“The Kenshin-tension will keep you on the edge of your seat”.
Not long after Himura Kenshin (Takeru Satô), the smooth-faced, softly spoken master swordsman, has settled into his new life with the owner and acting instructor of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryū kenjutsu dojo Tokyo, Kamiya Kaoru (Emi Takei) and their friends Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki), Yahiko Myojin (Munetaka Aoki) and Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), he’s approached by Meiji government officials and is ushered, together with very vocal Sanosuke, who has some anti-meiji government sentiment, into the presence of the home minister Toshimichi Okubo (Kazufumi Miyazawa).
The home minister Okubo asks Kenshin, who’s resolved never to kill again, to go to the former capit al Kyoto and stop Shishio Makoto (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a former Ishin Shishi Hitokiri like Kenshin, who is plotting – in part as a revenge for the pro Meiji-government forces who tried to assassinate him – with his gathered warriors and the Juppongatana (the Ten Swords) against the Meiji government.
Himura Kenshin hesitates, but when he sees the suffering caused by an attack by Shishio’s henchman Seta Sojiro (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and his small army some time later, he changes his mind. Convinced to protect peace under the new government, but in spite of the protests of Kaoru and the doubts of Sanosuke, he leaves for Kyoto.
Kenshin quickly finds allies on his way to and in Kyoto; he meets the young frisky female ninja Makimachi Misao (Tao Tsuchiya) Kashiwazaki Nenji (Min Tanaka), an elderly former Shogunate spy who’s now an innkeeper, and the always-smoking police official Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi). But another danger lurks in the shadows, the former ninja leader in service of the Shogunate Shinomori Aoshi (Yusuke Iseya) is hunting Kenshin down, assured to kill him.
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto inferno presents a rather straight forward story between good (Kenshin) and evil (Shishio). Like many action movies, the main premise of the movie is laid out in the first 20 minutes. Nevertheless the main plot of Rurouni Kenshin is enriched by the way the historical backdrop is staged and the way the side plots and the abundance of characters are integrated. It is in this way the movie succeeds in presenting a more fuller world in which the plot takes place.
Concerning the historical context it’s important to know that the movie takes place in the early Meiji period, just after the Bakumatsu period, the final years of the Edo period which ended with the fall of the late Tokugawa Shogunate. The installation of the new Meiji government implicated the fall of the samourai class and their reduction to common folk without any power. This historical aspect, which forms the backdrop of the narrative, is masterly integrated into the plot and the broader narrative. The most obvious way this integration is revealed is in the character of Ōkubo Toshimichi, a real life figure – one of the three great nobles who led the Meiji restoration – and his
Like we mentioned earlier there are a lot of characters in Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto inferno and not all of them are properly introduced. The lack of introduction of certain characters (Sanosuke and Megumi Takano for example) reveals the expectation that the viewer has seen the first movie – in which these characters are properly introduced – or has read the manga’s. It’s in no way necessary to have any prior knowledge before seeing Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto inferno but the movie does benefit from any such knowledge.
But even though some characters could be difficult for some viewers to be fully grasped, the main characters, Himura Kenshin, Shishio Makoto but also Kamiya Kaoru, …, are nevertheless clear cut and their motivations clearly depicted. Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto inferno doesn’t really have any complex characters and every character sticks close to the source material. The result is that some characters, for example Sanosuke and Cho Sawagejo are more cartoonishly than others. For some people this may form a problem, but this fact for us reveals that the movie is primarily oriented to the fans of the manga series.
There is one important aspect to the character of Himura Kenshin that gives him, Kamiya Kaoru and his relation to her, a somewhat more three dimensional aspect. Himaru Kenshin, who only fights when someone endangers the newfound peace and prosperity under the newly installed Meiji government, has a dark past as a ruthless killer and killing people could mean a regression to this past path. It’s by way of Kamiya Kaori, who evidently has feelings of love for Himura Kenshin, that the danger for Kenshin to befall in his old ruthless ways is repeatedly underlined. In this way the movie keeps up a minimal tension, the kenshin-tension, in fighting scenes. It is also apparent that the ruthless way of fighting and killing is the prime evil in Rurouni Kenshin. Shishio is thus nothing other than the other side of Kenshin.
To conclude thus part we advise viewers not to expect too much of the end of the movie. As the movie is the first part of a duology, the very end is nothing more than the positioning of certain elements of the narrative as to introduce the starting structure of the second part.
The attention to detail is astounding. The director succeeded in bringing the early Meiji period believable to life. This is especially true for Kyoto, which is presented as a bustling city of tradition and westernization. We see a mixture of geisha’s, persons with traditional coiffure, people with western coiffure, individuals in western suits, individuals in traditional clothes and traditional footwear, … . The far-reaching respect for the historical setting in which the story takes place is, as a matter of fact, sensible in every aspect of the movie. The opening scene in the theater as well as the specific shot where the director focuses on Kaoru’s geta (下駄) in particular underlines this respect.
This respect for the historical background is also revealed in the representation of the exteriors and interiors of traditional housing and western houses. The summit of westernization is revealed in the interior and the exterior of the house of the home minister, but also Ōkubo Toshimichi, the home minister himself, is a spitting image of a westernized Japanese man – boasting an impressive beard and wearing fine western couture.
Two other examples reveal the way in which the respect for the historical time period influences the fictional narrative – we mentioned this aspect already above. First is the fact that the six attackers of the home minister announce themselves as samourai. The second example is the reason why the Japanese army isn’t mobilized; a mobilized army would reveal a weakness to the western world.
The on-screen action is exhilarating and fun, which is the merit of Keishi Otomo, the director, and action choreographer Kenji Tanagaki. The exceptional choreography, the use of inventive moves, the integration of the fighting into the scenery combined with a crisp pacing and the masterly use of camera shots maximizes the impact of the sword-fight scenes. And if you add the plot element of the kenshin-tension to the equation, they action scenes really succeed in keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Rurouni Kenshin is a great action-movie. It doesn’t boast a very complex story – it’s a straight forward action narrative, but the integration of the narrative into the rich historical setting makes the story more than worthwhile. Another aspect in which the movie excels is in its extraordinarily well choreographed action scenes and the often present Kenshin-tension will keep you on the edge of your seat.
It’s clearly a movie that’s oriented to the fans of the manga, just like the first movie was, but it’s the merit of the scriptwriters and the director to have created a narrative that doesn’t alienate newcomers. Instead the narrative rewards longtime fans and motivates newcomers to explore the manga and/or anime of Rurouni Kenshin. Because of its attention to historical setting Rurouni Kenshin is also a feast for anybody with an interest in Japanese history.
To paraphrase Freud: sometimes a great action movie is just a great action movie. And that is already a great accomplishment. We have to be honest with ourselves: not everything should be a complex psychological character study. Especially not when the fighting scenes are so well choreographed and so well presented.