A sweeping emotional coda to a triumphant action saga
Cards on the table: it’s impossible for me to even try to be “objective” about this film (even to the marginal extent I try to differentiate) given that I’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for this story’s closure. Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (technically titled Rurouni Kenshin: Final Chapter Part I: The Final, not to be confused with the upcoming Rurouni Kenshin Final Chapter Part II: The Beginning — look, there’s a reason I keep comparing these to the Fast & Furious films) is part of a 2-film adaptation of the “Jinchū arc” of the manga. It’s somewhat infamous among anime fans, given that the fairly popular anime was cancelled (after an all-filler third season) without ever adapting this story line. And since the manga wasn’t easy to find for a while in the United States (and given that the author is — as noted before — a piece of shit), I’d given up on finishing the journey I’d started with these characters.
Fortunately, the team behind the dynamite live-action trilogy announced in 2019 they were covering both Kenshin’s climactic struggle against his most personal adversary and his days as Battousai the Manslayer and the origin of the cross-shaped scar. After getting delayed from their original 2020 release (lot of that going around last year), they’re finally state-side — much faster than their predecessors, we had to wait years for that shit — via Netflix. And as finales to long-running films series go, The Final is as rock-solid as they come, balancing escalating emotion and the pull of spectacle creep with style to spare.
(Note: I have no idea why the release order was so bass-ackwards, but I would suggest anyone who’s only familiar with the characters is through these films wait until The Beginning is released. Much of the drama of The Final is explicitly rooted in the events of Kenshin’s “origin” film, and while they’re effectively summarized in The Final, it’s still a bit shorthand-y.)
It is 1879 in Japan, eleven years since the Restoration broke the back of the Togukawa Shogunate and reinstated the Meiji emperor, ushering Japan into the new modern era. Eleven years since Kenshin “Battousai the Manslayer” Himura (Takeru Satoh) carved a bloody path across the battlefield only to lay down his sword once the war was won and forswear killing. Over a year since he was taken in by Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) of the Kamiya Kashin (life-avowing sword style) dojo, along with the orphan samurai-in-training Yahiko Miojin (Taketo Tanaka) and Sanosuke Sagara, fighter for hire (Munetaka Aoki) to form the delightful “Kenshin group” — which rates about a 9.5/10 on the Awesome Found Family scale. Unfortunately, rather than being able to enjoy this new peaceful era, the most personal and dangerous ghost of Kenshin’s bloody past rides into town on a literal rail for the ultimate retribution.
Kenshin’s brother-in-law, Enishi Yukishiro (Mackenyu, Pacific Rim: Uprising), was the man who sold Shishio Makoto his apocalyptic battleship that nearly overthrew the new government. Now he’s come to Tokyo, having gathered a literal murderer’s row men who have beef with Kenshin, to enact terrible vengeance.
What plays out is less a simple revenge story as it is a reckoning and rendering of judgement, both revealing and weighing Kenshin’s “original sin” and secret behind the cross-shaped scar. “Jinchū” — which Enishi uses to sign his violent deeds as he psychologically attacks Kenshin through his community and friends — means “man’s judgement,” specifically the kind sought when punishment from the heavens is deemed overdue. The Kenshin films have always combined their whirlwind action with a firm grasp of the characters’ interiority as well as (fairly on-the-nose) symbolism*, and The Final makes up for using a lot of familiar forms in its structure to deliver what feels like the ultimate thematic statement of the series.
(*Kenshin’s signature “reverse-blade” sword deliberately faces the sharp cutting edge toward himself as opposed to his opponent, he’s perpetually balancing between the “sword that protects” in his right hand and the scars of his past sins on his left cheek, etc.)
The Final also has to introduce a couple very important characters — namely Kenshin’s wife and her younger brother. Fortunately, as much as it may suffer for viewers who are only getting this information via the film’s brief summary, the previous Kenshin films cleverly “backdoor”d the seeds of this story as far back as Origins. Tomoe Yukishiro (albeit not her face) is shown in a flashback in the first film, shortly after we see Kenshin get (lightly) wounded during one of his Battousai-era assassinations. Because the first films use this moment as a direct analogue for Kenshin’s guilt, seeing how the film builds on the character details feels like it’s “playing fair” in a long game (because they were), as well as working as payoff for canny fans.
