I know. I know I promised that I will write a review of Kyoto Inferno right after watching the premiere. However, I was too preoccupied with a lot of things, namely my work life and my education life, that’s why this blog has been neglected. But since I didn’t write a review of Kyoto Inferno, I figured why not write a review together with The Legend Ends? Yes, you read it right. I just got back home from watching the second and last part of the 2014 Rurouni Kenshin live-action films. I also think that a back-by-back review is more fitting since the movie was conceptualized and created as a two-part masterpiece. Warning: *Major Spoiler Alert!
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen るろうに剣心 京都大火編
The film started strongly with a visual of Shishio’s idea of inferno. Hajime Saito, formerly, the celebrated leader of the Shogun’s Shinsengumi goes to Shishio’s hideout and was welcomed fierily by Shishiogumi (Shioshi’s group). This is a very good opening scene that let’s us meet Shishio’s character for the first time showing us how menacing he has become. It also conveyed to us the central conflict of the film, by allowing Saito to become privy of Shishio’s plans of revenge against the new government.
After this chaos and a backgrounder on why Shishio became the way he is, we are presented with Kenshingumi (Kenshin’s group) having fun at the village festival. Kenshin Himura, former hitokiri, former rurouni, and now a peace-loving citizen, enjoys a stage play starring his legendary past self – Battosai in a mockery aptly termed ‘Bakkyusai’. The cleverness of this scene is why I have loved director Keishi Otomo ever since I watched his other great work, a long drama series called Ryomaden. With this scene, we are presented with the sharp contrast of the promise of peace in the Meiji Period versus the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu when Kenshin served as a hitokiri to topple the Shogunate government and restore power to the emperor. But like Himura Battosai whose actions as hitokiri served a purpose and can easily be judged as wrong and shameful, we are presented with a Bakkyusai, who while serving the purpose of his comedic role on the stage is also misjudged by being portrayed a fool who doesn’t know what he’s doing. When Kaoru said that as Battosai, Kenshin is now a thing of the past, we know as viewers that Kenshin’s internal battles between his past and his present self is far from over. As this is only one of the very first scenes in the film, we are also told that this is only the beginning.
No Firefly Scene but More Love from the Characters
Rurouni Kenshin, apart from being a story of repentance and redemption, is about one man’s quest for peace amidst being the center of struggles against it. While Kenshin will always be the man who is the center of all the fighting and struggles, Kaoru is the center of peace. To me she is the embodiment of Kenshin’s ideal of peace. I think this is the reason why Rurouni Kenshin is also a romantic story. Like any Rurouni Kenshin fan, I wanted the firefly scene. But since I already know that I’m not getting any since Kenshin saying goodbye to Kaoru was shown in the film’s trailer, I was not disappointed. In place of romance, the film focuses on love for the other characters. Kaoru and her little dojo family with Sanosuke, Megumi, and Yahiko; Misao, Okina, and the Oniwanbanshu at Aoiya; Arai’s family, and even Shishio and his Juppongatana. We care more because each character acted based on their principles, each a victim of the turbulent times.
One such character is Shinomori Aoshi. Aoshi is a unique film character because his character came too late. He was supposed to be part of Takeda Kanryu’s opium dealings but his character was left out in the first Rurouni Kenshin (2012) film. Kyoto Inferno felt this miss but not too much as to make him irrelevant. As a character with a vile purpose, we are left wondering and unconvinced about his internal motivations. It’s a good thing he was played by a good actor, Yusuke Iseya. An actor I have admired for his portrayal of sickly forward-thinking Choshu retainer, Takasugi Shinsaku in Ryomaden and talented boxer, Toru Rikiishi in Ashita no Joe. After watching The Legend Ends, I was glad that his character development came full circle. This is also true for the rest of the Juppongata members, although, understandably most of them didn’t get enough screen time.
Major Deviations from Anime (*Major Spoilers too!)
There are at least three major plot deviations from the anime in Kyoto Inferno. These plot deviations subsequently affected the events in The Legend Ends. One is the clever Bakkyusai addition discussed before, the second is Shishio’s Black Ship leaving for Tokyo unscathed by the end of the film, and the third worth mentioning is Kaoru being kidnapped. Otomo-san explained Kaoru’s kidnapping in one of the Manila interviews. He says that for him, it was a good way to end the first film while giving Kenshin more reasons to fight Shishio and what he stands for. It was a decision I readily welcomed. Kaoru was born towards the end of the Bakumatsu, thus as a character, compared to the broken people surrounding her, she is as pure as the ideal of a new Japan. In fact, I see her being kidnapped as a symbolic gesture of Shishio, ‘kidnapping’ the ideal of peace and the symbol of the restoration efforts of the government. Kenshin’s jumping off the ship to save Kaoru also signals the end of the first part. This scene makes Kyoto Inferno different from two-part films like The Hobbit, which literally kept you hanging. It was indeed a good way to end the first part. I felt that people who don’t realize this most likely do not appreciate film as film.
