Film Review: ‘Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno’

"Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno" Film Review

The first half of an epic two-part finale, "Kyoto Inferno" finds the reformed assassin desperately trying to avoid the violence promised in the next film.

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.

Film Review: 'Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno'

Reviewed at Fantasia Film Festival, Montreal, July 23, 2014. Running time: 134 MIN. 

Production

(Japan) A Warner Bros. Pictures Japan release and presentation in association with "Rorouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno/The Legend Ends" Film Partners of a Warner Bros. Pictures Japan production. (International sales: Gaga, Japan.) Produced by Satoshi Fukushima. (Original title: “Ruroni Kenshin: Kyoto taika-hen”)

Crew

Directed by Keishi Ohtomo. Screenplay, Kiyomi Fujii, Ohtomo, based on the original comic “Rurouni Kenshin” by Nobuhiro Watsuki. Camera (color, widescreen), Takuro Ishizaka; editor, Tsuyoshi Imai; music, Naoki Sato; theme song, One OK Rock; production designer, Sou Hashimoto; costume designer, Kazuhiro Sawataishi; sound, Hiroaki Masuko, Tomokazu Yomogita; action director, Kenji Tanigaki.

With

Takeru Satoh, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Emi Takei, Yusuke Iseya, Munetaka Aoki, Yu Aoi, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Tao Tsuchiya, Min Tanaka, Kazufumi Miyazawa, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Tosuke Eguchi.

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  1. Michigan_gangster says:

    I think the writer of this blog needs to watch the cartoon first, it’s just sad that we can’t go back to past in late 1995 where it starts to rise above. The writer doesn’t know what his writing. I wonder why the variety hires him with out checking what’s his writing.

  2. dragging??? I don’t think so!! It was true to the original story and after watching this i was like ‘m.night, this is how it’s done!!’ (still in shock about that mess).Am a long time fan of the anime, and i was even sad to see it was only two hours..wanted to see the adventures of the whole gang on the way to kyoto, so i would have sat for two hours more!! Can’t wait for the third one!

  3. Ric Sale says:

    I agree with most comments, the film was true to the manga. The writer has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Variety, for future reviews about epic films like movies such as this, don’t ask an idiot to write for you. Please and thank you.

  4. John Soon says:

    I thought the flow of this film was just fine. It is the necessary foreplay for the climactic conclusion. I don’t really know why americans would want to watch this film if they haven’t seen the anime.. or read the manga. The first movie, and now the second (i haven’t been able to see the third yet) have been of amazing quality. I was absolutely blown away by the acting, script, story, and production values of these films. The last big name anime i remember coming to the big screen was DBZ.. and well.. case and point. This series is incredibly good, and anyone who enjoys the anime will absolutely love it.

  5. omoailu says:

    I’ve noticed many comments saying reviewers (this one and others) keep reviewing on something they know nothing about because they haven’t researched the backstory or read the manga, etc. For me, also a long-time fan, I’m finding these reviews are a good insight into how the rest of the non-fan world is viewing these movies.

    As a fan, I agree these adaptations have been great!!! Better than many of us could have hoped for given the reputation of live-action adaptations. The heart of the story is there, the character portrayals are pretty spot on, etc… I love the Kenshin movies so much that I want everyone to watch them and see how an adaptation should be done, but many of the people around me don’t know the story, that’s why I think these reviews are helpful/interesting…

    After Kyoto Inferno, I did feel like it was less epic than the 1st movie. Sometimes it seemed like fight after fight actually with less creative choreography, but at the same time the plot was slower because they were building the story. BUT, I still loved it because I knew what was coming in the next movie and I enjoyed seeing all the new characters brought to life in this one, which a non-fan wouldn’t have that advantage, unfortunately… but I do hope that non-fans will give the trilogy a try and come to love Kenshin’s story!

  6. Anj says:

    Im actually quite surprised the writer wrote something he doesn’t fully know. You cannot appreciate this movie if you don’t know the manga/series behind it. And since I have seen this movie and have been a long-time fan of the manga/series, I must say the director was very true to the heart of the story and tried to squeezed it into this movie saga. THUMBS UP to the movie and the next one!

    • Ev says:

      Absolutely agree! Reading the manga is a must to understand this story. Feet dragging? C’mon! that’s how the actual story goes and was beautifully done. This writer appears to not have read the manga and as such has zero authority to review this movie.

  7. Prem says:

    WTF, obviously, the guy who made this crappy review didn’t know about the anime and manga and the essence of the story.

  8. Lilian says:

    This reviewer sounds like a hormone fueled 14years old who completely failed to get the message. Not enough action and too long conversations about why its wrong to kill? In a movie that carries the message of not killing and brilliantly combines it with breathtaking action for the adrenaline junkies? Expendables 3 might be a masterpiece then.

  9. Saadah 1 says:

    Wahh can’t wait to see this movie. This is way better than any hollywoody movie…

  10. P-chy says:

    Will this be released in the US too? I have to watch this!!!

  11. Can’t wait for the 2nd half of part 2.

  12. I guess it depend of what you like . I saw yesterday’s screening and never ONCE thought the movie was too long. In fact, I spent the last half being afraid of it ending since I cannot wait for the third movie. Smashing both movies in one would be a grave mistake I believe. Rurouni Kenshin is WAY more than just fights after fights and it is those moments and all those characters that make it more interesting that a simple action/sword fighting movie.

    • thirteenlets says:

      Totally agree with you here, I was also on the edge, for what I presume the last 30 minutes of the movie, because I didn’t want it to end. When it did end, the funny thing was, I didn’t feel cheated, I was actually excited for the next one. I have had my share of *disappointing* live-action adaptation of manga and anime (I’m looking at you Nana) this one was PERFECT.

  13. crookedmindframe says:

    One of my most anticipated films of 2014, cannot wait to see this.

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