'Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno' ('Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen'): Film Review
Keishi Otomo and his cast return for the first of their swordsman manga adaptation's two-part finale
First: those who expect swordsmen fighting to the death as Japan's old imperial capital goes up in VFX-assisted flames, prepare to be disappointed. What Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno provides as its climax is just villains rolling a three-story-high juggernaut of burning haystacks down a lackluster street of low-rises.
Then again, the strength of Keishi Otomo's adaptations of Nobuhiro Watsuki's wildly-popular samurai manga - the first of which was released amid fanfare, favorable reviews and ringing tills two years ago - has never been blockbuster-level pyrotechnics. Loyal at least to the spirit from its source material - the subtitle of Watuski's comic-book series translates as "the romantic tales of a Meiji-era swordsman" - the Rurouni Kenshin films are all about their protagonist's moral dilemmas as he struggles to reconcile his past as a cold-blooded killing machine with new personal and political circumstances, with Japan's new ruling elite ushering in supposedly modern social values and structures.
Somehow, it's also another set of modern values - that of the 21st century commercial film industry, that is - which pose problems for Otomo and his screenwriter, Kiyomi Fujii. In line with many a franchise seeking to capitalize on its popularity by stretching its presence as much as possible - thank you, the number-crunching minds behind The Matrix, Harry Potter and Twilight - Rurouni Kenshin's producers have elected to break the series' grand finale into two back-to-back films (each of them clocking in at way over the two-hour mark). As a result, filler material abounds as the plot grinds on very slowly, with some meticulously choreographed swordfights dragging on forever and the cartoonish villains hamming it up like there's no tomorrow.
Kyoto Inferno and its follow-up, the aptly-titled The Legend Ends, were released in Japan on Aug. 1 and Sep. 16 respectively. While the response (in terms of box-office traction) has largely been positive, the two films could easily be tightened through a merged exportable version - something many an Asian martial arts genre film has gone through in the past with King Hu's A Touch of Zen and John Woo's Red Cliff. Making up for its sprawling moments, Kyoto Inferno (and The Legend Ends) merits attention for its cinematic sheen, with Otomo managing to conjure darker atmospherics that the manga and its anime adaptations could hardly ever attain.
There's a lot of posturing, that's for sure - androgyny is all the hype among Japan's youth, and Takeru Sato certainly plays this aspect of his to the max in his performance as the titular hero - but these concessions to the comics' youthful fanbase are also balanced by some contemplation about power play, black ops and the downside of modernity. Who would have thought?
And Kyoto Inferno's first half hour certainly boasts visceral entertainment laced with many a witty comment on the awkward situation as lived by its characters, at an age where samurais are deemed passé and sword-carrying is illegal during the early years of the Meiji Restoration (an era which marks Japan's transformation from a feudal shogunate into an empire seeking to modernize and industrialize in order to return to level terms with the US and Europe).
The opening scene is powerful indeed, as the chain-smoking, hard-boiled police officer Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi, Goemon) confronts the disfigured rogue warrior Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara, Death Note) in the latter's self-styled "hell" of lava pits, into which he drops policemen he has kept in captivity. It's a harrowing vision which forebodes not just Shishio's subsequent arson conspiracy, but also provides a convenient way of articulating the root of his fury - having worked as a ruthless hitman for the "reformist" government, he was instead stabbed and set on fire by his superiors - and a clash of different cultures (with Saito's gun-toting underlings nearly annihilated by Shishio's ghostly swordsmen).
As Shishio leaves the lone Saito to ponder on the future, the film zips back to another fight between an inhuman assassin and his sworn enemies. But it's a farce played out on stage in a theater and attended by tourists.
In the audience in this instance is also Kenshin Himura (Sato), the swordsman who somehow amusedly watches his notorious past incarnation - as the mercenary killer Battosai - now reduced to cheap entertainment and an "old legend". It's a jesting remark from Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei), the young fencing-academy owner who (as shown in the first film) took a battered and jaded Battosai/Himura in and convinced him to disavow his past and promise not to kill again.
Quickly, of course, Himura is thrown into a series of events which will test his vow, as the newly-established "civilian" government comes knocking to ask him to fight Shishio, who has now declared all-out war against the new authorities so as to bring Japan back to what he describes as an "earlier age of savagery". He says yes, and Himura embarks on that long journey into that ultimate confrontation with his nemesis on the latter's ironclad warship.
On par with the first Rurouni Kenshin film, Kyoto Inferno is just as technically proficient with its tightly choreographed action scenes and effective production design. While Naoki Sato's choice of music sounds eclectic and more attuned to keeping young audiences happy - a mix of Western-style classical and electronica, with a bombastic Japanese pop-rock number layered over the final credits - one could also identify this musical mash-up as a sign of the story's times, when Japanese society was split over whether the population should embrace or repel influences seeping in from abroad.
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 Ruruoni Kenshin Meiji Kenkaku Romantan 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
International Sales: GAGA Corporation
No rating; 139 minutes