Mackenyu as Enishi is tasked from essentially the first explosive scene with bringing to bear a threat worthy of a swordsman who’s already fought his way through a trilogy of foes that would make just about any other action franchise feel compelled to straighten up and shine their boots. Fortunately, veteran director Keishi Otomo (all the previous Rurouni Kenshin films) and action director Kenji Tanigaki (Enter the Fat Dragon) use their considerable talents to make his skills violently clear, and his imposing figure (Mackenyu has a good four inches on Satoh, and the film really lets you know it) poses a physical threat to match the emotional and psychological one.
Also, they absolutely crush his look, continuing the series streak of “aesthetics that are just close enough to believable that they jive with the somewhat supernatural physics” rule of live-action comic book translation.
Funnily enough, if The Legend Ends carried traces of The Dark Knight Rises, The Final echoes the psychological torture and communal chaos of Nolan’s 2008 classic. Enishi is similarly bent on attacking those close to Kenshin to hurt him in ways no one could physically as Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker, and the way violence finds its way into places of peace create an atmosphere bereft of refuge. It’s genuinely hard going at times, in no small way because the previous films have so endeared us to these characters and places that their violation feels almost unholy.
The other invasion comes from the continuing use of modern technology as a double-edged sword. Everything about Enishi (from his sunglasses to his arrival by train to the mechanical improvements of his henchmen and his connections to overseas crime syndicates) marks him as a combination of the perils of industrial technology and the lingering grudges of Japan’s civil war. And on a purely aesthetic level, it leads to a lot of cool contrasts like people having drag-out sword fights against masked ninja armies in fancy-ass modern mansions and shit.
The Final comes with some interesting challenges in adapting a 100-chapter arc (Shōnen manga gets long in the tooth), especially since it’s devoting an entire movie just to Kenshin’s origin story flashback. Where the manga broke the gang up for their own individual adventures, The Final builds a slow burn by digging into the characters’ evolving emotional stakes as the film reveals new information about the central hero, as well as having the Kenshin Group share a lot of face time with the new villain. Where previous films were primarily concerned with the challenge of Kenshin overcoming a foe without breaking his “no killing” rule, this film interrogates whether he deserves to live in the new world any more than the people he’s fought since the revolution.
And once again, here is where the film reaps the harvest of seeds it’s sown since the first movie, as the story brings back nearly every major surviving character of the franchise. The Final renders judgement on its characters and reinforces its theme through the actions of everyone who’s life Kenshin has touched since swearing not to kill. This lets us catch up with old friends and foes to break up the Tragic Backstory Angst, as well as showcasing evolving character dynamics through the strategically-placed action scenes.
Speaking of action scenes, this is still a Ruruouni Kenshin movie that (for all its apocalyptic emotional stakes) hews close to the “eventually we’ll hafta storm the bad guy compound with all our dudes and beat the hell outta all their dudes before the final boss fight” formula, and it knows when to step on the gas and hold it down. We get several chances to see key characters in action throughout, but the entire final quarter of the film is a running ass-whooping extravaganza. It wisely doesn’t try to up the physical scale of Shishio’s Bond Villain battleship, but it matches or surpasses the emotional payoff by using just about every character interaction as a piece of story punctuation (often using moments that other stories waste on cheap fan service pops for meaningful narrative catharsis).
Until it’s time for the ultimate narrative bow, which the film ties as stylishly and exuberantly as you’d expect, all while throwing people around with insane stunts and awesome weapons.
Ruruouni Kenshin: The Final isn’t quite the perfect storm that boosted The Legend Ends from “merely” the fantastic level of quality of the other films into genuine modern classic territory. But when it comes to damning with faint praise, you could do a lot worse. The Final is a slam-bang curtain call with a group of dear friends that also provides a final emotional puzzle piece to understanding both the deep-tissue guilt and the relentless idealism of the title character. By the time credits roll, the journey genuinely feels complete and about as satisfying as anything in the genre.
Look, just watch these effing movies. The first 3 are all $4 to own on VUDU as of today, and The Final is streaming on Netflix with The Beginning scheduled to drop on July 30th. Thank me later.