Reviewby Ko Ransom,
Ten years after entering the Meiji period following the restoration of the imperial house, Japan has rapidly gone from a land of war and turmoil to one of burgeoning peace and modernity. One day, Himura Kenshin, a wandering swordsman with a disarming charm and an unusual sword with a reversed blade, comes across Kamiya Kaoru, a young woman who succeeded her father's school of sword fighting. However, while growing modernity gives the new age a veneer of order, troubles both new and old plague Japan: Kaoru's school has recently lost its followers after a string of murders by an individual claiming to use techniques from the school, while the industrialist Takeda Kanryū plots to amass arms through profits brought in by a highly-addictive preparation of opium. Kenshin's dark past also continues to follow him, and he is forced to confront it when a chain of events beginning with an assault on Kaoru's dojo suddenly takes place one day.
Nobuhiro Watsuki's Rurouni Kenshin manga occupies an interesting place in Shonen Jump's history, beginning its run during the magazine's "golden age" of peak circulation, then soon after becoming one of its flagship series during a relatively difficult period after the end of a number of major titles and a subsequent crash in sales. Ending a little over a decade ago, the Kenshin franchise seems to have been judged as just aged enough to revive across a number of mediums, the centerpiece of this revival being a blockbuster action movie backed by Warner Bros. and directed by Keishi Otomo, fresh off a successful stint on the samurai TV drama Ryomaden. Nearly everything about the movie, from the staff to its advertising copy ("Blazing a trail into the future of Japanese cinema," boasts one line), indicates that it is meant to be a blockbuster, and for the most part, it succeeds in this goal. The film's crew and cast have turned out a polished and entertaining action movie while staying reasonably faithful to Watsuki's manga.
We see these blockbuster intentions from the first moments of the film, as it opens by throwing viewers into a chaotic, crowded battle set on the eve of the Meiji Restoration. Though the scene is mostly a prelude to the rest of the film, it does immediately establish its overall big-budget yet refreshingly CG-light feel. Fight scenes are a major part of the film, which features alternating drama-based and fight-scenes throughout a good part of its hefty over two-hour runtime. The fluid, exciting fights are put together by action director Kenji Tanigaki, the only Japanese member of the Hong Kong Stuntmen Association, making good use of the various weapons and techniques used by the film's characters. However, what may be the film's attempt at a blockbuster action style, with the occasional overly rapid cuts and mobile, unsteady camera, do serve to distract your attention more than anything else. Additionally, perhaps due to Tanigaki's background getting the best of him, the film does feature a few awkward moments of wire work, with characters making exaggerated, unnatural, and quite honestly silly-looking leaps that, while they may work in anime or manga, jolt the viewer out of whatever enjoyment they were getting from the scene up to that point. Though the film's visual style outside of these fight scenes is for the most part unremarkable, it does feature a number of scenes shot in memorable locations, including lush forests and preserved towns in rural Japan.
Kenshin's narrative structure blends together different arcs and enemies of the original in a fairly seamless way, though the abundance of well-known characters as enemies does lead to a bit of a game-like midboss-final boss-true final boss layout toward the movie's conclusion. While the film's unifying theme of how people react to rapidly encroaching modernity is by no means a novel one to the world of samurai or western films, Kenshin's atonement-seeking character, physically manifested in the reverse-blade sword he carries, makes for a good romantic hero. Unfortunately, the large size of the film's cast of characters means that while many characters and their motivations are introduced, most of them are off the screen before the movie gets a chance to flesh out their personalities. The romantic triangle briefly set up between Kenshin, Kaoru, and Megumi is similarly thin, mostly acting to set up plot points later in the film, while the film's attempt at dramatic moments fall quite short of emotionally touching, though in an inoffensive way that is typical of blockbusters. The soundtrack has a similarly blockbuster-like feel, making heavy use of chorus and strings for a primarily orchestral, vaguely world music score, though pieces using traditional Japanese instruments do make the occasional appearance, generally in lighter-hearted scenes. As for the film's pop-punk theme song that jars the audience back to reality as it plays over the ending credits, it could be charitably described as "out of place."
Despite some issues with weak characterization, the movie's cast is another one of its high points, bringing the original's characters to life in a faithful but convincing way. This applies to everyone from the top of the cast, such as Takeru Sato's endearing and boyishly handsome Kenshin, sporting the character's trademark scar and red hair in a noticeable but not ridiculous way, Emi Takei's spunky-yet-tough Kaoru, and Teruyuki Kagawa's evil and utterly annoying Kanryu Takeda, to its fun to watch supporting members, such as Munetaka Aoki's Sanosuke, with his brash, tough-guy attitude, to the multi-talented, inimitable Genki Sudo's devoutly Christian Inui Banjin. Of course, not everything comes through perfectly in adaptation—Kenshin's trademark "de gozaru"s when speaking take a bit of getting used to, while hearing Sato repeatedly say "oro" can start to feel downright embarrassing.
Overall : B
Story : B
Music : B
+ Fun action scenes, generally solid adaptation of characters.
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