Reviewby Nick Creamer, Dec 19th 2016
Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins
As the Tokugawa shogunate burns on the eve of the Meiji era, one man stands stained in blood. Battousai the Killsword, a legendary assassin, helped usher in this new era, but as a new age dawns, he finds himself feeling not vindicated, but empty.
Ten years later, the man once known as Battousai has forsaken his past, now wishing only to protect the common people. Wielding a reverse-edged sword, he has pledged to never kill again - but even if he has lost faith in violence as a tool for change, the world around him is still marked by killers and injustice. Can the man who calls himself Kenshin truly escape his past, or can there be no peace without bloodshed after all?
I'll confess, I'm not personally a Rurouni Kenshin diehard. Though Kenshin's heyday coincided with my own introduction into anime fandom, I never watched the full original series or read the manga it was based on. That said, Kenshin was still instrumental in my introduction to anime. I may never have become an anime fan if not for this beautiful opening sequence, one of the first segments of animation that showed me that anime was something special. My history with Kenshin is scattered episodes caught after school and the excellence of the Trust and Betrayal OVA, a fragmentary exposure that may as well mirror Kenshin's own legend.
But regardless of much familiarity with the franchise, Rurouni Kenshin: Origins is a pretty great movie.
The first of three films, this movie's assigned task is monumental: run through Kenshin's origins, gracefully establish his initial relationship with beloved characters like Kaoru and Sanosuke, and spin the manga's opium arc all into one relatively coherent film. Do all that while touching on the classic fights that stand as memorable touchstones for prior fans, and also make sure the overall structure is both coherent and thematically cohesive. Oh, and offer a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for the upcoming Kyoto arc.
It'd be easy for a film burdened with all those demands to come off as either incoherent, too focused on pleasing fans, or utterly divorced from its source material. But somehow, Kenshin manages it. The film moves gracefully from a flashback detailing Kenshin's wartime origins into the core relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, using the overall threat of cackling capitalist Kanryu's opium trade to slot in important characters wherever appropriate. Hajime Saito (who sticks to his new name Goro throughout this film) acts as a kind of tempter for Kenshin, calling him back to action while challenging Kanryu all along the way. Sanosuke initially challenges Kenshin for a job as Kanryu's bodyguard, before assuming his classic partnership role. The clash of Kanryu and Megumi forms the film's center, slowly winding Kenshin toward a thrilling final assault.
Kenshin: Origins smartly leans on one of the source material's great advantages: the inherently compelling nature of the transition from the Tokugawa to the Meiji era. Much of the film's thematic and emotional power comes from the poignancy of that transition - more than just a tale of samurai clashes, it presents an argument for both the great and terrible sides of both eras. On a national level, this transition was almost synonymous with the opening of Japan to western influences, from significant cultural changes to a fundamentally transformed economy and social order. Opium dealer Kanryu exemplifies the dark side of these changes, rambling at length about the death of the samurai era and preaching the power of money from his western-style mansion, while sworn officer of the peace Goro demonstrates the compromises inherent in transitioning to that era; half samurai, half Meiji apologist, he seems to exemplify how even the new era demands steady bloodshed.
On a more individual level, Kenshin himself stands at the crossroads of these two eras. Samurai are no longer relevant in the Meiji era, and the ambiguity of this fact is echoed in both Kenshin's internal struggles and the way other samurai must come to terms with that fact. Kenshin is ashamed of his violent past, and some of the film's most effective emotional moments hinge on how he initially lost faith in violence as a tool for societal change. On top of that, the film opens by establishing a “false Battousai” who represents Kenshin's past coming to collect. This both counterbalances the romanticism of the samurai and challenges the very idea that an era born in blood could ever escape its origins.
But even if samurai are synonymous with a violence Kenshin no longer believes in, there's still an honor and mystique in their identity that the film can't help but love. Kanryu's villainy is first established through the way he's reduced dozens of samurai to beggars hoping for a handout, and Kaoru seems to represent a way forward that still involves venerating the sword as a tool for good. While Kenshin: Origins' narrative is still a fairly conventional “old soldier” tale, the film wisely embraces the inherent melancholy of the samurai era's end to both add richness to its individual characters and offer a thematic congruity to its various conflicts. While Kanryu's mugging and the film's overall melodramatic tenor might threaten to undercut its weight, Origins' emotional touchstones are built on a powerful thematic bedrock.
