When you love a manga dearly, it’s a bad idea to get excited for an adaptation of any kind — anime, anime movie, game; but especially that ever-evolving beast, the live-action movie (LAM). I didn’t have high hopes for the Kenshin movie, for I had seen some Japanese-made LAMs adapted from comics in years of yore, and they were made in strangely cartoonish ways on poor financing, which surfaced in every angle of their creation. But, perhaps I had not been seeing the right ones, because this movie blew all of my expectations out of the water and to the moon.
The Ruroni Kenshin movie is financed by Warner Bros. America, but made entirely by Japanese hands through the Japanese Studio Swan, and that’s your first clue that something exceptional was going on. The film was screened at Otakon 2013 in August, and is currently making the rounds at various large events both anime-related and not, which should also tell you something. The screening at Otakon was one of the most anticipated events of the weekend, and filled the main hall both times. The first showing was also presented by Kenshin writer-and-artist Nobuhiro Watsuki’s wife, who — let me put this theory to rest — is a smart and adorable Kaoru. It was, I am delighted to say, the best anime group screening experience you could ask for. Everyone in that theater was friends by the time the film was done, for they were united in its glory.
Directed by Keishi Ootomo, the film features the cast of Takeru Satou as Kenshin, Emi Takei as Kaoru, Yuu Aoi as Magumi, Munetaka Aoki as Sosuke Sagara, and Yosuke Eguchi as Hajime Saito. With that many major characters in the cast, you get the impression they’re hitting a lot of plot from the manga — and you’d be right. It covers the first major arc of the Ruroni Kenshin manga: meeting Kaoru and going through Megumi’s story arc with Kanryuu (the guy with the Gatling gun). And yes, the Gatling gun is in there. (Tip your head back and say “Yessssss,” with a clenched fist.)
Let’s talk finer details. Without giving anything away, the costuming is neither too flashy in a cartoon sense nor so period accurate that it’s dull (unlike the poster might have you believe). The colors are rich, but otherwise I didn’t notice the outfits most of the time — aside from the cheering that swept the audience at Kenshin’s donning of the red shirt. The wigs are phenomenal and look 100% real. The mood and texture of the scenes in Kenshin’s past seem like they came right out of the Tsuiokuhen OVA; they even have the same color temperature, and, in spots, visual direction. And yes — they’ve added in the storyline of Tsuiokuhen.
Some of the characterization is over-the-top, like in the manga, but it’s not overdone. The script also takes pains to be fun, and makes it glorious. Sano has the best fight scene, in a kitchen no less (you will not be disappointed in this fact), and the camera even has fun at times in the same way the manga did — for instance, with Sanosuke and Kenshin’s badass strut into Kanryuu’s mansion. The camera also acknowledges the best parts of the characters and explores that, in a way that blends the manga’s visuals and reader’s experience — Kenshin’s delicate body type is often accentuated in small glances at his neck, his hands, his feet, and his shoulders, as it creates a dichotomous image between himself and his legend. Sanosuke’s swagger is illustrated over anything else in his own portrayal, and Kaoru’s visual focus is at times on her connection to the space she occupies (i.e., the dojo). It’s as if the camera knew exactly what we always wanted to see a little bit more of in full-motion. That level of detail is expanded to every aspect of the filming.
Let me put more fears to rest: Everything that needs to be included in the plot is, and it’s all cut well; it makes sense. It’s a really good movie on its own, and as an adaptation it’s everything you could ever want; I still get excited about it as I write this. It’s the perfect film to watch with a group of fellow Kenshin fans, but it’s definitely entertaining alone. Even better news: the project created such a good film, and is getting equally good sales, that the production team is now green-lit for two more films: the Great Kyoto Fire and Legend’s End arcs in the manga. Those are slated to debut in Japan in theaters next summer. (They make these things faster than we make Avengers too, heck yeah.) The subtitles were also a thing of beauty.
But when will you in America get to see this film by and large? It’s unclear. The only bad news I have to give you lies therein: there’s no set release date of Kenshin to American home (or theater) markets. It’s already come out on video in Australia, the Philippines, and many others — so why not America? Like “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” the film is making a film-festival circuit, and is doing so indefinitely. My money is on all three being released at once to American home video markets some time in 2015 or later, and when they do come out, I will be buying them immediately. But I can hope we won’t have to wait that long, right? And hope for a limited theatrical release, too? Maybe? . . .
In the mean time, check your local anime and foreign film convention schedules for screening times, or Kenshin actor Satou’s blog post with film updates from the second film. All in all, the Kenshin movie is the best anime adaptation I’ve ever seen, and it’s one you don’t want to miss, because it will renew your faith in film as well as bring your favorite tragic samurai to life.