The third Keshin live-action film, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, hit Japanese theaters this past weekend. As good as the previous two films were, this one was even better—largely thanks to some of the most amazing sword-fighting action scenes ever put on film.
In both of the reviews of the two previous Kenshin films, I raved about how good their practical (i.e., not CG) fighting effects were. But this film blew the previous ones right out of the water. While the film starts out slow—very slow, truth be told—the film’s entire final third (about 40 minutes) is one long unbroken action scene.
Simply put, this may be the best action scene ever put on film—it's certainly the best one I have ever come across. It spans from a beach, to the deck of a massive battle ship, and then down to its innards. It splits off into several one-on-one battles, allowing each character to shine. Finally, it all comes together in an amazingly well-choreographed four-on-one fight scene where our heroes pull out all the stops against the significantly more powerful Shishio.
There is one particular shot right as Kenshin and Sano storm the ship's deck that literally had me laughing in awe as the two fought dozens of men in an unbroken 30-second spinning shot—meaning it was all done in one incredibly complex take with no mistakes. If you love fight scenes without the Zack Snyder patented “speed up, slow down,” or remember what fight scenes looked like before the Matrix, you must watch this film. It will make your heart weep with joy.
While the fighting scenes are largely practical in their execution, there is much more CG in this film than there was in the previous films. However, it is left to backgrounds and flying debris—with one notable exception: Shishio's sword strikes have the ability to create flashes of fire. And as the battle moves closer and closer to its zenith, this power becomes all the more common. Yet, it never stops looking amazing. A power such as shooting blasts of fire from a sword could so easily look cheesy; but this film makes it seem like a realistic threat—it doesn't even strain the suspension of disbelief. You just naturally accept that this man can shoot fire from his sword.
When it comes to the source material, I admit to never really caring for Sano. Somewhere between comic relief and B-level hero, he has always seemed like little more than walking filler to me. That said, if you don't walk out of this film with Sano as your favorite character, you have no soul.
Sano spends the first two-thirds of the film being worried about the fates of Kenshin and Kaoru or bringing a few moments of comic relief courtesy of his typical overexcitement/general stupidity. But when all hell breaks loose on the beach at the start of the 40-minute fight scene, Sano proceeds to steal the whole movie.
Even as the film focuses on Kenshin, there is always a white blur in the background—Sano—tearing through the mooks. When the two split off, we keep coming back to Sano's fight against one of Shishio's mid-level thugs in a fight that, while not quite as awesome as the first film's kitchen fight, is nonetheless as brutal as it is amazing to watch.
Even then, covered in his own blood, Sano shows no hesitation in immediately jumping into the fight against Shishio when he sees the others in trouble. Shishio is so far above Sano's weight class that Sano even being in the fight is ludicrous—but Sano never backs down. He just keeps coming. Sano, more than any other character, will not give up. He will not stay down.
This makes him both the everyman and the very heart of the movie. And even though he takes far more physical abuse than any other character—so much so as to be little more than a walking lump of flesh and blood by the end of the film—he is the one holding up Kenshin during the film's close instead of the other way around. He is simply the most endearing aspect of the film.
This film, as well as the previous two, does a great job of putting the Kenshin story in a realistic world. This is done largely through the costumes. The outrageous anime costume designs are, for the most part, gone and have been replaced by period-looking clothing of similar color or fashion to what was seen in the anime/manga.
But more than that, the film adds a layer of grime to the world. There is sweat, blood, and tears. The characters' hair looks greasy and their costumes are often torn and covered in dirt. While I wouldn't say this all serves to make the story “gritty,” it does make it seem much more down to earth—more historical-fiction than historical-fantasy.
The Legend Ends is a meaty movie with a runtime nearing two hours fifteen minutes. However, it really didn't need to be that long. The entire first third of the film is centered on the fallout of the last movie. Kaoru is missing, Kenshin has been found injured by his old master, and the ninja clan is in shambles with its leader near death. Very little happens in this part of the film other than character building for Kenshin's master.
Thus, it feels like the entire movie takes a good 40 minutes to actually get started—that we have a whole side story to watch before we're allowed to continue on. And while Kenshin's master is interesting in his own right, he is largely unimportant to the story of Shishio. If half of his scenes were cut or shortened, the film would be better off.
Kenshin has proven time and again that he won't kill—no matter what. So how can he hope to defeat someone like Shishio—someone who, even if captured, would have little problem escaping?
[To avoid spoilers on the end of the film, skip to the next section.]
Of course, you could always have an ally of the hero do the deed, but that often sets up a new story arc pitting hero against fallen hero. If you want a perfectly tied up ending, but want the hero’s hands clean, there is only one (terribly clichéd) way to go: The Disney villain death—i.e., the villains kill themselves. Like Scar or Gaston, Shishio dies because of his own inherent “villain-ness” mixed with simple stupidity.
And in a tale like Kenshin, where the no killing rule is at the very heart of the whole story, sidestepping the issue robs the hero of any kind of moral dilemma and treats the audience like children who don't know any better. It is simply a cheap cop-out to end an otherwise great story.
If you like Kenshin, see this movie. If you like anime, see this movie. If you're curious about how to successfully adapt a work of fiction to film, see this movie. If you like sword-fighting action, see this movie. If you have a pulse, see this movie.
I guess what I am trying to say is this: See this movie.
Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends was released in Japanese theaters on September 13, 2014. It will hit theaters in the Philippines on September 24, 2014. No other specific international release dates have been announced.
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