The can’t-miss franchise comes full circle
First thing’s first — I was wrong.
When Rurouni Kenshin: Final Chapter Part I — The Final and Final Chapter Part II — The Beginning were announced, I was (obviously) thrilled, but genuinely perplexed at the plan to release The Beginning last. Given that this film is an adaptation of events that occur as an extended flashback near the beginning of the Jinchū arc (previously adapted as the OVA release Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal), it felt backwards both in the context of translating the material and providing the best viewing experience for new audiences. And while The Final summarized the salient points, ending with a prequel gave me flashbacks to the other franchises that have lost themselves in that minefield.
But in a surprise twist, this prequel not only serves as a great introduction to the series that leads perfectly into the already-covered Rurouni Kenshin Trilogy, it also closes out the series in what I can only describe as a poetic fashion. That it does so while being an entirely different sort of film than all the other movies in the series is yet another feather in an already-crowded cap. Make no mistake, while there are familiar characters and a version of the series’ signature combat (director Keishi Ōtomo shoots the bloodier and more grounded set pieces more like a horror film at times), this is less an action movie than even its more contemplative predecessors and more a tragic romance and character study of someone who happens to get into sword fights a lot.
It also gives us the terrifying manslayer that Kenshin was so keen to leave behind after the end of the Boshin War, in all his red fury.
In Kyoto of 1864, Keshin Himura (Takeru Satoh) is performing assasinations for the Choshu clan and their leader Lord Katsura (Issey Takahashi) as they attempt to overthrow the Shogun and reinstate the Emperor Meiji. Even as young as he is, the legend of “Battousai the manslayer” has already grown large enough to be spoken of in soft voices by brave men. Not only is Kenshin fast and skilled (he’s introduced wrecking a room full of samurai with his hands literally tied behind his back), he’s ruthless and cold to the point of concerning his handlers. While Satoh is given the near impossible task of convincingly playing a character half his own age (Kenshin is a literal child soldier, and owning that is part of the film’s effectiveness), he nails the subtle but unmistakable well of emotion boiling just below Kenshin’s hardened exterior as well as the naive joy at simple but unfamiliar pleasures he stumbles into among the horrors of war.
He’s not the only one tasked with doing a lot of dramatic heavy lifting, often done primarily through subtle facial expressions and body language. Kenshin’s life as an assassin is thrown into upheaval when the mysterious Tomoe witnesses his handiwork first hand. Their dynamic is fascinating, as it’s a careful juxtopostion of characters shackled by gender and class roles but who are still playing the only active role they know how to in chaotic times against clashing ideologies. Kasumi Arimura (When Marnie Was There) slips into the shoes of a character who’s loomed somewhat large over this series from day one and makes it irrefutably her own. She commands the screen every time she enters frame, filling the gaps between her words with performance notes that “read” a torrent of conflicting emotions even before the film gets around to spelling out exactly what her “deal” is.
Which won’t come as any surprise to those familiar with either the manga or the Trust and Betrayal anime, given it hews incredibly close to both— going so far as to lift the staging of sequences directly from the OVA that weren’t even in the manga, but also recreate scenes from the comic nearly word for word. Rather than try to deny its influences, The Beginning steers into the skid by trying to find the most dramatically rich presentation of these familiar beats and allowing the actors’ embodiment of the characters and their chemistry to carry the day.
While that seems like a hell of an ask for a leading pair in what quickly becomes a two-hander, Satoh and Arimura prove more than equal, believably inhabiting this stolen island of mutual comfort among so much death and ruin. It’s in this context that the film clears more than a couple “classic prequel hurdles” that have downed so many hopefuls — who knew that one of the most effective mini arcs of this enterprise would be the heartbreaking origin story of Kenshin’s love of cooking?
Ōtomo proves equally capable of the “show, don’t tell” mantra that pervades the enterprise. The staging and composition and performances fill gaps left by excised voice-over or inner monologue, and subtle visuals and canny sound design are used to get across information that the manga devoted pages to explaining. It’s no surprise that Ōtomo is comfortably efficient given that it’s his fifth time at bat, but his deftness with both the very different action and darker drama is impressive.
More than a little of the tragedy at play comes from the simple fact that we’ve spent 4 movies with a Kenshin so heartsick of killing that he refused to take a life ever again. So much of the appeal of the previous films is from the dramatic tension of “will Kenshin be a bad enough dude to win this fight without crossing that line?” but here every time he draws his sword, it’s immediately dripping red. It would be genuinely distressing even without the shake Satoh puts in his step or the haunted daze he allows to creep into his eyes. I adore a good “fun” sword bout, but there are also few things I respect more than a movie with this many fights where you actively dread the fighting.
Action director Kenji Tanigaki stages fights as terrifying struggles for survival rather than exhilarating set pieces, and if Satoh definitely doesn’t look as young as he did in the first film, his now comfortable familiarity with the physical demands of the fight scenes is perfect for showcasing the character at his murderous peak. Which makes it especially effective that the film deliberately spaces these outbursts between more and more scenes of quiet reflection, connection, and all the political skullduggery of the war. Where other Kenshin films focus on the growing found family that you wanna storm bad guy bases with, here the supporting cast is set adrift one by one until the two young leads are stranded in the blast radius of the inevitable third act explosion.
Interestingly enough, the fact that the film doesn’t wind up feeling like a complete downer is due to how it builds on (or outright borrows) pieces of this material that were initially filmed for the first movie. Because a couple pivotal scenes (of events specifically from this story) appeared in Rurouni Kenshin: Origins, The Beginning just lifts them and drops in them into their proper chronological spot. The film does a game job of trying to match costuming and hair and color tone (this movie overall has a much colder look than the others, positively drenched in black and blue with stark whites to accent the reds), but it’s not a perfect fit.
However, that feels like criticizing a superlatively complicated domino pattern just because a couple of the dominoes aren’t quite the exact same size. Time and again these films demonstrate an uncanny talent for nailing the functional basics of both escalating emotional beats and expressing characterization and thematic punctuation via action beats. The Beginning leaves that streak unbroken, along with knowing just when to add that extra note of Anime Extra.
Truly, how many action film series can boast this consistent a level of quality, even as they seemingly revel in presenting new challenges for themselves? It may pale next to other comic book adaptations in scale and budget, but I would say few of its contemporaries are as successful at not only capturing the exciting action from the page, but also grounding it in well-realized dramatic arcs for well-written characters — both within each film and across the series in long-running serial storytelling.
But to talk about one of The Beginning’s best accomplishments requires a minor but deliberate *Spoiler Warning* — not for material new to this film, but the “frame story but also not a frame story” way it reuses scenes from previous films. The film opts to end with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi that opened Origins, depicting the final moments of Kenshin’s life as a killer. The canny use of placement to alter impact is combined with finally unleashing the signature “Hiten” theme that Naoki Sato had left unused for most of the runtime. It literally brings the story full circle and even adds new thematic weight to years-old sequences, and Kenshin himself ends the film as both the ultimate evolution of his character from the previous 130 minutes and the new clay from which our adorably familiar “rurouni” will be molded.
And among the closing shots of franchises, you don’t get much better than the image The Beginning ends on. It’ll give neophytes an itch to dive into the rest of the films, but is also a much-needed balm to returning viewers. The final line of dialogue is someone telling our hero “It doesn’t end here,” and the perfect double meaning of the line (which is both chronologically correct but thematically false) is not lost on an audience who’s followed Kenshin Himura over the previous 4 films.
Because we know it really does end for “Battousai the manslayer,” right here. We know he makes it. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.