Let’s talk about some of the best “comic book movies” you’ve probably never seen.
Rurouni Kenshin is a manga series by Nobuhiro Watsuki (a dude who kinda fucking sucks, as it happens) taking place roughly a decade after the Boshin War, Japan’s 19th century civil war which issued in the Meiji Restoration and the country’s push toward modernization. The story follows Kenshin Himura, an assassin during the war who was talked about in hushed whispers even in the clubhouses of other badass assassins, but who has sworn never to kill again and now wanders the land using his sword to protect the innocent. The manga ran for several arcs which were largely adapted into a rather popular anime that aired on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in the ’90s (which left the final arc of the comic un-adapted, but uh. . . more on that later). Cards on the table: I’m a bit of a recovering weeb and Kenshin wasn’t just an, “I enjoyed watching it in high school” show, but an “I watched it with my best friend the summer we started dating each other” show. But even as a fan of the series, I had no idea they’d made a live-action movie until stumbling across it back in 2013.
I’m hoping I can help a few other action fans stumble on the movies now, because there’s gold in these hills. What was surprising and delightful in equal measure is how well these films capture the highs of action serial storytelling — not just in ways familiar to anime fans, but to an audience who probably already loves this shit even if they don’t know it yet.
Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins (2012)
I feel like you can’t throw a rock into genre cinema without hitting a “not your typical action hero,” but Kenshin’s nontraditional heroism is baked into so much of his character. After being orphaned by bandits and taken in by a master swordsman, Kenshin leaves to work as an assassin for the rebel Meiji government, working to overthrow the regressive Tokugawa Shogunate. He takes on the title of Battousai the Manslayer, and shows such a talent for killing that even his handlers are a bit concerned. After the war is over, Kenshin puts down his sword and takes up a “sakabatō” or reverse-blade katana which he uses to beat the snot out of evil-doers, but whose dull combat edge leaves them merely with bruises and broken bones instead of gushing mortal wounds.
So he’s Sword Batman, but with even more PTSD (his oath not to kill is in part because he knows if he started up again, he might not be able to stop) and instead of being all broody and dark, he’s a goofball paragon of nontoxic masculinity who likes cooking and doing laundry.
And he’s kinda tiny.
And occasionally clumsy.
While the hapless clumsiness he indulges in at times is clearly an act in the vein of “foppish Don Diego de la Vega” or “clueless Bruce Wayne,” he very obviously finds peace in a humble mundane life. In true “reluctant badass called out of retirement” fashion, and only leaves the shade of his vine and fig tree when those around him are threatened, or when one of the shadows of his past catches up to him. The manga and anime adaptation do this in the episodic way you’d expect, building out a familiar core cast to take on bad dudes of the week or go on extended adventures to face bigger threats like drug kingpins or other assassins of Kenshin’s caliber looking for blood.
Getting someone to anchor all this as the title character who could also play the hapless houseman as easily as the fearsome swordsman (and carry a lot of dramatic emotional weight that the films have been paying off ever since) must have been a scary ask for Keishi Ōtomo while making his feature film directorial debut. Luckily, Kamen Rider veteran Takeru Satoh (also of Bernard Rose’s excellent Samurai Marathon) proves more than equal. He nails the comedic timing needed for Kenshin’s “harmless wanderer” persona, and his coiled spring physicality during the acrobatic fight scenes is absolutely stunning. Especially since it’s all him doing it.
Where the Kenshin films shine on an action front is more than just delivering quality wushu-flavored high-flying swordplay (if you like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, you’ll be on familiar ground here), but also in the confident restraint to hold back on unleashing its big bouts. Like Kenshin’s own struggle to reign in his killer instinct, the movies hold themselves back to allow the audience to get a sense of everyone’s interiority, watch them struggle to find other solutions, and only turn to violence as a last resort. Once they do, it’s both visually thrilling and a meaningful emotional punctuation to the storytelling, making the maximum possible use of Kenshin’s Batman-esque “no killing” rule. Action director Kenji Tanigaki (fight coordinator on Donnie Yen’s Flashpoint and Kill Zone as well as stunt/2nd unit director on the upcoming Snake Eyes film) designs conflicts with varying degrees of verticality and varied geography, and everything is shot with a satisfying mixture of speed and clarity.
With just the right dose of “extra” at the right time.
The cast are just as game when switching to action as they are in the dramatic scenes, and there’s a fun collection of henchman and “mini-boss” encounters with colorful characters that all capture the flavor of their manga designs while still feeling like real people. Which is a compliment that extends to the entire enterprise — we may be used to “comic book movies” looking recognizably like their ink and paint counterparts, but it’s one thing to nail Spider-Man’s suit in a movie and another entirely to make this kinda thing look convincing.