Rurouni Kenshin from the first film up to the last two shown this year have great fight choreography. I’ve seen clips of actors rehearsing their moves and sword techniques and I am left in awe at the kind of dedication each of them put into the making of the films. The actors’ intense practices are reasons the film don’t rely much on CGI but on actual sword-fighting moves. Kyoto Inferno duels that are important to watch and pay attention to are between Kenshin and Sojiro, Aoshi and Okina, Kenshin and Cho.
Some Little Details
Since I watched Kyoto Inferno more than a month ago and only writing about it now, my head is kind of blurry about small details I want to talk about. So I put them all here before moving on to The Legend Ends. First off, Kenshin’s wardrobe. In the film, Kenshin is seen wearing three kimono colors, red, bluish-grey, and off-white. As expected, each color represents a part of Kenshin’s persona. His signature red kimono is what he wears as his present, peace-loving self, Himura Kenshin. The blue kimono is when he is struggling with his inner battles, between his present and his past hitokiri self. He alternates this with the off white kimono in The Legend Ends when he was training with his master Hiko. As the slasher-battosai Kenshin, he wears off-white. This is what he wore during the burning of Kyoto battles, and in the ship where he jumps off. Second little thing. Naoki Sato’s musical score is always the perfect complement to the scene as well as One Ok Rock’s theme songs played during end credits. Third. Sano is a breath of fresh air. His mere presence lights up a scene. It also helps much that I was smitten by Mune-san with his comedic antics during his Manila visit.
And now the legend ends…
Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen るろうに剣心 伝説の最期編
Continuing from the last scene from Kyoto Inferno, The Legend Ends open with both Hiko Seijuro XIII and Kenshin 15 years ago when Hiko first met Kenshin when he was still a young boy named Shinta. Shinta was digging graves for all those who perished including the bandits who killed his companions. Master Hiko named him Kenshin (heart of the sword) as he decides to teach him his sword style, Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. The next scene shows present-day, unconscious Kenshin wakes up in a hut by the woods. He remembers Kaoru and is tormented when he realized he wasn’t able to save her. In fact, saving Kaoru is not even mentioned in The Legend Ends. Even tough Kyoto Inferno ended as if Kaoru will turn into a damsel in distress, Otomo-san completely abandons this possibility. In fact, it was not Kenshin who saved Kaoru. And this is a good thing. Most inexperienced directors would take advantage of this plot development; some will get carried away, but not Keishi Otomo. Kaoru was saved and the news of it puts a smile on Sato Takeru’s face. As a character, Kaoru is not someone who need saving. She is good just the way she is.
Master and Student
I deliberately did not mention Takeru in my Kyoto Inferno review. In The Legend Ends, he convinces me once again that there is no one who can play Kenshin Himura as well as him. When he convinced his master, Hiko to teach him the secret technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, his eyes swollen from his own tears heightened by the cinematic use of pouring rain, I wanted to plead with him. When he heard that Kaoru is still alive, his eyes twinkled with his face and I smiled with him. When he shared his life lesson to Aoshi, his eyes twitched and his cheekbones beamed, and I was as reflective. When he spouted intelligent words to Sojiro, his forehead flex a little, and I nodded with him. When he heard his own inner voice affirming his will to live, his eyes were drenched in tears, and I uttered to myself, finally. His facial expressions, his physicality, and his natural moves make this portrayal a truly magnificent one. Takeru Sato is Kenshin Himura.
Fukuyama Masaharu who played Kenshin’s master Hiko is no stranger to samurai roles. He played a charming samurai as Sakamoto Ryoma in Ryomaden. In The Legend Ends, he portrayed Hiko’s arrogance, quiet, reflective nature, fatherly care for Kenshin, and masterful sword fighting techniques with such finesse. My only qualm is removing the sacrificial passing on of techniques from master to student in the film’s storyline. What makes Amekakeruryu no Hirameki such a powerful technique is the fact that in order for a student to attain this, the master sacrifices his own life. Exploration of this would require more time, which I understand, the film cannot accommodate. How I wish they made The Legend Ends into a 3-hour epic.
Kaoru and Kenshin’s Scenes
Much of the subtlety and the implied meaning pertaining to Kenshin’s and Kaoru’s relationship is all dependent on Takeru’s acting. Because for some reasons unknown to me, the Legend Ends is wanting of Kenshin and Kaoru scenes together. While Kenshin is battling his inner demons, not even a flashback of Kaoru was included. When Kaoru announced to both Sano and Yahiko that they are coming back to Tokyo, and right after receiving the ultimate secret technique of his master’s sword style, minutes apart from Kaoru’s own pronouncement, Kenshin heads to Tokyo. As a viewer, I expected their paths to cross somehow. But no. Kenshin’s happiness as he finds out Kaoru is still alive, is only shown through Takeru’s acting. The very few Kaoru and Kenshin scenes together is the only flaw I have on watching this film.
