Adaptations of any sort of property can be tricky. Besides appealing to the original source material fanbase (if there is any) comes with the decision of how exactly to adapt the source material into a new medium. If it’s made specifically for fans like the 2005 Joss Whedon’s film Serenity than newcomers probably won’t get much out of it like fans would. Especially when the best counter-argument against it not standing as its own creation is checking out supplementary material (which happened in my case). Regardless if the film adaptation was preceded by a TV Series, comic-book, or other sources the adaptation in a different medium should be able to stand on its own. Coming from someone who has never read a single chapter of the manga, or seen a single episode of the anime series related to Rurouni Kenshin this live action film adaptation can be enjoyed as its own creation. It’s a great film adaptation, and an equally engaging samurai film.
Rurouni Kenshin follows former legendary assassin Kenshin Himura (played by Takeru Satoh) who has now become a wandering pacifist samurai with his new beliefs being challenged in Tokyo. From the opening action sequence right to the end Rurouni Kenshin always feels confident in where it’s heading. Expertly knowing how to setup the social climate of Tokyo where the story takes place. Distinguishing through some characters their struggles to find a new purpose in an era that seemingly in no need of Samurai’s. One moment in the beginning of the film shows villain Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) ringing a bell singling former Samurai warriors it’s time for dinner. Small details like these help get across the idea of how difficult it could be for a Samurai to adapt to an new era of living. When the story jumps from it subplots including one of an assassin killing using Battosai name it does not feel overwhelming to keep track off. This theme of finding a purpose is explored heavily keeping its main story focus as it introduces more characters in the story while continuing other story threads.
Kenshin leads the overall narrative with his main conflict attempting to live a new life away from his former assassin ways. One aspect on writing characters that generally isn’t understood is every action you have your main character perform can develop them. In this film, writers Kiyomi Fuji, and Keishi Ohtomo understood this using Kenshin playful attitude to highlight his struggling ordeal. In some scenes Kenshin has a good time talking to other characters, but in others scenes he get thrown back into his Samurai fighting instincts. As the film progresses the line between famed assassin Hitokiri Battosai, and Kenshin Himura grow closer together. His backblade katana named the Sakbato Kageuchi, for instance, demonstrates Kenshin practicing his beliefs. The way Kenshin fights with careful calculation with a Sakbato Kaeuchi is different from the brief moments when Kenshin is shown fighting with a regular blade instinctively with ease. This builds upon Kenshin as a protagonist as it’s a trait that is treated as part of his character instead of a plot device.
Characters in the film will challenge Kenshin as he attempt to maintain his pacifism. The film takes it time exploring Kenshin motivation for his new ways becoming an engaging lead character as well as an entertaining one. By the end of the film, there’s still room left over for Kenshin to grow as a character while not downplaying his battles to maintain his ideals. This is accomplished by having Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) be a unsubtle villain. Upon the first time Kanryu Takeda appears on screen there’s no misleading the viewer that he’s clearly evil, and seek to only make money. Kenshin constant refusal to become battosai no matter who asks him attributes to Kenshin growth as well display the need of capable fighters. Supporting characters don’t receive the same degree of exploration, but are given specific roles such as comedy relief with Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki), eventual damsel in distress Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), adversary with Jine Udo (Koji Kikkawa), and even just plain badass bad guy with Gein (Gou Ayano). The ones that do recieved development are Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei), and Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi) both of whom are moving on from a turning point event of their past. While both pursue different goals they can relate to Kenshin the most either offering playful banter, or some dialogue on adapting to change.
Contributing to the film’s biggest problem is obviously having too many characters. It’s villain, Kanryu Takeda, appears infrequently in the film, and when he does appear it’s usually accompanied by music. When Takeda executes his evil plan it comes out of nowhere without proper build up aside from one scene that establish he sells drug, and one brief scene where he explicitly says to poison the water. That’s not good buildup since this eventually leads to the film largest set piece. However, this issue isn’t as harmful as it could have been. Every character serves a purpose at some point in the story with varying degree of significance. Be it to help Kenshin fight off a dozen of Kanryu goons, or to arrest one of the main villains. Each character at some point in the film contribute to a larger story by being given simple character arcs, but treated as characters instead of plot devices that only serve to progress the story. One aspects of the film that can’t be overlooked is Jine Udo supernatural ability in the film. Jine has the ability to cast a spell that can paralyze his opponent lungs. This ability is out of place with the film world which makes itself grounded for a majority of the film. At most, you get human performing superhuman feats like outrunning bullets that could come across as far fetched as Jine’s ability. Those moments aren’t out of place since they’re being performed by people whereas Jine Udo paralyzation ability comes across as plain magic.
