The final film in the 10-year Rurouni Kenshin saga was released on Friday, June 4.
The fifth in this series of live action movies, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning looks into the story behind the cross-shaped scar on the cheek of the main character, Himura Kenshin, and focuses on his love story with the mysterious yet brave character Tomoe Yukishiro.
Early on the day of the film’s release, hashtags related to it were already trending on Twitter, such as #るろ剣本日完結でござる (Today comes the conclusion of Kenshin, using samurai language) and #ありがとう剣心 (Thank you, Kenshin).
As I walked into the cinema in the early evening on June 4, I had a flood of uncertainty, and yet a little excitement. I knew roughly what the story was. What was this film going to bring?
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A Different Kind of Film
The incredibly popular series Rurouni Kenshin follows the adventure of a mysterious wandering samurai in the Meiji period (1868-1912). He sports a cross-shaped scar on his cheek, and after the start of the Meiji era, sheds his samurai sword and swears to protect people with a sakabato, a blade which faces against the owner rather than the opponent.
Empowering, with awe-inspiring fighting scenes, at times kitsch and even funny, the manga, then animé, then live action film series has stirred the hearts of people all around the world, for example in Southeast Asia, where the release is anticipated with particular enthusiasm. The story has even been turned into a theater performance by the Takarazuka Revue, the immensely popular all-female musical cast in Japan, in 2016.
Despite the enduring popularity of the series, this newest film, counterintuitively called The Beginning, does something quite different from the previous films.
To start off, it does away with the kitsch and humorous part of the narrative. Instead, it shows an aspect of humanity, drama, and a much darker, introspective tale of the main character Himura Kenshin.
Our protagonist is more commonly known in the story as “Hitokiri Himura Battosai,” and the latest release delves into how, before the Meiji restoration, the young Himura is recruited to fight. Due to his ability to handle a sword he is ordered to become an assassin. The job profoundly jades Himura, at which point he meets the beautiful Tomoe, and their relationship blossoms.
”Kenshin was no longer human. He was only accustomed to hurting people, killing people. But when he met Tomoe, I think you can say that was the first time he became human,” actor Takeru Sato, who played Kenshin in the franchise, explained in a live event to welcome the audience on its opening day, June 4.
“I hope that it comes through, in a beautiful and sad way,” he concluded.
Together with the pathos, the film adds a layer of historical drama which was not present in previous films. It delves into historically existing factions and their dynamics in the transition towards the “new era” of industrialization.
The background adds nuance to the story, blurring the lines between right and wrong, and leaves the viewer with a much deeper understanding of the dilemmas which haunt the main character throughout the saga. This is even more surprising because fans who have watched the whole series already know the skeleton of Tomoe’s story, but nonetheless the film seeks to bring a new layer of depth to the narrative.
On the film’s official Twitter account on June 4, actor Munetaka Aoki, who plays Sanosuke Sagara in the Rurouni Kenshin films, posted a comment after seeing the film:
“It was an incredible experience seeing Rurouni Kenshin as a spectator, and I was completely pulled into the story, as one understands the weight that he was carrying this whole time.”
The stellar cast brings an added gravitas to the film, with Tomoe played by Kasumi Arimura. Supporting actors include Nijiro Murakami, who appeared most recently in the Netflix series Alice in Borderland (2020).
In addition, the employer of Himura, Kogoro Katsura is played by Issey Takashi, who was a main character in Wife of a Spy (2020), a film directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa that won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.
Finally, the aesthetics merit a mention of their own. Using a generally more somber palette of colors compared to the sometimes colorful sets in other films of the saga, The Beginning sucks you in, and manages from the very start to give the feeling of uncertainty and suspicion in times of factionalized war.
In numerous instances the director Keishi Otomo manages to capture scenes with artistic quality, not least the scene that appears in the poster of the film, in the climax moment picturing both Himura and Tomoe in the snow.
In these scenes, one can see the talent of the staff and the director. Takeru Sato himself said in an interview with Japanese film buff website Cinema Today, published on June 3, that he was very impressed with the variety and beauty of the sets.
“It might seem obvious, but compared to the image that I had, the quality was really high, it came as a real surprise,” he commented. “For example, on the set of the country house, we had clothes conforming with the time. The world that the staff managed to create was incredible.”
“On the production side,” he continued, “if we would decide, ‘Let’s have snow in this,’ it would become like that, down to the last detail of the snow. There was a lot of attention to every small thing, it was great. Everytime we changed sets, I was always very moved.”
It doesn’t hurt that the closing song is “Broken Heart of Gold,” by ONE OK ROCK. As of June 6, the song alone was ranking in the top 50 most played songs on Spotify in Japan. Perhaps it’s telling that the vocalist of ONE OK ROCK even said in a video published on June 1 that, “It’s hands down my favorite one [film in the series].”
This was echoed by many enthusiastic fans on Twitter on the opening weekend of June 4, with comments such as “The tears just kept coming” and “I am so infinitely thankful that this series was completed as a live action film over 10 years! #thankyoukenshin”
In essence, fans who are worried that they will not like a different kind of Kenshin film should rest assured — you will not be disappointed.
Author: Arielle Busetto