“Avow Life and Be True”
RUROUNI KENSHIN PART II: KYOTO INFERNO (2014) is an epic sequel that builds on everything I loved about the first one (trust me – check that out if you haven’t!) and expands on this idea of a post-war world where various veterans either try to bring back the violence or maintain (and enjoy) the new order. Our hero is so badass and yet so against killing that he wanders around with a “reverse blade” – a sword sharpened only on the back side – to whoop ass and take names but not lives.
Played by one-time Kamen Rider (and co-star of my beloved SAMURAI MARATHON) Takeru Satoh, Kenshin is younger and prettier than I usually prefer in an action hero. But he makes it almost a badass juxtaposition, and he’s such a cool character – he’s seen shit you never dreamed of, but doesn’t use it as an excuse to brood. He’s quiet but not exactly stoic – he smiles and seems content during peace time, even laughs when he sees himself parodied in a play. Everywhere he goes people seem to recognize him as Battousai, the name he went by when he was a legendary killsword (the government’s teenage super-murdering-the-fuck-out-of-everybody assassin). But his friends call him Kenshin, the name he took after abandoning his bloody sword at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. The real him.
Admittedly he sounds a little dorky later when he angrily growls the villain’s name to show that he’s had it, but I forgive him. I appreciate that we don’t see that side of him very often.
KYOTO INFERNO takes advantage of being a sequel by reintroducing Kenshin in the new status quo created by part I. He’s still living at the dojo of his friend who he calls Miss Kaoru (Emi Takei, TERRA FORMARS), who shares and encourages his beliefs and teaches her late father’s “Kamiya Live-Avowing Style” of sword fighting with non-lethal wooden swords. The notoriety of Kenshin’s presence seems to have attracted many new students to join young Yahiko (Kaito Oyagi) and lovable street brawling scoundrel Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki, BATTLE ROYALE II, HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI). Megumi (Yu Aoi, ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU), the doctor they sheltered from an opium gang, now runs a clinic next door.
But a literally hellish evil will soon interrupt their peaceful lives. We saw it in the excellent Kenshin-free cold open, in which handsome chain-smoking police inspector and sometime-Kenshin ally Saito (Yosuke Eguchi, GOEMON) leads a raid to confront the psychotic, bandage-covered terrorist leader Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara, BATTLE ROYALE, DEATH NOTE) in an apocalyptic mine that looks like Scorpion’s lair in MORTAL KOMBAT, except on fire and with dozens of police officers hanging (and falling) from the ceiling.
This scene also introduces Shishio’s main henchman Sojiro (Ryunosuke Kamiki, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR), who at first shadowy glance looks like Kenshin. He’s a young swordsman with a boyis, almost cherubic face, smug smile and jolly little hops worked into his fighting style. He’s admired by his boss for his skills, though somewhat looked down on for his youthful ignorance.
I was excited to see Saito return, then concerned that oh shit, what if this is that thing where you bring the character back for the sequel only to kill them off right at the beginning? Actually, I thought that about many characters. Don’t worry, they keep the supporting cast. But after Shishio escapes, a government official summons Kenshin to Tokyo. He goes reluctantly, and doesn’t want to get involved, but is eventually convinced only he can stop Shishio and his army from burning down Kyoto.
You see, Shishio has a pretty great villain origin story. Like Kenshin, he was “groomed from a young age” to be a “covert killsword” for the government. His skills were “almost on par” with Kenshin’s, but “while you care for your friends and for those who are weak, there was not a shred of such emotion in him,” because he has “no compunction whatsoever about trampling others underfoot.” At the same battle where Kenshin laid down his bloody sword, Shishio heard the declaration of victory, then killed a couple more guys!
I’m a little confused about the timeline here. Kenshin later says, “It was because I quite being a killsword that it fell to Shishio to fill that role. It is my duty to stop him.” But I thought he quit after that same battle, which is when agents of the new Restoration government – seeking to keep the assassinations secret – stabbed Shishio and lit him on fire.
He survived, it seems, partly because it snowed! A beautifully ghastly image, this burnt man covered in snow, crawling out of the pile of bodies. So now he’s burnt from head to toe, has a more than legitimate grievance with the government, and is crazy and highly skilled anyway. He finds the post-war world “boring” and wants to “turn the clock back to that era of upheaval” because “the true nature of man is a frenzied demon.” He calls upon every crazy cosplay lookin motherfucker across the land – for example some dude with a tortoise shell for a shield, and a guy named “Cho the Sword Hunter” (Ryosuke Miura, also a Kamen Rider guy) who has cartoonishily giant blond hair and a headband – to unite and fuck shit up. Shishio is like a William Strannix or Eric Dane (military blowback villains of the UNDER SIEGE saga) crossed with DARKMAN and Cyrus from THE WARRIORS in a land that’s LONE WOLF AND CUB meets THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS.
