Director: Keishi Otomo
Notable Cast: Takeru Satoh, Kasumi Arimura, Issey Takahashi, Nijiro Murakami, Masanobu Ando, Kazuki Kitamura, Yosuke Eguchi, Towa Araki, Shima Onishi, Takahiro Fujimoto
With the fifth and (possibly) final installment of the Japanese box office juggernaut series, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning might be one of the boldest ways to cap off a franchise. After the successful trilogy run previously, the series came back with what constitutes a two-part finale. The first portion of that, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, was only released a handful of months prior to this one and acts as a final stamp on the series. It gives the red-haired wandering swordsman his peace to cap off a rather remarkable character arc that covered four films and featured some of the best action set pieces of the series, a bombastic set of spectacle-driven moments, and all of the characters that fans loved. It was the feather in the cap of one of action cinema’s most balanced and effective franchises.
In the fourth film though, there are flashbacks to an origin for the titular character, Kenshin, that are the core for this prequel. Hence the title, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning. Just in case there may be those who are new to the series or simply want to know just how upfront the filmmakers wanted to be with this entry. Yes, this fifth entry is a prequel to the entire series and, no, it does not suffer at all from the narrative setbacks and leaps of logic that plague so many prequels.
To be frank, The Beginning might be the most daring in its tone, atmosphere, and artistic merits of the series. It’s an almost fully different experience than the others, cinematically speaking, and yet is the perfect lead-in for the story, character, and narrative build for all of the rest. It’s incredibly well-executed and ranks up there as one of the best.
It’s a bold maneuver to release the last two films, The Final and The Beginning, out of sequential order for its audience, considering how much The Final plays on the events of The Beginning to work. Still, while that may not make sense in the overall scheme of things, now that both of the films are released on Netflix in the US, you can watch them in the order that works best for you. Part of me wants to say that the manner they released the film is meant to maximize on getting its audience resituated in the world, but ultimately, it feels a bit perplexing.
As a prequel, The Beginning plays its plotting without relying on the audience to see the previous four entries. There are only a few fan service moments that stick out, including the introduction of a young character that becomes a major plot in the fourth film or how this film leads straight into the cold opening of the first, but it largely stands on its own in terms of plot. This is a huge benefit to the film as its main plotting, where Kenshin - still known as Himura Battosai, stumbles into a romantic relationship with a young woman while acting as an almost unbeatable assassin during the revolution.
As always, this is Kenshin’s story, but this is not the character from the other films. In fact, director Keishi Otomo makes this very apparent by shooting his introduction in the film like that of a villain. This is not a hero finding his voice, but a villain looking to achieve his goals to finally be able to step away from the violence of his life. That might seem like a small change, but with a strong performance from Satoh to layer nuance into the darkness of the character and a film that leans into his inherent ability for mass slaughter (seriously, this might be the most visually violent of the series in regard to gore and viciousness in the fights) it’s a stylistic choice that gives even more meaning to his quest in later films.
The romantic angle works too, particularly in how the film meticulously puts it together in the pacing and through the chemistry of its leads. To match the more intimate and darker tone of the film, actress Kasumi Arimura adds a substantial amount of emotional core to the film. By the time the third act starts to roll out, their relationship is potent enough that the twists and reveals (which are spoiled in the plotting of The Final) still pack a wallop.
If anything, there is one aspect that sets The Beginning aside from its predecessors in the biggest way: the lack of a distinct villain. The Rurouni Kenshin series is known for its distinctive and effective villains and since The Beginning paints our lead as a villain initially and doesn’t reveal the true villains of the film until the third act it lacks a lot of that push and pull dynamic that allows the others to work as big, bold action-adventure films. It’s not that the choice inherently undercuts the film, on the contrary it’s a welcome change of pace to shift the tone and structure away from the formula, but it is something that audiences may not buy into.
As always, the action in the film is incredible. To match the tone and intimacy of the character-driven plight, the action is not nearly as spectacle-oriented as the other films, but the sheer speed and intricacy of the choreography in the sword fighting still cannot be understated. Kenji Tanigaki remains one of the greatest action directors and choreographers working in the industry today and he ably matches the tone and intensity of the story and characters with the action in the film.
All in all, while Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning might be an odd way to end the franchise (if it truly is the end?) as it’s the first film chronologically speaking, it’s also one of the most daring films of the series. It changes the tone to a darker and more violent story, doubling down on establishing the villainous acts Kenshin committed during the revolution, but it still manages to execute in a way that only makes his character more interesting and dynamic. Think of The Beginning as it aligns itself more with films like Sleepy Eyes of Death or the Kinji Fukasaku chanbara flicks rather than previous entries. The performances are more subdued and less cartoonish, the action is still wildly impressive, and the emotional core still managed to pull some tears from my eyes.
Part of me hopes that this isn’t the last Rurouni Kenshin film, but if it is - it’s one hell of an interesting way to exit.