Rurouni Kenshin 3: The Legend Ends (2014) by Keishi Otomo

The final part of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy tells the story of the legendary swordsman Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) as he battles against Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a fellow former assassin who has turned to a life of crime. This film picks up where the last one ended, with Kenshin training with his former master, Seijuro Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama) and asking him to learn the ultimate technique of his “High Heaven” style.

The biggest fault with this film comes from the fact that, after an incredible build-up in the previous film “Kyoto Inferno”, we return to Kenshin training to take on Shishio again. This almost seems like a backwards from where we were in the story, but it is understandable that they cannot rush straight to the climactic battle scene. The film has a much slower pace, and more time for character development, in many ways a more sedate affair than the previous films. While it is a little frustrating to have to wait for the climactic duel, this does allow us to see a different side of Kenshin, a more vulnerable, mortal, human than the unbeatable hero that he had become. When the film does reach the final fight it is as spectacular as anything that has gone before, and you can appreciate the build-up as it adds a definite weight to their struggle to defeat Shishio, and Shishio’s own hatred of the government. Again there are certain characters in the ensemble who fall by the wayside, receiving only a short amount of screen time, but the film is told with such assuredness of direction that it is easy to forgive its flaws. Having the same director and cast ensures that each film is of comparable quality, and they do their best to introduce new elements to each story. The score, by Naoki Sato, emphasizes the sense of scale and it is hard not to feel emotionally engaged when various themes begin, familiar from previous films.

This is really a part two with “Kyoto Inferno” bringing to a close a trilogy of fantastic historical action epics, probably one of the best live-action adaptations of a manga out there, which respects its characters enough to spend significant time developing them and also takes its story seriously. The consistency in quality, with the same cast and crew, mean that if you enjoyed the earlier films, you are very likely to enjoy this final instalment, which brings things to a satisfying conclusion.

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (2014) by Keishi Otomo

The film opens with an atmospheric sequence in which we see police chief Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi) tracking down the dangerous gang-boss Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a figure who was believed to have been killed at the battle of Toba-Fushimi, which brought about the new age of peace in Japan. This opening sequence establishes Shishio as a dangerous villain, intent on exacting revenge on the world. We pick up the story of Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato), and his friends Sanosuke (Muneta Aoki), Kaoru (Emi Takei), Megumi (Yu Aoi) and others from the first film, when he is asked to travel to Kyoto to find Shishio and kill him. Kenshin reluctantly  agrees, setting up a series of thrilling encounters with Shishio’s gang.

With the same cast and director as the first Rurouni Kenshin film, this includes much of what made that film great. The action sequences are exciting, well-choreographed, both one-on-one duels and fights against larger numbers. The film introduces a few new characters, including Sojiro Seta (Ryunosuke Miura), who has one of the best fights in the film with Kenshin. The story has a darker tone than the first, with a much more intimidating villain. Shishio appears wrapped in bandages after being betrayed and burnt in his last battle, and is believed to be equal in strength, speed, and skill to the semi-legendary Kenshin himself. The imagery of fire and hell in the beginning is a fantastic introduction to this character and sets the scene for an epic showdown. The film does a reasonable job of distinguishing itself, although the basic elements remain unchanged. Once again the film benefits from Takuro Ishizaka’s incredible cinematography and an epic score by Naoki Sato.

A fine sequel to the first film, with everything that was enjoyable about it reproduced here. The film-makers succeed in upping the tension with a darker, more violent villain and some incredible action set-pieces. The film is the first part of a two-part story, meaning that the end of the film builds to a climax that doesn’t arrive. However, it does an great job of setting up that confrontation for the next film.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012) by Keishi Otomo

A new age is dawning in Japan, one of peace following the bloody struggles of rival samurai. After the last battle of a long war, legendary swordsman Battosai (Takeru Sato) determines never to kill again, leaving his blade on the battlefield. 10 years later Japan is a very different country, narcotics are pouring in and wealthy businessman Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is taking full advantage of this, building an opium empire that he intends to spread around the globe. Himura Kenshin, formerly known as Battosai, is living peacefully in this new world when events force him to fight. He is met on his adventures by a fellow former samurai (Yosuke Eguchi), now chief of police, a dark figure who stole his sword named Jin-e Udo (Koji Kikawa), and several friends and allies, including a young woman Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) who runs a dojo, Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), on the run from Takeda, and a street fighter, Sanosuke Sagara (Muneta Aoki). Kenshin must struggle to protect his friends from Udo without resorting to killing, which he has forsworn, and defeat the corrupt businessman Takeda who rules this new order.

“Rurouni Kenshin” is based on a popular manga, and does a fantastic job of bringing the story to the screen with a blend of serious action and colourful characters. The villain of the piece is an over-the-top caricature of a corrupt, wealthy drug baron, showering people with money to get what he wants, and with a monomaniacal sociopathic scheme of world domination through drug trafficking. There are several other characters who are larger than life, such as Sanosuke, who wields an improbably huge sword. But the joy of the film is that all the characters and scenes are played straight, with even the more outrageous moments taken seriously. The quieter moments between Kenshin and his friends help build empathy before the action begins, and the characters, although not particularly deep, are all given convincing motivations. The choreography of the swordplay is particularly impressive, giving a sense of elegance and brutality at the same time. Keishi Otomo directs the action in such a way to make the movement clear and easy to follow, allowing you to appreciate the skill of the actors. Naoki Sato’s incredible score creates several distinct tones that work well together. Examples include the use of a limping, comic theme for the main villain, which is juxtaposed against the more sombre music when Kenshin is recalling his past as an assassin. Takeru Sato’s Kenshin is a likeable lead, and something of an enigma in the movie. Although we first see him carving a bloody path through a battlefield, he appears as a kind-hearted, even naive, soul throughout most of the film, except when he is pushed to show his prowess with a katana. His sword, the “back-blade” (with the cutting edge on the side facing him) is a nice touch, representing his desire not to kill, and makes him even more of a hero.

A thrilling action epic with a timeless story and enjoyable characters. Kenshin is an excellent conflicted protagonist, with a dark past and a vow to not kill balanced against his supreme skills as a swordsman. “Rurouni Kenshin” is a film about the value of peace, and turning away from death and slaughter, and also about the power of friendship.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.