Directed by: Keishi Ōtomo || Produced by: Osamu Kubota1, Satoshi Fukushima2-4, Hiroyoshi Koiwai4
Screenplay by: Kyomi Fujii1-2, Keishi Ōtomo1-4 || Starring: Takeru Satoh, Yōsuke Eguchi [1–4], Emi Takei, Munetaka Aoki, Yū Aoi [1–3], Eiji Okuda, Kōji Kikkawa, Teruyuki Kagawa , Yūsuke Iseya, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Tao Tsuchiya [2–3], Tatsuya Fujiwara , Kasumi Arimura, Issey Takahashi, Nijirō Murakami, Masanobu Ando, Kazuki Kitamura 
Music by: Naoki Satō || Cinematography: Takuro Ishizaka || Edited by: Tsuyoshi Imai || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese
Running Time: 134-138 minutes || 1 = Rurouni Kenshin (2012), 2 = Kyoto Inferno + The Legend Ends (KILE), 3 = The Final, 4 = The Beginning
The immense libraries of platforms like Netflix can be overwhelming at times, and most streaming services still haven’t developed proper advertisement strategies for their site-exclusive titles beyond YouTube trailers or third-party review sites; and yet, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found great titles on Netflix’s featured, trending, or “Top Picks for You” lists I would’ve otherwise never come across. Enter Rurouni Kenshin (henceforth RK), a live-action movie franchise cover of the manga series of the same name by alleged sex pest, Nobuhiro Watsuki, which has expanded to include various anime series and videogame titles since the late 1990s. I’ve made no secret of my general disinterest for most Japanese animation (“anime”) and graphic novel (“manga”) works, but Netflix trailers for the live-action series’ latter two titles, RK: The Final (henceforth, The Final) and RK: The Beginning (henceforth, The Beginning; both 2021), which the platform distributed internationally, hooked me enough to binge-watch the entire franchise over several nights.
Though the period setting (“jidaigeki“) and samurai action (“chanbara“) tone of the franchise coalesce with my cinephile tastes, in general I’ve neglected contemporary Japanese live-action cinema most of my adult life in favor of the popular, diverse cinematic culture of Korea. Every cinephile learns Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu at some point, but in terms of modern Japanese filmmaking beyond the confines of anime, the occasional Takashi Miike or Toho Godzilla film is the exception. The RK franchise is the latest in a short but growing list of modern Japanese films that have interested me, featuring a colorful period canvas upon which these films paint an exaggerated, heightened reality of late 19th century organized crime, samurai rebellions, and pulpy graphic novel villains; the films span Japan’s transition from the isolationist, feudalist shogunate of the Edo Period [~1603-1868] to the industrialized, more developed imperial society of the Meiji era (1868-1912) from the 1860s-1870s. Together, this colorful mix of historical fiction set-design, director Keishi Ōtomo’s hyper-stylized swordplay, and almost dieselpunk aesthetics, recall Sergio Leone’s iconic Spaghetti Westerns (e.g. Once Upon a Time… [1968, 1971, 1984] and Dollars [1964-1966] trilogies) as well as Quentin Tarantino’s more action-heavy genre hybrids like Kill Bill (2003-2004) and Django Unchained (2012).
While these films can’t be faulted for their ambition, both in terms of their faithful adaptation of their popular source material and their over-the-top style, I have many, many problems with Ōtomo’s execution of that style in their feature-film formats. What makes this film saga particularly interesting is how Ōtomo’s execution improves with each successive installment, such that the first movie, RK (2012), is an entertaining but sloppy mess, RK: Kyoto Inferno and RK: The Legend Ends (both 2014, parts one and two of the second film; henceforth KILE) are combined a more interesting yet even more longwinded mess, The Finale is an inconsistent yet cohesive standalone epic, and The Beginning is a solid, streamlined action-tragedy prequel that retroactively frames the entire series in better context. All these movies feature terrific fight sequences and impressive set-design, but what limits all but The Beginning to the company of similar ostentatious, flawed thrill rides like Headshot (2016), Kaithi (2019), Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), The Buffalo Boys (2018), The Wolf Brigade (2018), Polar (2019), Extraction (2020), etc. are their laughable villains, bloated supporting casts, and poor pacing.
