(Source: Google Images)
If you are into manga/anime, you are likely to know about Rurouni Kenshin, a manga (Japanese comic) originally written and illustrated by Nobuhiro Watsuki. It is a very popular shounen (and later anime), which has been translated to several languages and had a worldwide fan base. I also used to be a fan of the manga after reading it during my teenage years. Therefore, in 2012, when I heard that a live action adaptation was produced, I felt excited and at the same time worried, wondering if the films would do justice to the legendary manga. However, I never had the chance to watch the film until this December when the film, along with its two sequels (Kyoto Inferno and A Legend Ends) were screened in Melbourne at the Japanese Film Festival.
Directed by Keishi Otomo, Rurouni Kenshin trilogy revolves around a former assassin named Himura Kenshin. 10 years before the main story starts, Kenshin was known as Hitoriki Battosai, a swordsman with extraordinary and incredible skills. However, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, Kenshin decides to cease his killing and instead identifies himself as a rurouni (wanderer) offering aid and protection to those in need. The story starts when Kenshin encounters Kamiya Kaoru, who mistakes him for an assassin who has been using the name of her father’s Kendo school to murder innocent people. After realising her misunderstanding, Kaoru kindly offers Kenshin a place in her dojo. Although later she discovers his murderous past, Kaoru still accepts Kenshin, sympathising with his guilt and his desperation for atonement.
As somebody who has read the manga thoroughly, I must say that this live-action saga, including Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin A legend ends, really captures the essence of the original manga. All the actors fit their role, especially actor Takeru Sato who plays Kenshin. Sato not only resembles Kenshin’s feminine appearance but also successfully portrays the character’s complexity. Watching Sato, we see a gentle and kind Kenshin just as we can also feel the hidden ruthlessness of a former battousai (or assassin). Kenshin’s stunts are also well-crafted and impressive, convincing the audience that Kenshin is an exceptional swordsman. Because I’ve never watched any Japanese martial art film, I am really astonished at the high quality of this trilogy’s action sequences. To be honest, I enjoyed the actions in Kenshin much more than other Hollywood blockbusters. There is something fresh, raw and beautiful about the fighting scenes in Rurouni Kenshin, leaving me amazed at the dynamic of human body.
Despite much focus on the actions, the films are also meaningful and able to capture important themes of the original manga. One of them is the question of whether or not an assassin can atone for his murders. This question is embodied in the character Kenshin, who, rather than a hero, is portrayed as a man who is burdened by his exceptional swordsmanship. His guilt of his murders are so great that he swears not to kill and represents the oath with a reverse-blade sword, a sword that is said to injure but can’t take away any soul. During the course of the film, Kenshin, however, confronts many people, including friends and enemies, who try to prove that he is wrong, that he can never escape from his past, that because once an assassin, an assassin forever. Rurouni Kenshin at its core is therefore about a man seeking forgiveness and peace in his heart. In the first two films, we see his struggle to hold firmly to his oath despite the ridicules, oppositions and obstacles from others, while in the final film, we are shown that Kenshin’s real struggle is with his own guilt, the guilt that has burdened him to the point he no longer feels he deserves a fresh start and a life of happiness. Only after Kenshin learns to love himself and values his own existence does he become stronger and have the capacity to face his worst enemy – Makoto. The message of Rurouni Kenshin is therefore uplifting and hopeful and is best captured by Kenshin’s statement:
You can always die. It’s living that takes real courage”. (Rurouni Kenshin)
I love this message because it is actually very Islamic. Okay, of course the film is not about God, but Kenshin’s story makes me realise why God always asks us to pray for Him for forgiveness and why at the start of every chapter (sura) in the Qu’ran there is always the sentence “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate”. One of the reasons is that we, like Kenshin, are full of mistakes and need forgiveness than anyone. That’s why God tells us to pray for it. He doesn’t tell us to dwell on our mistakes and makes our life miserable; He tells us that He is always willing to listen and forgive, and thus what He expects from us is sincere repentance and sincere prayers to Him for forgiveness. We don’t know whether or not God would accept our prayer, but there is something comforting and joyful in knowing that if we fall one moment, we still can stand up and move on, that there is a Being who would always listen, understand, forgive and give us another chance.
“Anyone who does evil or wrongs himself and then asks Allah’s forgiveness will find Allah Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Surat An-Nisa, 110)
Another theme that the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy explores is the tension of the new and the old. Set in the Mejji, a period in Japan that was marked by modernisation and westernisation, most of characters of Rurouni Kenshin are samurai who constantly have to question their relevance in the new age. Are swords necessary? Are samurais and their values superfluous in this age of knowledge and technology? Is the new government doing the right thing when following the Western ways? In Rurouni Kenshin, different characters respond to these questions in different ways. Some can move on and adapt, while others can’t and instead feel betrayed, abandoned and disappointed at the illusions they had had about the new era. I find this interesting because these questions of new and old are still relevant today in our technological and globalised world when ‘innovations’ and newness no longer necessarily indicate progress, just as so-called ‘old values’ would never entirely disappear.
To sum up, I believe despite some minuses about Rurouni Kenshin trilogy such as the overuse of music and the dragging of the second film, Rurouni Kenshin is generally a good, worth-watching trilogy. If you like Rurouni Kenshin manga, you will feel relieved that the films actually live up to expectations. If you enjoy action films, you will definitely be impressed with the choreography. And if you just want something interesting, aesthetically pleasurable and easy to watch, this trilogy is a good option as well.