by Elizabeth Chan | staff writer
On December 14th, LA EigaFest opened up its 2012 film festival featuring some of the greatest Japanese blockbusters of the year with a bang by providing the first and only United States screening of Rurouni Kenshin.
Crowds assembled at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and watched the red carpet event just before opening ceremonies, where various stars and performers that would appear throughout the weekend made their way into the venue. When the opening ceremonies started, Rurouni Kenshin director Keishi Otomo and actor, Munetaka Aoki (Sanosuke Sagara), were introduced with an uproar of applause. After a warm welcome and short history lesson on the Egyptian Theatre from none other than George Takei (who garnered an incredible response from the crowd), the much anticipated film began.
As can be expected from a live-action film version, there was a departure from the manga and anime in how the story was presented. Otomo addressed this during the Q&A session later that night, but nevertheless, the film delivered what was most important — bringing the spirit and embodiment of the story and characters from Rurouni Kenshin to life in a three dimensional live-action film.
The lighting and cinematography perfectly set the stage for the era. While not necessarily as brightly colored as the anime rendition or the brilliantly drawn art pieces from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga, it was a perfect reflection of the actual historical period of Meiji Japan and brought the audience into that period.
The costume design was given a similar approach, as everything that was used perfectly simulated what the characters’ outfits should look like should they have been real people, and with great attention to detail as even Yahiko’s top had the trademark pattern that allowed the audience to know who he was. Otomo commented that they had invested great care into these aspects of the film as they didn’t want it to seem like people cosplaying the characters, but rather show the characters come to life in three dimensions.
All of the actors fit their respective parts perfectly. The performance from Takeru Sato, who played the part of Himura Battosai, was especially spectacular and on point. Sato was easily able to balance between Kenshin’s amazingly serious prowess as a swordsman and killer with the light-hearted nature he adopts as a rurouni, while fluidly being able to turn it on and off like a switch where appropriate. There is no doubt that he was the perfect actor for the role. Otomo even thought so when he worked with him on the hit taiga drama, Ryomaden, commenting that he had decided do the project if he found the right actor and he found him in Sato.
Not only that, but Otomo mentioned that going from the television period drama Ryomaden to the Kenshin film, it was as if Sato was also giving new life to the villainous Izo Okada whom he had portrayed previously. Behind the scenes, Sato put in months of training to get the movements right for the role and build up his speed. He went so far with the role as to vow that if he didn’t do it justice, that he would quit acting because even he himself was a huge fan of the series when he was younger.
Munetaka Aoki‘s performance as Sanosuke was a wonderful display of his jovial brawler spirit. His movements seemed like a true embodiment of Sanosuke coupled with his loose clothing and random and impromptu fighting style. While in many images, Sanosuke is seen with something like a fish bone or piece of wheat in his mouth, this would have seemed too cartoon-ish and unrealistic in a live action film, so Aoki opted to try to bring out the same spirit as those items by having his Sanosuke consume food items like a bowl of raw egg randomly before or during a fight.
The ladies of the film are not to be ignored either as, contrary to other opinions, Emi Takei and Yu Aoi were just as perfect in their renditions of Kaoru Kamiya and Megumi Takani. While I do think that Aoi was a younger Megumi than I would have imagined for the part, since Megumi is supposed to be more of a mature older sister for Kaoru, I don’t think that her beauty was outshined by Emi Takei, as her version of Megumi represented the more traditionally Japanese and ladylike character that Megumi should be.
Takei on the other hand seems to embody more modern beauty aesthetics. That, coupled with Kaoru’s tomboy-ish character, makes her someone who would stand out in Meiji Japan as not being the most appealing lady on the block. Although a minor role in the film (as the film version incorporates more of a serious tone), Taketo Tanaka’s portrayal of Yahiko was full of energy and spunk, and as eager as many fans remember him to be from the anime and manga.
