By this time, this review would be considered as a “Really Late Impressions” considering that this film has been released in Japan since August of this year. Warner Brothers had no plans to releasing it worldwide, but a massive online campaign was launched by the fans, thus it was finally released worldwide. Or rather, at least here in the Philippines.
To begin, let me say that Rurouni Kenshin (literally Kenshin the Wanderer) was one of those very first anime that I followed back in my youth. I was never a fan of anime because I found them too strange, their English dubbing was quite overdone, and it was too popular (even then, I had hipster tendencies already, and that was before it became “cool” to be a smug bastard). Most importantly, my impression of anime was that it was cartoon porn (hentai) because I’ve heard my classmates talk in lurid detail about how hot this certain girl was and all, and so, being the conservatively raised Catholic I am in the day, stayed away from it. Imagine to my surprise when I finally got around to watching the series on AXN (because I had nothing to do back then) that 1. it was very good, 2. it had no booby shots, and 3. my goodness this is really good. So I religiously started following the series from then on, even asking permission from my mother to allow me to watch television on weekdays just so I can follow the story of the series. Later on that Christmas season I earned enough to buy the bootleg DVD release of the series and the OVA. Then in college I got to read the manga at long last. My goodness, the rest is history.
Just imagine my excitement when I heard of news concerning a live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t too excited, considering that some of the stills I saw struck me as a bit too corny. I mean let’s face it: adapting the manga and anime aesthetic is difficult to apply live-action as there are images which might look cool in anime, but would be downright cringe-worthy live. So needless to say, I decided to play it safe and focus on more pressing issues (namely Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises) and wait for the audience reaction to the film. Then when my mentor recommended it to me, saying that it was an interesting and a successful adaptation of the source material, I finally decided, “What the heck, it’s a Friday and I don’t want to go home yet.” So I watched it. Two hours later, all I can say was, “Well that was Php180.00 well spent.”
There might be some issues with hardcore fanboys regarding the changes they did to manga, (like including Saito early on in the story, making the Kurogasa arc the climactic fight scene of the film, removing Sanosuke‘s backstory, making Kanryu Takeda as the one of the main antagonists here, and making an amalgam of Hanya and Aoshi) but let me point out that these changes were done so as to smoothen the narrative of the film. I was afraid when I heard that the film will include practically ALL of the members of the Kenshin-gumi, that Kanryu, Saito, and the Kurogasa would be appearing. How on earth will they make this film? And if they’ll be making it super faithful to the manga, then we’ll have a clusterf*ck of a narrative.
Which is why I completely didn’t mind the changes they made. This film isn’t a simple fanboy jizzfest, this is a film with a story to tell. And to tell that story, one has to sacrifice the character development of the others. This is about Kenshin, and how he strives to live in the new age he helped create. This is a story about his atonement for his sins. It has never occured onto me before, but I felt goosebumps when I finally came to the realization that Kenshin is actually a very troubled individual (to say the least). He is a man whose psyche is so broken that it must really take real strength of will to restrain the cold-blooded killer lurking within him. This, I believe is one of the film’s strengths. It decided to focus on Kenshin’s character and discuss his inner turmoils. He thought he was killing to pave the way for a new age, but this new age would seem just as rotten as the old one. He was a killer, all he knew was how to kill. In the new age, he is nothing but a vagrant, a hobo (to coin my students’ terms). But for him to use his skills to protect the weak, in order to make up for his crimes, strikes a very significant chord in me which made me attracted to the series in general. And for the film to focus on this aspect was, for me, a very good move.
Additionally, you can’t have a Rurouni Kenshin film without the action sequences. And my goodness, does this film contain some well choreographed sword-fights. I was always under the impression that the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu of Kenshin involves him doing some really fast sword-draws, but this film showed that it really involves lightning-fast movements. Simply put, these are among the most exciting sword fights I’ve seen since Hero and The Last Samurai.
The problem with adapting a whole number of manga issues would be sacrificing character moments for a more streamlined narrative. Like I said, this film sacrificed some character development for the characters of Yahiko and Sanosuke. But again, this is forgiveable, at least for me, though I’m not so sure whether the hardcore fanboys will forgive this.
Another nitpick I have is the (I’m serious over here) English translation of the script. While it wasn’t too distracting, they used the literal English translation of the various moves, faction and character names. “Hitokiri Batousai” which means “Batousai the Man-slayer” simply became “Batousai the Killer”. Plus, they gave the English name for the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, which is “Flying Sword of Heaven”. It would’ve been better to just stick to some of the original Japanese names, but again, this is just me geeking out too much.
The most distracting moment of the literal English translation is most apparent during the climactic Kurogasa fight. I’m sure that it wasn’t meant to be, but the translation ended up having a very heavy-handed musing of why “killing is bad.” Yes folks, this line comes verbatim from the film: “Killing is bad.” Maybe in the context of the scene, it works, considering that the character saying the line is being suffocated, but still, “Killing is bad?” It came off as preachy because of the translation.
Finally, the most glaring issue of the film is the pacing. Sure, the visuals look very pretty, but like any film, visuals can only get you so far. While I understand that these are moments which are needed for exposition, they take away so much from the pacing that I found myself looking at my watch to see how long the film has gone on. Some people might say that, “Come on, Evil Dr. Bok! It gets better during the action sequences.” That argument is invalid already. I want my films good throughout! The Prestige is a dialogue-heavy film, but practically all the scenes were engaging, most especially in the scenes where the battle of the wits between the two magicians take place. Rurouni Kenshin’s charm disappears half-way through the film when too much dialogue takes place. Things only ever become exciting during the action sequences, and the more introspective moments when Kenshin remembers an earlier hit (which most fanboys will definitely recognize the gravitas of the scene). These moments as the stand-out scenes for me, the rest was just quite slow.
This is not a perfect film, I never said it was. What I mentioned was that it was Php180 well spent. The film’s adaptation of the manga’s themes is spot on, plus the action sequences are definitely exciting. What killed the film was the lull in between the action sequences. While I understand the necessity of the slow scenes, the just slow the story too much.
If one can forgive the pacing issues, I recommend this film for the fanboys and casual movie-goers. It caters to the casual film-goers by focusing on Kenshin’s story, but it has enough Easter eggs to tease fanboys.
P.S. – I’ve decided to discontinue the star system for the time being (at least for this site) as one would really have difficulty systematizing a very subjective criteria. I’m still fixing my rubrics for film reviews, however, so you can expect the stars in future reviews hopefully. For now, my Rotten Tomatoes ratings on my Facebook page will suffice.