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.

Samurai Shifters (2019) by Isshin Inudo

A daimyo (feudal lord) is forced to move province on the orders of the shogun in this historic comedy drama. Lord Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) of Himeji receives word that he is to move his entire clan to a smaller distant province. This means a halving of their revenue and a vast logistical challenge. Matsudaira enlists the help of a librarian, Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino), who is tasked with organising the move and cutting costs. Harunosuke is helped by Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), a single mother whose father Ikuta led the last great clan move 15 years before; and his friend and fellow samurai Takamura (Issey Takahashi). Harunosuke is faced with various problems, not least of which is to tell many samurai that they are to be left behind as farmers, as the new province will not be able to support them.

You may think it would be difficult to make an interesting film about moving house, and you would be absolutely correct. The film’s central issue is that the stakes are relatively low and there is little suspense. While Harunosuke’s task is monumental, we only rarely see the human cost of this venture. The comedic take on events is perhaps the best that they could have done with the story, but also goes to undermine the challenge they face. One of the best scenes is when a samurai is asked to discard many of his prized possessions, priceless ancient artefacts that nevertheless have little to no use outside of ornamentation. This is one of the few moments when we see genuine distress at the thought of what they are losing, albeit still played for laughs. In a fight scene later in the film, the clowning and family friendly nature of the film again mean that it is hard to feel any sense of danger. Towards the end the film attempts to underline its themes about belonging and the importance of a sense of community, but it comes late and with little to back it up. Harunosuke returns to those left behind at a point when they are only able to tell us what they have been through, rather than showing us the effects of Harunosuke’s decisions. Similarly, any sense of the enormity or difficulty of this move is somewhat undermined as they subsequently move several more times in the film in a brief expository scene. Harunosuke is a likeable character, played by popstar Gen Hoshino who brings charm and charisma to the bumbling everyman role. Issey Takahashi and Mitsuki Takahata are also supremely enjoyable in their supporting roles, playing very much the by-the-numbers friend and love interest. The film does a good job at recreating the period, but the stages and costumes often feel like just that rather that presenting a believable setting.

“Samurai Shifters” gives us a look at an unusual practice of the period, albeit an exaggeration of the historical reality. At heart the film is about discovering what is important in life. The samurai who is forced to part with many of his possessions, and Harunosuke himself who is forced to destroy many of his prized books, emphasise this most clearly. It is the people that make the clan what it is, rather than any objects or place. The film also offers some commentary on the role of class and status in a historical context, with Oran’s father receiving little reward for his duties as he was not of the samurai class. The most moving moment of “Samurai Shifters” is when Harunosuke returns to those samurai who were left behind, who have now become peasant farmers, cultivating the land and raising families in their former domain. Their realisation that this ostensibly poorer lifestyle in fact makes them infinitely richer due to the happiness it has brought them is a message that deserved more time. “Samurai Shifters” rarely drags in terms of the narrative and features many enjoyable performances, but it is unlikely to be a film that is received with much enthusiasm.

Kagemusha (1980) by Akira Kurosawa

A thrilling samurai epic about loyalty and lordship from a master of the historical drama. A kagemusha, or ‘shadow warrior’, is a body double used to avoid the lord being put in danger, or to trick the enemy. The film begins with prominent warlord Shingen Takeda’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) having found a perfect double of the lord, a former thief who he saved from hanging. Although he is nothing like the fearsome lord in manner, he is the spitting image of him (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both Shingen Takeda and his new kagemusha). At this time three mighty leaders are vying for control of the county: Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), who have formed an alliance are in bitter conflict with the third, Shingen Takeda. Takeda is close to victory, when he is shot and wounded by a sniper. Following his death, the kagemusha must step in to take his place, as per the lord’s wishes, for three years. This presents a problem for Takeda’s supporters as this doppelganger risks exposing himself as an imposter. Meanwhile, Tokugawa and Oda move forward with their campaign to unify Japan; and Takeda’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) attempts to win power in his own right.

“Kagemusha” is set during the warring states period, a pivotal moment of Japanese history. It takes for its basis one of the possible stories about Takeda’s death and spins a fantastical tale of deception and feudal conflict culminating in the Battle of Nagashino. The film has a theatrical feel to it, beginning from the opening scene in which we have a long dialogue between Nobukado, Takeda and their new kagemusha. Simply staged with a fixed camera it relies on the excellent performances and framing to tell the story. Throughout the film this carefully considered tone is maintained. Kurosawa is known to have painted out his own storyboards and it shows in the composition of each shot. Background details take on great significance, whether the suit of armour that hangs in the background as Tokugawa sits in his hall, or the incredible landscapes of crashing waves at the shore. Each detail is carefully calculated to enhance the drama, drawing out the power of the surrounding environment to bolster the unfolding drama. Kurosawa also knows how to use extras to maximum effect, from scores of corpses showing the horror of battle, to the triumphant marching of spearmen and cavalry. The use of colour is also notable with scenes lent vitality through the reds, greens and blues of armour and banners.

Kurosawa uses long takes and scenes to excellent effect in “Kagemusha”, giving the actors space to express themselves and ideas and emotions time to take on real significance. One example of this is in the scene where the sniper explains how he shot Takeda. Rather than a quick explanation, we are given an extended sequence where he runs step by step through his actions. It is in Kurosawa’s measured pacing that scenes such as this are leant dramatic weight. In the scenes with Takeda’s grandson and mistresses the unbearable tension that he may be exposed is drawn out, creating a palpable sense of threat.

