Rurouni Kenshin

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/22/13 22:23:10

"Hopefully a good adaptation; still good samurai action."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Rurouni Kenshin" is a comic-book movie, not just in the sense that it's adapted from a popular manga, but in how it both aims to introduce a lot of favorite elements and tell the story that best reflects the core of the character. Don't knock this - it's made some crowd-pleasing movies in the last few years, and "Rurouni Kenshin" does all right even for those not at all familiar with the source (known as "Samurai X" in North America).

In 1868, as the time of the samurai was coming to its end, one of the class's most lethal young assassins, "Battosai", threw down his sword, tired of killing. Ten years later, he wanders the land under the name Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato), carrying a backward-bladed sword. As he arrives in Tokyo, Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is consolidating his hold both in legitimate shipping and opium - including a highly poetent variety developed by Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi). Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) and her family's dojo are the ones standing most directly in Takeda's path, and even a legendary swordsman might not be enough to stand against Takeda's men and weapons.

There's also good-natured street fighter Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) and orphan Tahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka), all the better to form a surrogate family with. That's the go-to storyline for any story featuring a wandering hero, and while Rurouni Kenshin will occasionally give this a bit of emphasis, it's more overtly about Kenshin's desire to put his past as a killer behind him and his belief that it's impossible, making him unsuitable for anyone. And since the villains worship him for his prowess as a killer and many of Takeda's crew is highly Westernized, there's a fair amount of the franchise's appeal being touched upon, and while the net sometimes seems to be cast a bit wide, what it's catching is solid material.

Another likely part of the appeal is the action; a samurai story with such specific emphasis on the types of weapons used is under a lot of pressure to do this well and both director Keishi Otomo and action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki come through. Tanigaki has worked much of his career in Hong Kong, and in many ways the swordfights resemble that region's action cinema as much as traditional samurai films, with extended exchanges that are quick but still quite clear. The filmmakers frequently opt to go big, as well, from Sagara's massive bludgeon (made to take down horses) and Takeda's new toy to having to face either an army of thugs - tough, when killing is off the table - or one with supernatural abilities. Otomo and company can play the action as either harsh or fun without missing a beat.

The general sense of fun comes from the characters; as with any ongoing series worth its salt, there's a large ensemble that audiences enjoy hanging around with. Yu Aoi and Munetaka Aoki are particularly good in terms of making supporting characters that are more fun than they have to be - Aoki and, I think, Genki Sudo crack viewers up mid-fight scene, while Aoi makes Megumi modern and witty without seeming anachronistic. In fact, the weak link may be that Sato makes Kenshin come across as maybe too pleasant at times; despite the X-shaped scar placed on his cheek and solemnly delivered exposition, it sometimes seems like he can't help but be a charismatic young movie star, with a smile that comes across as much too carefree. He can sell angry and looks good in the fight scenes, but cheerful seems to come much more naturally than tortured.

But then, that's what the people making this movie seem to be going for - a highly polished action/adventure with entertainment valued over realism or complexity. That's fine; it delivers those goods well and never puts itself in a position where not going dark leads to disappointment or disbelief. It's a comic-book movie, but the filmmakers know how to make a good one.

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