Way Off-Topic: Rurouni Kenshin: Taika-Hen — A Simmer, but not yet an Inferno


I am not a film critic. I actually write almost exclusively about basketball. This post, therefore, will not talk about the finer points of filmmaking as observed in the second installment of the Rurouni Kenshin live action film trilogy — Rurouni Kenshin: Taika-Hen (Kyoto Inferno). 

Does Kenshin's second live action deliver the goods?


This is not a review. 

This is a reaction.


I am also not a Rurouni Kenshin (RK) fan. A fan is someone who watched RK back in the day, liked its story and characters, maybe browsed through the original manga version, and remembers the series with fondness.

I am more than that.

I am a Rurouni Kenshin geek. I am someone who makes it a point to re-watch the ENTIRE anime series (yes, even the not-so-stellar filler arcs), re-watch all OVAs/animated films, and re-read the ENTIRE manga (even the ill-fated “reboot”) on a regular basis. I have also entered trivia/geek competitions with RK as one of the major categories. 

Yes, it can get pretty wild.

For me, Kenshin Himura (a.k.a Shinta, Hitokiri Battousai) is more than a “favorite character.” Recca Hanabishi, Hanamichi Sakuragi, and Ichigo Kurosaki are anime/manga favorites of mine, but Kenshin is in a class all his own.

He is among my personal heroes.

So when the first live action film came out a couple of years ago, I was both pumped and nervous. Anime-to-live-action adaptations haven’t always been smooth (or even watchable — Dragonball Evolution anyone?), so I was a wee bit skeptical about how this would pan out.

Thankfully, the first film had enough charm and was generally (not completely) faithful to the source material’s story and spirit. It felt like RK, only with a lot more grit because, well, now we were watching real people (not to mention Emi Takei as Kaoru Kamiya was WOW).

When news of a sequel and a third film came out, I was ecstatic and anxious once again. Why two films? They’ll definitely do at least one film on the Kyoto Arc, right? Oh, but the Kyoto Arc just has too many subplots to be crammed into a 2-3 hour movie! Hmm… will they do two films on it then? Oh, but that means the series’s best story arc (the Jinchu Arc where Kenshin fully comes to grips with the consequences of his past) will once again not get the treatment it rightfully deserves. It was already ignored in the anime series and might be ignored once again on the big screen. 

Eventually, the next two RK films would, indeed, focus mainly on the Kyoto Arc. I found this a smart move, since, again, that particular expanded storyline is maybe the most popular in the series, and it really fleshed out Kenshin’s persona as a “man helping build a new age to atone for the crimes of his brutal past.” This is where the debate between “the strong should rule the weak” and “the strong should protect the weak” was placed under the spotlight. Needless to say, it may have helped shape the mindset of a whole generation of anime/manga fans. 

The Kyoto Arc had a wide reach and potentially universal appeal. It made sense.

And now, finally, after much anticipation, the RK sequel has arrived. 

Was it good? Did it live up to the standards of the first film? Is it worth watching?

Before I get into some nitty-gritty details and SPOILERS (alert!), let’s get one thing out of the way: RK Kyoto Inferno is worth watching. Whether you’re an RK fan, an RK geek, or someone who’s just curious (or got dragged to it), you should find a lot to enjoy. At the very least, the action is worth the price of admission (Kaoru, too!).

So there, if you just wanted someone to tell you if the film is worth the 200-250 bucks, then, yes, it is. Go. Watch it. 

And don’t read what follows next.

Because what follows are SPOILERS and some detailed impressions/reactions from an RK geek that perhaps only similarly-minded moviegoers will appreciate and find rich enough for discussion.

Still reading? Okay. Fine. You had your chance.

Now to quote Makoto Shishio, “Welcome to hell.”

Welcome to hell, RK fans!

Not that watching RK felt like hell, of course. Anything but. 

Hell as in helluva great way to express fan service. Helluva great time to watch top-class swordplay and stunts.

And helluva way to make a lasting impression on an RK geek like me.

So what were the things that lingered (and continue to linger) after the credits finished rolling?

I’ll start with things I really liked:

- Like the first film, this one nailed the look and tone of the source material, at least for the most part. The setting and the costumes generally felt authentic to the time period and faithful to the series. The tone of the conversations and feel of the different sequences were true to form. Kenshin was noticeably more dramatic here, as if he were carrying a heavy burden most of the way, and that’s exactly how he should be. His relationship with Kaoru was still maturing — not yet “there” but getting “there.” Again, that’s the way it should be. Shishio was menacing. Hoji was maniacal. Soujiro was disturbingly calm and cheerful. Sano drew a lot of laughter. At least on this first level, characterization was commendable. 