The soundscape also feels inspired by theatre, with the use of traditional instruments played for reactions or mood setting. As the film progresses we get a more traditional epic score that begins to play over the battle scenes. Equally noteworthy however is the film’s use of silence in many scenes, allowing the acting to speak for itself. Again an example of Kurosawa’s still, contemplative style that allows the audience to really empathise fully with  the trials and tribulations of the kagemusha.

While much of the film is a tragic lament on the loss of nobility and the horror of war, it also features plenty of humour to lighten the tone, such as hapless servants walking over an area they have just brushed, the kagemusha discovering Takeda’s body, or crude jokes about how the kagemusha should deal with Takeda’s mistresses in the same way he does the horse (by claiming he is too ill to ride that day). Kurosawa’s belief in his actors is justified, with Tatsuya Nakadai delivering an incredible performance as Takeda and the kagemusha. We watch him transform from a lowly thief to the embodiment of honour and calm surety.

The film is at once an historical epic, with the clashing of great martial forces for the future of Japan, and at the same time a highly personal tale of one man’s journey to discover a sense of honour. One of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history, the warring clans knew that whoever triumphed would control the fate of the country. The opening and closing of the film show the great sacrifices that were made to achieve what they believed was a unifying mission, with hundreds upon thousands killed. The film offers little praise or condemnation of the actions of Tokugawa, Oda and Takeda, giving a stoic appraisal of their actions. All are shown to be great leaders and there is little indication that any one of them is better or worse than the others. In the story of the kagemusha we are given an account of a man who is forced to become someone better than he is. When the film begins he is disloyal, avaricious and immature; by contrast Takeda is shown to be a thoughtful and fearsome warrior. The film might be read as a commentary on how individual will can be forced into subservience to a lord or master, necessitating complete destruction of the ego in service of a higher power. However, the film also suggests that Takeda is truly great and that this transformation of the lowly thief into a lord is something of an honour. One interesting aspect of the film is the kagemusha’s relationship with Takeda’s grandson, who immediately marks him out as an imposter. He states that he is no longer afraid of him, and later their relationship becomes one of genuine warmth. This indicates a more nuanced view of the difference between Takeda and kagemusha, showing what the first had to sacrifice in order to become a fierce warlord. An incredible film that speaks to what it means to be a leader and giving an insight into this bloody period of history.

Ichi (2008) by Fumihiko Sori

Haruka Ayase stars in this female-led reimagining of the famous tale of a wandering blind swordsman. The film begins with a brief backstory of “Ichi” (Ayase), a blind woman who is part of a group of Goze (travelling musicians). She is ostracised and expelled from the group for having lain with a man. She sets out to find her tutor, a blind swordsman. She meets a man, Toma (Takao Osawa), a samurai who seems to be completely hopeless with his sword. When the two of them are attacked by bandits, Ichi quickly dispatches them. Believing it was Toma, the Yakuza running the town, led by Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka) decide to hire him as a bodyguard to help with their struggles against the nearby bandits led by Banki (Shido Nakamura). Still with hopes of finding her master, Ichi remains with Toma as the two prepare for a showdown with these violent outcasts.

The story of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, has been told many times in film, and it is a tale that requires very few elements to be effective. Haruka Ayase gives a great performance in the lead role, both fearsome yet fragile. We learn about her backstory, the rape that she suffered and her expulsion from the group of goze, her struggles to form relationships with people and her quest to find a purpose in her life. She is also looking for a reason for the bloodshed and killing she seems incapable of escaping. Osawa’s Toma is likewise a troubled individual, battling his own demons that prevent him from becoming a great swordsman and living up to his father’s expectations of him. The film’s main weakness is that it spends little time on these interesting character aspects and instead forces the characters into less engaging conflicts with the villains. Shido Nakamura is clearly enjoying himself, gleefully hamming it up as Banki, alongside Riki Takeuchi as his chief henchman. Their cartoonish performances feel slightly out of place with the more moving scenes between Ichi and Toma. Where the action is concerned the film does an excellent job of portraying the elegance and fatal effectiveness of Ichi’s technique. There are several standout moments when it comes to the choreography, such as the attack on the village by bandits and Ichi’s showdown with them. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of realism in the film, which jars with its earnest attempts to garner sympathy for the characters. The costumes and sets are well designed, and thought has been put into them, but they are often so pristine looking and a lack of extras is to the film’s detriment when it comes to believability.

In trying to deliver both an energetic action film and a more character-driven drama, “Ichi” just misses the mark on both. The film’s central themes are those of discovering your purpose and understanding the value of human life. In a film that sees so many unceremoniously cut down it is an odd message to attempt to deliver. Ichi is a woman who is unable to see right from wrong as she puts it, having rejected notions of morality through her own harrowing experiences. She is desperately searching for guidance, exemplified in her quest to find her former master, and someone to show her the ‘light’ (to use the film’s own metaphor) out of her nihilistic impression of the world. The film is entertaining as a simple action tale, but it brushes too quickly over certain moments that would have leant some emotional depth and wastes a great performance from Haruka Ayase.