All these films suffer from loose story structures that lack narrative momentum, often meandering from plot-point to plot-point based on narrative convenience. The original 2012 film sports perhaps the weakest, most haphazard screenplay of the bunch, as its lead and title character, Takeru Satoh’s pacifist, vagrant ronin (“rouini“), is a passive protagonist by design and seems more interested in describing his commitment to nonlethal protest as penance for his violent actions during the recent Boshin Civil War than progressing the story. His supporting castmates in RK (2012), KILE, and The Final don’t offer much flavor to those stories or Satoh’s character arc beyond the occasional damsel in distress (e.g. Yū Aoi in RK 2012) or passing love-interest (e.g. Emi Takei in The Final). KILE in particular, with its two-part, 4.5 hour length, is packed to the gills with superfluous minor characters and longwinded subplots that don’t go anywhere, such as the entire Oniwabanshu cast (Tsao Tsuchiya, Yusuke Iseya, Min Tanaka) and their various power struggles. These first two films stall whenever throwaway side characters challenge Satoh or each other to one-on-one duels that distract from the main plot, and are the swordfight choreography equivalent of Hollywood films showing off expensive yet pointless special FX.
Less problematic but still questionable are the villains’ costume-design and cornball performances in the first three films (RK 2012, KILE, The Final). While I’m sure the cartoonish appearances of the greasy-haired Teruyuki Kagawa, the mummified Tatsuya Fujiwara, and the tiny spectacled Mackenyu Arata, principal villains of RK (2012), KILE, and The Final, respectively, are faithful to their manga inspirations, their flamboyant hair, makeup, and wardrobe clash with the otherwise grounded historical fiction setting.
Ōtomo’s screenwriting and direction congeal much better by the third film, admittedly. Supporting roles that dragged the pace of RK (2012) and KILE are minimized in The Final, while main antagonist Mackenyu Arata has somewhat more emotional resonance with lead Satoh given their shared backstory, which is referenced in critical flashbacks that are the primary focus of The Beginning. Altogether, The Final wraps the main series trilogy in satisfying if uneven fashion, fulfilling a long-teased romance between Satoh and quasi-female lead Takei and better integrating the exaggerated dieselpunk aesthetics of its villains into their narrative environment. Most impressive of the franchise, however, is how The Beginning recontextualizes the entire series and especially Satoh’s title character with a prequel backstory that doesn’t suck, but rather deepens the franchise’s historical backdrop and explains the motivation for Satoh’s pacifism with a brutal portrayal of feudalist Japanese warfare. Free of the bloated supporting casts, cartoony villains, and hybridized punk aesthetics of the earlier films, The Beginning is a straightforward action tragedy that trades the high-key lighting, brilliant color palettes, and exaggerated characterizations of the previous three movies for the harsh shadows, morbid earth tones, and relatable characters of a neo-classical Kurosawa epic.
From what I know about general comic fandom, including manga and anime subcultures, Rurouni Kenshin fans would’ve revolted had co-writer and director Keishi Ōtomo consolidated various repetitive supporting roles, eliminated all but the most important set-pieces, and toned down the villains’ corny personalities, which would’ve streamlined the live-action franchise’s first three installments and drastically improved the first two. The series, as it stands, is an entertaining and ambitious yet frustrating saga that alternates between outstanding ensemble action sequences against a fascinating diegetic backdrop and laughable melodramatic nonsense. Though this franchise long predates the rise of streaming services like Netflix, both its content and style fit the site’s bizarre, eclectic jungle of titles like few others.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Rurouni Kenshin’s saving grace on film, aside from its powerful standalone prequel, is how its protracted storytelling, superfluous minor characters, and over-the-top villains are at least in service to worthwhile themes of historical transformation and national identity. This series appears to have successfully adapted the heart of its source material to screen, and thanks to charismatic action choreography, impressive production values, and a memorable if inconsistent title character from Takeru Satoh, its entertainment value sells that heart just enough.
— However… all those aforementioned weaknesses cripple RK (2012) and KILE (2014), meaning those first two installments are more detailed character backstory that better inform the series’ better features, The Final and The Beginning.
—> As standalone films, RK (2012) and KILE (2014) are NOT RECOMMENDED, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to The Final. The Beginning is the lone installment I RECOMMEND without caveats and that justifies its 135-minute+ runtime.
? How did the filmmakers take three entire movies to build a simple romance between Satoh and Takei?