It is a fact that Keishi Ōtomo likes to direct live action manga adaptions. In his small oeuvre, which consists of 10 narratives, seven of his narratives are manga-adaptations. But before making the shift towards the silver screen, Ōtomo primarily as tv-director, directed various episodes for Churasan (2001), Hagetaka: Road to Rebirth (2007), and 2010’s NHK Taiga drama Ryomaden.
It seems obvious that the impressive work Ōtomo did for Ryomaden, a narrative focusing on Ryoma Sakamoto, who plotted to overthrow the feudal regime of Tokugawa shogunate, earned him the invitation to bring Rurouni Kenshin to life on the silver screen. In this review, we focus on the second installment Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014).
[This is a rewritten review. New pictures are added, the text is rewritten, the overall presentation is enhanced, and a trailer was added]
One day, not long after Himura Kenshin (Takeru Satô) has settled into his new life with Kamiya Kaoru (Emi Takei), the owner and instructer of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryū kenjutsu Dojo, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki), Yahiko Myojin (Kaito Oyagi), and Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), Kenshin is approached by Meiji government officials.
Kenshin, resolved never to kill again, is asked by the Home minister Toshimichi Okubo (Kazufumi Miyazawa) to go to Kyoto and stop Shishio Makoto (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who is a former Ishin Shishi Hitokiri like Kenshin. Apparently, he is plotting to attack the Meiji government, together with the Juppongatana (the Ten Swords).
While Kenshin hesitates, the confrontation with the suffering caused by the attack of Shishio’s henchman Seta Sojiro (Ryunosuke Kamiki) changes his mind. In spite of Kaoru’s protests and Sanosuke’s doubts, he leaves for Kyoto to protect the newfound peace under the Meiji government (Synopsis-note 1).
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto inferno is a rather straight-forward story of good (Kenshin) against evil (Shishio). While the main premise of the narrative is simple, this plot is enriched by the staging of the historical backdrop and by the integration of various side-plots and the abundance of characters they introduce. This enrichment makes the narrative space in which the simple main plot unfolds itself is made more interesting and, and such, also more engaging.
The narrative of Runouni Kenshin takes places 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 caused the abolishment of the class-system and thus the fall of the samurai class. This historical aspect, which forms the backdrop of the narrative, is masterly integrated into the plot and into the broader narrative. This integration is most obvious in the narrative’s use of Ōkubo Toshimichi, one of the three great nobles who led the Meiji restoration.
There are a lot of characters in this second installment and, as a consequence, not all of them are properly introduced (General-note 1). While it is in no way necessary to have prior knowledge of these characters, the narrative does become more enjoyable if one has such knowledge – either by having seen the first movie-installment and/or by having read the manga. For those who lack such knowledge, some side-characters might be difficult to fully grasped. This is nevertheless counterbalanced with very clear-cut main characters, e.g. Himura and Shishio Makoto. In other words, the narrative does not have any complex characters – their motivations are clearly defined. Furthermore, every character sticks very close to the source material. As a result, characters, like Sanosuke and Cho Sawagejo provide, in very much the same way as in the manga, for some comic relief (General-note 2).
One aspect makes Himura Kenshin and his relation to Kamiya Kaoru somewhat more complex. Himaru Kenshin, who only fights to protect the newfound peace and prosperity under the newly installed Meiji government, has a dark past as a ruthless killer. The act of killing people could turn Kenshin back into the killer he once was. Through Kaoru, who evidently loves Kenshin, the danger for Kenshin to regress is continually underlined. As such, the narrative is infused with a minimal tension, the kenshin-tension, throughout the narrative in general and in fighting scenes in particular. In this respect, one has to read Kenshin’s confrontation with Shishio is nothing other than a confrontation with his dark past as such (Narra-note 1).
The attention to visual detail in the narrative is astounding, bringing the early Meiji period believable to life (General-note 3, General-note 4). This is especially true for Kyoto, which is presented as a bustling city mixing tradition and westernization – a strange blend of geisha’s, traditionally clothed Japanese, and Western clothed individuals roaming the streets. This mix between Japanese and western culture is also apparent in the architecture – interiors as well as exteriors. In contrast to the many traditional places we visit throughout the narrative, one finds the summit of westernization in the interior and the exterior of home minister’s house, and also in Ōkubo Toshimichi himself, who is a prime example of a westernized Japanese man – Finely dressed in western couture and boasting an impressive beard.
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, the action scenes really succeed in keeping you on the edge of your seat. The finest moments of the cinematography are thus to be found in the framing of the action-scenes.
Rurouni Kenshin is a great action-movie. It doesn’t boast a very complex story, but the integration of the narrative into the rich historical setting makes the story more rich and more engaging. The fighting scenes are well choreographed and framed in an extremely enjoyable way. Add the Kenshin-tension to the mix and you have a narrative that will keep you on the edge of your seat. This narrative is clearly oriented to fans of the manga/anime, but – and this is the merit of the scriptwriters – the narrative does not alienate newcomers. While longtime fans are rewarded, newcomers are motivated to explore the manga and/or anime. To paraphrase Freud: sometimes an amazing action movie is just an amazing action movie. And that is, in these days, already a fantastic accomplishment.
Synopsis note 1: On his way to Kyoto and in Kyoto, Kenshin quickly finds allies; he meets the frisky female ninja Makimachi Misao (Tao Tsuchiya), the elderly innkeeper Kashiwazaki Nenji (Min Tanaka), and the always-smoking police official Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi). But, unbeknownst to Kenshin, another danger lurks in the shadows, the former ninja leader of the Shogunate, Shinomori Aoshi (Yusuke Iseya) is tracking Kenshin down with only one goal in his mind: to kill him.
General-note 1: Obviously, characters introduced in the previous narrative, e.g. Sanosuke and Megumi Takano, are not introduced again.
General-note 2: The fact that the narrative sticks very close to the manga, could be a problem for some people. But, in our view, this just reveals that the movie is primarily oriented to the fans of the manga/anime series.
General-note 3: The narrative shows a far-reaching respect for the historical setting – a respect that is sensible in every aspect of the narrative. Nevertheless, this respect is not really sensible at the level of the music.
Because of this detailed attention to the setting, this narrative is also interesting for anyone who is interested in this part of Japanese history.
General-note 4: Two other examples reveals the thoughtful attention for the time-period. 1) When the six person attack the home minister, they announce themselves as samurai. 2) The reason why they decide not to mobilize the Japanese army is to evade revealing their weakness to the western world.
Narra-note 1: We advise viewers not to expect too much of the end of the narrative. 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 third part.