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Fourteen hours is a long time to be stuck on a plane. So, imagine my nerdgasm when I saw, listed among the film choices on my seat's little screen, RUROUNI KENSHIN (2012). Sure, WOLF CHILDREN was listed too, but... seriously man, KENSHIN wins by a mile, right?
QUICK DISCLAIMER: It’s been almost 15 years since I watched the original KENSHIN series and I never finished the manga (it was releasing during my “sabbatical” ). The TRUST AND BETRAYAL OVA's are still some of my favorites to go back to, but the series itself is a bit hazy for me. As such, I’m only partially judging the film as an adaptation. Mostly, I went in hoping to see if it could be what every adaptation promises to be - - something accessible to newcomers and a joy for superfans.
A recap for those newcomers - - RUROUNI KENSHIN is the story of Kenshin Himura, a legendary assassin during the Meiji Revolution who, at the end of the war, swore never to kill again. In the decade since he’s traveled Japan as a rurouni/wanderer. Armed only with a reverse-blade sword, he does good where he can and keeps his head down, trying to put the past behind him.
Of course, if that worked, there wouldn’t be much of a series, would there?
Kenshin arrives in Tokyo amid a heated controversy. The legendary "Hitokiri Battousai" has been murdering people in the city with reckless abandon! Problem is, he is the Battousai, and he only just got there. Plus, you know, he isn’t killing people anymore (and only ever killed those who had to die to usher in an era of peace). So Kenshin gets sucked into the mystery and finds something new to protect in the form of Kaoru Kamiya and her dojo.
The film adapts the first few episodes/chapters of the series, introducing the likes of Yahiko Myojin, Sanosuke Sagara, Saito Hajime (a bit earlier here than other versions) and Megumi Takani, while also marking out both Jin-e, a former assassin himself with a lust for blood, and Kanryu Takeda, an opium magnate (guarded by a somewhat neutered version of the Oniwabanshu, a group of former samurai now working as bodyguards and enforcers) as the main antagonists.
This is the part of the review where I’d normally summarize the first act and then start sharing my more detailed thoughts on where it worked and what might have faltered. Thing is, to summarize the film is an act of self-flagellation that I’m not interested in.
Events in this movie made very little sense from a narrative perspective. It felt like the screenwriters picked bits and pieces of the source material, sussed out a few fight scenes, and then tried to string it all together.
It... doesn’t work.
You can’t go more than twenty minutes without somebody blowing Kenshin’s cover; either by recognizing his cross-shaped scar, overhearing a “private” conversation of his, or watching him step in to protect someone. It gets played very quickly in a single, long-format film. In the anime and manga, this is the sort of thing that would drive a standalone chapter, and it worked better in that format (even if it was a bit repetitive).
Then there’s the problem of Jin-e, who just sort-of drifts in and out of the movie. He’s part of the Oniwabanshu here (who go unnamed in the film), but sort-of does his own thing, mowing down undercover police officers, random people on the street, and anybody else he feels like killing. Whether it serves his, his bosses' or the screenwriters’ agenda makes no difference. He does this while posing as the Hitokiri Battousai, claiming to represent the Kamiya dojo (Kaoru’s father’s school, which she inherited) - - yet, unless I missed something, he only has a peripheral connection to Kenshin and none at all to the Kamiya dojo.
His actions also incite a hunt for him led by a criminally underutilized Saito Hajime. At a certain point it was almost like the screenwriters panicked and just wanted to shove everyone they could justify into this movie.
In the series, this particular conflict was between Kenshin and Gohei Hiruma, a former student of Kaoru’s father. It made sense that he’d be connected to the school since he fought in that style and had designs to take over the dojo. In the film, his character is merged with Jin-e - - likely to save time and streamline the story. Because of that, there's no connection between him and the dojo (since he was no longer a former student), so Kaoru’s hunt for the Battousai, and Jin-e’s claim to represent the school, make zero sense.
Ditto for adding Jin-e to the Oniwabanshu, the group working for Kanryu. Sure, it streamlines the story, but he’s neither their leader nor an active member, really. He inexplicably shares some scenes with them, goes to do his own thing, and then disappears for almost the entire back half of the movie, only to show up at the end for a surprise double-climax that falls flat.
All of this is nitpicking compared to the larger faults of the film, which suffers from a massive identity crisis. Is it a cartoon, or is it real? From the costume designs to the narrative tone and then to the erratic, distracting score, this RUROUNI KENSHIN seems to have no idea what it wants to be.
Sometimes the cartoon-qualities are addressed (Kenshin’s rather gaudy outfit is explained away as borrowed clothes from Kaoru’s father’s more flamboyant youth), whereas other times completely ignored (Sano’s own outfit and sword come to mind). And much of the humor that gave the series in all its other forms such personality has been lifted out, leaving a seriously confused film in its stead.
Give me something that either embraces the over-the-top cartoon/comic roots or strips it down and grounds it in reality - - but please, oh please, just commit!
I could go on, complaining about the unnecessary flashback to show how Kenshin got his first scar (and him then telling us who gave him the second - - way to blow it all up front, guys), the terribly executed double-climax, the inconsistent casting, and so on, but there was some good here and, in deference to that, I’ll stand down.
Truthfully, after the movie ended, I found myself just as confused by my feelings as the movie itself seemed confused by its own existence. As a fan of the series, I thought Takeru Sato did a great job as Kenshin, and a number of the fights were amazingly choreographed (Kenshin defending the Kamiya dojo from Kanryu’s goons comes to mind here), though the fights were all a bit too short.
I was disappointed by this flick, to say the least. Without a connection to the source material, I probably would’ve been railing against it as a huge waste of time. Instead I find myself in the precarious position of cautiously recommending it for those curious KENSHIN fans who want to see what went wrong.
Everybody else: keep your distance.
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.