Certain quips, mannerisms, and eccentricities were preserved, like Saito’s perpetual smoking, Cho’s eye-twitch, Soujiro’s empty smile and tenken steps, and Iori’s innocent infant laughter. Aoshi flashing those twin kodachis and Okina’s brandishing his tonfas are awesome to behold, even more so the moment when the latter “perishes” after receiving Aoshi’s final strike. The way Okina’s body bends and blood splatters is really reminiscent of how it was done in the series. I also reveled in how the double-battoujutsu duel between Soujiro and Kenshin took place. The former took one extra move to break the sakabato, but it was still great to see. It felt like a real turning point in the story (there’s another one at the end of the film). These were utter geek-gasm moments for me. 

Okina and his tonfas! #GeekGasm


One might take issue with Kenshin’s wardrobe changes, though. By my recollection, he dons three different colors: his classic red/burgundy, the dark blue one he wore in his hitokiri days, and, lastly, a curious-looking white outfit. The third one he wears in his pivotal encounter with Shishio’s foot soldiers, the Juppongatana, and Shishio himself aboard the Rengoku. This white get-up might throw some fans off since he never wore it in the anime series, but true diehards would remember Kenshin actually donning a white kimono in one scene from the OVA, Rurouni Kenshin Tsuiokuhen, known outside Japan as Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal (he wore it in the scene where he sleeps with first love, Tomoe Yukishiro). I found this very interesting, and I interpreted it as one among a few subtle nods to Kenshin’s past. I’m not sure if director Keishi Otomo had that intention, but that was the effect for me.

Kenshin in blue = full on fight mode!


It really seems apparent that the filmmakers are using Kenshin’s kimono colors as a way of communicating his frame of mind. In the series, Kenshin’s reverting to his Hitokiri self is signaled by his eyes changing color. This would look strange in a live action film, though, which is I guess the reason Otomo has resorted to the kimono to symbolize Kenshin’s current mindset. When he uses the blue one, he’s pretty much in all-out fight mode. When he uses the white one, he’s in a state of transition (the third film’s trailer depicts Kenshin in his white kimono while training under Hiko). When he uses the red one, then he’s in his post-Hitokiri persona.

Kenshin in his white get-up running after Kaoru, who gets kidnapped by Soujiro.


Perhaps my only beef with the “look” of the film is how a couple of the Juppongatana members looked a little strange (which is saying a lot considering how strange their outfits already are in the first place). I thought that Anji Yukyuzan wasn’t as big as he should be, and Saizuchi wasn’t as old and frail as he appeared in the series (he even fights in this one). Again, however, this is all nitpicking already. No biggie.

Saizuchi gets a much younger look in the live action film.


- Emi Takei as Kaoru was great. I’ve gotten over the fact that she might be “too pretty” to be a tomboy and simply appreciated her role as the heroine. She nails Kaoru’s smile and look of concern while also doing a respectable job when action scenes called for her feisty side. My only nitpick is the weapon she uses in the fight scenes. In the original series (as in the first film), Kaoru uses a wooden sword (bokken/suburito), but here she uses a staff with a curved edge on one end (like a wooden naginata).

Emi Takei as Kaoru Kamiya. Nice.

Kaoru gets to fight with a wooden naginata.


- The action scenes were great. Most of the stunts were done by the actors themselves, and it seems like only a few stunts were done with the help of wirework. Kudos to the stunt crew and to the actors for being daring and fit enough to conceptualize and actually act out these scenes. The swordplay, in particular, was awesome. I especially liked the duels between Kenshin and Soujiro Seta, and the one between Kenshin and Cho Sawagejo. I was hoping for Cho to use his patented “elastic blade” attack (Hakujin no Tachi), but I figured it would require too much CGI and ruin the “organic look” of the film, so his being relegated to use his Renbato (parallel blades joined at the hilt) proved to be a smart move (the discerning fan would be able to spot a leather rendition of the Hakujin no Tachi inside Cho’s robes anyway). 

Kenshin vs. Cho Sawagejo for the principal forge of Shakku Arai's last sword (a sakabato).


- The film ends with a cliffhanger that cannot be found in the series. Initially, this gave me mixed feelings, but, after some thought, I realized I liked it because it served the purpose of bridging Kyoto Taika-hen with the third film, Densentsu no Saigo hen (The Legend Ends). 

