Julien Neaves, Editor
Plot: Assassin Himura Kenshin aka Battosai the Killer is a member of the rebel Choshu clan and has dedicated his life to bringing about a new age free of the corrupt Tokugawa shogunate. His life changes forever when he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman named Yukishiro Tomoe.
Background: The film is the fifth and final in the live-action Rurouni Kenshin film series which are based on the anime and manga of the same name created by Nobuhiro Watsuki. The Beginning is a prequel film and shows how Kenshin received his cross-shaped scar and his life before he became the non-lethal wanderer hero with a reverse-edged sword in the main franchise. It adapts the plot of the manga’s Tsuiokuhen (“Recollections/ Reminiscence”) arc, which had been previously earlier adapted into the 1999 OVA (Original Video Animation) Trust & Betrayal. With a cross-shaped SPOILER ALERT here’s my review of Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning in four slices:
Slice 1: Beauty and the Battōsai
Now I found it a bit odd that they released the fourth film The Final, which chronologically concludes the films, before The Beginning, which is set before the first film (2012’s Rurouni Kenshin). The Final even includes some footage from The Beginning (both movies were filmed together) and it would have made more sense narratively to swap the releases. But after watching both I suspect they wanted to do the whole “end at the beginning” trope. Or maybe they just wanted to end on a high note because the beginning is arguably the best of the five films.
In my review of The Final I mentioned many supporting characters were underused, but The Beginning narrows the focus mainly to Kenshin and Tomoe. Over the course of five films Takeru Satoh has done a splendid job of bringing the titular character to life and in the last film delivers his best performance. This version is not the happy-go-lucky, brave and haunted Kenshin but the dark, shadowy, laser-focused, bloody Battōsai. While still a character with a code and a sense of honour, this Kenshin will kill his foes without hesitation. And watching Satoh portray the arc from emotionless killer to protective lover is simply brilliant. And the gorgeous Kasimu Arimura is a revelation as Tomoe. There is such a wonderful quiet wisdom about the character that her taming of this savage beast seems completely believable. She and Satoh have electric chemistry, making their romance and its tragic end all the more heart wrenching. Kudos to them both.
Slice 2: Sights and Sounds
As I’m giving out kudos it would be remiss of me not to mention cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka. There are multiple scenes here that are simply visual art, whether it is the blackness of the raining blood scene, the luminous grain of the early farm scenes, the stark and stunning winter tapestries, and finally the rich tableau of the burning cabin. On multiple occasions I just had to stop and say, “Wow! Look at that!”
I must also praise composer Naoki Satō for his ethereal and haunting compositions. The Beginning was truly a delight for the eyes and ears.
Slice 3: Bloody Conflict
Another aspect of delight were the fight scenes. While in the other films we had the non-lethal Kenshin, The Beginning has Battōsai unleashed and he is a monster! In multiple, well-choreographed scenes we see him cut down multiple enemies in showers of blood, and it is glorious. What? I’m something of a gore hound. Sue me! Now while this sounds gratuitous, Satoh plays Battōsai with thinly veiled regret at all this bloodletting. While he believes in what he is doing for the “greater good” you can tell by his facial expressions and demeanour that he takes no pleasure in it and it weighs upon his soul.
But man did I take pleasure in seeing him do it. In the opening scene he fights a group of guys with a sword in his mouth. IN HIS MOUTH! It is so cool. From this to the explosive final and excessively bloody final battle I was entertained throughout. I was, however, hoping to see a brief battle between him and Saito, here a member of the special police force the Shinsengumi, but that’s just because he’s my favourite character in the franchise. Saito is played again by Yōsuke Eguchi but he doesn’t do much in this film. But this was really Kenshin and Tomoe’s story so I didn’t mind him being being underutilised here as much as I did in The Final.
Slice 4: Journey’s End
And speaking of The Final, while that film is this big, overblown tale, The Beginning is very much a tight character-focused story that explores the themes of peace, justice, and the means justifying the ends. It is also a smartly paced, visually stunning film with terrific action. And it is amazing that despite knowing how the story was going to end it was still so impactful. If I had one complaint it would be the Yambinobu. This is a shadowy group working for the shogunate but they are never fully explained and just kind of dropped in during the final act. I think if they were at least teased or fleshed out somewhat they would have been more interesting narratively rather than just being a cool-looking physical threat.
With that said, I LOVED this film and I think it has dethroned the third film, The Legend Begins, as my favourite of the five film franchise. I haven’t watched that one in a bit so it may reclaim its throne in the future. Who knows? What I do know is that Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is a magnificent film that should thrill both diehard fans and those completely new to the franchise.
Editor Jules’s Score: 9 out of 10
So are you a fan of the Rurouni Kenshin films? And which is your favourite? You can check out more great content from the franchise below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.