The end is the beginning. Quite literally as the final entry in the live-action Kenshin series, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning has arrived on Netflix and it’s a prequel. It adapts the flashback section of the series’ Jinchuu Arc, which was adapted into the 1999 anime OVA Ruroni Kenshin Trust and Betrayal.
Director Keishi Otomo returns for a fine final entry to what is probably the best live-action anime adaptions ever made. It takes the action of the rest of the series but blends it with an air of drama and tragedy.
The movie takes place ten years before the rest of the series during the Bakumatsu period of Japanese History. The Satchō alliance backed by the emperor is attempting to overthrow the Shogunate. In this era of chaos and violence, Kenshin is known as Battousai the Manslayer, a cold assassin attempting to bring about the new age. However, he soon meets a woman who causes him to question his worldview and eventually become the pacifist wanderer we know and love.
This is a very different film from the previous Kenshin movies. Other than Kenshin and Saitou, none of the characters from the previous films are featured at all. Some of them haven’t even been born yet. While it is still filled with sword fights and action, this one sheds its shounen roots and feels more like a historical drama. There’s still plenty of sword fights but there’s a slower, more methodical tone to the film giving time for characters to breathe and question their actions. This is supposed to be an era where everything is changing, and the characters take time to reflect on that if only a little.
The colour palette is also a much darker and drabber present the bleak world that existed before the revolution. Overall does a great job at bringing the audience into the film. You feel this sense of building uncertainty as the characters do.
Its plot may be a little confusing to understand if you’re not familiar with Japanese history though. Most of these historical points would be common for Japanese audiences but less so for those overseas. I’d suggest looking up a summary of the Meiji revolution before getting into this one. It just gives you a little more context.
You don’t need to watch the other four to see this one. That being said, I have to question its placement as the last film in the franchise despite being named ‘The Beginning’ and the previous film being named ‘The Final’. In the manga, this arc takes place before the majority of the events in The Final and the characters in that film refer back to events of this one. Overall I find it strange that this was released second and would probably encourage viewers to save The Final to be the Final film. I know this is a small thing and it won’t affect the final score but I felt it needs to be said.
The heavy atmosphere is important because it gets us into Kenshin’s mindset. He sees the world as bleak and cruel. At the beginning of the film, we see him almost dissociate with the people around focusing on nothing but being a tool to bring about the revolution.
He’s a very different character from the Kenshin we see in the other films. He’s a cold murderer with a fast but brutal fighting style, beautifully conveyed through the choreography. Takeru Satoh is able to capture this side of Kenshin well. An isolated man that has almost submitted to his role as a killer but as the film goes on we see signs of the Kenshin he’ll one day become. It’s quite the transformation that is handled solidly although maybe not explored as much as it should have been.
There’s really only one other major character in this film and that is Kenshin’s first wife Tomoe. Tomoe is Kenshin firsts love however in reality she is a Shogunate spy who’s come to help kill Kenshin for assassinating her fiance. As the film goes on however her passionate hatred for him turns into passionate love. Kasumi Arimura portrays this perfectly showing her as the more charming pure, innocent persona that she appears as but also the broken woman she is deep down.
Bakumatsu Swordsman Romantic Tragedy
Ultimately this can be seen in the story of two people broken by violence and war. Both are guilty of committing heinous crimes against the other and yet they can’t help but still can’t help but feel they complete each other. As they spend more time together, Kenshin comes to realize there is more to the world than murder, Tomoe realizes there’s more than revenge. They save each other as they bring about each other’s downfall. As the film itself says, love and hate are bound together through karma. It’s a tragically ironic dynamic.
I will say the actual point where they confess they’re in love may be a little sudden. In the anime/manga a lot of time is spent with Kenshin and Tomoe in hiding and acting as an actual couple. You see them gradually defrost over time as they go about work and interact with regular citizens. These moments showed the beauty of a world without war that would inspire Kenshin’s core resolve. Here, a lot of that is skipped. The pair establish their hideout and then they’re deeply truly in love within minutes of screen time. Kenshin quickly decides to never kill again after the war without as much of the build-up that made it seem so natural in the source material. They still have amazing chemistry but the little touches from the anime/manga may have given it a bit more polished.
The Last Age of Samurai
With all this talk of drama and romance, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no action. This may very well be the goriest film in the series. There’s no reverse blade sword here, when Kenshin strikes, blood sprays. It’s gruesome but it fits the tone of the film. It depicts the Bakamatsu era as the cutthroat last stand of feudal Japan and no one comes out unstained.
The film does a good job of presenting both sides as equally shady. Both are perfectly happy to use assassins and underhanded tactics to win the war. It’s easy to see how someone like Makoto Shishio would be inspired by this dog-eat-dog world.
I already touched upon the dark and dreary color platter but I also like the symbolism incorporated through it. Tomoe is almost always shown dressed in bright white. This presents her as Kenshin sees her, pure and calming in the midst of darkness. As the two get closer, warmer colors bloom into the scenes showing them warming up to each other. By the end, however, the scenes take place in the snow. That white of purity becomes a white of brittle ice, with red streaked over it.
The Road To The New Age
Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is a brilliant swansong to end the live-action series on. Rather than bigger and bolder is a small but impactful dive into Kenshin’s past. It invites the viewer to experience the most impactful time of his life and it shaped him into becoming a new man.
The relationship between the two leads to sweetness and tragedy. Some parts could have been handled better however I deny that the ending was powerful and sad. If you’re a fan of the series, just looking for some good samurai movies, or are attempting to find true evidence that anime adaptations can actually be good, this is a must-watch, preferably before the Final.
Ruroni Kenshin: The Beginning, on with the rest of the series is now available on Netflix.
Netflix has recently announced a new trailer for the upcoming Witcher Animated Movie. Here’s the trailer for it.
Rurouni Kenshin: The Final
- Great Atmosphere for a dark historical drama
- Development for the leading characters is well written and tragic
- Action scenes are still on point
- Certain scenes cut from the anime/manga could have benefitted the movie
- Can be confusing if you don't know Japanese history
- Shouldn't have been released after 'The Final'
Truly the End an Era