Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Rurouni Kenshin (Live Action)
"Rurouni Kenshin" was one of the those shows from long ago back in the golden age of Toonami when a kid could be a kid, sitting down on the living room floor watching foreign shonen cartoons. Even as a kid, I never ranked "Rurouni Kenshin" as being one of my great favorites, but I figure it holds a place in history as being a classic of the shonen action genre. Though if you're looking for an anime starring a protagonist that refuses to kill his opponents and must suffer nine eternities in hell for this moral stand, skip "Rurouni Kenshin" and go straight to "Trigun". "Trigun" is more mature, has a more consistent protagonist, and actually backs up its philosophizing, while "Rurouni Kenshin" really was nothing but an excuse to stage lots and lots of showy sword battles with increasingly absurd villains.
So since its adapting from an anime/manga that in my opinion was merely okay at best, and since its also turning a cartoon into live action, I didn't expect much out of this "Rurouni Kenshin" film that came out in Japan last August, and is available subtitled online in the US through piracy. The last live action adaptation of an anime I saw was "Dragonball: Evolution", making me, through misfortune of character, the only person on Earth to have seen "Dragonball: Evolution". And trust me, it sucked as much as you thought it did when you made the wise decision not to see it. However, surprisingly, this live action "Rurouni Kenshin" actually does a great job capturing the style and tone of the original series and characters. Definitely it was helped a great deal because "Rurouni Kenshin" takes place in 19th century Japan, a real time and place that Japanese filmmakers have been portraying for decades. But importantly, the actor playing Kenshin looks like Kenshin, he doesn't look like a teenager in a cosplay outfit. And every location looks much like it in the show. This is a solid competent adaptation.
As a movie, however, I'd say it came out pretty positive. I didn't love "Rurouni Kenshin" as an anime, so I didn't love it as a movie, but its a filmmaking achievement in its own way and would be a great treat to fans worldwide. The story might be bloated in order to bring in all the important "Rurouni Kenshin" cast members, but for an adaptation of a complex anime drama like this, they did a pretty good job. If you've never seen or heard of "Rurouni Kenshin" before, this is a competently-made samurai action film, its definitely worth your time.
"Rurouni Kenshin" takes place in the Meiji Era following Japan's Boshin War, which was a violent revolution in which the previous traditionalist Shogunate was overthrown for a more Westernized government centered around the Emperor. The Meiji Era is one of the most historically exciting periods in my opinion, since Japan in the latter half of the 19th century was truly making the jump from a xenophobic feudalistic society to a adapt to a foreign definition of modernity, coming along with a centralized government, industrial economy, and expansionist policy. Japan was replicating the social changes that Western Europe taken centuries to accomplish in just a few decades. Like all revolutionary periods, the Japanese were decided that parts of their culture needed to reformed and changed in order to compete in an aggressive world stage, and what parts of their culture were sacred and needed to be preserved among all else. So a character like Kenshin Himura, a samurai assassin, would really be lost in the new era. He decides to become a wandering ronin, and takes an oath to never kill again. But his fellow assassins are furious and violent in this period of peace, creating the central conflict of the entire show.
So I respect "Rurouni Kenshin" for that thing above all else: it actually teaches us Westerners that Japan had a history before Pearl Harbor. And an interesting one at that*.
Now, I don't think "Rurouni Kenshin" does a great job of explaining these historical changes in terms of what happened and why, but it does do a great job of capturing that spirit of historical changes through its character's conflicts. The main villain of this particular movie is a new kind of Japanese figure, a rich young industrialist who does not believe in the traditional Japanese worldview, but instead looks only for profit by exploiting his fellow countrymen by introducing opium. Opium was the drug that crippled Chinese culture, allowing the British and other European powers to begin to exploit that country, which previously throughout history was the superpower of East Asia. So opium would be a dark specter for the Japanese at this time.
His main enforcer is an assassin by the name of Jin'ei, who like Kenshin fought in the Boshin War. But rather than trying to find peace in the Meiji Era, Jin'ei is a wild killer, still fighting to hold onto martial bushido values that no longer have a place in a modern nation state. Then there's Saito, a third warrior who has joined with the new government's police, unhappily embracing the world change by finding a place where his talents can still be used. Both Saito and Jin'ei are disgusted by Kenshin's decision to stop killing and live a life of peace because as all of them are Samurai, this decision embraces that none of them have much of a role to play in the Meiji world**.
