I hate spoilers. I am a massive spoiler-free zone. I’ve been burned too many times by sexy trailers and the internet rumor mill, where the film itself turned out to be so much less than promised. So what I let myself know about something amounts to the title, maybe who’s in it, and what the poster looks like. It might sound completely illogical, but that’s what I base my omg yay levels on, and when I saw the poster for the live action Rurouni Kenshin, knowing absolutely nothing else about it beyond a decent familiarity with the manga and anime series from the 90’s, I naturally and instantly assumed that it was going to be unbelievably cool. What? Didn’t you?
Of course, I could have been wrong. It’s happened before. Happily, in this case, I turned out to be pretty much bang on. Not only is Rurouni Kenshin the live action movie cool, it’s also good. I’ve talked about this before. It’s not an easy thing to translate a 28 book story into an hour and a half of screen time in such a way that you don’t alienate the existing fans by leaving too much out or alienate the new fans by putting too much in and there are plenty of examples to illustrate this difficulty. But RK hits that perfect balance and presents a narrative worthy of big screen time from the impressive opening battle sequence to the epic finale and all the little touches in between.
In terms of redefinition, the remake has retained more or less the spirit of everything that makes Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original manga (255 chapters across 28 books, serialised between 1994 and 1999) what it was. Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), a wandering swordsman with an odd, reversed blade katana, happens upon Kouru Kamiya (Emi Takei), the last surviving member of a failing family dojo whose honor is being tarnished by someone using her dojo’s fighting style and claiming to be the highly lethal war veteran the Battousai. Little does she know that the killer on the streets is a cheap knock-off and that the pleasant, bumbling bumpkin she has taken under her wing is in fact the real manslayer, a terrifyingly skilled swordsman who no longer wishes to kill, who has turned over a new leaf in an attempt to put his violent past behind him.
It’s a set up for the best kind of narrative dichotomy – the tension between Kenshin’s past actions and his present desires bringing about the inevitable collision between these worlds – and it’s what drives the story regardless of the medium. Satoh as the titlular character is, as an uninitiated-into-the-world-of-the-bishounen friend commented, freakishly pretty, but also surprisingly capable. He nails the balancing act required between Kenshin’s pacifist side and his persona as efficient killer, carrying off both comedy and drama with considerable ease and injecting into the role a realistic level of feeling that is neither too overbearing nor too bare. Takei as Kaouru pulls a balancing act of her own – she’s both a truly strong and determined woman and vulnerable enough to need a little bit of rescuing, which makes her entirely easy to like. A good thing, since she’s the emotional centre of the story.
In fact, the whole film has managed to teeter gracefully between its serious and well-warranted aspirations as an action film and its slightly dated, comical ancestry. It’s a little kooky, but not too kooky – Resident villain Takeda, played with awesome aplomb by Teruyuki Kagawa, is reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s villain in The Fifth Element in that his inherent silliness is balanced out by the fact that he is slimy, dangerous and just a bit insane. It’s also a bit serious, but not too serious. Samurai X was almost unrelentingly depressing, but the fighting was exponentially better than in the series; RK follows in that OAV series’ footsteps in terms of fighting detail and key emotional moments but doesn’t descend too far into an emotional quagmire. There’s also still a slight preternatural element to things – the various super-swordsmen Kenshin faces one after the other in the manga/anime have been replaced by one or two truly frightening characters who are both deeply disturbed and possessing of fighting abilities that aren’t too outrageous to be acceptable.
Basically Rurouni Kenshin gets it right from start to finish, and the best of Kung-fu cinema it might not be, but damn it’s managed to get pretty close. In some respects it feels a little like Japanese live action cinema has really hit its stride, knows what it has to do to make both an entertaining film and a worthwhile story, and has managed to do it both because of and despite its past.