I know Rurouni Kenshin was a ‘90s anime series (sometimes called Samurai X) based on a manga and all that. I don’t usually pay much attention to that sort of thing, but also I knew there was a series of live action movies starting in 2012 with this one, RUROUNI KENSHIN I: ORIGINS. And I’ve been hearing for a long time that it has some really good sword fighting in it, so I’ve been meaning to see it.
But man, if I knew what it was about, I wouldn’t have waited so long! It’s true that it has some good sword fighting and other fun samurai shit in it, but also this is that most rare and beautiful type of action movie: the type that fits lots of fun action into a story that preaches against violence. It shows that nothing could be more badass than a guy who can kill a whole mob of people on his own but chooses to prove it to them while not doing it.
To put it another way, the hero Kenshin (Takeru Satoh, SAMURAI MARATHON) was such a scary motherfucker killing people for the government in his teens that everybody knew him as “Battosai the Killsword,” but now he’s so against killing that he travels around with a sword that is only sharpened on the back side of the blade.
So yeah, don’t worry, he’ll still be sword fighting. He’ll just be whapping them instead of slashing them.
We first meet him at the very end of his killing days. The Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Hundreds of samurai running through the woods slaughtering each other. This guy Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi, GOEMON), who stands out by casually dangling a cigarette from his lip during battle, is excited to come face to face with the legendary Killsword. He tells him even as the samurai era is ending they will always be killers. Bottosai responds by leaving his sword in the ground and walking away.
Then a guy named Jin-e Udo (Koji Kikkawa, THE CITY OF LOST SOULS) crawls out from under a pile of bodies, surprised he’s alive. He puts his hand on the sword and, like some Star Wars shit, he hears people screaming. He’s like, “What the hell is this sword?” And then he realizes oh shit, this belongs to Battosai the Killsword. It has to. And he takes it.
Ten years later, when “the era when fear and violence ruled is over,” Saito now calls himself Fujita and works as a cop investigating a series of murders. The killer claims to be Battosai the Killsword on the “Letters of Condemnation” he leaves by the bodies, but Satoi doesn’t believe it.
Kenshin is now, in his own words, “a wandering swordsman on an aimless journey,” and as luck would have it said journey brings him past wanted posters for the imposter Killsword. Since he resembles the picture and has a sword, a local named Kamiya Kaoru (Emi Takei, TERRA FORMARS) suspects him and confronts him. With a wooden sword.
See, she runs the dojo founded by her late father, teaching Life Avowing Sword Style, a style that uses the motto “Wielding the sword to let people live.” It’s not a popular school – her only student is an orphan boy named Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka, THE BLOOD OF WOLVES), and it seems like he mostly comes for the food. Anyway, Kaoru takes this Killsword business personally because for some reason the Letters of Condemnation claim to practice Life Avowing Sword Style, which is obviously not the case. But Kenshin convinces her he’s not the guy by showing her the reverse blade on his sword.
Of course, the actual killer is that asshole Jin-e, stealing Kenshin’s old katana and persona. I thought at first that he was supposed to be blind, but his swirly eyes turn out to represent a sort of hypnotic focus he can attain that uses his opponents’ fear to paralyze them (or even their organs). He seems like a genuine psycho, but he’s in it for the money, doing hits for Takeda Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa (SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO), a “businessman” who runs the local opium enterprise. We see how brutal Jin-e is in a scene where he massacres a whole police station to get to Takani Megumi (Yu Aoi, ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU), a doctor who escaped from Kanryu after being forced to make the ultra-addictive “Spider’s Web” strain of opium.
Luckily Megumi gets away, but after seeing all that we can’t help but worry when Kaoru happens to walk past Jin-e, the actual guy ruining the name of her sword style, and then confronts him. He injures her, but thank god Kenshin jumps down out of the blue and intervenes, helping her to sneak away after some cops show up.
Their bond is even stronger after a gang of bully thugs swarm the dojo, insult her sword style, break her sign in half and attempt to strong arm the property from her. Kenshin tells them the Life Avowing Sword seems silly to him too, but he’s a master of Soaring Sword – a style designed for one against many. So he beats the shit out of them, but doesn’t kill any of them. When the police arrive, trying to blame the school for the violence, Kenshin convinces them it was all him, and is arrested.
I really like the episodic nature of this one. Little short adventures within a larger adventure. Reminds me of the LONE WOLF AND CUB movies, and is probly a side effect of adapting multiple manga stories into one movie. They make more friends, including Megumi, who Yahiko lets stay at the dojo, making Kaoru jealous until Megumi uses her expertise to save the community from poisoned well water. Even better, there’s this guy Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki, BATTLE ROYALE II, HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, SAMURAI MARATHON), a self-proclaimed “brawler” who was in jail at the same time as Kenshin, overheard Fujita talking about his former identity, and later challenges him to a public fight to try to get himself a henchman job. Some points are made, some fight brotherhood occurs, and they later become friends.
I also like the colorfulness of the villains. Visually representing Kanryu’s decadence, obviously he wears western suits, he lives in a mansion and his office includes a pet bunny, a tiger skin rug, and a henchman standing around wearing a scary mask (Go Ayano, GANTZ). Kind of reminded me of SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD.
I didn’t catch this, but the guy with the mask (later revealed to be covering a burnt face) is called Gein, and yes, he’s named after the notorious American cannibal serial killer. According to Wikipedia, “He creates puppet-like suits out of human corpses” in the manga. Yuck!
Of course the friends are forced to fight the bad guys, and it’s awesome. Sanosuke has a particularly great duel with one of the henchmen, I believe it was Banjin Inui (Genki Sudo, who competed in MMA organizations including UFC and Pancrase, then became a musician, choreographer, actor and calligrapher, and is now a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan in the House of Councillors). The fight goes into a kitchen, and at one point Sanosuke calls sort of a time out to munch on a big piece of chicken, then offers it to his opponent, who declines because he’s a vegetarian. At the end of the fight he says, “It’s been fun,” sincerely I think, before doing a great suplex.
And in this climax Jin-e tries to devise a way to force Kenshin to kill, but he doesn’t win that argument. It’s not a cynical movie. The director is Keishi Ohtomo, who was mostly a TV director until he took on this whole series. He co-wrote it with Kiyomi Fujii (DEATH NOTE: L CHANGE THE WORLD), adapting from the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. The action director is Kenji Tanigaki, choreographer for KILL ZONE, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS and THE LOST BLADESMAN, director of ENTER THE FAT DRAGON, stunt double for Scorpion in MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION, and fight coordinator for the upcoming SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS.
April 16th, 2021 at 6:19 pm
Woo Hoo! Glad you got around to this Vern! Have been recommending this to anyone with a pulse ever since I saw it! Simply a sterling example of what can be accomplished in the jidaigeki genre. Dazzling swordplay coupled with a relatable hero, some pretty colorful baddies and a decent Cliffs Notes immersion in the Meiji Era thrown in for seasoning.
Do catch Parts 2 and 3, KYOTO INFERNO & THE LEGEND ENDS respectively which amp up the sword-fighting action spectacularly and provide an even more colorful Rogues Gallery of Baddies.
And if you’re still in the mood for some amazing slice & dice carnage, may I recommend the Korean Period Epic THE SWORDSMAN? Which has the added attraction of having it’s Chief Baddie played by Joe Freaking Taslim!!!!