Reviewby Nick Creamer, Jan 5th 2017
Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno
After bringing Kanryu to justice and peace to his home, Kenshin Himura is content to embrace a peaceful life, cooking and cleaning at Kaoru's school. But the ghosts of the past continue to haunt his steps, and this time, it's his own successor threatening to bring war to the Meiji era. Summoned by the reconstruction government, Kenshin learns that the assassin Shishio Makoto is amassing an army in Kyoto. Kenshin has sworn not to take a life, but can such a philosophy prevail in an era built on bloodshed?
The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin accomplished a seemingly impossible feat, by translating a beloved but long-running shounen manga into a crisply paced and dramatically satisfying action movie, offering a satisfying experience for both existing Kenshin fans and new viewers. The followup film's task isn't much easier; given many volumes of source material and far too many characters for a tidy narrative, Runouni Kenshin's Kyoto Arc had to be condensed into a sharp and coherent movie. Kyoto Inferno doesn't entirely succeed in those goals, but it's still a wild time.
The most immediately noticeable shift from Origins to Kyoto Inferno is the increase in scale. Given Origins' success, Kyoto Inferno was apparently afforded a significantly expanded production, and the results are clear from the very first scene. Chasing the assassin Shishio to his lair in a Hyogo mine, Hajime Saito and several dozen police officers find themselves ambushed. Sprawling mine tunnels eventually give way to a searing visual setpiece: an immense cavern with a floor all aflame, festooned with wailing police officers hanging from ropes in the rafters. As Shishio strides forward and speaks of creating a “hell on earth,” officers are cut from their moorings one by one, screaming as they plummet into the flames. That opening scene is one of Kyoto Inferno's starkest moments, but the film in general embraces larger sets and broader casts than its predecessor. Origins was already graced with strong costume and set design, and Kyoto Inferno takes those to another level, leading up to battles that teeter on the edge of full war. The film's visual scope is a wonder to behold.
Its narrative scope, on the other hand, is a little more tenuous. Kyoto Inferno's central conflict is very simple: another villain from Kenshin's past, the betrayed reconstruction assassin Shishio, is threatening to plunge Japan back into an age of war. With the Meiji government already frail and desperate not to show weakness in front of western powers, it falls to Kenshin and his allies to foil Shishio's plan. And so Kenshin must travel south, meeting new friends, acquiring a fresh sword, and following the trail of blood back to Shishio's home.
That's all well and good, but Kyoto Inferno runs into trouble when it attempts to tip its hat to every single relevant character from the manga. Origins already established a broad starting cast, but in that film, nearly every character played a major narrative and thematic role. Here, old friends like Kaoru and Sanosuke feel often superfluous, and new characters like Misao Makamichi and her idol Aoshi are shortchanged by the larger demands of the story. Compared to Origins' tightly plotted adventure, Kyoto Inferno often reflects the expected awkwardness of condensing too many characters, motivations, and side arcs into a story that doesn't have room for them all.
That said, while Kyoto Inferno may not be as gracefully constructed as its predecessor, it's still a very entertaining ride. The aforementioned ballooning of casts and sets make Kyoto and its surrounding countryside feel like a rich and bustling world, and director Keishi Ōtomo seems to have gained more confidence with the expanded scope of a film since the first feature. There is virtually none of the static framing that held down some of the first film's more somber moments, and many of the key battles are elevated through smart shot framing and great use of color.
The choreography of the fights remains excellent. Kyoto Inferno's stars are actors, not martial artists, so the fight scenes lean slightly more towards dance than visceral violence - but the film's cast do a wonderful job of selling the drama of their battles despite their lack of athleticism. Takeru Satoh actually seems like a more confident fighter in Kyoto Inferno - instead of relying largely on wild swipes and wires, he turns Kenshin's fighting style into a full-body affair, throwing out elbows and feet while constantly using his opponents' energy against them. Nearly every single key fighter in Kyoto Inferno has their own signature style, expressed either through an alternate approach to swordfighting or a distinctive weapon like tonfas, twin swords, or a heavy staff.
The acting also remains strong across the board. Takeru Satoh continues to shine as both Kenshin the goofy rounin and Battousai the killer, and Yosuke Eguchi presents exactly the right combination of style and menace needed for Hajime Saito. The one awkward link might be Aoki Munetaka's Sanosuke - he tends to chew the scenery in his appearances, but in fairness, Sanosuke does seem to live in a less realistic world than the rest of the characters. Funimation's release also contains a followup to the first film's dub, which suffers the same issues of awkwardly matching the actors' live-action performances while delivering a far less naturalistic tone than the original audio. The music is likewise similar to the first film - in fact, some of that film's major themes recur here, along with an expanded mix of old-fashioned percussion and wailing guitar.
Kyoto Inferno comes in a standard slipcase, with its blu-ray disc housing the film and a number of extras (along with the film alone on DVD). There's a scattering of trailers and TV spots, but the two meaningful inclusions are the cast interviews and “Rurouni Kenshin Explained in Five Minutes.” That second feature is exactly what you'd expect; a dramatic run-through of the events of the first film, led by an endearingly over-enthusiastic voiceover. The cast interviews are just as enlightening as the first film's. Apparently, Satoh started preparing for the film's stunts months before filming actually began, and he reiterates throughout how the action scenes required a higher standard of execution than most work he'd encountered. He also mentions how Otomo films are constructed like even the first scene is a climax, which Kyoto Inferno's thrilling opening certainly supports. Tatsuya Fujiwara unsurprisingly declares that he never wants to wear the Shishio suit again - “you can't hear, you can't see, it's hot, it's depressing, and you can't go to the bathroom.”
Overall, while Kyoto Inferno can't match the overall narrative cohesion or thematic precision of its predecessor, it's still a solid followup and a satisfying action film in its own right. Kenshin is built on a strong cast, a vivid world, and an action-packed story. Even a lesser Kenshin film is a very fun time.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Expands the scope of Kenshin's world through vivid sets and epic battles, strong cast and plenty of fun fights.
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