Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012)
Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012) is the first in what’s intended to be a live action series of films based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki and anime series which has been sold in the West as Samurai X. I watched the anime and it’s great fun, blending the usual besotted young male reaction to the feisty girl trope with some rather pleasingly represented swordplay. The plot is straightforward. About 140 years ago, there was an assassin called Battousai the Manslayer. This is the period when modern technology is directly impacting the means of war. Many still cling to the honour of the Samurai traditions, but rifles and canon are doing away with the need for “real” fighting. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi at the end of this era, Battousai is one of the survivors on the winning side of the Bakumatsu War. As the Meiji Era begins, he becomes a wanderer, protecting the weak in atonement for all the deaths he’s caused. The question asked and answered is how many people one man with one sword can protect. As the revolution has brought new government, the samurai tradition has passed its peak. Fighting must either be ritualised in the pretence of combat using wooden replica weapons, or legalised when applied for government purposes, i.e. for policing or military purposes. As an anti-samurai measure, the Haitōrei or Sword Abolishment Act 1876, prohibited the carrying of swords in a public place.
In spirit, the film is fairly faithful to the anime, enlarging on the opening battle scene until it matches the single image of Battousai’s sword implanted in the ground which we see in the anime. With the passive acquiescence of Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Battousai walks away from the battlefield, leaving his sword behind. But he later returns to take up the name of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato). As the Meiji Era gets underway, Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is smuggling heroin and bribing the other powerbrokers. They have also recruited a group of ex-samurai to guard them including a fake Battosai named Udo Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa). This is, of course, bending the original story to fit the needs of a dramatic structure suitable for a film. When Kenshin first appears, he saves Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) when she’s about to fight Jin-e.
This is convenient. What we now have is an excuse to fight over the dojo with a fearsome adversary in place. Obviously the production of heroin depends on a place for the processing and a chemist. Kanryuu decides to appropriate the dojo of a famous school of sword fighting. The man who ran it has been killed and his daughter Kaoru Kamiya struggles to maintain it with the young Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka) in attendance. The chemist Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) escapes from Kanryuu and needs a place to hide. Needless to say, Megumi turns up at the dojo and meets Kaoru and Kenshin.
We also meet Aritomo Yamagata (Eiji Okuda) as the Military Commander who offers Kenshin Himura a senior position in government, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) turns up in jail and later does the big challenge with his oversized sword. The real question the film is asking is whether death can ever be justified in serving a larger purpose. As an assassin during the war, our hero killed because he was told the removal of these men was the route to lasting peace. Yet now the war is over and there’s something approximating peace, the killings go on. It’s just killing for a different purpose. In the current struggle for power, the identity of the individuals who die is irrelevant to the killer. It’s simply a means to the ends of Kanryuu Takeda. In a way, every death is futile because even if someone produces justifications for each death, there’s never an end to the killing. So long as there are still people alive, it’s possible to invent new reasons to kill them. All this leaves is widows to mourn and to watch while the tragedy repeats itself.
The film becomes a form of discussion about redemption and recidivism. As Kenshin Himura, the assassin has given up killing and now seeks to use his sword only in the defence of others. Udo Jin-e has remained a killer for its own sake and he seeks to provoke Kenshin into rekindling his lust for death. The irony is that ostensibly they are fighting about whether Kanryuu Takeda should be allowed to flood Japan with heroin, but the reality is that neither of them really cares about that. Jin-e simply wants more deaths, regardless of who kills or is killed. Kenshin wishes only to avoid deaths wherever possible.
Some of the fight choreography is literally entrancing. In saying this, it’s necessary to consider the purpose of the film. This is not a “martial arts” film. This is a film transposing the first ten or so episodes of an anime to the big screen in a live action format. The fight sequences therefore strike a balance between fantasy and reality. Ignoring the wirework which is now mandatory in most martial arts films, the sword fighting here is intentionally spectacular. There are two set-piece fights in the final reels which are among the best I’ve seen in years. The first features Kenshin’s katana of standard length against a shorter wakizashi. The second is a more traditional fight between blades of equal length.
Since I know the original story and, more importantly, who everyone is, I’m in two minds as to whether this film stands up on its own. I think the introduction of Megumi Takani is a bit rushed and there’s no clear motivation given for Sanosuke Sagara to help our hero. I was also slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see Kaoru Kamiya fight properly. Indeed, the exclusion of Kaoru Kamiya and Yahiko Myojin from the rescue squad is frustrating although it would delay the set-up for the final fight in the film version of the plot. So, as someone who’s seen the anime version, I think this is an excellent way of distilling a moderately long story arc down to a manageable film length. I’m not quite so sure a newcomer would understand it all. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese samurai films. The politics of the time is quite well done, the fighting is only slightly gory and, overall, Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 is very entertaining.