The three first films of Rurouni Kenshin (Rurouni Kenshin (2012), Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014), and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)) proved that adapting manga to the silver screen does not necessarily end up in sub-par cinematic experiences. Will Keishi Ohtomo be able to deliver the final chapter of Kenshin’s saga in an equal satisfying manner or will he compose a sour false note to this beloved franchise?
1879, the twelfth year of the new age. Goro Fujita (Yosuke Eguchi) and his officers enter a train at Yokohama station in search for members of the Shanghai mafia. Fujita ends up arresting Enishi Yukishiro (Mackenyu Arata), yet, due to a mutual treaty, Yukishiro is quickly handed over to the corrupt Shanghai authorities. To assuage Fujita’s irritation with the exchange, police chief Uramura (Shingo Tsurumi) informs him that Cho Sawagejo (Ryosuke Miura), one of Shishio’s ten swords, has already infiltrated the Shanghai mafia.
Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei),who runs a swordsmanship school, Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki), and Yahiko Myojin (Riku Ohnishi) . Yet, his peace is, once more, disturbed when Kenshin’s favorite hot pot restaurant, Akabeko, is destroyed by a cannot shot. Kenshin is informed by Fujita that this event might be related to the man he arrested.
The final chapter of the Rurouni Kenshin saga turns, quite simply, around the question about why Kenshin’s scars do not fade. The first piece of the puzzle is given when Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi) tells Sanosuke Sagara that there are people who believe that a scar inflicted in righteous anger won’t disappear until that anger is appeased. The second piece of the puzzle is given when Kenshin’s scars are revealed to be intrinsically linked to Yukishiro’s sister and her possible anger, an anger that persists even after her death. With Enishi Yukishiro returning to Japan solely to avenge his sister and make ‘battosai’ suffer, Kenshin is violently forced to face the truth of his scars, the truth of the horror and trauma that marks his own past (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).
Despite being an entirely fictional narrative, the atmosphere of Rurouni Kenshin: The Final nevertheless has a certain historical believability. This believability is not simply function of the richly detailed environments but also of the contrast between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ that marks the setting – e.g. traditional buildings vs western buildings, traditional clothes vs western clothes, …etc. The successful painting of such a historical atmosphere does not offer a pleasant visual experience but also plays an important role in successfully sucking the spectator into the narrative (Narra-note 2).
The character of Kenshin is, in this sense, a symbol of the conflict between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and evokes how a nation that is changing itself always needs to integrate the self-inflicted traumas of its own past. Kenshin’s enemies, for that matter, are not driven by a desire to rewind the state of the country – in their own way, they’ve accepted the truth of the end of the Bakufu. They merely function, similarly to Kenshin’s scars, as constant reminders that a nation’s violent past needs to be fully assumed in its ‘soul’ and ‘body’ – To live in authentic truth (Psycho-note 1).
Rurouni Kenshin: The Final boasts a straight-forward but effective narrative structure. By revealing the seemingly unsurmountable menace that threatens Kenshin and endangers his friends in a frank way – with plenty of brute violence and blood, Ohtomo quickly heightens the tension in his narrative. Both elements – the blossoming tension and the visual disclosing of the growing threat – ensure that the spectator stays engaged and remains on the edge of his seat. Another element that plays an important role in captivating the spectator is the rather slow unfolding of the shared past of Enishi, Kenshin, and Tomoe (Kasumi Arimura).
The composition of Rurouni Kenshin: The Final does not only stand out due to its rich dynamism – from peaceful to frantic, but also due to its engaging compositional rhythm/pace. Ohtome’s skill in playing with rhythm is most evident in scenes of tension. By thoughtfully using more static moments, he either emphasizes the tension lingering within the exchange of signifiers or create a tensive anticipation of violence and destruction by revealing certain visual elements, like cannons, weapons, … etc. On the other hand, his snappy shifts to dynamic movement, to visually strengthen a sudden burst of violence, does not only help heightening the tension, but also highlights the very danger that Enishi Yukishiro and his companions pose. In fact, the reason why Ohtomo’s compositional rhythm works so well is not only because it allows him to play with the spectator’s expectations but also because his composition gives time to the cast to generate a relational form of tension and allows the musical accompaniment to emphasize and strengthen the lingering tension, the generated anticipation, or the emotionality that marks certain fights.
The action set pieces also greatly benefit from Ohtome’s rhythmical play. While snappier cutting and swifter dynamism keep the spectator on the edge of his seat, Ohtome’s manipulation of rhythm does not only give the beautifully choreographed action its exhilarating dramatic ebb and flow – an ebb of flow also supporting the lingering tension in the sequence, but also enables him to fluidly integrate the fantastical action-moves in a thrilling and visually satisfying way (Cine-note 1).
Rurouni Kenshin: The Final proves, once again, that great films can be made from manga. In this final chapter, Ohtomo’s does not only preserve the essence of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s narrative but delivers this essence with necessary emotionality and adorns it with many breathtaking sword-fighting moments that neither a manga nor an anime can deliver. While spectators new to Rurouni Kenshin might not grasp some of the narrative’s finer details or feel somewhat less involved in Kenshin’s saga, they’ll still find a lot to like in this fantastical samurai narrative.
Narra-note 1 (spoiler): Rurouni Kenshin: The Final explicitly reveals the meaning of Kenshin’s second scar. This scar is not caused by anger as is first implied, but is driven by Tomoe’s love. This scar does not only function as a reminder of Kenshin’s self-inflicted trauma, but also acts as a sign of Tomoe’s forgiveness, the enduring proof of her love, and the inscription of her dying wish that nutilizes his skills not to destroy but to protect the mundane happiness of other..
Narra-note 2: Some of Kenshin’s rivals also have motives that are function of the conflict between feudal tradition and modernity that the violent push to westernization has created. Kujiranami Hyōgo (Shinnosuke Abe), for instance, blames Kenshin from aiding the downfall of the samurai class.
Psycho-note 1: Even though we read the character of Kenshin in a somewhat political way, the dynamic we unfolded is also true for the process of subjectification.
Cine-note 1: The swiftness of the action is generally emphasized by ‘tracking’ the action-moves, while the impact of the violence is either underlined by a sudden break of such tracking movement, slow-motion movement, or by floaty semi-static moments to directly show the physical repercussions of the violence directly. In other cases, tracking movement as such is utilized to reveal the impact of a certain violent act. The more fantastical action-moves are, in this respect, framed with fluid and more measured tracking shots – sometimes in slow-motion – to let the beauty of the action visually please and thrill the spectator.