I have all 28 volumes of the Rurouni Kenshin manga. When I hear the first few notes of “Freckles,” I am suddenly returned to my childhood and I stay there until I’ve finish singing along. It’s a special series to me, but for some reason I was never apprehensive about the adaptation. I just assumed that the series would get the attention and talent it deserved. I guessed months ago that it would be playing at this year’s Japan Cuts, and I was ecstatic to find out I was right. I missed the NYAFF screening but heard universally positive reactions, which made me all the more excited when I headed into the Japan Society’s theater.
I was not disappointed.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Rurouni Kenshin (るろうに剣心)
Director: Keishi Ohtomo
Himura Kenshin goes by several names, depending on the speaker and the translation, but they are all variations of “Hitokiri Battōsai”: “hitokiri” meaning manslayer (thus the English translation Battousai the Manslayer), Battōsai being a specific reference to Kenshin’s battōjutsu sword-weilding prowess. But ten years after the end of the Meiji Revolution, the famous assassin is a wanderer (rurouni) weilding a sword with a sharp edge that faces inwards (sakabato, or back blade). He has vowed never to kill again. When the film begins, another man has taken the Battōsai name and is slaughtering people on all sides of the law. He also claims to be from the Kamiya dojo, a plot point from the original series that doesn’t make much sense in the context of the film, but it’s kind of impossible to tell the story otherwise.
The Kamiya dojo is run by a young woman named Kaoru, the daughter of the late founder who is fiercely loyal both to her dojo and its principle: that the sword is to be used for life rather than death. It’s silly and naive, but for a man trying to atone for his sins, it’s an endearing proposition. Kenshin saves her life (and dojo) from assailants and she gives him a place to stay. Also with her is Myōjin Yahiko, a brattish child who trains with Kaoru because… well, he has a backstory in the manga. In the movie he’s just kind of there…
But is that really a problem? No. It’s really not. This is an attempt to condense four graphic novels into 135 minutes. Numerous characters are cut, combined, or given significantly less narrative importance because it would simply be impossible to put all that into a film like this. So the film focuses on three characters: Kenshin, Kaoru, and Megumi, a doctor who makes Opium for the film’s main villain, Kanryu. Saito gets a fair amount of screentime as well, but he never had a particularly explicit background to begin with. Yahiko and Sanosuke are the main characters most affected by the cuts (Yahiko especially), but because they aren’t put front and center, it’s only noticeable to those already in the know, and those in the know should just deal with it.
The narrative, too, is shifted around: Kanryu, a businessman who deals in Opium, has hired Jin’e, the man claiming to be the Battōsai. He also has in his employ several members of the Oniwabanshū, and it’s here that the character cuts were most apparent. In the film, there are only two of them, which is not in and of itself problematic. What is problematic is that they simply happen. Sanosuke decides to fight the big burly one because that’s what he does. It’s like the boss fight at the end of a level. I don’t think the guy says a single word before showing up. The other member of the Oniwabanshū is an altered version of Han’nya, who I found to be one of the more compelling villains in the entire series. The Oniwabanshū plotline was a fascinating one, far more than Jin’e’s, and while I understand why they went the way they did, it really is a shame that they were cut.
If I hadn’t read the graphic novels, almost none of this would have mattered. Yeah, I would have noticed the lack of characterization and commented on it, but it wouldn’t have greatly detracted from my enjoyment of the film. I can complain all I want as an avid fan of the series, but in the end they made the right decisions. I can fault them, but I won’t. I want to believe there’s a 160 minute cut that has some extra character stuff, but that would just take an excellent film and make it even better. I’ve been negative enough. Let’s talk about the good. There’s a lot of good.
I often find period pieces to be excruciatingly boring, even action packed ones. There’s just something about the past on film that doesn’t appeal to me, and the further back it goes the less interested I tend to be. The greatness of ninjas, samurai, and martial arts masters get lost in the dumb looking outfits and lack of cell phones. I never found Kenshin to be boring. It’s excellently paced, opening with the final battle of the Meiji Revolution as Hitokiri Battōsai makes his final kills. It’s an awesome scene, and although its scale is never quite matched (Kenshin and Sanosuke’s fight against Kanryu’s guards may have as many bodies, but the lack of a bodycount makes it feel less significant), the action is awesome from start to finish.
Sword fights done well may be some of the most interesting kind of fights, for the reasons laid out by Heath Ledger’s Joker: “guns are too quick, you can’t savor all the little…” and hand-to-hand combat (which can be super awesome, don’t get me wrong) doesn’t have the same kind of stakes. A person’s head is never going to fly off in a hand-to-hand fight. The moment where Saito pushes Kenshin’s blade into his own shoulder (a brilliant moment that I don’t remember from the manga) is meaningful on ten different levels, and all of them are unique to swords (and the sakabato specifically). If the fights weren’t well choreographed, though, it could look absolutely atrocious, so it’s fortunate that they are. Even Sanosuke’s hand-to-hand stuff looks awesome, and when Kenshin uses jujutsu in place of swords, it’s really cool (at least in part because jujutsu techniques don’t have to be faked in the way regular strikes do).
My only real complaint about the action is the occasional physically impossible character movement. They’ll leap through the air in a superhuman way that doesn’t fit with the relative realism that so much of the film goes for. This stands out especially when other things are so heavily toned down. The Han’nya surrogate’s face isn’t so mutilated; Jin’e’s Shin no Ippou paralysis technique, which in the manga can grant him superhuman strength, is purely an offensive maneuver here; and some of the more ludicrous characters simply don’t exist. These are all good changes that make sense. So why can people jump thirty feet sometimes? It doesn’t work. Fortunately, it also doesn’t happen very often.
Rurouni Kenshin is a film that will appeal both to fans of the series and newcomers alike. It’s not the manga on the screen: It’s something much better. Director Keishi Ohtomo and his team did an excellent job cutting, rearranging, retelling, and doing whatever needed to be done to make a film that was worth watching for anybody and everybody. Things are different to the point where a series snob can’t say “Remember when that happened? Well in the manga it’s actually part of this blah blah blah.” I complain about what was cut and what was changed and explain some of those complaints here for those who might understand, but the truth is that any comparisons I make don’t matter.
This may not be quite the Rurouni Kenshin I know, but it’s definitely a Rurouni Kenshin I can love.