But it’s not just aesthetics and action that make these among the best expressions of manga/anime in live action. Origins also manages the neat trick of both telling a fairly complete story (Kenshin comes to town, makes a few friends, beats up a mob boss and fights some fellow assassins, maybe gets some of that sweet found family) while also being a great table setting. Ōtomo worked with Kyomi Fujii to adapt hundreds of pages of manga and over a dozen characters into 135 minutes (a running time that all the films have, to this point, stayed within a few minutes of), and both prove a deft hand. Similar to Batman Begins, this film establishes the core cast and sets up all the familiar pieces fans of the source material will expect to go on to even bigger and better things in later adventures.
Speaking of. . .
Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno (2014)
Break out your bingo cards, sequel fans, because not only is this a Darker Second Chapter (ding) which was shot back-to-back with the third film (ding) to make these movies a retroactive trilogy (ding ding ding), but as these two sequels are covering the legendary “Kyoto arc” of the manga/anime, splitting it in two means we have a Back to the Future-esque cliffhanger ending (ring a ding dong ding)!
But, you know, the good kind.
Here is where the smart writing of the first film starts to pay dividends in the sequels, which have the unenviable job of not only introducing new antagonists, but also new potential allies, key locations, and scads of backstory. Because Origins switched around the introduction of a couple characters (bringing in Saito Hajime early on in the first film was a good narrative choice and a killer addition for fans), it has less to dump on the viewer when Kenshin is recruited by the Meiji government to stop an old ally. We’re able to follow the four heroes of the first film — Kamiya style sword instructor Kaoru (Emi Takei), Kenshin, the orphan Yahiko (Taketo Tanaka), and Sanosuke the Brawler (Munetaka Aoki) — as they discover that Kenshin’s successor has declared war against the new government.
This begins to cement a pattern of Kenshin’s past choices coming with years-later consequences, one which the films take from the manga and magnify. Origins showed Jin-e Udô (Kôji Kikkawa) take up Kenshin’s sword only hours after it had been abandoned on the fields of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, either inheriting the bloodlust of Battousai’s blade or merely using it to justify his own thirst for violence. But Kenshin was on that battlefield because he no longer wished to be a covert assassin, and when he became a footsoldier, Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fijiwara) became a manslayer in Kenshin’s place. Unfortunately, he was betrayed at the very moment of triumph by a government who couldn’t afford his killing on their behalf to become common knowledge. Kenshin feels compelled to help when the powerful threaten those who cannot fight back, but each escalating conflict brings opponents who are more directly tied to his actions.
Fortunately, it also brings new friends.
Where Origins centered pretty much everything around the Kamiya dojo in Tokyo, Kyoto Inferno — as the discerning reader may surmise — is a bit of a travelogue as Kenshin leaves for Kyoto to stop Shishio. Even as his companions follow on after him, he meets allies like Misao (Tao Tsuchiya), member of a ninja clan who used to work for the Shogunate but finds common purpose with Kenshin, as Shishio threatens the life they’ve made after the war. Unfortunately, their former captain, Aoshi Shinomori (Yûsuke Iseya), blames Kenshin for the deaths of his men and won’t rest until he — you guessed it — crosses swords with the legendary Battousai.
Like the first film, Kyoto Inferno takes a serialized, almost episodic approach to a sprawling action drama. Characters will cross paths while on parallel adventures or disappear for an entire act only to pop up again in the nick of time, but these detours lend the world a naturalistic lived-in feel that helps sell the setting in spite of the over-the-top action and more fantastical costuming and genre elements (basically everyone who picks up a sword in these movies has low-key superpowers of some sort). The ability to diverge slightly from “all forward narrative momentum, all the time!” also allows for things like the major subplot of Kenshin needing to find a new reverse-blade sword, which the film uses to further the character’s search for redemption. In spite of having a lot of ground to cover, the screenplay gives ample time for breathing room between action beats and quiet character moments with tons of nonverbal expression.
But like its predecessor, it holds nothing back when it’s time for Kenshin and company to throw down. Not only to Kaoru and Yahiko get more face time during the action in this film (these movies make some notable improvements from the source material in their handling of female characters, especially Kaoru and Misao), but the film breaks up exciting one-on-one duels with large-scale pitched melees. Naoiki Sato (the composer for all the films in the franchise) is highly adept at matching the more somber dramatic moments, but brings a signature thumping orchestral leitmotif that combines with wailing guitars for when the action really kicks in.
I can’t overstate just how well these movies nail the fundamentals of action storytelling, even down to the little touches. I don’t think anyone goes to action movies just for “gearing up” montages and “so and so just showed up to lend a hand” moments, but it’s the kind of genre staple you always love seeing and these movies not only set up the drama behind these beats well time and time again, they’re executed with flourish and confidence. In fact, they’re so good at it that Kyoto Inferno lulls the audience into a false sense of security (not unlike a lot of the deliberate last-minute swerves in Avengers: Infinity War) before reminding them that this is a “to be concluded” situation.
Luckily, a complete story gets told (even if it ends unsatisfactorily), and the film drops in a major cameo at the end to entice unfamiliar viewers with a new player while reassuring fans that there are at least some recognizable shapes in the story to come. Because, while large chunks of these twin films diverge from the page considerably, they do so in ways that strengthen the thematic core of the series.
