Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) joins an anti-shogunate force led by Katsura Kogoro (Issey Takahashi), soon becoming one of their greatest assessins due to his unmatched skills with a sword. Himura meets a young woman Tomoe Yukishiro (Kasumi Arimura), recently bereaved after the man she was due to marry was cut down by Himura. Tomoe, overcome by grief, slowly comes to realise that Himura’s violent image masks a much more kind-hearted soul, and one that yearns for peace.
“Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning” is a prequel to “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final”, and draws a lot of its tension from the viewing order (The Final being released first). Having seen “The Final”, and previous Kenshin films, we already know the fate of Kenshin and Tomoe, so at times this is a poignant watch not so much for what is happening on screen, but for what we know is coming later for these characters. Despite being a prequel, and the fifth in a series of lengthy historical epics, the film manages to feel fresh and inventive. The story is more sombre and melancholic than pervious entries. The fight sequences see a more brutal, violent, deadly, approach replacing the bombast, acrobatics and large scale battles of earlier films. This is fitting as we are seeing Himura in his previous incarnation as ‘Battosai the Killer’, before he became a peaceful wanderer, when his determination to restore the Emporer saw him on a single-minded mission to eliminate all pro-shogunate forces. The choreography is outstanding again, but with a more merciless edge. The film’s focus on a small cast of characters, the majority of the narrative revolving around Himura and Tomoe’s relationship, allows for a different feel from the ensemble casts we are familiar with, creating a more personal and nuanced drama. Their story is a tragic love story predestined by their political and personal motivations. Knowing what is coming makes it all the more difficult to watch their relationship develop, their mistrust replaced by a growing loyalty. The pacing, score and cinematography all reflect the tragic themes, using the environments to bolster the action; the wintry duel at the end perfectly captures the coldheartedness and silent suffering of the protagonists. Being the fifth film in the series, there is familiarity in the exceptional work of set and costume designers, recreating the historical Kyoto, and for keen-eyed viewers it is interesting to note the small details in every scene.
This film takes us back to before Kenshin became “Rurouni”, when he was still a coldblooded killer, effortlessly dispatching scores of shogunate soldiers. It is somewhat surprising that he still appears as a largely sympathetic character, despite his copious bloodletting and slaughter of hundreds of individuals, but Sato’s performance and the delicate way the script deals with the tumultuous period setting mean that we are able to relate to some extent with the protagonist. The film tackles the thorny issue of whether violence, even murder, is ever justified in achieving political ends. As Tomoe tells Himura, the idea of fighting for peace seems strange. His actions are completely contrary to his stated desire to bring about peace, apparently causing only suffering. As with other Kenshin films, the real history of the period is used primarily as set dressing, and the film has little commentary on the rights or wrongs of each side of the conflict. No doubt, historians will know the significance of shogunate and imperial forces, but for the viewers it is enough to know that our hero is fighting for the emporer, and those trying to stop him are fighting for the shogun. The finale of the film returns us to the opening of the first live-action Kenshin film, a beautiful ending that recontextualises Himura’s actions following the battle of Toba-fushimi. An incredible denoument to the “Rurouni Kenshin” saga, a contemplative drama that gives depth to the character and raises difficult questions about the role of violence in effecting change.