'Rurouni Kenshin' is U.S.-taught Otomo's first film for Warner arm

Based on a popular comic and TV toon about a reformed samurai assassin, Keishi Otomo’s live-action period swashbuckler “Rurouni Kenshin” has become a smash since its Aug. 25 bow, with Warner Entertainment Japan producing and releasing. The pic recently surpassed 2 million admissions and $36 million at the box office, and played at the Busan and Sitges fests. Meanwhile, Warner has licensed the pic to screen in 64 countries and territories, where it hopes to continue to knock auds dead.

“Rurouni Kenshin” is latest among a string of successes for Otomo. Born in Morioka (the largest city in a prefecture devastated by last year’s earthquake and tsunami), he joined pubcaster NHK straight out of college in 1990. In 1997, he went to Los Angeles to study directing and, after returning to Japan and NHK in 1999, and helmed a brace of hit drama series, including 2007 corporate thriller “Hagetaka: Road to Rebirth,” which became the basis of his first feature, “The Vulture,” two years later.

Nonviolently, of course.

The pic’s hero (played by rising young star Takeru Sato) is a former assassin who has vowed never to kill again. Confronting the minions of a slithery opium dealer, he knocks them silly with the dull outer blade of his sword, but will not use the sharp edge to finish them off.

“He believes that a sword should bring life, not death,” Otomo says. “That’s its true spirit.”

The slender Sato, who previously worked with Otomo on the 2010 NHK period drama “Ryomaden,” is a good fit for the role, says the director.

“Sato is skinny with a pretty face, but he’s also strong,” Otomo says. “He’s like a small (judo fighter) who uses a bigger opponent’s power to beat him.”

In 2011, after continuing to win awards for his TV work, Otomo went independent and signed a three-pic deal with Warner, highly unusual for a local director. “Ruroni Kenshin” is his first release under the pact.

In adapting a property originally targeted at kids — the comic appeared in a monthly mag for preteen boys — Otomo wanted to make a pic that could be respected by adults as well as enjoyed by their offspring.

“It’s quite different from the comic, which is two-dimensional,” he says. “The movie is three-dimensional, with characters who are more complex. Also the action is not just for style; it’s got strong emotion behind it.”

Otomo says he learned from his time in the U.S. that dramatic films need realistic detail, and he combined that lesson with the samurai period dramas made in Kyoto 60 to 80 years ago that he says serve as the film’s model.

“In films like ‘Yojimbo’ and ‘Seven Samurai,’ Kurosawa was trying to make real action scenes,” Otomo says. “I wanted to get back to that style as much as possible.”

Working with Hong Kong-trained action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki, he dialed back on the usual stuntmen, wirework and CGI, while adding a bit of Hong Kong action flavor to the hard-charging, hard-hitting mix. “I call it ‘new traditional Japanese sword action,’ ” he says.

What: TV helmer Keishi Otomo takes to the bigscreen with “Rurouni Kenshin.”
The takeaway: The first in his three-pic deal with Warner Ent. Japan will screen globally.

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