I am, of course, a Rurouni Kenshin fan. It was the first manga I ever read, and that was 15 years ago. It was even in April that I first got my hands on volumes 4, 8 and 10,so it’s an anniversary. I can still remember that peculiar excitement of discovering something totally new. It feels like a long time that I got to be so openly and innocently excited about something. Maybe I’m just being overly emotional right now, OK.
I was pleasantly surprised by the first Rurouni Kenshin live-action movie. It did a fantastic job capturing the aesthetics and the atmosphere of the original. Most of the character designs were translated very well into a more realistic style, although it wasn’t perfect. Sanosuke was not perfect.
The first movie made two major changes that were OK for the scope of that one movie, but really caused problems for the sequels. I’m talking about the early introduction of Saito, and the exclusion of Aoshi and the Oniwabanshu from the Takeda arch. I understand wanting Saito in that story, because he’s a link to Kenshin’s past and allows for iconic flashbacks. Also, he’s hella cool.
And they probably wanted a neatly concluded story, and did not want to end the film on Aoshi swearing to return to kill Kenshin. I guess.
Then again, did they really not think that they might have to do a sequel??? Spoilers follow, obviously.
The Saito problem
Overall, the movies do a great Saito. He looks right, he acts right, he smokes a lot. But his overall role in the story makes him feel much too tame. Manga!Saito is scary and ruthless and does pretty chillingly brutal things to his opponents. His introduction in the manga means the start of the Kyoto Arch. The first thing he does is seriously injure Sanosuke, and leave him behind as a message … He fights with Kenshin and he’s an opponent that Kenshin cannot beat. He’s completely his equal. It turns out that Saito works for the government and did not merely come for personal reasons, but to test Kenshin’s skill to determine whether he’s capable of taking on Shishio. While Saito is an ally during the Shishio business, he never gives up his hopes that he’d get to fight Kenshin again one day. And not much of that makes it into the movies. Saito feels less powerful and certainly less intimidating. He doesn’t have much to do but add his support.
Kyoto Inferno would have had a much stronger start had they still had Saito to introduce, seemingly as a murderous villain. Especially because during that fight against Saito, Kenshin forgot himself and slipped back into his old ways. The danger of that happening again is brought up in the movie, but without the same poignancy. Saito’s introduction in the manga sets the mood and shows clearly how high the stakes are.
There’s also nothing of the Saito/Sano rivalry in the movies, which is kind of sad.
The Aoshi problem
When you do the Kyoto stuff, you cannot leave out the Oniwabanshu, you cannot leave out Misao – but what do you do if you failed to lay the groundwork with Aoshi? OK, this is difficult for me to write about because I imprinted hard on Aoshi when I was 16, Misao was my spirit animal and bla bla bla.
Bluntly put: They just fucked this one up. And I think that’s not just me speaking as a fangirl, but this is an objective assessment of both Aoshi’s characterization and his role in the story. It does not work and it feels awfully jarring and it annoys me. Basically, while Saito’s role was changed so that he does not make quite the same impression, he’s still in character, but the same cannot be said about Aoshi.
The movie version of Aoshi still wants to fight Kenshin to prove that the Oniwabanshu were the best fighters. He saw his men killed in front of his eyes and it drove him crazy, but that happened years ago and had nothing directly to do with Kenshin, since they were not part of the Takeda arch. In the manga, Aoshi is introduced as the honourable-ish but misguided enemy, the sort that you kind of expect will change his ways eventually. But when his men are killed in front of him, Aoshi basically goes insane and starts onto a path towards total villainy. And it’s tragic because we have seen that there is more to him than a cold-blooded killer!
We don’t in the movie. And really, Aoshi stays a relative or even total stranger to us and to the characters. His fight against Kenshin falls flat. He’s integrated much better into the plot of the manga, where Shishio takes advantage of Aoshi’s psychological state to corrupt him further and use against Kenshin.
He still popped up in the final battle against Shishio, but that, too, felt a lot less satisfying. In the battle against Shishio, all Kenshin has to do is stay alive until Shishio dies by overheating (something I expect my laptop to do soon). The whole point is that Kenshin would never have managed this if Sanosuke, Saito and finally Aoshi had not shown up, one by one, to win him time. And I think Aoshi’s appearance in that context is especially powerful – in the manga – because Aoshi specifically wants to help as he is partially responsible for Kenshin arriving at the final battle in an already-weakened state. The strength of Kenshin lies in his abilities to positively affect the people around him, and win them as allies and friends. This is what causes his victory. And that means that it’s not physical superiority that determines the winner, but their worldviews themselves.
In the manga, after Kenshin knocked sense back into him, Aoshi is a very decent person. Still unsociable, but a great guy to have on your side, wo definitely knows right from wrong and cares about his friends and respects Kenshin. I just don’t know who movie!Aoshi is and I don’t really care for him, and that’s just not right. Also, his hair is fucking terrible.
Alright, after this rant, it feels almost wrong to change the topic and talk about something I really liked. But no one at all told me that Hiko would be in this! Hiko is in this! And Hiko was great, especially when he put on his manga outfit. I liked the scenes between Kenshin and him. Great dynamic and stuff.
Another thing I loved was the chicken that appears early on in Kyoto Inferno (10 minutes in). Later in the film, it reappears along with a second chicken, that looked like a rooster if I remember correctly. The first chicken ran towards it. And at the very end of The Legends Ends, there’s the chicken again, with four babies. So there’s a whole chicken love story happening in the background of that movie, and the chicken had a more comprehensible character arch than Aoshi, goddamn my luck. =P
Overall, while the movie version is still visually impressive and the fight scenes are great to watch, practically all of the characters except Kenshin (and Hiko) get less development and moments to shine than in the manga. Without Anji briefly mentoring Sanosuke, their fight in the end doesn’t matter much. Most of the Juppongatana stay in the background … Sojiro is fine, but just like Aoshi, his defeat lacks much of the emotional impact of its manga counterpart. Probably because we do not see his flashbacks and do not see inside his head, so his confusion and breakdown come out of nowhere and don’t inspire the same feeling of “finally, one more soul saved from evil, go team Kenshin!” You’re not given any reason to feel pity for any of the villains, you don’t really get a sense that some of them deserve to be saved, and that’s certainly a big flaw, all things considered … I dunno, it almost feels lazy.
If nothing else, these movies prove that it is possible to translate the style and atmosphere of a manga into a live-action format. And they are a great reminder of how much I love the original manga, and that I should read it more often.
Edit: It just occured to me that maybe Aoshi’s role in the Kyoto arch(in the originalmanga) is more crucial than I previously thought, from a meta point of view. If the story shows a clash of world views – Shishio’s against Kenshin’s, then it becomes quite interesting that Aoshi is, at points in the story, influenced by both of them. Shishio encourages him on his path towards evil, Kenshin eventually helps him overcome this darkness. Since it is only through the combined help of Sanosuke, Saito and finally Aoshi that Kenshin can stay alive against Shishio, getting Aoshi on his side (instead of just defeating him without making him realize the errors of his ways), could be seen as the deciding factor in the battle. Aoshi is not just another obstacle in Kenshin’s way, he represents stuff.