While I ponder on this, some of the plot changes may have been the reason why this is so. In the anime, all actions take place entirely in Kyoto, while in these two film versions; the first one is in Kyoto while the Legend Ends takes place in a town near Kyoto and in Tokyo where Shishio is. The second reason I guess is that Otomo-san wanted to isolate Kenshin to emphasize his inner struggle and his resolve to understand his self on his own. I am on the verge of thinking; will a film device like a flashback or an insert shot of Kaoru showing that she is in Kenshin’s mind essential for emphasis? As I said, the film relied mostly on Takeru’s acting to show us the change in his character and how his relationship with Kaoru affects his will to live. While Takeru’s acting is great, the romantic in me would still want at least one scene of them together before Kenshin’s ‘execution’.
The Fight Scenes
Aside from Kenshin’s battle with Shishio, one battle I look forward to is his battle with Seta Sojiro. Sojiro is one character whose inner battles deserved more exploration because of his complex nature. However, in the Legend Ends, internal character conflicts are resolved with one or two battles. In fact, one battle with Kenshin is what Aoshi needs, complemented by Okina and Misao’s efforts to save him.
I think Otomo-san cleverly exposed this absurdity in Kenshin’s battle with Sojiro by making Kenshin say, “If all our problems can be solved by one or two battles, then no one would ever go wrong.” And my mind lit up for Aoshi’s and Sojiro’s inner conflict. This is exactly what the film is doing. But by making the main character comment on it, somehow, I willingly accept both Sojiro and Aoshi’s conflict as resolved.
The final battle between Kenshin and Shishio is absolutely perfect. I like the fact that it was done almost like the anime version. I will not attempt to describe what happened because my eyes can’t keep up with their fast moves. I’ll just say, everyone who’s supposed to be there battled Shishio, Shishio’s sword is on fire, and Kenshin executes his final attack, Amekakeru-ryu no Hirameki. The best thing I can say really is, just go watch it! With this fight sequence alone, The Legend Ends live up to its worth.
More True to Life
I think that the main reason why the Rurouni Kenshin films are magnificent is because they are true to life. Characters are not in the realm of anime and manga anymore. They are the breathing representations of people who have lived during the Meiji Period. The film gives emphasis on the Meiji Government, adding a character not in the anime, Minister Ito. His first task as ordered by Shishio is to execute Kenshin. Together with Saito-san and the leaders of the new Meiji government, he devices a plan to role-play the execution and get to Shishio. Kenshin’s supposed execution is important to the plot because we see right before our eyes that Shishio is not as mad as he is portrayed. The government is about to commit the same injustice awarded to him in the person of his sempai, Kenshin Himura, the Battosai. We understand Shishio more and the people are confronted with a question, can we trust this new government?
The ideal of peace against the fragile foundations of the new government is the back draft of the Rurouni Kenshin films. Because the films are more true to life, we are more immersed to the milieu, more invested with the characters – making us travel back in time, in a world greatly different from ours. And we enjoyed our wonderful journey. I know I did. 🙂
Kenshin Himura: Takeru Sato
Kaoru Kamiya: Emi Takei
Sanosuke Sagara: Munetaka Aoki
Megumi Takani: Yu Aoi
Yahiko Myojin: Taketo Tanaka
Hajime Saito: Yosuke Eguchi
Aoshi Shinomori: Yusuke Iseya
Nenji Kashiwazaki: Min Tanaka
Misao Makimachi: Tao Tsuchiya
Soujiro Seta: Ryunosuke Kamiki
Yumi Komagata: Maryjun Takahashi
Makoto Shishio: Tatsuya Fujiwara
Toshimichi Ookubo: Kazufumi Miyazawa
Ito Hirobumi: Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Cho Sawagejo: Ryosuke Miura
Misao Makimachi: Tao Tsuchiya
Hoji Sadojima: Kenichi Takito
Anji Yukyuzan: Tomomi Maruyama
Usui Uonuma: Mitsu Murata
Kamatari Honjo: Hiroko Yashiki
Saizuchi: Kentaro Shimazu
Fuji: Kota Yamaguchi
Seijuro Hiko: Masaharu Fukuyama
Director: Keishi Ohtomo
Executive Producer: William Ireton
Producer: Shinzo Matsuhashi
Original Comic: Nobuhiro Watsuki
Screenplay: Kiyomi Fujii and Keishi Ohtomo
Cinematography: Takuro Ishizaka
Production Designer: Sou Hashimoto
Action Director: Kenji Tanigaki
Music: Naoki Sato
Planning and Production: Warner Bros. Pictures Japan, Studio Swan
Theatrical Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures Japan
International Sales: Gaga Corporation
© Watsuki Nobuhiro/ Shueisha. © 2014 “Rurouni Kenshin” Production Committee
RUROUNI KENSHIN: KYOTO INFERNO
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Screen Size: 2.35:1
Japanese Theatrical Release: August 1, 2014
RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE LEGEND ENDS
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Screen Size: 2.35:1
Japanese Theatrical Release: September 13, 2014