Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Genre: Action, Drama

Director: Keishi Ohtomo

Writers: Kiyomi Fujii, Keishi Ohtomo, based on the original comic “Rurouni Kenshin” by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Cast: Takeru Satoh, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Emi Takei, Yusuke Iseya, Munetaka Aoki, Yu Aoi, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Tao Tsuchiya, Min Tanaka

Running Length: 139 minutes

Synopsis: Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh) is a legendary swordsman in the wars accompanying the turbulent fall of Japan’s Shogunate in the 19th century. Once feared as ‘Battosai the Killer’, he has adopted a peaceful life since the arrival of the ‘new age’ in Japanese history. But Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the ‘Shadow Killer’ who succeeded to Kenshin’s position in the service of the new government, has since then been active in the Kyoto underworld. Because he knew too much of the dark side of the new government, he was stabbed and his body set on fire. He survived, however and, wrapped in bandages, has raised an army of disaffected former samurai with the aim of overthrowing the new regime. Agreeing to a request by Toshimichi Okubo, the Home Minister, Kenshin leaves his friends in Tokyo and sets out for Kyoto. He and Shishio are a match in skill and in wits, but their aims are opposite. Kenshin seeks to preserve the nation without breaking his vow that he will kill no more.

Review: With Hollywood blockbusters crowding the cinemas, it’s little wonder that the jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema has become a shadow of its former self, and apart from the Rurouni Kenshin series itself, decent chanbara films have been few and far between. Kyoto Inferno is the follow up to the first Rurouni Kenshin film (in 2012), and perhaps more importantly, is part one of a two-part epic feature (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends opens in Singapore about a month later on 9 October). And much like other films that are cleaved into two, it’s perhaps a bit unfair to pass judgment on what essentially is half a movie and not on the entire body of work.

Yet, it’s also a necessity that each film should be able to stand on its own, and in a way Kyoto Inferno does succeed to a certain extent. Although the film is very slow going, Kyoto Inferno manages to establish the characters and their motives (it can get a little confusing, but prior knowledge of the Rurouni Kenshin series or the previous movie is not required), as well as set the stage for what would likely be a much more kinetic second film. This unevenness is one of the bigger problems of the film, because it is likely that there will be audiences that go into Kyoto Inferno expecting swordfights galore and not a weighty drama, even if it’s good drama for most of the film. Fortunately, the pace does pick up sporadically in a number of well choreographed action sequences. The action in Kyoto Inferno seems largely to be traditional stunt work, and CG has been kept to a minimum, a refreshing change from typical Hollywood fare these days.

Although no one is going to carry home award trophies for their acting in Kyoto Inferno, at least each actor bears a good resemblance to their manga/anime counterparts. Tatsuya Fujiwara does manage to impress as his turn as Shishio is appropriately menacing despite acting entirely behind a mask of bandages. Much emphasis is placed on the romance between Kenshin and Kaoru, this to me is the weakest link in the film, as the two actors share very little onscreen chemistry and the dalliance simply does not convince.

It seems to be a trend for filmmakers to split finales nowadays, and although in this case the wait is a fair bit shorter than usual, it is still a bugbear to me. Did this installment Rurouni Kenshin need to be played out over two full-length movies? The answer once again is no – there’s so much narrative excess in Kyoto Inferno that much of it could have been edited out in the first place with very little loss to the structure of the film. It remains to be seen if The Legend Ends would justify the two part treatment, but perhaps the better route would have been to release a single film cinematically then a director’s cut later on.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


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