In the middle of the 19th century, the traditional feudal system in Japan is in decline. The Bakumatsu war has seen the shogunate replaced by a centralised Government. The nationalist forces, fighting for a brave New Age, including the legendary skills of a swordsman known as Battosai (Takeru Sato).
Now, the war a decade over, Battosai has sworn off killing and has taken the name of Kenshin Himura. The guilt of so many deaths weighing heavily on him, Kenshin wanders from place to place, helping those in need. His travels lead him to Tokyo and a failing dojo, operated by a spirited and idealistic young woman named Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei).
But more menacingly, Kenshin finds an assassin has been plaguing local law enforcement under the banner of Kaoru’s dojo. To make matters worse, the assassin’s name…is Battosai.
Rurouni Kenshin is the live action adaptation of the popular manga and anime of the same name – or as it is known in the West, Samurai X. Director Keishi Ohtomo and his team were clearly acutely aware of the love many held for the source material and the attention to detail in casting, costuming, props and even character movement is impressive. This does lead to the odd problem carrying over, such as when characters refer to Kenshin’s war time activities “14 years ago” despite actor Takeru Sato clearly being in his early 20s.
If such aspects might suggest this is just a soulless, slavish recreation, that would be completely inaccurate, for Rurouni Kenshin is a hugely satisfying slice of action with a side helping of melodrama.
The story involves a criminal plot to flood the country with high-grade opium. The money raised from the drugs is then funnelled into the purchase of guns and hence, a new army for this brave new Japan. But when the lead chemist Megumi (Yu Aoi) escapes the clutches of chief gangster Kanryu Takeda (the scenery-chewing Teruyuki Kagawa) and seek solace at Kaoru’s dojo, Kenshin is dragged into the conflict and at last must decide whether to return to his killing ways or risk losing everything.
The set up allows for a number of fight scenes of escalating drama and complexity. The film may boast luxurious period production design and excellent cinematography, but it is the fights that really stand out and the stars of the piece. Whip-fast swordplay, a touch of wire fu and a strong vein of humour and creativity make these absolutely top drawer slices of action. It helps that they are superbly shot and always maintain a clear sense of character and geography.
Perhaps the drama gets a bit heavy-handed at times, with the emotional hand-wringing wearing out its welcome and getting fairly repetitive by the end, but that is small criticism against the wealth of just damn good fun that the film rolls out.
A slick action extravaganza, Rurouni Kenshin is a samurai sword epic with a big heart and a bigger sense of fun. Check it out.
The main extra on board is a 20-minute “Making Of”. This is actually raw behind-the-scenes footage with no commentary.
Despite the dryness, this is actually quite entertaining as it primarily showcases the fights scenes, giving a glimpse at the extreme levels of organisation required to create the mass battles in the film. We also see the actors training and, most endearingly, the wrap moments for the two leads.
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.