The jidaigeki (samurai period drama) is dying, we have been told again and again. Topknots and swords have become rare sights on television, while Japanese studios, which once devoted nearly half their production to the genre, now essay only the occasional chanbara (swordplay) film, with mixed box-office results.
Warner Entertainment Japan — whose Hollywood blockbusters have hurried the jidaigeki toward its demise — has emerged as the genre’s unlikely savior, with its locally made “Rurouni Kenshin” films. Based on a best-selling 1990s manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki, the first “Rurouni Kenshin” became a domestic and international hit following its 2012 release, earning $36 million in Japan and over $60 million worldwide.
Now comes the action-packed two-part sequel: “Rurouni Kenshin: Taika-hen (Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno),” which opened on Aug. 1, and “Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends),” set for release on Sept. 13. Takeru Sato again stars as Himura Kenshin, the sword-swinging if pacifistic hero. Also returning are Munetaka Aoki as Kenshin’s blustering, good-hearted sidekick Sagara Sanosuke, and Emi Takei as dojo proprietor Kaoru, who serves as Kenshin’s love interest. And, once again, I’m sure Warner has a global hit on its hands.
What makes this sequel and its predecessor different from the jidaigeki that have recently sunk without a box-office trace? One thing is how director Keishi Otomo and action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki, a disciple of Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen, handle the on-screen action. They maximize the impact of the many sword-fight scenes with crisp pacing and cool, inventive moves, while keeping a rein on the sort of eye-blink cuts and eye-candy CGI effects that drain so many action films of anything resembling realism.
Which is not to say that the film is an old-school jidaigeki with more extras (5,000 to be exact). The story, about a bitter ex-assassin’s attempt to overthrow the new Meiji Era government in the 19th century, takes a sharp turn to sheer fantasy, a la “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” That is, it’s a movie for those who know their samurai mostly from games and comics, not real history (with which traditional jidaigeki, admittedly, take considerable liberties).
Kenshin, for those late to this particular party, is a smooth-faced, softly spoken master swordsman who, in the chaotic last days of the Shogunate, came to be known as Hitokiri Battosai (roughly, “Sword-drawing Manslayer”) for his deadly skill as an assassin. With the advent of a new, more peaceful era, however, Kenshin resolved to never kill again, and now carries a sword with a reversed blade that he uses to stun his opponents, not draw blood from them.
One day Kenshin is called from his labors as a teacher at Kaoru’s dojo by a government official and, together with his sidekick Sanosuke, is ushered into the presence of home minister Toshimichi Okubo (a real-life figure, played by Kazufumi Miyazawa). Okubo asks Kenshin to go to Kyoto and stop Shishio Makoto (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the above-mentioned ex-assassin, who is plotting a coup d’etat against a government he feels has betrayed him.
Kenshin hesitates, but an outrage committed by Shishio’s grinning young henchman Seta Sojiro (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and his band of killers changes his mind. Despite the protests of Kaoru and the doubts of Sanosuke, Kenshin decides to make the fateful journey to the former capital, now a hotbed of rebellion.
There he finds allies in Kashiwazaki Nenji (Min Tanaka), aka Okina, an elderly former Shogunate spy who is now running an inn; Makimachi Misao (Tao Tsuchiya), a frisky young female ninja under Okina’s care, and Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi), a tough chain-smoking police official. Among those trying to thwart him is Shinomori Aoshi (Yusuke Iseya), a saturnine former ninja leader in the service of the Shogunate, whose sword technique rivals Kenshin’s.
If this is beginning to sound confusing, you may be, as I am, a relative newcomer to the Kenshin universe.
In its broad outlines, though, the story is easy enough to understand. All you need is one good look at Fujiwara, the go-to bad guy of Japanese films, as the bandaged and scarred Shishio, glaring and growling with pure, undistilled malice. This opponent, we see, will be Kenshin’s toughest yet, in everything from his implacable will to his martial-arts skills.
The film, though, is not simply a tale of good versus evil. Kenshin is scarred by his dark past and not entirely free of it. To defeat Shishio, will he finally break his vow and resume his lethal ways? You already know the answer, don’t you? See Part 2.
Fun fact: The entire process of making the two-part “Rorouni Kenshin” sequel — from planning to completion — took 20 months, with a total production budget of ¥3 billion. Shooting took a total of six months — one month over schedule.