Saturday, June 22, 2013

RUROUNI KENSHIN: Wandering Samurai

STOP! Anime time! . . . Sort of.

Based on Nobuhiro Watsuki's best-selling manga (which birthed an anime series and several OAV features as well), RUROUNI KENSHIN is the story of Kenshin Himura, formerly an assassin during the Meiji Restoration, now a wanderer. Using a sakabato (reverse-bladed katana), Kenshin has vowed to use his skills to protect life rather than ending it. He stumbles into the life of Kaoru Kamiya, who's dojo has been implicated in several murders that have claimed her school's style as the one used by the killer. A killer that has ties to Kenshin's blood-soaked past. Things get even more complicated from there.

The 2012 film takes the well-known characters into a live-action setting while preserving the feel of the source material. And I LOVE it.

I'll be honest, in terms of live-action comic book movies, this is up there with some of the best that Marvel and DC have ever produced. If' I'd seen it last year, I'd have ranked it alongside movies like THE AVENGERS. All in all, I can't see why any fan of the series' various incarnations wouldn't want to at least check this out.

. . . Which is why I'm somewhat curious as to why this is so damn hard to find.

Full disclosure, I'm not sure if WB (the apparent distributor for this movie) received any actual money from the import DVD I bought. I don't condone piracy, but I'll say upfront that I can't be certain how legal my copy of this movie is. It's impossible to find an actual US-region copy of this on DVD or Blu-ray (there are imports on eBay and Amazon though), which is odd because the film was apparently a big hit in Japan and the manga and anime from the 90's developed a pretty big following over here several years back. This is how I originally got introduced to the characters in the first place.

The manga and anime series were sprawling, episodic, and packed with dozens of characters and over-arcing plot-lines. The film offers a considerably condensed (and, by necessity, somewhat reworked) telling of the "Wandering Samurai" arc, featuring villains like the opium smuggler Kanryu Takeda and the bloodthirsty renegade Jinei Udo. The movie not only juggles these plot threads and characters with surprising deftness (including fan-favorites like Sanosuke, Saito, and the urchin Yahiko as well as plot-centric characters like Megumi), it also strikes just the right tone between frantic action, violent melodrama, and light comedy that are so essential to reflecting the different facets of the title character himself. Takeru Satoh does an impressive balancing act as Kenshin, portraying the savage killer carefully locked away behind the unimposing wanderer, allowing just enough of an edge to bleed through whenever necessary. The supporting characters are equally well-cast, and are all obviously having a blast in their roles.

The film doles out action deliberately, offering up sword fights and brawls in just enough quantity to punctuate important dramatic beats and leave the viewer wanting more, culminating in a fantastic one-two punch with a big compound siege followed by a climactic one-on-one duel. The source material lends itself well to the wushu-style action of films like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and the movie embraces this approach, providing just enough high-flying acrobatics to be wildly impressive without going too fantastic and over-the-top.

All in all, this is live-action anime/manga adaptation done RIGHT. Everyone looks like their hand-drawn counterparts without looking stupid. The fight scenes "feel" right even when done by live actors. The acting, directing, and musical score serve the story very well. There's plenty of fan-service for those familiar with the series, but the film is also a great jumping-on point for newcomers. And the film ends by wrapping up its story threads while still leaving the door open for further adventures.

A sequel was apparently green-lit last year, which is very exciting as a trilogy would be a rather neat way of adapting the three main arcs of the manga (two of which the anime did very well). I'm hopeful that we'll see - if not a stateside theatrical release - at least some word on official US DVD/Blu-ray availability. I'm very excited to see how the "Legend of Kyoto" arc would play out in live-action (especially now that the film-makers have shown that they can make this medium work), and I'd even be happy to buy the first movie again.

As it is, if you have any way at all of getting your hands on this movie, it's very much worth a look. Especially if you're a long-time Kenshin fan.

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