Now unfortunately with all this talk of greater historical trends, I'm kinda overselling "Rurouni Kenshin" because its never really about any of those things. They're interesting side themes, themes I really wish the author had focused more upon, but really the show is about the fighting. Its about Kenshin fighting villains with weird ways of fighting, and increasingly insane swordsmanship. Even in the live action movie, Jin'ei can mind control people using what can only be called "ninja magic". Kenshin's refusal to kill adds a great deal of tension, since he could win every fight just by being so cool, but there's a limit to how far he'll go in order to protect those around him. Every fight has not only the tension of whether Kenshin is going to win, but also if he's going to break his One Rule. (He never loses though, and he never breaks that One Rule.)
Actually talking about the movie for once, the plot is something of a jumbled mixture of a few arcs from the anime. Jin'ei and the opium guy originally were from completely different storylines, and Saito would not show up for much later. There are also a few more villains from different periods who appear mostly to fill up time for more action scenes, one of which is a masked villain who originally fought with giant human-sized warrior puppets, but now is just a swordsman. These villains were originally filler anyway, so you could easily push them into another story with nothing changed. The main cast is thrown together very quickly. Importantly though, everybody looks and acts like who they're supposed to be. Kenshin's actor is able to be both a bumbling fool and an icy assassin, Saito is just as stone-faced and brutal, Sanosuke is still a big brawler dude throwing around a ridiculously huge sword, etc. I didn't love the pacing though because it seemed like Kaoru and Kenshin's relationship got almost no screentime until the very very end. All these characters however, force the movie to reach over the two-hour mark, which is more than I felt willing to invest in "Rurouni Kenshin", so I kinda lost interest.
The action scenes are what count, and they're very good. This is a well-made movie with fast combat, some wire work, and for all the impossibility of Kenshin's powers, they're made believable on the camera. The choreography is far better in this movie than it is on the show, because the animation there always seemed stiff and cheap to me, thus explaining why most battles were long conversations instead of swordplay. This is a problem that live action does not have. Combined with how well the movie perfectly captured the look and feel of the show, I'd say this is where the movie's real strength lies.
There's definitely room for a sequel as the "Rurouni Kenshin" story had plenty more villains beyond just Jin'ei. If anything, I think my enthusiasm for this movie was tempered by the fact that I had seen the show and knew exactly where it was going and how it was going to end. If this were just some random Japanese movie I discovered, I would have probably loved it a great deal more. "Rurouni Kenshin" is now the standard that all live action adaptations have to be judged upon. We in the West, dealing with such upcoming bullshit like "The Smurfs 2" and "G.I. Joe: Retribution" should really look to this adaptation as the gold standard. It got it right, why can't we do that?
* Really really brief history lesson, but modernization and Westernization has been the main cultural drive for the entire world since the 19th century when Western European powers more or less conquered the planet. Japan, for all the crises of identity that it underwent, actually had a very easy time of it, perhaps thanks to united influence of the Imperial figurehead, perhaps because it was already a deeply bureaucratic state with high urbanization even before Commodore Perry started firing his canons opening the country up to foreign trade, and perhaps it already had expansionist tendencies before the Meiji revolution. The Russian Empire, facing many of the same conflicts as Shogunate Japan, refused any kinds of modernization, became even more autocratic, and eventually collapsed. China was torn apart by Western aggressors, giving Japan the dark example of what would happen if they didn't work to match the Europeans as a peer industrialized imperialist power. This they proved by conquering Taiwan, Korea, parts of Manchuria, and islands all across their corner of the Pacific.
If anything, Japan learned the lessons of Imperialism too well. By the 1930s, the West had already seen the dark face of unchecked militarism with the calamity that was World War I, but Japan had survived that war unharmed, the only great power to do so. When it came to its invasions of China and its belligerency in the Thirties, it was merely continuing to follow the model of 19th century Britain, conquering everything in all directions to expand its market power and economic influence. That combined with a Japanese version of semi-fascism that took over the imaginations of its military, and a war was inevitable. It took the US to defeat them in order to set up our current era of peace led by America, the great superpower. I'm not excusing Japan's behavior in WWII, but looking back through the centuries, its at least understandable.
** My favorite "Rurouni Kenshin" villain is in fact Shishio Makoto, who does not appear in this film, but certainly will appear in a hypothetical sequel. For one, he's a walking mummy and the most badass swordsman to ever live, along with being voiced by Steven Blum in the English dub. But for another, Shishio reacts to the Meiji period by plotting his own revolution, in which Western modernism will be embraced, but with an extremely violent interpretation of bushido values. Essentially, Shishio is a 1930s Japanese imperialist, planning to conquer all of Asia and the Pacific to create an empire, only he's living in the Meiji Era and is thus a terrorist. (However, since many of those militarists were not above assassinations and acts of terror to drive foreign policy, Shishio really isn't that different, only more extreme since one of his plans involving bombarding Tokyo with an ironclad warship.) He's the dark specter of where Japan could go... and unfortunately did.