Taking charge as Kenshin Himura is leading star Takeru Satoh. Performance in the film is very good portraying different sides of Kenshin. Satoh perfectly fits his character as he neither looks like an assassin, nor like a man with a tormented past. His looks are deceiving, but when it comes to displaying Kenshin true nature he balances the torments, and playfulness of Kenshin. Takeru Satoh shows restraint in his delivery which contributes to his character change. Koji Kikkawa delivers the second best performance in the film. Much like his character, Koji delivers a menacing performance as Jine Udo. He’s goes more for power in his line delivery while subduing his physical expressions. Giving the impression that he could you at any moment, even if in plain sight. Emi Takei plays Kaoru Kamiya who does a good job in the film. While limited in depth, Emi Takei gets a couple of scenes to show off range. What best about her performance is despite being the love interest she shows her affection in subtle ways. Munetaka Aoki plays the strong goofball Sanosuke Sagara in the film. For the whole the film he neither the actor, nor the character linger into a serious subject for long. Whenever on screen they are light hearted. Munetaka despite lacking range in the film does deliver on his comedy delivering especially in a action scene that incorporates humor in the middle of it.
Yu Aoi plays Megumi Tanaki to her effect. She’s dramatic, provide some playful banter, and eases when displaying her characters different emotions. It’s a good performance, though unlike her male co-stars isn’t given a memorable scene. Teruyuki Kagawa plays Kanryuu who’s given little screen time. Whenever Teruyuki Kagawa is on screen he’s simply meant to come across as rude. He’s cynical, but not over the top in his portrayal with the exception of a single scene. Kagawa is subdue in his portrayal of a clear villain making him as grounded as possible. While the character is not memorable due to how one dimensional the character is written Teruyuki Kagawa performance at least makes it enjoyable to see. Other actors whom are also lacking in screen time are Taketo Tanaka who plays Yahiko Myojin, and Gou Ayano who plays Gein. Gou Ayano doesn’t get to display his acting chops, but does to be involved in an excellent action in the film. While not much, it does allow Ayano to shin as a performer. Taketo Tanaka receives more scenes than Ayano does, but does get a scene to highlight his talent. Tanaka does a good job in his role regardless having good chemistry with his older co-stars, especially with Emi Takei.
One aspect of the live action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin that’ll distinguished it among Samurai films is the action choreography by Kenhi Tanigaki who worked on famous martial art films Saat Po Long (Killzone in English), and Flash Point. In this film, Kenhi Tanigaki goes from rapid fist fights to elaborate sword fights. There’s two action scenes in the film where Kenshin goes up against large number of fighters that the choreography sells the fights convincingly. The first of these fights is in a dojo where Kenshin fights against a group of thugs. What the choreography in this scene focuses on is Kenshin speed. Another aspect in this fight that is used are the actors in the background are given something to do. In the beginning of this particular action scene Kenshin first knocks his opponents down with defensive maneuvers with rapid punches. This causes the thugs slowly fearing Kenshin as he keeps on dodging thugs sword strikes whom begin to swing wildly at Kenshin. A tiny detail like Kenshin using maneuvers that hits an opponent behind him makes the implausible scenario reliable as well as being a action scene. Of course, the cinematography is also worth complimenting since in this action scene it’s close enough to see the hits, but not to far to show inactive actors in the background waiting for their cue to perform their specific move in the sequence. It’s filmed, and edited in a way where it’s easy to decipher what is going on in the scene.
Then the second of these action scenes is the in the third act that once again has Kenshin along with Sanosuke fight against a large number of Samurai. Like the previous large scale action scene, the quick performances in the choreography, the way it shot, and edited makes it convincing. Sanosuke uses a different fighting style swinging around his giant sword to hand to hand combat. A majority of the action sequences in the film are one on one bouts all which are well done. All the action sequences make use of the characters abilities, and the environment around them. A standout in the movie is Kenshin fight with Gein which starts out with Kenshin taking the evasive approach dodging bullets inching his way closer to Gein as he keeps taking Gein ability to fight. It’s an exciting fight scene that also shows while limited, the execellent work in the film.
Aesthetically the film simply looks like high budget Japanese Samurai film which is to it credit. Everything from the costumes, the sets, the actors, and everything else looks cinematic. Nothing about it gives off the impression it’s an adaptation as even some of the more outlandish elements (characters dodging bullets for from a minigun) seemed grounded. Another aspect to the live action film is the music composed by Naoki Sato which is excellent. Ranging from fairly modern techno beats with tribal vocals to standard orchestral with the usage of the Shamisen. Sato score is easily of high quality succeeding in strengthening a scene. It’s best usage are definitely in the action sequences as it creates more excitement when viewing them. One overused of Naoki Sato music definitely when Teruyuki Kagawa is on screen having the track Kanryuu Teikoku – Gashuu No Take play in the background. Aside from that track, the music is well utilized in the film. Some listeners of Japanese rock music will be surprised by the unexpected song “The Beginning” by band One Ok Rock to be heard.
Rurouni Kenshin is an excellent adaptation that can stand on its own as a film. Anyone who has no familiarity with the series can easily view the film without feeling like they missed anything. As far faithfulness to the source material I can’t comment on it since I’ve yet to read a single page of the manga, or see a single episode of the anime series. However, I would say for anyone who enjoy Samurai films will find the familiar, but well executed story has enough to distinguishes itself to make it worth viewing.