On the side of the villains, Kanryu Takeda and Jin-e respectively played by Teruyuki Kagawa and Koji Kikkawa, were as utterly despicable as they should be. Kanryu’s greed and love of money as the answer to all of his woes was highlighted with the most precise amount of extravagance – from the white rabbit on his desk to the exotic dogs that grazed in the front yard of his mansion estate.
The evil intent that emanated from Kikkawa’s Jin-e was chilling and made his usage of Shin-no-Ippo thrillingly believable. His voice is even about the same tone as the original anime voice actor Akio Otsuka, which added another layer of live action manifestation to his character.
Plot-wise, the film encompassed the equivalent of about the first 10 episodes of anime and the first 30 chapters of the manga, but much more amalgamated together, with the entire event with Takeda being mixed in with the previous story with the Hiruma Brothers. The beloved Hajime Saito, who originally did not have that big of a part to play at this point in the story, took the place of both Police Chief Uramura (Chief Muraki in the anime) and to some extent in the final showdown, Aoshi Shinomori. Udo Jin-e, as well, partly took the place of Aoshi as one of Takeda’s hired men. Accordingly, since Aoshi wasn’t there, neither was the Oniwabanshu. The other principle muscle present were Gein and Inui Banjin, who were two of Enishi’s Six Comrades from the Jinchu Arc much later on in the manga. Although I’m sure many fans were disappointed that Aoshi was not part of this first film, I’m certain that many were excited to see Saito. The inclusion of too many characters would have been detrimental to the narrative flow of the film. There was, however, a significant flashback to an event of great importance in the Jinchu Arc that many will remember as part of the Tsuiokuhen OVA.
Initially, the mixture of events could have seemed problematic to many fans, but the way in which this mixture of stories took place was wonderfully executed and left room for greater developments should there be subsequent films. Otomo commented in this regard that there is a distinctly different way of story telling from film to manga. In a film, you really only have about two hours to tell such a broad story. With that in mind, the edits made to collapse the Hiruma Brothers story with that of Megumi and Kanryu Takeda was a smart choice, as even Watsuki had mentioned before that the later story mirrored the events in the earlier one. Allowing Saito to be the principle police officer instead of Uramura allowed for an earlier introduction and the removal of a character that was rather minor in the scheme of the overall plot. Gein and Inui Banjin originally come from a later arc and were definitely out of place, but the two of them offer a creative twist that can be fleshed out in a later film. Time would also not have been friendly to the development of a third principle villain in Aoshi, so placing Jin-e in his place was a great choice to both incorporate one of the more memorable tales of redemption with Megumi and one of the most fascinating battles in the series in the face off between Kenshin and Jin-e.
**HERE THERE BE SPOILERS**
The battle with Jin-e was surely a spectacular way to end the film as well. The entire film was filled with enthralling action sequences with incredible footage because the actors got in shape to do the stunts themselves, but the pivotal battle against Jin-e alone made for an excellent finale. Kenshin’s struggle with his former self as Jin-e baits him and his eventual success at remaining true to his vows and new way of life is a testament of hope and one of the earliest – as well as meaningful – depictions of redemption in the series.
The story at the mansion was definitely a great, uplifting development where Kenshin saves the day and was certainly another story of redemption on the part of Megumi, but the film is about Kenshin, so the film should end with Kenshin kicking butt and his own struggle with his past as Hitokiri Battousai and end it with that, it did.
**END OF SPOILERS**
To round it all off, the intro to ONE OK ROCK’s theme song for the film, “The Beginning” starts as the film ends. The title and lyrics for the song are definitely very appropriate for this film as even though it works as a stand alone film, there are also plenty of elements that can easily feed into sequels. Many fans will for sure clamor for more of Saito, the official introduction of Aoshi, and would salivate at the idea of there being a live action rendition of Makoto Shishio. Truly, it is just as Taka sings as the final line of the theme song, “It finally begins.”
The Blu-Ray and DVD for the film came out in Japan on December 26, 2012 with both deluxe and regular editions available. The single for the theme song was released on August 22, 2012.