Rurouni Kenshing Part III: The Legend Ends (2014)
I bet that title sounded like a better idea before there were two follow-up films after this one. However, the final film in the initial trilogy really leans into the bit, leaving absolutely everything on the floor to bring things full circle. Students return to their masters to learn ultimate techniques, governments are brought to their knees, our heroes are separated, and Kenshin is declared an outlaw by the police.
And that’s all Act 1 stuff. This shit goes hard!
One of the principal pillars of Kenshin’s ongoing arc is his atonement for his actions as Battousai the assassin; part of which is his vow not to kill, but another being the almost casual disregard he places on his own safety. Satoh has been playing the physicality of this since the first film, particularly in how his quick and acrobatic fighting style means he commits wholly to each move with almost reckless speed, and little heed paid to his own defense. But to fully unlock his true potential, Kenshin learns he must place as much value on his own life as those of others. It’s rare to see a violent martial arts epic be so studiously humanitarian, especially on an individual level, in the way the film uses and reuses characters reinforces this. It also refuses to give all of our characters easy answers. Shishio genuinely got screwed over, the Meiji government still has things to answer for, and the blood on Kenshin’s hands is as red as anyone else’s (and, uh. . .more on that later).
Because so much of Kyoto Inferno is about separating our characters for long periods of time, The Legend Ends gets to sink the free throw of bringing everyone back together where it all began, acknowledging how the characters have grown, and even playing with the drama of Kenshin’s identity as an imperialist assassin. This is something the source material just kinda lets hang in the background (“Yeah, we know Battousai is just hanging around Tokyo, and he is constantly breaking the No Swords Laws, but. . . c’mon, he’s ok!”), where the movie gets to wrap this into the finale. It’s not exactly like a superhero’s secret identity being blown, but it’s in the same ballpark. It’s also woven into how this third film carefully balances setbacks and triumphs as Kenshin literally fights his way back home for the final showdown.
On a basic structural level, as well as in some key details, The Legend Ends recalls The Dark Knight Rises in particular, but more focused and dialed way up. This is a real “you got your anime in my superhero movie!” situation, and it plays into the strengths of both genres in a way no other live-action film I’ve seen has matched. Because the films have been so keen on ensuring you understand everyone’s motivations and emotional state, the times when the film turns things to 11 and steps on the gas for both drama and action beats feel genuine and rousing, in spite of often being ridiculous. This is where Kenshin’s mercy starts to pay dividends, as each person who’s life he’s touched gets folded into the finale, whether it’s Aoshi and how his quest for vengeance evolves, or veteran police officer Saito’s role in the government’s manhunt for Kenshin. It’s like the moment in Fast Five where The Rock finally teams up with Vin Diesel, except that this is Kenshin’s real secret move and he does it A. Lot.
By virtue of being an action film, The Legend Ends is able to play these character moments and shifts in allegiance in the most immediate and impactful way possible, and there’s just nothing cooler than a kick-ass sword fight that’s also Character Development and Thematic Resolution. After asking the question of whether Kenshin can keep to his code and if it’s even worth it if he can, the film can come down definitively and exuberantly on one side even while people are leaping 30 feet through the air or making fireballs with their swords with everyone getting a piece of the action.
Mostly everyone, anyway. While this series is pretty solid at giving the supporting cast Stuff To Do from entry to entry, Yû Aoi as Megumi Takani in particular is somewhat adrift. After her meaty intro as opium chemist-turned-doctor in Origins, she gets little more than a cameo in these films — which is a shame, given how well she sells the character’s wry humor. Kaoru fares slightly better (getting to play into and then slightly subvert some familiar tropes), and everyone else gets extra time to shine thanks to the narrative having two film’s worth of breathing room. The film even packs in the kind of long-game micro-moments that get such a pop in Marvel movies — there’s a particular beat where Sanosuke has what has to be a huge moment of self-reflection and actualization that Aoki sells with a single look, and it plays even if you don’t know what the symbol on Sano’s back means.
It also packs in a lot of — and I cannot stress this enough — incredibly kick-ass sword fights. There’s a particular fracas at the end that keeps evolving and adding elements in a gleeful “well, we’ve got all this cool stuff, why not use ALL the kitchen sinks?!” tear, and that’s after the film’s already delivered several riveting long-in-coming bouts. Aptly, The Legend Ends is even more committed to wrapping up everything than the relatively self-contained first film, but still leaves just enough road ahead that a possible return to these characters feels eventual rather than contrived.
Should any of this sounds intriguing, I cannot recommend taking the plunge highly enough. If the escalating yet earnest melodrama of The Fast Saga or the samurai flavoring of some of the recent Star Wars stuff or the long-running relationships and ever-growing families of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are your kinda thing. . .well, then it turns out you already like anime whether you know it or not, so you may as well give these films a look.
The next couple are gonna be waiting for you on Netflix, so you may as well.