Director: Keishi Ohtomo
Cast: Takeru Sato, Emi Takei, Munetaka Aoki, Yu Aoi, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Yosuke Eguchi
Opens: 28 August 2014
Rating: PG13 (Violence) / 139 mins
For too long, if you ask this reviewer, Japanese live-action film and television has failed to capitalise on the immense popularity of the nation’s other major cultural export: manga (Boys over Flowers, anybody?). The first Rurouni Kenshin movie went some way towards rectifying that, but it’s only now, with the second installment Kyoto Inferno, that international audiences get to see what a synergy between various Japanese cultural elements looks like. Kyoto Inferno is literally the best of both worlds: the stylised action and rousing storyline of a manga, and the star power and production values of a blockbuster movie. Add in a good dose of historical fact and what you have is a buffet of the best things about Japan, past and present.
Anyone who has even the slightest inclination for manga will know that the Rurouni Kenshin films are based on Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga series of the same name, though some will find its anglicised title Samurai X more familiar. The second film picks up shortly after the first and sees former assassin-turned-wanderer Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato) trying to build a new existence with dojo owner Kamiya Kaoru (Emi Takei) after defeating the previous film’s big bad. Unfortunately, his peaceful life is disrupted again when he’s called on by the Meiji government to handle a new threat to the country in the form of the deranged Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who wants to return Japan to a state of feudal chaos. As it becomes increasingly clear that Shishio intends to set Kyoto on fire, Kenshin must journey to the old imperial capital to put a stop to his plans once and for all.
That’s actually just the tip of the iceberg, as Kyoto Inferno exhibits a complex web of relationships and allegiances on top of its rich historical setting. None of that will matter, or should matter, to a casual viewer though, as the glorious sword-fighting sequences are worth the price of admission alone. There are heaps of them, some jokey, some intense, but all are incredibly imaginative and well-choreographed. Best of all, there’s little to no CGI involved, something that also applies to the film as a whole (take that, Michael Bay!). The period sets are painstakingly reconstructed and there’s an authenticity that permeates the backdrops and filming locales, mostly because the movie was filmed entirely within Japan (take that, 47 Ronin!). It’s truly a joy to see Kenshin and company traipse around in a Japan that bears little resemblance to the one most people are familiar with today and engage in battles that celebrate the characters’ athleticism instead of the special effects artists’ wizardry. In fact, Rurouni Kenshin is one of the most adaptable manga for live action movies precisely because of its grounding in historical fact (no fantastic locales needed) and its relative lack of magic and the supernatural.
Cast-wise, Kyoto Inferno brings back Takeru Sato, creator Nobuhiro Watsuki’s first choice for the role of Himura Kenshin, and it’s not difficult to see why he got Watsuki’s stamp of approval. Apart from physically looking the part (the manga version of Kenshin is also somewhat of a pretty boy), Sato seems to have found his stride in his portrayal of the character, slipping into the role like a second skin. New on board is Tatsuya Fujiwara of Battle Royale and Death Note as the villain of the piece and it’s a testament to his popularity and acting skill that he spends most of the film under heavy makeup and wrapped in bandages. The biggest casting coup, however, is reserved for one of Japan’s most recognisable faces, who pops up at the end of the film as an irresistible hook for audiences to return for the final act in the trilogy (we won’t spoil the fun by telling you who it is).
Movies based on manga and anime have a tendency of containing plots so dense that they’re incomprehensible to all but a core group of diehard fans. Rurouni Kenshin’s core group is pretty huge, but the makers of Kyoto Inferno have resisted the urge to go on an all-out geek fest and produce something that caters only to a very specific demographic. While there is a subplot involving a group of ninjas who feature prominently in the manga but are kind of superfluous here, most of the film is tied tightly to the conflict between Kenshin and Makoto Shishio. That plot arc is extremely accessible, and you don’t have to watch the first film to get a good idea of what’s going on. There are even helpful flashbacks to fill in the pertinent details.
A couple of minor aberrations aside (like a child actor whose crying will make your hair stand on ends, and not in a good way), Kyoto Inferno is a treat for fans and non-fans alike. There’s action galore, an eminently hate-able antagonist and loads of pretty faces (both male and female) to ogle at. And you’ll get a chance to see all that again when The Last of a Legend, the final act in the trilogy, hits local movie theatres on October 3. Consider us sold.
Summary: Expect the J-wave to crest again in the near future if this is any indication of what’s to come.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars