves, no less). So imagine my shock when, after watching the Rurouni Kenshin live-action film, I sat back and said to myself that it was…good. Damn good. Really damn good. Miracles happen, that they do. Pretty Asian miracles in red hakama…
A Simpler Time
Let me set the scene for you, as I entered it. See, the late 90’s/early 2000’s were a good time to be an anime fan. The boom was not quite here, but it was beginning to build. Toonami had pretty much launched the art form to the forefront of an entire generation of youth culture, and the major dubbing companies were getting ballsier with their licensing. At the core of the storm were a select collection of shounen (basically boys’ anime) that were accruing massive popularity, while seeding the new generation of otaku here in the USA.
Ah yes, the shows of my youth. Standards like Dragon Ball Z (often credited, alongside Sailor Moon, with basically starting the whole anime situation here), Yu Yu Hakusho, and a motley collection of others such as Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star basically defined the Toonami generation, while WB11 and Fox 5 handled the more “mainstream” and “kid acceptable” stuff.
And standing proud alongside these was Rurouni Kenshin. A different animal than its contemporaries, Ruroken (as it’s called by some nerdier fans…and me) was less about the bombastic, explosive combat and more about the characters and the historically-inspired setting and story.
Not that it lacked action, far from it actually. Characters would use fancy combat techniques and borderline and outright impossible skills to fight each other to the death. But there was also romance, comedy and well-woven drama to add to the proceedings and because of this, Ruroken is generally considered one of the stronger, more evenly-rounded entries of the time. And it is also one of my personal favorite anime of all time, definitely in my top five.
It’s the early years of the Meiji Government, and life is getting back to normal for the people of Japan. For those who don’t know, the Tokugawa shogunate, which had ruled for more than 200 years, perished in the fires of revolution during the late 1800’s. The civil war that would result in this was called the Meiji Revolution, and in the world of this manga, it was also a time of great warriors…and great killers.
Chief among these is Hittokiri Battousai, the greatest of a genre of warrior known as “manslayers”. In particular, in his capacity as both assassin and supersoldier, the Battousai is credited with being a major force in the creation of the new era. Identified only by his cold eyes, his red hair and a cross-shaped scar on his cheek, he cut a bloody path to the new era, and then threw down his sword and walked away from the stage of history.
Fast forward to modern (well, for the setting) Japan. Westernization is creeping into Japanese society, but overall, life is peaceful for the general man. The samurai, outmoded by the revolution, fare less well, being either non-existent or desperate for food or work. In the midst of a rash of murders being committed by one calling himself “battousai”, a lone wanderer appears in Tokyo. A goofy soul, a bit clumsy, affable and humble, but also kind and caring. A man who has red hair and a cross-shaped scar on his cheek…
I Just Can’t See it Anymore….
From a visual side, Ruroken is a masterclass on how to adapt the SPIRIT of an anime, without sacrificing reality. The world of late 18th century Tokyo is one that is recognizable from the manga pages, yet entirely feasible in the context of a live-action story. Granted, some of this can be reasoned away because of how well-grounded Ruroken the anime IS, but it helps that I was never taken out by a design choice or an effects shot that seemed awkward or silly.
This goes also for the characters. Kenshin’s bright red locks have been dulled somewhat, not out of unfaithfulness, but because that borderline orange shock would look utterly ridiculous in this setting. The more muted red is still recognizable as belonging to the character, and the scar and hakama carry the rest of the look. Supporting characters Yahiko, Kaoru and Sannosuke are all faithfully recreated, although Sanno’s hair is noticeably less rooster-like than its anime counterpart, probably because the amount of gel involved would bankrupt the studio.
On the villainous side, we have Kanryu Takeda and Jin’e Udo, with several underlings. Kanryu is rather mousier looking than his drawn counterpart, and his only really memorable feature is his jutting lower jaw. Seriously, it seems to enter a room several minutes before he does. Faring better is Jin’e, who manages to keep his tall, dark and menacing appearence from the anime intact, but it’s his eyes that are the real draw. Due to his mastery of a certain technique, Jin’e’s eyes are a deep blue, with a black center. The effect in the movie is more subtle, but it’s definitely there, which makes it arguably more disturbing.
The most interesting adaptation, believe it or not, is in the form of the henchmen. With the removal of the Oniwabanshu (or “Oniwaban Group”) from the manga, we instead get two elite fighters who work directly under Kanryu; the melancholic and slightly mad Gein and the brutal but somewhat honorable Inui Banjin. The interesting part, from a pure nerd standpoint, is that they are amalgams of similar characters from the anime’s Kanryu arc and the much later Jinchu arc.
Inui takes much of his personality from Shikijo, the bruiser of the Oniwabanshu in the main story, while his appearance and name both come from a supporting villain from later in the series. Gein is even more puzzling, taking only his name from the later villain (a corpse-obsessed puppetmaster), but his kodachi sword-based fighting style harkens to Aoshi Shinomori, the leader of the Oniwabanshu and a major supporting character in the overall series. Further, the whole “disfigured appearance covered by a mask” thing comes from Hannya of the Oniwabanshu (and said disfigurement is VASTLY more mild than Hannya’s complete nightmare face). It makes for an interesting pair of characters, with an interesting grab bag of references for the nerds like me.
