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The Rurouni Kenshin film series could certainly serve as a, if not the, prime example of a good premise outstaying its welcome. In contrast to the increasing commercial success of each of its three installments, Keishi Otomo‘s adaptation of Nobuhiro Watsuki‘s swordsman manga is generating diminishing artistic returns — and The Legend Ends, which has topped box-office rankings in Japan for the past four weeks since its Sept. 16 opening, is the least satisfying entry of the lot.
The previous installment, Kyoto Inferno, also had its longueurs in the form of protracted fights designed simply to fill time or offer yet another opportunity for lead protagonist Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) to sulk and struggle against the murderous instinct he has vowed to suppress; but at least they still feature riveting choreography with an excusable raison d’etre. The Legend Ends, however, stretches its already very thin arc — Himura learns one last technique he would use to defeat uber-villain Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) in a final standoff — into two-hours-plus of red-herring confrontations and action scenes nearing caricature, including a final four-against-one melee of po-faced absurdity.
Picking up after Kyoto Inferno‘s last moments — when Himura leaps off Shishio’s battleship to save his paramour. Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) — the film finds Himura recovering in shack of the man who rescued him — who just so happens to be Seijuro (Masaharu Fukuyama, Like Father, Like Son), the man who taught him to fighting when he was a child. Then there’s Kaoru, hospitalized in a coma while sidekicks Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) and Yahiko Myojin (Kaito Ohyagi) mope around, waiting for her to wake up.
Finally, there’s Shishio and his underlings who, threatening annihilation with their newly built battleship, browbeat the new Meiji-era government — represented by Hirobumi Ito (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the samurai turned politician who would go on to become Japan’s first-ever prime minister — into a devil’s pact that involves them handing Himura (and the country) over. It’s an episode which mirrors the arrival of the U.S. fleet off the coast of Tokyo in 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry threatened to open fire unless Japan agreed to negotiate and sign treaties allowing American ships and businesses free access to its ports and markets.
Historical allusions certainly provide the Ruruoni Kenshin films with some gravity, especially in that the series is driven by its desire for both its heroes and villains to reconfigure their notions of loyalty, integrity and old-school bushido values.
Then again, these themes, which hope to establish a substantial core for The Legend Ends, are undermined by the yawning gaps in which nothing much happens. Characters talk in glib soundbites offering cod philosophy: Himura’s mentor and friends harp on about the importance of self-respect, while Shishio — all bandaged up because of the burns he suffered at the hands of his erstwhile government employers — taunts his foes for their warped morals and failure to see that there’s profit to be had in fearmongering. Shishio’s wacky underlings steal scenes with either over-the-top villainy (the trigger-happy firearm specialist Hoji Sadojima, played by Kenichi Takitoh) or a simple smirk (the courteous and cute sociopath Sojiro Seta, played by Ryunosuke Kamiki).
But beyond all these stuttering histrionics, the narrative is allowed to meander on, as very little substance is forced to sustain the film for a very long time. Just like its predecessor, The Legend Ends offers a type of wide-screen, cinematic entertainment that most Japanese film adaptations — of TV series or comics — now lack. The proper way forward — for its producers or its international distributors, is to combine (the more engaging) Kyoto Inferno and (the more socially conscious) The Legend Ends into one, so as to give Rurouni Kenshin — whether it’s Watsuki’s source material or Otomo’s films — a compact, satisfactory finale.
Production companies: “Ruruoni Kenshin: The Kyoto Inferno/The Legend Ends” Production Committee in a Warner Bros presentation
Cast: Takeru Sato, Emi Takei, Yosuke Eguchi, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Munetaka Aoki
Director: Keishi Otomo
Screenwriter: Kiyomi Fujii and Keishi Otomo, based on the comic by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Producer: Satoshi Fukushima
Executive producer: Hiroyoishi Koiwai
Director of photography: Takuro Ishizaka
Production designer: Sou Hashimoto
Costume designer: Ishikazu Sawata
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Music: Naoki Sato
Sales: GAGA Corporation
No MPAA rating, 135 minutes
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