What makes it different from the series? Well, for one, Kenshin never dives into the ocean to save Kaoru and never washes up on shore in the Kyoto Arc (the latter happens in another arc). Afterwards, a stranger finds him on the beach, recognizes him as Kenshin, and carries him off. True fans will infer that this stranger is none other than Kenshin’s mentor, Hiko Seijuro the 13th. True fans might also get thrown off a bit by this, since this is certainly not how the two reunite in the original series. In the source material, Kenshin finds Hiko with the help of the Oniwabanshu (named “The Watchers” in the film) and learns two crucial techniques before returning to Kyoto proper, teaming up with Saito, reuniting with Sano, Kaoru, and Yahiko, destroying the Rengoku, and eventually going to Mount Hiei for the final encounter with Shishio. The timeline is way off, BUT, again, for the purposes of setting up the next film in the series, this cliffhanger works. 

Aside from that, the fact that Kaoru gets kidnapped made me smile. It’s not because I’m sadistic, but her being taken as a “souvenir” is a great allusion to the Jinchu Arc of the series. This story arc was never animated in full (to the chagrin of many RK fans), but in that arc Kaoru gets nabbed by Kenshin’s foes and taken to a secluded island. After succumbing to depression at his inability to protect the one he loves, Kenshin recovers and saves Kaoru. One can surmise that something similar will probably happen in the third film. I believe this is the filmmakers’ way of doing some deep-level fan service while remaining true to the Kyoto Arc’s broad storyline. Pretty clever if I do say so myself.

Kaoru yells at Kenshin as she's held by Hoji and Yumi on the Rengoku.


- That wasn’t the only creative reference, though. The scene where Kenshin is shown in a cemetery looking at Shakku Arai’s tombstone is eerily reminiscent of Kenshin’s looking at Tomoe’s tombstone in the series (this happens after he already beat Shishio). Since I don’t think the filmmakers have any plans of making a fourth or even fifth film to flesh out this storyline (I hope I’m wrong), I think this specific nod (intentional or not) to Kenshin’s melancholic past was a great touch. 


And now for the misses (I’ll be nitpicking again, but bear with me): In general, and perhaps unavoidably, there were some key events and characters that were either missing, changed, or underdeveloped.

- The Bakkyusai scene: One of the film’s earliest sequences is a stage play scene where RK goes meta. Kenshin and his friends are watching a play about Hitokiri Battousai. This is at once comical and commendable, a great scene of foreshadowing and dramatic irony that reminds us of Kenshin’s whimsical side before plunging us into the more dangerous depths of the plot. This is another thing that cannot be found in the original story, but it still works. 

- The Kamiya students: This is something I felt the film could do without. The only new students Kaoru had in the series were Yahiko Myojin and his rival, Yutaro Tsukayama. In this film, Kaoru has more than handful of new faces studying in the dojo. I felt it was a needless addition that didn’t really have any major purpose in driving the story forward or adding depth to Kaoru’s character. It just distracted me.

- No “fireflies scene:” One of the most popular set-pieces in the original Kyoto Arc was the “fireflies scene” where Kenshin bids Kaoru farewell. It was a poignantly romantic scene that took the pair’s relationship to a deeper level. In the film, there is a farewell scene that is poignant in its own way, but it just doesn’t have the same depth as the “fireflies scene.” I felt it was a missed opportunity that would have built up even more drama for Kaoru’s impending kidnapping.

In place of the fireflies scene, we have this.
Not so bad, but still not as good.


- No Senkaku: I want to applaud the filmmakers for keeping the Shingetsu village sequence of events. It wasn’t noticeably apparent in the trailer, so I was afraid it would be a glaring omission. Thankfully, the village itself, together with Eiji and his deceased family, is present. This is important because it is here where Kenshin and Shishio first meet and try to get a feel for each other. This is where Shishio first witnesses how Kenshin fights, tries to gauge the latter’s strengths and weaknesses, and sees how Himura has changed from a relentless killer to a peace-loving protector. In the film, all these generally take place, although there is one major absence — that of one of Shishio’s primary henchmen, Senkaku. 

Kenshin faces Shishio in Shingetsu village.


Fans of the series will remember Senkaku as the muscle-bound, cone-headed baddie wielding twin hand-axes. He was the one who killed Eiji’s parents and who claims to have killed around 100 opponents. Kenshin beats Senkaku, but, to the surprise of Shishio, Yumi Komagata, and Soujiro, doesn’t execute him. This is significant because this serves as one of the primary reasons Soujiro experiences internal turmoil when he battles Kenshin later in the story. 

Senkaku takes on Kenshin in the anime.