Heart of Sword
All this minutiae is well and good, but let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the flick; the characterization. Kenshin is one of the most morally and emotionally complex characters in manga. His obsessive drive not to kill rises out of a deep-seated agony and guilt over his actions, and yet his goofy personality is not merely a face he puts on, but an honest expression of who he has become. Takeru Satoh, known for his work in several dramas and kids shows, is thankfully up to the task. Granted, he didn’t have to do Kenshin’s more emotionally complex moments, but he portrays the shift between goofy, likable drifter (his use of Kenshin’s distinctive dialect, including the iconic “Oro?”, are particularly effective), and steely, serious combatant effectively. And his fighting skills…well, more on that in its own section.
Support-wise, we have Emi Takei’s Kaoru, who acts as the young and idealistic foil to Kenshin’s slightly more world-weary point of view. It’s…not a terribly meaty role, but it’s one that Takei performs with gusto, filling her with all the tomboyish cuteness and passion that made Kaoru so crushable when I was little (…don’t judge me). Munetaka Aoki is a similarly effective Sannosuke, who although not being given much chance to emote, manages to get across Sanno’s boisterous, but fun nature. His energy during the climactic Mansion assault is particularly endearing. Yu Aoi and Taketa Tanaka, as Megumi and Yahiko respectively, kind of don’t offer much to the proceedings, but are definitely in line with their manga counterparts, with Yahiko’s youthful stubbornness and and Megumi’s foxy flirtations both making appearances.
The villains, again, present an interesting mix. Teruyuki Tagawa’s Takeda (shit, say that five times fast) is all mincing and whining, and while he is genuinely ruthless, he lacks intimidation, and is definitely more the “mastermind” villain who relies on his underlings for support. Said underlings are effectively played, through their few early scenes and during their respective battles with the gang, with Gou Ayano’s Gein being a particularly batshit addition.
Outclassing them all however, and arguably stealing the movie in the process, is Koji Kikkawa’s Jin’e. A being of pure, passionless murder, Jin’e exists solely to kill others, a job he is shown to be horrifyingly good at. He’s less hammy than his (admittedly also intimidating) manga counterpart; he exudes a cold indifference even as he slaughters entire buildings of people. For Jin’e, murder is the purpose of his existence, not for joy or satisfaction, but just…because. And the chilling menace Kikkawa imbues him with, not to mention his dead blue eyes, makes for a truly standout villain.
Hiten Mitsurugi Ry-oh, wait…
But, of course, we can’t wrap this up without addressing the other vital aspect of the film: the fighting. And I am happy to say, both as a Ruroken fan and as a Kung Fu enthusiast, that the movie’s other great strength is its fight scenes. Brilliantly choreographed and evocative of the series it adapted, while never going too far into ridiculousness, the fight scenes in the film range from fun and intense, to truly thrilling works of beauty.
By far the biggest reason for this is the cast. Kikkawa and Satoh, particularly, are both known for roles in the Kamen Rider series (think a slightly more teen-skewed Power Rangers), and it shows. Their work on the complex fight routines and stunts in that show pays dividends here, as their swordwork is magnificent. Satoh manages to work a level of speed and precision into his fights that seems almost commiserate with his manga counterpart, and although he never pulls off any of Kenshin’s (admittedly unrealistic) acrobatics, he definitely feels like he’s as skilled and speedy as his reputation entails.
Following with gusto is Kikkawa. Brutally fast and efficient, Jin’e feels like he’s always fighting to kill, and his fast but strong swings of the blade offer visceral proof. His earlier fights, which are generally slaughters of the highest caliber, offer a true reflection of the monster within, without deadening his skill. He too gets a lot of time to shine, in particular, there is a moment in the climactic fight between him and Kenshin that is utterly jawdropping, and needs to be seen to be believed (here’s a hint: ambidexterity is FUCKING AWESOME)
The others all turn in great performances as well. Gein’s speedy mix of blade and pistol makes for an exciting, fast-paced battle, while Banjin (played by noted mixed martial artist Genki Sudo) and Sanno go fist-for-fist in a later fight, one that reaches levels of such pugilistic ridiculousness that it evokes amusement as well as awe. While we’re on the subject, Aoki’s Sanno makes for a good foil in his fight scenes, standing apart from the speed and grace of Kenshin and the others with good ol’ fashioned punching stuff. And boy is it fun to see.
Fighting for the New Era
I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear, so let me spell it out: as both a manga and action movie fan, Kenshin offered nothing but satisfaction. If you liked the manga, and can stand a little stretching of the canon (okay, a lot), then you will like this movie. If you like fast-paced sword battling, you will like this movie. And if like me you like both, then you will love this film. Watch it, love it, and pray this represents a turn-around for the world of anime adaptations
Story: An effective mashup of various characters and arcs from the anime and manga, the story is stretched a little thin sometimes, but nonetheless manages to get everything effectively across. Bonus points for characterization that manages to pay homage to the material without being slavishly devoted to it. 38/50
Choreography: A truly spellbinding example of how to toe the line of reality without crossing it (well, okay, a little). The only thing to say against it, unfair as it is, is that they couldn’t really adapt the more unique styles from the anime. However, the mansion assault and the final duel alone are worth the price of admission, but all in all, if you enjoy speedy-yet-visceral battles, then this is the place to be. 44/50
Weight: Hallelujah! A proper anime adaptation!: 10
Rounded Score: A samurai showdown of a success story: 9/10