Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kauro's dojo
Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kaoru’s dojo

Rurôni Kenshin is that rare beast, a contemporary popular Japanese film that received a UK release in 2013. A famous manga series in Japan in the 1990s which became a popular TV anime series, the live action film was produced by Warner Bros. for a local release in Japan where it opened at No. 1. A year later it went into 8 UK cinemas with no mainstream publicity that I could see and flopped. I watched it on a rented Blu-ray. Apart from the usual South-East Asian territories such as Singapore, Thailand, Philippines etc. it doesn’t seem to have been released elsewhere in cinemas but still seems to have made more than $60 million. The success in Japan meant that following recent Hollywood practice, two sequels were made in a joint production and both were released in 2014.

For anyone not already a manga fan (I’ve only read a few), the generic mixes of these films developed from manga series can present problems. The original here was written as a shonen manga – targeting a male audience, mainly of teenagers. Ostensibly this film references the classic genre of the chanbara or swordfight film. But this isn’t quite what that term might suggest, although there are important links. The lead character is a young and extremely talented swordsman. In the opening sequence he’s fighting for the forces who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the Emperor in 1868. Still a teenager, but having already killed many men, Himura Kenshin gives up his title as an assassin – ‘Battosai’ – and becomes a ‘wandering samurai’ with a sword that has the blade on the inside of the curve (the leading edge being blunt). This means he can still dominate in swordplay but he won’t kill any opponents. Since the restoration he has vowed to help people and communities.

Ten years later Kenshin finds himself helping out Kaoru, a young woman whose father has died leaving her the control of his dojo – a martial arts school, fencing in this case. The young woman is threatened by a samurai who has adopted Kenshin’s old identity and is murdering people and leaving Battosai’s calling card.The dojo also becomes a target for a corrupt business man who is pushing opium and building up an army of fighters. Kenshin is going to be involved in many fights.

The focus on young characters and the theme of atonement and service marks the film out as having its shonen roots. It then acquires other influences. A set of different genre elements have been imported from Chinese martial arts. In his Film Business Asia review Derek Elley suggests that some of these come via action director Tanigaki Kenji who has worked in Hong Kong with leading filmmakers such as Donnie Yen. I was aware of the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Mainland China connection at different times just in the depiction of the late 19th century world. The two factors that were new to me in a Japanese film were the aerial leaps in the swordfights (wirework?) and the various references to ‘schools’ of swordmanship and specific moves – just as might be found in Chinese martial arts. These links suggest wu xia films and there is also the possibility of supernatural elements as the villain deploys a form of paralysing hypnosis. A final element is Japanese pop music which re-emphasises the shonen angle and the focus on youth. The lead is played by Satō Takeru, a young actor well-known for lead roles on television and in another popular TV/film franchise, the long-running Kamen Rider, another manga based series about a superhero. A good-looking and gentle young man, Satō becomes a very believable action hero in the choreographed fight sequences.

The film is long by Western standards with not enough plot and deep characterisation to sustain it, but I enjoyed the spectacle and was intrigued by the shonen angle. Young samurai are found in the classic Kurosawa swordfight films, but usually only as apprentices to the masters – though they are sometimes allowed to have romances. This film is set in a later period which has featured in both the Tom Cruise picture Last Samurai (US/NZ/Japan 2003) and Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) by Yamada Yôji. One other link to Kurosawa is the performance of Aoki Munetaka as a ‘streetfighter’, a brave-hearted warrior wielding a huge old sword – and reminding us of Mifune Toshiro’s performance as the would-be samurai in Seven Samurai. He too will move into the fencing school to support Kenshin and the small community (two young men, two young women and a boy) provide the ready-made ‘family’ for the sequels.

This film would be useful to study in relation to the ideas about contemporary Japanese cinema in Chapter 5 of the Global Film Book.

The trailer: