Unlike most heroes of the Japanese swordplay genre, Himura Kenshin refuses to kill. That’s an admirable quality, until one realizes he’s susceptible to the same sequel pressures as anyone else: When the reluctant samurai laid down his sword in “Rurouni Kenshin,” he didn’t factor in the pic’s stunning $37 million domestic box office. Now Warner Bros. Japan has commissioned a pair of back-to-back follow-ups, opening Aug. 1 and Sept. 13. And while the expansively imagined, patiently paced project feels far more substantive than a crass cash grab, the conflicted character spends most of the first sequel, “Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno,” slowly coming to grips with his burden, leaving things not on a cliffhanger, but in the lurch, with a shocking evasion of violence.
Rumor has it that the final chapter, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends,” is a giant, two-hour-plus action extravaganza. If that’s true, then this film — which doesn’t depend on audiences having seen part one, filling in backstory via helpful flashbacks — is somewhat justified in serving as the long, patient buildup to an epic payoff. Working from a popular arc of the manga series (previously adapted in anime form as well), returning director Keishi Ohtomo provides the first and second acts of his climactic saga, protracted across more than two hours. Mind you, it’s not as if “Kyoto Inferno” is short on action; it’s just extremely long on feet-dragging, weight-of-the-world hemming and hawing as Kenshin wrestles with how to reconcile the call to bloodshed with his personal renunciation of such.
No doubt, leading man Takeru Satoh took no such convincing. A strikingly epicene star in a culture where hearts race at the notion of androgyny, Satoh has fair features, long chestnut hair and delicately pursed lips, compromised only slightly by the prominent X-shaped scar on his left cheek — a reminder of the savage dealings Kenshin has since put behind him. He has been living peacefully in the dojo where Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) took him in during the previous film, and it’s during this monk-lite existence, where he’s accompanied by comic relief Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki), that a high-ranking officer of Japan’s new government (which has outlawed swords) comes to enlist his help.
We’ve already met the film’s new villain, Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a bloodthirsty subversive covered head to fingertips in bandages, who appears in the first scene like the high priest of some demonic cult, surrounded by a giant burning set and backed by a daunting army of acrobatic fighters. It’s a spectacular opening — one that recalls classic Hollywood setpieces, where an entire soundstage might be dedicated to such a scene — and offers fiery foreshadowing of the massive conflagration Shishio has planned for the city of Kyoto later in the film.
In short order, it is revealed that Shishio took over where the notorious assassin Battosai the Killer left off, only to be betrayed and left for dead by the very government that had enlisted his murderous skills. As it happens, Kenshin and Battosai are one and the same — a revelation that, while unsurprising to audiences, complicates his relationship with the woman who offered him shelter when he was but a wandering ronin. Kenshin and Kaoru spend long scenes in this film staring meaningfully into one another’s eyes and contemplating whether he should accept the government’s plea for protection.
But most of Kenshin’s time goes into tracking down the last blade made by master swordsmith Shakkai Arai, who crafted Kenshin’s trademark “back blade” — a sword sharpened on the inner side, yet left dull on the out-facing edge, allowing him to slash his way through a crowd while leaving all his opponents dizzy and reeling instead of mortally wounded (assuming he even bothers to unsheathe his weapon at all). Meanwhile, Shishio has summoned the 10 Swords, a cartoonishly attired band of killers eager to cross swords with Kenshin, though only one of the gang — the fabulously coiffed, street-punk-looking Cho (Ryosuke Miura, one of several “Kamen Rider” stars in the cast) — gets a proper fight scene here.
All this leads to a stock confrontation on a storm-swept ship, where Shishio has kidnapped Kaoru. (Beware: the following could be considered a spoiler for this film, though it’s merely a midway plot point for anyone planning to see the entire two-parter.) When Shishio tries to provoke Kenshin into fighting, the pacifist samurai defies everyone’s expectations with a gesture of gallant self-sacrifice, thereby leaving whatever fighting needs to be done for another day.
It’s a romantic anticlimax, one that would be welcome at the midpoint of a two-hour movie, rather than 134 minutes into a needlessly attenuated two-parter — not that American audiences, who have been putting up with needlessly split finales from Hollywood studios since at least “The Matrix,” if not “Back to the Future,” have any room to complain. (In this case, at least, viewers don’t have to wait so long between installments.) Still, for export purposes, Warners ought to consider combining the two films into a single swashbuckling extravaganza, allowing them to double down later for completists, as Magnolia did with John Woo’s “Red Cliff.” The version screened lacked end credits or any indication that story was to be continued.