I’m still catching up with these RUROUNI KENSHIN movies. I really recommend RUROUNI KENSHIN PART I: ORIGINS (2012), and I watched RUROUNI KENSHIN II: KYOTO INFERNO (2014) a while back and then this one. I got caught up and didn’t finish that review until now but I wanted to finish before I watch this year’s final two installments.
RUROUNI KENSHIN PART III: THE LEGEND ENDS (2014) continues from the cliffhanger of part II, in which our no-longer-believing-in-killing samurai hero Kenshin (Takeru Satoh, SAMURAI MARATHON) had leapt from the pirate ship of aspiring-Japan-conqueror Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara, BATTLE ROYALE), failed to save his pacifist sword master friend Miss Kaoru (Emi Takei, TERRA FORMARS), and washed ashore on some beach, to be discovered by a mysterious dude. But the story slows down for a while, correctly judging that part II has earned the filmatists our trust and the right to take a breath and dig into the characters and the melodrama for a while.
Turns out the mysterious dude is Kenshin’s master Hiko Seijuro (Masaharu Fukuyama, John Woo’s MANHUNT), who came across him when he was a young boy named Shinta digging graves for all the bastards he killed in his escape from slavery. Intrigued by this behavior, Hiko decided to teach the kid to fight, and even named him Kenshin. Now he seems to regret it, having heard about Kenshin’s later days as the Killsword.
“The Soaring Blade Style is a sword for freedom. Only to be used to save people from the hardships of the era and never to align with any authority,” he says. “And yet, you violated that precept and lent your aid to the anti-Shogunate force.” Yeah man, I like this guy.
It’s a pretty good philosophical debate between these two. After asking about Kenshin’s curious reverse-blade sword, Hiko recognizes the conflict between Kenshin’s desire to stop Shishio and his insistence on not killing. But instead of sympathizing he calls it “egotistical self-indulgence.”
Meanwhile, arch-villain Shishio floats up in his giant metal pirate ship and terrorizes the Japanese government into meeting with him. A formal meal ends with Shishio’s guys killing all of the ministers except for the prime minister (Kazufumi Miyazawa). Pretty brazen. He says if they don’t bring him Kenshin he’ll expose all the killings the Killswords have done for the government. They give in, and Kenshin becomes a wanted man.
Also meanwhile, Kenshin’s brawler friend Sano and young friend Yahiko search for him. They first find their beloved wooden sword teacher Miss Kaoru at a hospital, unconscious.
Kenshin does lots of one-on-one sword training and trying to learn the philosophical secrets that will get him his groove back. Eventually he feels ready, returns to the dojo, and surrenders to the cops. Though the movie seems like it’s taking its time getting to the action, there’s a ton of stuff going on, and it all intersects thrillingly when all the various heroic and villainous characters end up in a big battle at the end that combines the outstanding action direction of Kenji Tanigaki (KILL ZONE, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, LEGEND OF THE FIST) with really satisfying character drama.
As in part 1’s great kitchen fight, Sano gets to have an extended one-on-one with an interesting henchman while a larger battle is going on nearby. This time it’s a former monk named Anji (Tomomi Maruyama, AIR DOLL). Sano converses with his opponent, laughs and jokes about getting knocked around, says “That was fun” when it’s over.
When Sano questions why a monk would fight alongside an evil motherfucker like Shishio, Anji claims that none of this rogue’s gallery are totally aligned, “We merely agree that the Meiji government is our common enemy.” He describes Hoji the Savant as “the man who lost hope in the government” because he thinks they’re not standing up to the West, Yumi as the one who “carries the sorrow of all the prostitutes,” and says that Sojiro “lost all ability to feel from being abused beyond all limits for being born the son of a mistress.” He says that “each has flocked to Master Shishio in search of their ideal world.” Just like any cult, terrorist group or reactionary political movement.
“I don’t like the government either,” Sano later says. “But you know, we finally have peace in this era, and I don’t like the scum who’re trying to wreck that, either!” I think that’s wise to lay out your reasoning like that if you’re about to punch a monk. Get that all on the record.
The way Sano ends that fight is pretty great. He escapes a headlock by first dumping oil on his own head and then tickling Anji. Oh, and then he says “Balls!” and basically does a suplex slamming him down onto the ground by holding him by the balls. A triumph.
Kenshin gets his promised rematch with Sojiro, the arrogant henchman who broke his sword in a duel in part II, causing a whole complicated weaponry crisis. I like that that smug, boy-band-looking little fucker starts to completely lose his shit as soon as he realizes he’s going to be defeated. As they fight Sojiro manically explains his philosophy that life is as simple as strong people living by preying on the weak and weak people dying. Then this guy he thought was “weak” hands him his ass, making him the weak one, but lets him live anyway. He responds to this dismantling of his belief system not with thoughtful introspection, but by screaming in a full-on toddler tantrum. I’m hoping he learns from this and rethinks those things, but that might be too much to ask.
Of course this is all leading to Kenshin fighting Shishio. We find out that Shishio’s sword is called The Limitless, and that his damaged sweat glands make him so hot inside that he produces flames while fighting. Both interesting facts. In general, if a movie has a sword with a cool name and a guy who can spew fire because of a gland problem, that is a movie I’m gonna want to watch.
The climax is excellent and takes place on the ship while the government tries to sink it. Shishio points out that they know Kenshin is aboard and are attacking anyway, because it would be convenient for them to be rid of both Killswords. It’s one of those times when a villain has a point but it doesn’t make him any less of an asshole.
Kenshin can take on Shishio, but he can’t beat him on his own, and he’s soon joined by his allies, including an unexpected one (my favorite shit: a bad guy who changes his mind). I think this team-up is a really cool story development because it defies the competitive, egotistical side of dueling. Instead of Kenshin trying to do it on his own to prove superiority, he demonstrates the power of friendship and alliances against tyrants.
Contrast that with Shishio executing one of the most cold-hearted moves I’ve ever seen, impaling his most loyal supporter in the world when he sees an opportunity to stab through them and into Kenshin. It’s made all the more soul crushing by the betrayed friend being too brainwashed to recognize it as a violation. Their dying words are “I am so happy… for the first time I was of use… to you… in a fight…”
EVEN BIGGER END SPOILER: In the end I think the movie sort of cheats on its anti-killing ideals, because it’s Shishio’s death that makes Japan safe again, whether or not it was directly caused by Kenshin’s sword (which is ambiguous). But at least we are denied an applause-worthy killing stroke, and both the score and the looks on the heroes’ faces play it as a sad and pitiful moment. In the next scene there’s a slow pan across dead bodies from both sides of the conflict, Kenshin is clearly not proud to announce Shishio’s death, and even the reunion with Kaoru after a full movie of believing each other dead can’t take his mind off the gravity of the situation. But it still feels like a satisfying ending even before the epilogue back at the dojo where he gets to be happy again.
This is a good ending to a trilogy. But I’m glad there are two more.