With Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning, Keishi Ohtome delivers the fifth and the final installment of Rurouni Kenshin movie series. Ohtome already proved with the other films that he can frame the often-elaborate action set-pieces in an engaging manner, but can he frame a more emotionally driven action film in an equally engaging way?
1864. Ever since Japan has been forced to open its borders to foreign trade, a new age of conflict and civil war – the boshin war – is brewing. Many seek to end the shogun’s rule and restore the emperor’s authority to strengthen Japan against the threat of being colonized by western powers. One of these people is Battosai the killer (Takeru Satoh), a legendary swordfighter that annihilates all those who stand in the way of the blossoming of a new imperialistic age.
On April 5th, the cold-blooded Battosai attacks Inspector Jubei Shigekura (-) and his comrades in the empty streets of Kyoto. One man, Akira Kiyosato (Masataka Kubota), refuses to die and even manages to scar the visibly troubled legendary killer before being brutally stabbed to death. Not that much later, Katsura (Issey Takahashi) warns Kenshin that the Wolves of Mibu, the shisengumi, are after him. And then, one night at the local tavern, he encounters the beautiful Tomoe (Kasumi Arimura).
Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning, in short, explores how Kenshin’s romance with Tomoe unfolded – from the first time they met to their final moments together, and how this romance allowed him to leave his cold-blooded ways behind and become, once again, the caring pure-hearted person he repressed via his endless string of bloody murders in name of a peaceful future and by avoiding the establishment of any kind of meaningful relation.
While the most important moments of Kenshin’s past were already touched upon in Rurouni Kenshin: The Final to reveal the meaning of his second scar, this prequel explores the traumatic events that literally scarred Kenshin and formed the preconditions for him to radically change his subjective position in a direct and more detailed way. Because of this, we feel that watching the prequel before Rurouni Kenshin: The Final makes the latter a more engaging and emotionally satisfying film (Score-note 1).
Why is killing Akira Kiyosato so traumatic for cold-blooded Battosai? This event constitutes a trauma for the legendary killer because it radical confronts him with the eros-quality of love, with how love/desire gives purpose to and pumps energy into one’s life. It is because he is driven by his desire/love that he, in contrast to all others who are instantly killed by the swift slashes of Battosai’s sword, refuses to die. The scar Kiyosato gives Battosai is, in this sense, not a curse in the traditional sense, but a Real inscription of his Eros – his will to live – and his love for his fiancé on Battosai’s face. From now on, Battosai needs to co-exist with the constant reminder of the invigorating power of love on his cheek.
Why does Tomoe have such an impact on Kenshin? First, by putting Himura’s current way of life into question, she forces him to confront the repetitive trauma that he subjects himself to by killing and invigorates the inscription of Eros that adorns his face. Secondly, the fact that she, despite knowing that he is a vicious murderer, continues to act kindly towards him. These acts of kindness invite Kenshin to break his reclusive blood-soaked existence and allow one meaningful and possibly inter-subjective relation to be established. Thirdly, because Tomoe’s presence around Kenshin allows him to taste, for the first time, the true meaning of happiness. This happiness is not an imagined abstract ideal worth killing and butchering for, but a simple kind of mundane happiness, born from a social bond, that is worth protecting (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
One thing spectators will notice is that the pre-Meiji period setting is almost completely devoid of the conflictual contrast between tradition and modernity that marked the other films in the series. The care that went into bringing this feudal Japan to life as well as the many subtle narrative references to the beginning stages of the Boshin war paints a believable historical context that gives Kenshin’s fictional existence a certain plausibility. The care that went into bringing this context to life is, furthermore, evident from the subtle integration of one visual signs, i.e. cannons and guns, that echo that a form of ‘modernity’ is slowly penetrating Japanese feudal-structured society.
Just like Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, the composition of Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning stands out due to its balanced dynamism and its engaging compositional pace. It is, in fact, precisely because Ohtomo has such an exquisite feel for rhythm – pleasingly blending static with dynamic moments – that his composition does not fail to engage the spectator.
The visual rhythm of many sequences is dictated by thoughtfully exploiting static moments within an otherwise dynamic composition and by smartly utilizing the cut. Whenever Ohtome utilizes static moments, it is either to give speech-interactions their dramatic flavour, to heighten the tension that lingers in an exchange of signifiers, or to generate an eager anticipation of violence (Cine-note 1). Snappy shifts from static to dynamic moments – i.e. the power of the cut, are often utilized to visually strengthen a sudden outburst of violent action.
Ohtome’s rhythmical play also greatly benefits his framing of action-sequences. Not only does the snappier kind of cutting keep the spectator on the edge of his seat, but Ohtomo’s manipulation of pace and swifter dynamism heightens the bloody impact of the slashing sword and allows him to give the more down-to-earth action-choreographies their visceral ebb and flow. The beauty of these action-moments is further enhanced by the more creative and emotional musical accompaniment. And in some rare cases, Ohtome utilizes slow-motion to give Battosai’s bloody violence a more artful and dramatic flavour (Cine-note 2).
Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is, in short, a wonderful narrative and a more than worthy conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin movie series. What makes Ohtome’s latest so enjoyable is not only the more visceral down-to-earth action or somewhat less straightforward narrative structure, but how he, by being more artistic in his composition, gives Himura’s bloody and tragic coming-into-being its rich and engaging emotional texture.
Score-note 1: As the prequel makes The Final a better film and blows more emotionality into the latter, we feel that, if we consider both films the side of the same coin, the true score of Rurouni Kenshin: The Final should not be ‘sugoi’ (great) – as it is now, but ‘genzoutekina’ (amazing). Yet, as the emotionality of The Final partially depends on the narrative unfolding in The Beginning, we feel that giving the former ‘sugoi’ (great) better reflects its qualities as ‘stand-alone’ narrative.
Narra-note 1: Tomoe does not only allow Kenshin to grasp the true meaning of happiness, but also confront him, by telling him about the murder on her husband-to-be, with the fact that his blood-soaked sword has been destroying nothing other than such mundane forms of relational happiness
Narra-note 2: The happiness Tatsumi (Kazuki Kitamura) leader of the Bakufu’s Yaminobu onmitsu talks about is, strange as it may be, a happiness that is fatherly and quite conservative in nature. His happiness is not caused by establishing horizontal social bonds but by inscribing himself within a vertical of filial piety towards the fatherly Shogun, the protector of the Japanese soil.
Cine-note 1: Ohtome’s use of static shots heightens the dramatic flavour of many interactions because these moments allow him to emphasize the anticipatory silence that separates the uttered signifiers. In some cases, this dramatic impact of these silence on speech is further heightened by the musical score – the music blows anticipatory tension and drama into these carefully composed silences.
Cine-note 2: The swiftness of the katana is generally underlined by fluidly ‘tracking’ the action-movements. The impact of the violence of the sword, for that matter, is underlined by a sudden break in dynamism – dynamic to static or static to dynamic – or by utilizing floaty semi-static moments to directly show the physical repercussions of the violence. In some cases, tracking movement as such is also used to reveal the bloody impact of the sword.