Rurouni Kenshin is an adaptation of the beloved manga/anime series. As such, it’s not a work that allows itself many liberties with the source material. Sure, it conflates a few things, adds in characters who shouldn’t be there and all that, but it pretty much sticks to the work. It’s a respectful adaptation, one that tries to honor the original work and its message. It’s also a really boring film. For the uninitiated, Rurouni Kenshin tells the story of a former legendary assassin who, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, has taken an oath to never kill again. He now wanders the countryside, wearing his reverse blade sword, and minding his own business. Of course, oaths are meant to be broken, and pretty much everything that happens in the film is direct challenge to that oath.
The director, Keishi Ohtono, mostly known for his work on TV, does not quite bring enough visual flair to the table. His main decision seems to color code certain scenes. Any big outside battle scene is done using dark, gray colors (or takes place at night). Ohtono emphasizes the bloody, grimy nature of the battle scenes. That’s fine as far as directorial decisions go. It suggests the chaotic, often morally fraught, nature of battle. But the fight scenes themselves aren’t really choreographed all that well. There’s no purpose in the camera’s movement; it’s simply a recording of slashes and blood. Ohtono captures all that stuff, but he simply edits in between different camera setups. He never really captures Kenshin’s movement as his camera is often too close to the action. He films his actions, but not their meaning and their logic. Ohtono shoots his daytime scenes with an almost golden hue that, at its worst, turns into an ugly, brownish beige. What all of this boils down to is that the film simply isn’t aesthetically interesting or worthwhile. No matter how faithful he is to the material, Ohtono fails to make it come alive.
The film is mostly an adaptation of the first dozen or so episodes of the anime series. However, there are a few differences. Kanryu Takeda is the main villain of the film, and everything that happens is basically under him. The Oniwabanshu are not in the film (although we do get Henya, since he looks cool). Instead, Udo Jin-e is the person in charge of protecting Kanryu. Remember him? He’s the one with the freaky eyes who could freeze people in fear. Jin-e is also the person who pretends to be “Hitokiri Battosai” in the film, whereas in the series that fell to the former student of Kaoru’s dojo, Gohei Kimura. Saito Hajime even shows up, since he’s a fan favorite and who wants to wait until the sequel to see him. The film even puts material from the OVA as a quick flashback (it explains how he got one part of his scar).
This shuffling of characters and stories is fine, but I think they could’ve gone even further in that regard. As it stands, there are too many characters that the film has to include, and the film does justice to barely any of them. The film includes Sanosuke and even has him battle it out with Kenshin, but it doesn’t really give a reason as to why he should be someone we care about. Yahiko ends up being a complete background character. Hell, even Kaoru, ostensibly the female lead of the series, gets short-changed; which makes the final dialogue exchange (moving though it is in concept) ring false. I would say only Megumi’s story gets any sort of depth, and that’s only because it’s connected to defeating Kanryu. I would’ve preferred a more lean narrative that focused on the major characters and actually developed them more, even if it meant being a little more libertine with the source material. By trying to stuff so many of the expected character/narrative beats in the film, there’s just no room for any personality or life to come out. It’s disappointing.
Although the film adaptation tries to be respectful and honor the original work, it fails to capture some of the more interesting thematic strands of the original. A lot of the characters in the series have been affected by the events of the Bakumatsu. It seems like every other character that Kenshin meets is someone who never quite got over what happened during the revolution. Some feel betrayed by the outcome; some just want to fight like they used to back then. The Bakumatsu is a deep, psychic wound for the characters. Their actions in the present are largely motivated by what happened then.
In the series, samurai are largely seen as an outdated concept; in fact, people aren’t even allowed to have swords out in public anymore. But samurai were incredibly important during the revolution, and they had a hand in building this new Meiji era. There’s an uneasy tension between the violent men it took to build this new era and modernity itself. Men who haven’t been absorbed into the peaceful rhythms of the Meiji era keep popping up, violent aberrations from the way things are now. And then there’s Yahiko and Kaoru and Kenshin’s delightful “oro” and all the little cute things which might seem goofy or annoying if you’re solely into the action elements of the show, but actually serve a purpose – this is what Kenshin will fight for and die trying to protect. The beauty of Kenshin is that it allows both of these realities to exist alongside each other, stressing the ambiguity inherent in society’s progress. Plus they’re just both badass movies.
Kenshin is lucky that he’s able to find a new community, a new home to belong to. Rurouni Kenshin is an optimistic work, but it never lets us forget the violent depths of our main character; it’s an optimism that’s truly earned, as it’s framed as a constant internal struggle. That struggle makes the eventual happy ending all the more greater.