Saturday, September 10, 2016

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Kenshin Himura (a.k.a. Hitokiri Battosai)) is like the A-Team of the Meiji Restoration. His reverse-blade allows him to lay a beatdown on opponents without killing them. As Battosai, he was once the most feared “Killsword” assassin of the Bakumatsu revolt, but he has since renounced all forms of violence. Of course his peaceful retirement will not last long in the middle film of a trilogy. The facially-scarred swordsman will inevitably rejoin the fray in Keishi Ohtomo’s live-action Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (trailer here), which starts a special three-day engagement in select theaters this Monday.

For the sake of the public good, Himura has already picked up his sword Rurouni Kenshin: Origins, but he still scrupulously avoided killing, in large measure due to the influence of Kaoru Kamiya, at whose kendo dojo he now resides. Even when it was his duty, Himura never enjoyed killing, unlike his sadist successor, Makoto Shishio. Recognizing they had bred a rabid dog, Shishio’s masters tried to kill him after the decisive Battle of Toba-Fushimi, but they merely left him severely burned and thoroughly hacked-off.

Himura already feels some responsibility for leaving the vacuum that created Shishio, so when he witnesses the aftermath of the super-villain’s handiwork up-close-and-personal, he reluctantly agrees to take up his sword once again. Along the way, he forges an alliance with an Oniwabanshuu cell once loyal to the Shogun, who have accepted the peace and stability of the new order. The one exception would be their long missing champion Aoshi Shinomori. Things will come to a head during a massive conflagration intended to parallel a key battle against the Shogunate.

Kyoto Inferno could easily be dubbed the Empire Strikes Back of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. It ends on a decidedly dark cliffhanger, but of course you need it to follow third installment, which Funimation is releasing in relatively short succession. (In contrast, Inferno is quite accessible for those who have not seen part one.) Yet, the second Rurouni is still a satisfying feature that offers some mature meditations on personal responsibility, modernization, and the costs and benefits of social stability, in between some spectacular swordplay. Frankly, Kenshin probably doesn’t even factor in the most cinematic duel. That features Yusuke Iseya and Min Tanaka as Shinomori and Nenji Kashiwazaki, the steely old leader of the Oniwabanshuu.

Takeru Satoh can certainly wield a sword as Himur and he continues to develop some pleasingly ambiguous chemistry with Emi Takei’s Kamiya. Yosuke Eguchi adds plenty of hardnosed flintiness as Hajime Saito, Shishio’s driven government nemesis, while Ryunosuke Kamiki brings plenty of evil flamboyance as his chief henchman, Soujiro Seta

Even though the Rurouni Kenshin series is based on a successful mange franchise, there is nothing cartoony about the action. In fact, Kenji Tanigaki’s fight direction incorporates some of the most impressive swordplay choreography you will see this year. Yet, these films still have soul. Highly recommended (especially if you are already planning to come back for part three), Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno screens this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (9/12-9/14) at participating theaters, including the Village East in New York.