Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno Review

Adapting a story from one medium to another has always been a problem that few films have ever overcome. Telling a story in a novel or manga is different from a television series, more so in film. This difficulty in finding a balance between staying true to the source and making a functioning movie often forces directors to lean one way or the other. An adaptation can be really faithful but makes for a bad movie, or it can focus on making a good movie but so far removed from the source that it alienates fans of the original.

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The trick has always been to include all the elements of the original, to preserve what is essential, and twist and turn the others to make it fall into place. That was achieved by the first Rurouni Kenshin live action film released in 2012. The plot has been simplified (that’s about three story arcs condensed into one), the screenplay far from stellar, but as an adaptation and a chambara film, it more than satisfies.

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno has the burden of being a sequel, which means that the expectations are higher, and the level of difficulty significantly increased coupled with the fact that it will deal with a major (not to mention fan-favorite) arc. Unlike the first movie where we are only given a tantalizing glimpse into Kenshin’s reputation as a legend, this first of a two-parter embraces it with gusto and forces the titular main character to deal with the shadows of his own making.

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As with the first movie, the manga plot had been twisted and turned to accommodate the changes made in the first movie, and to condense the long arc into something that can be understood by casual movie goers. The screenplay improves a bit from the first movie, and has lot of philosophical musings as well as differences in speech styles from character to character. For example, Kenshin’s lines and expression mirror his emotions very well. Which leads me to my next point: this film does a great job of backing up the lines with real emotions. From Kaoru’s despair and Sanosuke’s annoyance at Kenshin’s departure, to Kenshin’s struggle for control, to Sojiro’s empty smiles, this film is full of emotions that it feels very colorful.

Do not soil your hands....
Do not soil your hands….

The costumes also contributed a lot to this color. Through the different costumes used by both lead characters and extras, we get a glimpse at their personalities. It is the first time we see Saito dressed in indoor clothes, giving off a feeling that these characters are “alive” and not just tropes made flesh. When Kenshin was cleaning his new Sakabato, he is wearing a yukata because his clothes were soiled during the fight with Cho and wearing it inside the Aoi-Ya would be improper.

The calm before the storm: Kenshin puts his new sakabto in his old tsuka, with a new sheath.
The calm before the storm: Kenshin puts his new sakabto in his old tsuka, with a new sheath.

This movie isn’t just a manga adaptation: it also shows, when it can, a bit about the culture in which the story is set. There were a few lines of dialogue that only those with at least an elementary understanding of etiquette will catch. Like that short verbal tussle between Kenshin and Shishio in the village where the latter tells Kenshin to at least call him “Mister” even though he (Kenshin) got the job first. This is a reference to the senior-junior relationship that still exists in Japan today. Shishio was making a point to be rude as to impress upon Kenshin that he doesn’t care if he is senior or not. Several scenes later, when he was looking at the damaged Kotetsu Nagasone sword he let Seta Sojiro use against Kenshin, he would remark that he had underestimated him.

Nothing like a little rudeness to start things off.
Nothing like a little rudeness to start things off.

These subtle touches of etiquette is what makes this film series unique. It’s not trying very hard to be a samurai movie, it knows very well that it is. It embraces themes like honor, sacrifice, the search for redemption, but is not bound by it. While it can give us a lecture on the grave consequences of killing, the next moment we are being treated with a scene showing the good guy beating the crap out of hoodlums.

Nothing stands in his way when he gets pissed off.
Nothing stands in his way when he gets pissed off.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot has been twisted and turned to make it consistent with that of the first movie as well as giving the convoluted story more sense. Many hard-core fans might have a problem with this, but sentimental attachments to the anime/manga aside, those changes helped make this a better movie.

Take, for example, Shinomori Aoshi, whose back story was drastically changed from the original to what we get in this movie. Already, audiences are pointing this as the weak link in an otherwise strong chain. However, I beg to disagree. Live action Aoshi has pretty much the same grudge as manga/anime Aoshi. The only difference is that in the manga/anime, we know the names of his comrades, we saw their self-sacrifice, while in the live action, we have nameless Oniwabanshu dying with the name of their captain on their lips. The former would naturally resonate more with the fans, but does it matter? The death of the live-action Oniwabanshu had as much impact on live action Aoshi as much as the Hannya, Beshimi and the others did on manga/anime Aoshi.

One of this movie's best fighting scenes.
One of this movie’s best fighting scenes.

If there was a real “weak” link in this movie (although it doesn’t make the movie weak at all), it was the lack of action time for the Juppongatana with the exception of Cho and Sojiro. I am not concerned with how they were changed from what the source made them to be, but rather, on how weak their presence was in the movie. Some of the changes were obvious and probably intentional, like how I’m betting that live action Honjo Kamatari is actually female rather than a cross-dressing homosexual, or that Usui doesn’t look as scary as his manga/anime counterpart (still pretty skilled, though), but I was expecting the Juppongatana to play a much larger role than they had. But then again, in keeping with the plot twist (SPOILER ALERT!) of Kyoto actually a feint and Tokyo as the real target, it makes sense. For all his egomania, Shishio is skilled enough in strategy to wisely preserve his best warriors for the main fight. Cho was sacrificed because he failed in his mission to secure Arai Shakku’s final sword, but the rest are intact and available for use in the inevitable showdown.

The Juppongatana: After a good entrance, was absent for the most part in this film.
The Juppongatana: After a good entrance, was absent for the most part in this film.

The pacing for this movie is insanely fast from the moment Kenshin is summoned by Okubo Toshimichi. But it has its down moments that allow you to glimpse into Kenshin’s inner struggle. I would like to commend Takeru Sato for really getting into the role of a conflicted hero who knows what he must do but does not want to give up his principles and beliefs to be able to do it. His sword cannot kill, but what the heck, he challenged Shishio to a duel anyway. He had a reason to fight, if not to kill, and that’s what makes a warrior, not the flashy moves or the bad ass look.

Never mess with a wanderer...
Never mess with a wanderer…

Tatsuya Fujiwara has impressed me again with how he transformed into Shishio Makoto. His grin – whether during the flashback showing him as a baby-faced assassin or when he was wrapped under his trademark bandages – is pure evil, belying the madness and the violence that endeared him to the fans. Ryunosuke Kamiki is also the perfect Sojiro Seta, grinning, childish, and, well, demented. But for me, I really loved Min Tanaka as Okina, his exudes a “warrior” aura even though he is peacefully petting a cat.

Warriors who once fought for opposing sides. Now the Shogunate's old spy network houses the Imperialist's former top assassin.
Warriors who once fought for opposing sides. Now the Shogunate’s old spy network houses the Imperialist’s former top assassin.

Kyoto Inferno ended on a cliff-hanger with an introduction to the series’ most anticipated character: Hiko Seijuro XIII, along with a promise the ‘The Legend’s End’ will be an action-packed finish.

Oh yes, he's in the next movie.
Oh yes, he’s in the next movie.

I have read somewhere that the first film raised the bar for future manga/anime to live action movie adaptations. With this movie, the bar was raised even higher. The love for the source, logical changes, and focus all conspired to make, what could possibly be the best samurai movie series we’ve had in years. Here’s hoping the final chapter will complete this memorable movie trilogy.