One really vivid example of the anti-violence themes that makes these stories special is just the way this conflict separates Kenshin from his new family at the dojo. The first movie put them together, and we’re so happy to see them stay that way, but his need to return to violence takes him away from them. It’s very sad. There’s always this tension that maybe he’ll have to give in and kill somebody again, and Miss Kaoru is invested in him not doing that, even when it’s her life that’s at stake.
He says goodbye, believing they will never see each other again. And along his path he has another adventure where he meets a new set of friends. It starts with Misao (Tao Tsuchiya, TOKYO SONATA), who tries to steal his sword in a really funny sequence where he keeps trying to not really fight her and explain to her why this particular sword wouldn’t be any use to her. Then they run into a little boy crying for help who leads them to a village that has been terrorized by Shishio’s men. After Kenshin does his thing of subduing a giant mob of fighters without cutting any of them, Misao realizes who he is and brings him to an inn to meet her “Gramps,” Okina (Min Tanaka, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL), a retired officer from the old days who basically says look, I know some guys, we still have an intelligence network going on, let me know if you need anything.
But there’s this whole other wrinkle. The reason Misao knew about Battousai is because her hero, and Okina’s past student, Aoshi (Yusuke Iseya, 13 ASSASSINS), has been looking for him. She doesn’t understand it’s because he wants to fight him. In fact he wants it so bad that during all this he went looking for him at Miss Kaoru’s dojo and badly beat up Sanosuke. The good news is this brings together the two sets of characters: Miss Kaoru, Sanosuke and even little Yahiko come find Kenshin to help him. The bad news is poor Misao has to walk in on her hero having a duel to the death with her master over his insistence on continuing a “World of Strife.”
There are just so many cool characters here with their own little stories going on, and they all come together to team up for the big fight, where we still hope against hope Kenshin will figure out how to not be the guy who just solves the problem with a murder. We get applause moments like this one, when Okina is instructing the staff at his inn what to do:
(I’m gonna hold onto that screengrab, that’s gonna come in handy.)
Or when the ninjas, after hearing Saito tell Miss Kaoru that a small town dojo owner has no part in this fight, ask her to fight with them.
There’s also a whole tangent about the reverse blade, after it’s broken in a duel with that arrogant prick Sojiro. It cannot be replaced because its maker is dead and his son doesn’t believe in making swords, but then there’s a really cool explanation for why there’s another one and how Kenshin earns it.
I love these stories and characters so much it could honestly get away with not having great action. But they go for it anyway. Lots of great one-on-one duels and one-on-who-fuckin-knows brawls. I like the way Kenshin will put one hand on the ground to pivot or slide around, the poses he freezes in, the way he’ll hop off a railing and spin around or leap and run across a roof to get somewhere fast, his body leaning forward like a cartoon character. It’s a unique fast-slashing type of sword choreography with lots of little detailed moves and character moments, plus subtle digital blood spray. It’s the same action director as part I – Kenji Tanigaki, long time Donnie Yen associate whose resume includes KILL ZONE, FLASH POINT, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS and THE LOST BLADESMAN. He even did stunts on BLADE II and directed ENTER THE FAT DRAGON.
I love how much good old fashioned choreography and stuntwork this has while also feeling like an epic spectacle on the level of, like, a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN or something. Impressive work by director Keishi Ohtomo, who has done all of the movies in the series to date. I’d also like to mention composer Naoki Sato (SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO). Kind of a goofy choice to bust out the rockin’ guitars during the big battle, but overall its a very effective, emotional score.
Despite my complete lack of knowledge about the manga/anime origins of the story or the Japanese historical figures and events it occasionally riffs on, it just has that feeling of a big thrilling event movie. I didn’t know going in that this was gonna be an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – or maybe more of a MATRIX RELOADED, because it’s the first of a two-parter that were released a month and a half apart in Japan. But it works. It’s the end of an incredibly exciting chapter and then it leaves us anticipating what’s next. One of the cliffhangers is not just “How will he stop the bad guy?” but “Can he stop the bad guy without being a killer again?” And it ends on the face of a cool guy that I’m maybe supposed to know who the actor is or who the character is or both, and I know neither, but that’s okay, I’m still intrigued!
After I reviewed the first one I heard unsavory things about the dude who did the manga (busted for possession of child porn in 2017). That’s an ugly stain, but it doesn’t change that these movies based on his work are incredible. I’m excited to watch this third one, and coincidentally the fourth one just came to streaming, and there’s another one after that. Lots of reverse sword fighting in my future, it seems.