Oh, and the movie's also a ton of fun. While all that rambling about themes might make the film sound dry, the minute-to-sword-battle ratio leans heavily in the swords' favor. Origins is packed with satisfying fights of all kinds, taking great advantage of its diverse cast of heroes and villains. Kenshin's initial clash with Sanosuke leans on Sanosuke's massive sword style to make an arena out of an entire river-centered avenue. Kenshin's refusal to kill often elevates his fights, as in the training hall brawl that first introduces him to Kaoru's home, where he dances through a dozen sword-wielding thugs using palms and elbows alone. The fight choreography is intelligent throughout, and the film offers a diverse mix of rogues and scoundrels to cross swords, fists, and occasional miniguns with. There are even smart dashes of physical comedy sprinkled into the fights - at one point, a Sanosuke brawl spills into Kanryu's pantry, where Sanosuke and his opponent take a moment to “time out” and freshen up with wine before getting back to the punching.
Origins' direction is generally workmanly, occasionally inspired, and always effective. It's sometimes easy to tell that Origins' director Keishi Ohtomo is a TV drama regular, but he's a very gifted TV drama regular, and the fights here are actually more effective than many Hollywood blockbuster action scenes. Instead of relying on frenetic cuts to artificially create a sense of energy, Ohtomo sets up naturally clear and evocative angles to let the strong choreography do the talking. The film's flashbacks go even further than this, with sequences like Kenshin's first kill or the opening battle scene crafting a real sense of tragic beauty. The only scenes that really flag are the more conventional conversations - in particular, the scenes at Kaoru's training school can often feel flat. But the film's excellent music is generally able to make up for that, offering a wide mix of modern orchestral tracks, occasional period instrumentation, and great percussion-led fight songs to always get your fist pumping for the next fight.
The cast is also solid, for the most part. Teruyuki Kagawa really hams it up as Tenryu, embracing the role of the greedy capitalist and at times feeling like he's in a different movie entirely. Emi Takei's Kaoru feels like the one weak link; perhaps it partially comes down to her not getting quite enough screentime, but I didn't feel like she quite sold her relationship with Kenshin. Takeru Satō, on the other hand, is Kenshin incarnate - Sato sells his cold-eyed Battousai form and befuddled smiling reincarnation with equal confidence, centering the film with his embodiment of the conflicted killer.
The english dub is generally competent, though a somewhat strange feature in a 2016 live action production. Perhaps it was included because Rurouni Kenshin is a widely known anime property, but hearing English actors attempting to match the movements of real Japanese actors, instead of the theoretically more universal lip flaps of animation, makes it much harder to get immersed in the film. It makes it feel more like an old kung fu movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's an odd aesthetic. Additionally, it also feels like the english cast are going for “anime dub” voices - they lack the naturalism you'd probably want in a live-action production, even one with as much of an anime-influenced aesthetic as Rurouni Kenshin. By contrast, the original Japanese cast generally treat this as any other feature film. Overall, it's a reasonably professional dub, but I greatly preferred the original cast.
Rurouni Kenshin: Origins comes in a standard slipcase and blu-ray case, housing the film on both DVD and blu-ray. There are no physical extras, but the blu-ray disc has a bunch of excellent features. Most prominently, there are a series of sit-down interviews with almost every major member of the original cast. Sato reflects on how he originally attempted to play Kenshin as an inhuman character, but eventually came to most appreciate the scenes that portrayed his endearing, human side. He also specifically asks fans of the original work to see the film, expressing confidence that they did it justice. Basically all of the actors have a couple interesting reflections on either the film in general or their character specifically; I particularly liked that Koji Kikkawa mentioned how it'd be easy for Jin-e Udo to come across as a one-note sadist, so he worked to imbue the character with a sense of sadness, as if he were an inevitable product of his time. Teruyuki Kagawa also mentions how Kanryu's platform shoes were key to his character, and how his refusal to take them off marked him as a kind of arrogant westerner - a neat detail I'd originally overlooked, but something that works perfectly in retrospect.
In addition to those interviews, there's also a set of deleted scenes, as well as a brief “making of” feature and various previews. The deleted scenes do fill out some of the final film's looser transitions - one details the exact fate of Megumi's original partner, while others fill in little gaps like Kaoru deciding to seek out Kenshin at the police station, or Jin-e coming across the policemen in the second act. The last even foreshadows the film's final battle, solidifying Kaoru's arc and strengthening her relationship with Kenshin. I can see why they were cut for length, but I would have preferred at least the final scene being included in the film itself.
Overall, I'd highly recommend Rurouni Kenshin: Origins to both fans of the original and fans of adventure films in general. Origins is action-packed, full of striking characters, and energetically composed, while also drawing smartly on the poignant context of its source material. It's an altogether terrific time.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Condenses a tremendous amount of manga material into a remarkably graceful narrative, captures both the thematic poignance and action-packed fun of the Kenshin saga
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