[Ed. note: Nobuhiro Watsuki, the creator of the original manga the movies discussed here are based on, was fined for possession of child pornography in 2018. He was not involved in the adaptation process or the production of the movies, but it is possible he still receives passive income from them. The following article focuses exclusively on the films and the many talented people who worked on them, and whose labor and careers stand on their own. At the time this article was initially published, we were not aware of these charges, and we apologize for this oversight. We wish to give readers this warning, and understand some might not feel comfortable discussing the franchise in light of this information.]
The story of Rurouni Kenshin begins in 1860s Japan, where the end of the Japanese civil war is marking the transition from feudalism to modernism. Himura Kenshin, a legendary warrior, renounces his violent ways and wanders the land looking for atonement. But his past catches up to him, and he must once again use his gift of swordsmanship to help the innocent.
Rurouni Kenshin started as a manga series, and became a successful anime series in the mid-1990s. It was only a matter of time before a live-action adaptation of the saga followed. Warner Bros. Japan backed the project, and turned it into one of Japan’s most widely acclaimed recent franchises. The initial trilogy — 2012’s Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins and 2014’s Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends — is widely available for digital rental. And Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, the saga’s fourth movie, is now on Netflix, after opening successfully in Japan in April 2020. So what makes this franchise so special?
The Kenshin movies stand out for a number of reasons: Their compelling stories are filled with endearing characters, and they take place in a rich world that draws from real Japanese history. Bringing the story to life through superb production design and cinematography, the films find the right balance between visual naturalism and moments of pure mythological wonder. They center on an attention-grabbing protagonist, introduced as an unstoppable force of war who wants to stop fighting.
Kenshin’s arc throughout the trilogy initially makes him the embodiment of Japan’s guilt and attempt to atone for its sins. Kenshin feels that every time he killed an adversary, he lost part of his soul. So now, the former samurai wields a “reverse-blade sword,” the Sakabatō, where the sharp edge faces inward toward the wielder, instead of outward toward his opponent. The weapon lets him use his fighting skills to protect those in need, without ever killing again. The Sakabatō is an essential part of the series’ mythology, working as a metaphor for Kenshin’s core dilemma. The sharp edge constantly reminds him what he’s capable of, and it threatens to cut him rather than his enemies. It’s a potent metaphor for what violence does to the people who choose to harm others. No wonder that when the blade is broken in Kyoto Inferno, so is Kenshin’s will.
Kenshin is portrayed by Takeru Satoh of Kamen Rider Den-O fame, who finds in Kenshin his greatest role yet. He gives Kenshin an unparalleled fighting agility, but there’s an irresistibly sweet side to his demeanor as well. He’s surrounded by a large cast of talented actors, some of whom deliver memorable performances, especially on the villains’ side. Tatsuya Fujiwara, for instance, plays the unsettling Shishio Makoto, Kenshin’s mirror image, who was broken and betrayed by the Imperialist forces he helped bring to victory during the civil war. He’s the main antagonist of the second and third films, and he makes for one of the most striking cinematic bad guys of all time. Burned alive, wrapped in bandages, he uses a serrated sword that has accumulated so much human fat through years of cutting open human bodies that it catches fire at the faintest spark. Just as Kenshin and the Sakabatō are one, Shishio and his blazing weapon similarly represent each other.
There is a lot to be said of Kenshin’s journey from guilt-ridden wanderer to the man he becomes by the final act of The Legend Ends. It’s easy to see his story as a metaphor for Japan’s struggle to come to terms with its past, particularly its role in World War II. Kenshin chose to renounce violence, rather than being defeated like Japan, but his move to a less warlike way of living sets up a core theme for the series: the transition from a warrior age to a civilized one, and the complete societal reinvention that must come with it. All three films in the original trilogy see the old trying to catch up to the new, or trying to make it old again. Kenshin can only complete his journey when he realizes that the future lies in transforming the elements of the past, rather than eliminating or forgetting them. The live-action movies never fully develop the story’s political dimension, but it’s there by default, in the way the characters are written, and how they behave relative to the government and each other. When they talk about standing by their ideals and enacting change for the better on an individual level, the personal becomes political.
The series constantly questions whether violence is an inevitable part of societal change, whether the ways of the past can be used to protect the future, and how. Those questions resonate through the action design, which pushes the boundaries of what Japanese blockbuster can offer. To direct the action, filmmaker Keishi Ōtomo entrusted a talented stunt team lead by Takahito Ouchi, whose body of work notably includes the thrilling, high-octane HiGH&LOW franchise, and most importantly by action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki. The latter has been working and learning with legendary Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen since the late 1990s, all the way from Ballistic Kiss to Blade II, from the game-changing Flash Point to Dragon and the upcoming Raging Fire. His work will also be featured in the American G.I. Joe film Snake Eyes, slated for release this summer.
