Once an assassin, always an assassin
Like Ace Attorney, Rurouni Kenshin is a recent live action film based on a beloved series. Unlike it, it's really good. Forgive me, I have a penchant for historical Japanese stories that may or may not involve slicing and dicing with swords. This film knows how to slice.
The story follows the first few arcs of the original manga. We meet the seemingly carefree, wandering swordsman Himura Kenshin (a 'ronin', or masterless samurai) as he travels about Kyoto around the end of the 19th century. He seems a rather goofy character, carrying a singularly useless weapon: a katana whose edge is reversed to point inwards. His appearance hides a dark past, of course. In truth, he used to be the ruthless assassin Hitokiri Battousai, purging the emperor's enemies during the Bakumatsu period. Tired of the bloodshed, he gives up the life of violence and turns into a wanderer helping others.
But even in this new age of Meiji, his past catches up to him. Kenshin gets involved in a plot to steal the land of a defenseless dojo owned by the young Kaoru. Behind it is the decadent businessman Kanryuu, who heads a criminal opium empire staffed by strange warriors. The resolution of this plot is a fairly standard morality play with basic movements, but a certain few things lift it up. First, there is the historical context.
Inherently true about Japanese cinema is that your enjoyment of it is proportionate to your level of knowledge of the country's past. Films and series will fling around terms like bakufu, shinsengumi, Boshin war; or mention famous characters like Sakamoto Ryouma or Oda Nobunaga in passing. The subtlety of their storytelling lies in how they reference these events and people to add layers of depth, spinning a web of meaning with strands running into the past. Even a simple film like Rurouni Kenshin floats in the context of these broad sweeps of history. It's enjoyable without an understanding of it, but a true pleasure with. The more Japanese movies you see, the more you learn and start to appreciate this.
A strong undercurrent running through Kenshin is the shift from the Tokugawa into the Meiji era. With it came a shattering of formal castes. The samurai class, long the cultural elite, saw itself reduced in many cases to poverty and obsolescence, while the scorned merchant class rose to wealth and power. This theme surfaces again and again, as Kanryuu mocks those that were once samurai for their loss. Money, not heritage, is the dominant power now, and he flaunts it with extravagance. Throughout the story he attempts to purchase people, eventually throwing bills out the window onto a frenzied throng.
Besides the philosophical aspect, Kanryuu is a joyous rogue to see. He's played with vaudevillian delight by Teruyuki Kagawa, who earlier starred in NHK drama Ryomaden as another weaselly creep. Though Kagawa takes the spotlight, he's flanked by a host of actors in fleshed-out roles. Another contrast appears here to Ace Attorney: the drama is felt with gripping precision. Whether there's a dynamic action sequence with Kenshin flying around an opponent, or a quiet scene of contemplation – it's all relevant and resonant.
Visually and aurally, the film is fantastic. The Kenshin series has, in every incarnation, been blessed with spectacular music. No exception here. The costumes and sets look splendid. Everything's believable and reminiscent of that old Japan that perhaps never quite looked like this, but is certainly there in the imagination whenever it is considered. Look. Rurouni Kenshin is at its heart a simple, fun, pulpy manga adaptation. But it's so lovingly made and so well-crafted, that I itch to watch it again. But then, that may also be that old craving for slicing and dicing bobbing up once more.