The Legend and Butterfly (2023) by Keishi Otomo

A historical epic detailing the relationship between Nobunaga Oda (Takuya Kimura) and his wife Nohime (Haruka Ayase). Oda is a figure who looms large over Japan’s warring states period, one of the most recognizable names of the time with a reputation as a ferocious military commander. “The Legend and Butterfly” begins with the lord as a young man; immature, inexperienced, and spoiled by his position. He is married to the daughter of a neighbouring lord in an attempt to broker a truce between their two regions. The woman, Nohime, is more than a match for the precocious young man; fiercely intelligent and beautiful there is a suggestion she has been sent there as an assassin by her father. Despite a mutual distrust and even hatred between the two, as the years go by they learn to work together and come to love one another, with Oda’s victories in part due to the tactical brilliance of Nohime. The film spans several decades and documents Oda’s rise to great power, becoming the recognizable warlord of historical record.

Little is known of Nohime and Nobunaga Oda’s relationship and writer Ryota Kosawa therefore takes certain liberties with their story. It is exciting to see the characterisations of these historical figures and both Takuya Kimura and Haruka Ayase give moving performances with great chemistry together. It is far from a traditional love story, even with the film-maker’s attempts to make things more romantic and fitting to modern sensibilities. Instead the film retains a sense of reality in showing that these matches were often more political alliances than passionate affairs. The fantastic production value is evidenced in everything from the large casts and sets, the colourful costumes that bring the period to vivid life, and the occasional action sequences (director Keishi Otomo previously worked on the Rurouni Kenshin series and his skill as an action director shows here). Naoki Sato’s score further adds to this sense of a lavish epic. The main failing of the film is in a lack of a unifying narrative; told over such a long period it often feels more like a beautifully rendered docu-drama than a love-story or historical epic. There are many spectacular sequences, but they feel a little disjointed. The story of Oda and Nohime is interesting, but the subtlety of their relationship and adherence to historical accuracy (they are often apart and moments of romance between them are sparse) may leave some viewers cold, especially if you are expecting something more melodramatic. The second strand to the story, that of Oda’s transformation from an inept young lord to the fearsome and merciless commander, is likewise interesting, but often omits the why and how of him becoming this dispassionate leader. In attempting to balance these two strands the film falls somewhere between an out-and-out romance and historical action film. Early on we see a hint that perhaps the relationship between the two will have some relevance to how his military career developed, but this connection becomes more tenuous as the film progresses.


“The Legend and Butterfly” is an impressive historical epic, with incredible set-piece moments and two standout performances from its leads. The tragedy of both characters seems to be the time in which they were born. Both express an interest in foreign musicians they see at a fair, and in a dream sequence towards the end of the film, Oda imagines a possible alternate future for the two where they set sail from Japan to travel together as a peaceful, loving couple. In other ages this might have been possible, but their fates were set by being born in a militaristic society that prided prowess in battle above all else and often denigrated women to the role of child-bearers. The unconventional story, awkwardly balancing facts with a more romanticised fiction, can seem strange at times, but there is so much to enjoy here, from the fantastic sets and costumes, excellently choreographed fight-sequences, and two stand-out performances from the charismatic leads.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (2021) by Keishi Otomo

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.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (2021) by Keishi Otomo

Taking place several years after the previous film, Himura Kenshin’s (Takeru Sato) peace is once again disturbed by a figure from his past. Enishi Yukishiro (Mackenyu Arata) bears a major grudge against Kenshin, for causing the death of his sister Tomoe (Kasumi Arimura), who was briefly married to Kenshin. Enishi is also working alongside Shanghai mafia boss Wu-Heishin (Takuma Oto), who is under investigation by Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi).

Following on from previous instalments in the saga, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” features the familiar stylish action sequences and a lot of nostalgia for the first three films. As well as the return of most of the cast, including Yosuke Eguchi, Emi Takei, Munetaka, Aoki and Yu Aoi, the film also sees the return of Ryosuke Kamiki in another superb fight. There is a nostalgia to seeing the gang back together again and taking on a fresh challenge, and with the same director, composer and cinematographer it is almost as if no time has passed between the releases. The story this time around feels like a more personal affair and Kenshin and Enishi’s backstory and rivalry is a strong thread on which to hang the as-ever impressive action sequences. We learn through flashbacks of their history together, including how Kenshin got the crossed scars on his cheek. Once again the action choreography offers an amazing spectacle, from Enishi’s first fight in a train, through large scale battles and emotionally charged duels later on, there is an endless creativity and skill in each of these set-pieces. The sight of dozens of extras engaged in combat is an incredible sight, the vitality and skill of the actors a marvel to see. The story of the Shanghai mafia investigation is given short shrift, being far less interesting than Enishi’s main plot, but again the film gives ample time to several supporting characters, helping to flesh them out a little.

Despite a run time of over two hours, in keeping with previous films, the story is well-paced and rarely drags. The screenplay, also by director Keishi Otomo, is continuously pushing the plot forward, slowly revealing details about either Kenshin’s history, or the characters around him, building up a sense of connection to events and people that allows the fight sequences to land with a genuine sense of threat. Everything about this project proves not only a serious budget, but a dedication to making something that looks incredible. The costume and set design perfectly recreate the period, while adding colour and vibrancy to the characters, building a believable world around the fantastical plot. Takuro Ishizaka’s cinematography is also beautiful to look at and the film uses light, locations and weather, to emphasise certain moments. Snow softly falling over a tragic death, fires tearing through the city, using the background details to heighten the emotional content of certain scenes. Naoki Sato again provides an incredible score that slips easily between drama and action.

“Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” sees a darker side to Kenshin, similar to when we first encounter him. Despite his easy-going appearance, the film makes clear that he was a killer and has caused great suffering in the past. Enishi’s desire for revenge is understandable and we are left with difficult moral questions about both of them. The film is one of the best big-budget action films in the genre and a welcome return for these characters.

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.