Film Review: Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno「るろうに剣心 京都大火編」

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno
るろうに剣心 京都大火編 [Kyoto Taika-hen]
2014, Live-action Manga Adaptation
Director: Keishi Otomo

Kyoto Inferno started strongly with a visual of Shishio’s idea of inferno. Hajime Saito, formerly, the celebrated leader of the Shogun’s Shinsengumi goes to Shishio’s hideout. He was welcomed fierily by Shishiogumi (Shioshi’s group). This is a very good opening scene that let’s us meet Shishio’s character for the first time showing us how menacing he has become. It also conveyed to us the central conflict of the film, by allowing Saito to become privy of Shishio’s plans of revenge against the new government.

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

After this chaos and a backgrounder on why Shishio became the way he is, we are presented with Kenshingumi (Kenshin’s group) having fun at the village festival. Kenshin Himura, former hitokiri, former rurouni, and now a peace-loving citizen, enjoys a stage play starring his legendary past self – Battosai in a mockery aptly termed ‘Bakkyusai’. The cleverness of this scene is why I love director Keishi Otomo ever since I watched his other great work, a long drama series called Ryomaden. With this scene, we are presented with the sharp contrast of the promise of peace in the Meiji Period versus the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu when Kenshin served as a hitokiri to topple the Shogunate government and restore power to the emperor.

But like Himura Battosai whose actions as hitokiri served a purpose and can easily be judged as wrong and shameful, we are presented with a Bakkyusai. While serving the purpose of his comedic role on the stage is also misjudged by being portrayed a fool who doesn’t know what he’s doing. When Kaoru said that as Battosai, Kenshin is now a thing of the past, we know as viewers that Kenshin’s internal battles between his past and his present self is far from over. As this is only one of the very first scenes in the film, we are also told that this is only the beginning.

No Firefly Scene but More Love from the Characters

Rurouni Kenshin, apart from being a story of repentance and redemption, is about one man’s quest for peace amidst being the center of struggles against it. While Kenshin will always be the man who is the center of all the fighting and struggles, Kaoru is the center of peace. And for me, she is the embodiment of Kenshin’s ideal of peace. I think this is the reason why Rurouni Kenshin is also a romantic story. Like any Rurouni Kenshin fan, I also wanted the firefly scene. But since I already know that I’m not getting any since Kenshin saying goodbye to Kaoru was shown in the film’s trailer, I was not disappointed.

In place of romance, the film focuses on love for the other characters. Kaoru and her little dojo family with Sanosuke, Megumi, and Yahiko; Misao, Okina, and the Oniwanbanshu at Aoiya; Arai’s family, and even Shishio and his Juppongatana. We care more because each character acted based on their principles, each a victim of the turbulent times.

Kenshin says goodbye to Kaoru
Kenshin says goodbye to Kaoru

One such character is Shinomori Aoshi. Aoshi is a unique film character because his character came too late. He was supposed to be part of Takeda Kanryu’s opium dealings but his character was left out in the first Rurouni Kenshin (2012) film. Kyoto Inferno felt this miss but not too much as to make him irrelevant. As a character with a vile purpose, we are left wondering and unconvinced about his internal motivations. It’s a good thing he was played by a good actor, Yusuke Iseya. An actor I have admired for his portrayal of sickly forward-thinking Choshu retainer, Takasugi Shinsaku in Ryomaden and talented boxer, Toru Rikiishi in Ashita no Joe. After watching The Legend Ends, I was glad that his character development came full circle. This is also true for the rest of the Juppongata members, although, understandably most of them didn’t get enough screen time.

Shinomori Aoshi faces Kenshin Himura.
Shinomori Aoshi faces Kenshin Himura.

Major Deviations from Anime (*Major Spoilers too!)

There are at least three major plot deviations from the anime in Kyoto Inferno. These plot deviations subsequently affected the events in The Legend Ends. The first one is the clever Bakkyusai addition discussed before. The second is Shishio’s Black Ship leaving for Tokyo unscathed by the end of the film. And the third worth mentioning is Kaoru’s kidnapping. Otomo-san explained Kaoru’s kidnapping in one of the Manila interviews. He says that for him, it was a good way to end the first film while giving Kenshin more reasons to fight Shishio and what he stands for.

Kaoru was born towards the end of the Bakumatsu. Thus as a character, compared to the broken people surrounding her, she is as pure as the ideal of a new Japan. In fact, I see her being kidnapped as a symbolic gesture of Shishio, ‘kidnapping’ the ideal of peace and the symbol of the restoration efforts of the government. Kenshin’s  jumping off the ship to save Kaoru also signals the end of the first part. This scene makes Kyoto Inferno different from two-part films like The Hobbit, which literally kept you hanging. It was indeed a good way to end the first part. I felt that people who don’t realize this most likely do not appreciate film as film.

Rurouni Kenshin from the first film up to the last two shown this year have great fight choreography. I’ve seen behind-the-scenes clips of actors rehearsing their moves and sword techniques. I am left in awe at the kind of dedication each of them put into the making of the films. The actors’ intense practices are reasons the film don’t rely much on CGI but on actual sword-fighting moves. Kyoto Inferno duels that are important to watch and pay attention to are between Kenshin and Sojiro, Aoshi and Okina, Kenshin and Cho.

Takeru Sato as Kenshin Himura
Kenshin versus the Meiji Police. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Japan

Some Little Details in Kyoto Inferno

Since I watched Kyoto Inferno more than a month ago and only writing about it now, my head is kind of blurry about small details I want to talk about. So I put them all here before moving on to The Legend Ends. First off, Kenshin’s wardrobe. In the film, Kenshin wears three kimono colors, red, bluish-grey, and off-white. As expected, each color represents a part of Kenshin’s persona. Interestingly, his signature red kimono is what he wears as his present, peace-loving self, Himura Kenshin. The blue kimono is when he is struggling with his inner battles, between his present and his past hitokiri self. Kenshin alternates this with the off white kimono in The Legend Ends during training with his master Hiko. Lastly, as the slasher-battosai Kenshin, he wears off-white. He wore this during the burning of Kyoto battles, and in the ship where he jumps off.

Secondly, Naoki Sato’s musical score is always the perfect complement to the scene; as well as One Ok Rock’s theme songs played during end credits. And lastly of my little details, Sano is a breath of fresh air and his mere presence lights up a scene. It also helps much that I was smitten by Mune-san with his comedic antics during his Manila visit.

Munetaka Aoki as Sanosuke Sagara
Sanosuke in The Legend Ends.

Click here for The Legend Ends review.

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