Soujiro is a boy who has become devoid of emotion due to his turbulent upbringing and the fact that he firmly believes in Shishio’s mantra, “The strong live, and the weak die.” When Kenshin defeats Senkaku, but doesn’t kill him, Soujiro is confused and tormented. How can a man so skilled and so strong like Kenshin be so merciful, even protective, of his victims — those weaker than him? With Senkaku’s omission and without the singular frame of reference of his defeat (he died by Soujiro’s hands BTW), I’m very interested to see how Otomo will still manage to display Soujiro’s inner struggles in the midst of his pivotal tussle with Himura. Will there be a flashback to Soujiro’s being beaten up by his foster relatives, and will this be the sole propeller of his perpetually empty state? We’ll see.

Soujiro "plays" with Kenshin.


- No destruction of the Rengoku (yet): I expected the Rengoku (Shishio’s battleship) to be destroyed in a fiery spectacle. I wanted this to happen because, in the series, this opened Shishio’s eyes to the true danger of dealing with not just Battousai but his allies (otherwise known as the Kenshingumi). All throughout the beginning of the Kyoto Arc, Shishio dismisses the Kenshingumi as nothing more than pests, but the destruction of the Rengoku shows him how guys like Saito and, more so, someone like Sanosuke should not be underestimated. Without this in the film, I’m afraid that the character development for much of Kenshin’s supporting cast might be left wanting.

And speaking of underdevelopment…

- Underdevelopment of the Juppongatana and the Oniwabanshu: This is maybe my biggest complaint not just about the sequel but about the whole live action series. Based on what I’ve read and inferred, the filmmakers conceptualized the first RK film as a stand-alone product. They probably neither planned nor expected for the fan reaction to be the way it did. I felt that was a big mistake on their part, and now it is showing in how several supposedly major characters have been relegated to the background. 

One of the main driving forces behind the popularity of the Kyoto Arc is that, despite having a circus of characters, it still managed to give majority of them three-dimensional development. The encounter between Anji and Sano in the forest, where the former teaches the latter about the Futae No Kiwami hitting technique, is very important in the development of both characters’ motives. The same can be said for the other members of the Juppongatana like Usui Uonuma and Kamatari. Aoshi Shinomori’s role in the Megumi-Kanryu Arc was critical because it laid the groundwork for his initial hatred of Battousai and for the conflict between him and the new Oniwabanshu led by his protege (Misao Makimachi) and old leader (Okina a.k.a. Nenji Kashiwazaki). 

Aoshi Shinomori's characterization is a victim of the
series's initial conceptualization.


All of those are absent from the film series. 

This makes Anji, Usui, Kamatari, and pretty much the rest of the Juppongatana (save for Soujiro) little more than “advanced pawns” in Shishio’s game. This also frames Aoshi and the rest of the Oniwabanshu in relatively flimsy platforms. The omissions make it a little difficult to care for Aoshi and the Oniwabanshu, and make it a little difficult to build up anticipation for Shinomori’s impending clash with Kenshin. 

After watching the trailer for the third film, I’m no longer harboring high hopes of any of these characters getting a fair shake in terms of character development.

Nevertheless, as has been already mentioned, the fight between Okina and Aoshi is still one of the film’s high points — great action despite feeble context.


All in all, a few things certainly made me tilt my head and threw me off a bit, but, by and large, this was another great attempt to put Rurouni Kenshin in a live action context. As an RK geek, I’m not 100% happy, but as a moviegoer, I’m satisfied. Despite all my nitpicking, Kyoto Taika-Hen is successful in following up on the first film, setting up the third film, and, most importantly, preserving and presenting the true spirit of the series.

An interesting scene from the trailer of the third film, The Legend Ends.


In basketball terms (I am a basketball writer after all), Otomo’s team missed some shots, but they still won the day.

Commendable effort. Watch it! #Oro


All images are screencaps form the RK: Kyoto Inferno extended trailer or the anime series.


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5 Comment
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Reboot na lang kaya? haha

Balas
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I agree to all of this and honestly, I don't remember the scene where kenshin was wearing white in the anime, thank you for pointing that out. (i need to rewatch and reread this too... sometime in the future)
The fireflies seen was really a letdown. i was anticipating a tear-jerking scene while watching, but.. meh... oh well.
And i am also looking forward and hoping that they would make the Jinchu arc, with a lot more emotion in it.

Anyway, thanks for pointing out all the stuff! *thumbs up*

Balas
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Oh, btw, I just watched the trailer. I just realized something. The part where kenshin was to be executed in public, I remembered the scene with enishi after their fight.

And I just remembered this. The time where kaoru didn't have the spirit to go, I really like (in the anime) how megumi made kaoru go with yahiko. And then met hiko.

Balas
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in the rappler interview dir otomo explained the reason why there was no hotaro scene for kenshin and kauro

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnVMnpfNw4Y

http://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/66697-rurouni-kenshin-kyoto-inferno-movie-spoiler-interview

Balas
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