Tanigaki brings his A-game to the Rurouni Kenshin saga, delivering an entirely new breed of cinematic kinetics. While drawing from the century-old tradition of chanbara imagery (a “calligraphic” style of action cinema defined by bravura camera movements and elaborate choreographies, which started all the way back in the 1920s), Tanigaki pushes the envelope of how dynamic sword fights can look by extending the flow of action to every part of the hero’s body. Kenshin fights not only with his blade, but with his whole being. Speed and the use of the environment also play a major role in the way these films update Japanese action movies, pushing the actors to the limits of what is physically possible. Wires are used to amplify movements and let the films subtly step into superhuman territory, but never so much so that it breaks the suspension of disbelief.
The camera work is just as commendable, either enhancing the dynamism of the fights, or bringing an extra layer of meaning to the pictures. When Kenshin is first introduced in Origins, Tanigaki and his team match the camera movement to the character’s momentum, and use the editing to translate his power to every part of the film world. They stay the course for most of the original trilogy, which is nearly miraculous. The first Kenshin trilogy remains one of the greatest action-movie achievements of the decade. The creators clearly had to make difficult choices around condensing the story and streamlining the characters, but the creative team brings this world to the screen with heart and panache.
The Final, the series’ fourth installment, is its grand finale. A fifth movie, The Beginning, is now out in Japan, but it’s a prequel, set before Origins. The Final starts with a bang: In 1879, a group of police officers track down and attempt to arrest a mysterious individual with ties to the Shanghai mafia. The criminal, Enishi Yukishiro, effortlessly subdues them in a show of force that establishes him as the new antagonist. He’s played by Mackenyu Arata, son of the legendary movie icon Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, and he brings tangible charisma to his screen persona. His focused and malignant mindset contrasts with Kenshin’s new personality, more relaxed and trying to live on in a time of peace.
But peace remains a utopian ideal for Japan’s greatest swordsman. Yukishiro sends his minions after Kenshin, leading to a major action scene before the 30-minute mark. As was the case in the original trilogy, cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka and director Keishi Ōtomo create superbly crafted images, while Kenji Tanigaki continues to look for new ways to surprise the audience in his choreography. This first fight, set at night, makes optimal use of the destructible sets, and uses lighting to focus viewers’ eyes on the unusual weapons and movements of Kenshin’s enemy.
Like the original trilogy, The Final uses Kenshin’s struggle to settle into a peaceful era as a mirror for the Japanese government’s anxiety over the country’s involvement in Taiwan and Korea, and the growing tensions with China. For both the character and the country, the troubled, murky waters of the past rise again, putting the present’s newfound stability in jeopardy.
But in The Final, the stakes are much more personal than before. After 14 years in exile, Yukishiro has returned to take revenge on Kenshin, who he saw killing his sister Tomoe — Kenshin’s only love — all those years ago. The Beginning goes back to that time, focusing on how the famous warrior got his cross-shaped facial scar, but The Final is anchored in a story of lost loves: the romantic connection between Kenshin and Tomoe, and the brotherly one between Enishi and his sister.
The Final spends a great deal of time focusing on his characters and observing their complicated feelings for each other, notably with regard to Kenshin’s close friend Kamiya Kaoru, and her attraction to the former assassin. Once again, the actors deliver formidable performances, switching between intimate scenes where they convey their emotions through their eyes, and rip-roaring action setpieces.
The rogues gallery is greatly enriched in this chapter, given Yukishiro’s colorful allies: a gangling assassin who uses scythe-like weapons, a grunting killer armed with metal claws, a Gatling gun-wielding, trigger-happy maniac. These villains and other secondary characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, but the action scenes built around them stand out.
Around halfway through The Final, one exchange beautifully embodies the Rurouni Kenshin movies’ core themes. After Himura wins his fight against one of Yukishiro’s minions, the defeated assassin pleads for death:
“To restore the Emperor, you stole our samurai pride. You denied us… an honorable death. So now… with those hands… give me that now! That much, you owe me.”
The transition out of feudalism that Kenshin helped complete in the Japanese civil war seemed to have been for the greater good, but like all revolutions, it was far from bloodless. And it abruptly orphaned an entire warrior class that used to be an integral part of the nation’s cultural and societal fabric. In the process, Japan birthed its future demons: the resentment the dispossessed feel as they’re forced to abandon their pride, their codes, and their way of life. This resentment has survived the passage of time, because Japan’s warrior pride lives on in the country’s cultural consciousness.
But Kenshin dismisses both his opponent and that resentment. “Live in the new age,” he answers, laying out the saga’s stance in favor of hope and change.
Along with stunning images like the aerial shots of the hot-air balloons hovering over the burning streets of Tokyo, the directing team delivers an exciting final act bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The duel between Kenshin and Yukishiro is expected, but it hits the mark kinetically as well as emotionally.
Through the sheer passion for cinema it exudes, The Final comes across as a labor of love that proves once and for all that the Rurouni Kenshin cinematic saga stands on its own, unshaded by the source material’s legacy. All four films are on Netflix in some non-U.S. countries, and in areas where they’re available, you could do a lot worse than binging the best Japanese action film series of the last 10 years. The Beginning came out in Japanese cinemas in June 2021, and hopefully it will join the rest of the saga in digital release soon.
In America, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final launches on Netflix on June 18, 2021. Rurouni Kenshin: Origins is streaming on Funimation, and all three films from the original trilogy are widely available on digital rental services. In some territories, all four Kenshin movies are now on Netflix.