Director: Keishi Otomo
Notable Cast: Takeru Sataoh, Emi Takei, Mackenyu Arata, Yosuke Eguchi, Munetaka Aoki, Yu Aoi, Yusuke Iseya, Riku Onishi, Tao Tsuchiya, Ryosuke Miura, Takuma Oto’o
The opening sequence of Rurouni Kenshin: The Final features the film’s villain, Enishi, absolutely annihilating an entire regiment of police officers during an arrest attempt on a steam engine ready to depart for China. It’s a robust and breathtaking sequence that sees the brightly colored new character, a true live-action interpretation of an anime and manga figure, whip through the train, shattering windows, leaping from inside to outside, and bouncing between bone-cracking martial arts combat and wuxia style gravity-defying wirework. It’s no holds barred action with flourish and crushing hits. Yep, the live action Rurouni Kenshin series is back and it’s wholly welcome.
After a rousing and very impressive trilogy of films, Rurouni Kenshin became one of the more fascinating action franchises of all time. It was praised as an effective adaptation of the anime and manga while featuring a rather impressive combination of soul and sword, a combination that I have praised myself here at Blood Brothers and on our sister movie podcast, No Franchise Fatigue. Quite frankly, the announcement of another two films - to be released within a very short span in the same year as each other, was a bit of a shock. The manner that the first three films wrap up nicely was damn near perfect, but the film industry is one of supply and demand. Thus, the fourth installment, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, dropped earlier this year in Japanese theaters and made its Netflix debut in the US. Even with high expectations, this latest installment of chanbara meets wuxia action cinema soars. From minute one, it’s a joy to be in the world once again.
Returning director Keishi Otomo knows what the audience wants and it’s delivered ad nauseum throughout The Final. The blend of character heart, wickedly fast action, and tense dramatic material is once again the core of the narrative, but it’s also packed with an insane amount of fan service throughout. A few characters unexpectedly pop up for shits and giggles and a ton of key moments either reference the previous films or simply play homage. It’s a fascinating approach to a series that is both a reminder of its strengths as a storytelling and character-driven device, but also one that seems to heavily slather on a ‘remember how good we were too!’ motif.
Similar to the original Rurouni Kenshin film, there is one element to The Final that serves as a double-edged sword (all comparisons intended for Kenshin’s reverse-edged sword). It’s a film so dense with material that it easily could have been split into two films and, quite frankly, should have been. There is a remarkable amount of plot to dig through and there simply isn’t enough time to shovel through it all. Teases for the historical context about an upcoming Japanese and Chinese war and side plots for various returning characters, including the fan favorite ninja clan, are left dangling in the wind. Not to mention, a slew of new villains make their appearance - full gimmicks and new weapons in tow - and they have essentially no backstory for an audience to understand some key moments. Granted, the upcoming prequel is teased in flashbacks to the origin of the film’s main villain and a part of Kenshin’s past that has not been seen yet, but that’s just one portion and it does leave this film feeling a bit overstuffed to craft the most fulfilling version possible.
With that all being said, The Final capitalizes on its density of plot and characters in some surprising ways. It’s perhaps the darkest film of the series yet, heartbreaking in a handful of the series' most wrenching moments, and its focus on allowing the villain to drive the narrative in a vengeance-fueled personal war makes it the most intimate film too. The performances ignite many of these moments, from Satoh’s subtle and withdrawn performance as Kenshin to the dramatic whips of Arata as Enishi and back to broader comedy of many of the film’s numerous side characters, the execution on a character and performance level carries so much weight of the narrative that it breathes life into what might have been a film too complex for its own good.
In the circular manner that The Final starts pushing in the franchise, it’s time to address the most brilliant portion of the film that was teased in the opening of this review. The Final features the best action of the series thus far. This is a massive statement to make, particularly with the accomplishment in the insane work crafted by the actors, stunt people, and action director Kenji Tanigaki in previous films, but the sheer audacity of this film’s action is jaw-dropping. The wirework is insane and the complexity of the set pieces must be seen to be believed. This film holds NOTHING back and the results, from a balloon-bombed city siege to the breathtaking sword duels in the final act, are nothing short of some of the best action ever filmed.
As you might have gathered by now, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final is a glorious addition to the series. It’s not without its obstacles, notable in its densely written script and heavy-handed fan service, but the results of the film are epic. The action is crushing, the performances layered and heartfelt, and the visual execution from director Otomo might be the best work of his career. Not only are fans of the series going to appreciate this film, but new fans discovering this on Netflix have a wealth of material to dig into with the previous efforts.
The wait for the next chapter is going to be excruciating and that’s the worst part.