Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Rurouni Kenshin: Origins

The Meiji Restoration brought stability, modernization, and westernization to Japan. That was good news if you wanted to quietly work and raise a family, but bad for business if you were a super-villain. Hitokiri Battosai was the exception who proved the rule. He did his duty as a cold-blooded killsword to hasten in the new era, but renounced his old violent ways once the Shogunate fell. However, he might have to break his vow to protect the innocent in Keishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin Part 1: Origins (trailer here), which releases today in a DVD/BluRay collector pack, from Funimation.

Kenshin Himura’s backstory will be teased out over the course of the full live-action trilogy, but Origins establishes who he is right now and how he fell in with the friends who stand by him throughout the chaotic events of Kyoto Inferno and The Legends Ends. As Origins opens, a rogue killer is further besmirching the Battosai name, by impersonating the killsword while committing a series of murders. He also falsely claims to adhere to the “life-affirming” style of martial arts taught by Kaoru Kamiya’s late father. After a bit of miscommunication, Himura and Kamiya will team up together to clear their respective reputations.

Things will get even more awkward when the mysterious Megumi Takani also takes refuge at the Kamiya family dojo. However, her medical skills will come in handy. She has fled from Kanryu Takeda, an opium smuggler determined to undermine the Meiji government, who forced her to concoct especially addictive designer drugs. The spacey but flamboyant drug lord has made common cause with several former samurai, who also wish to return to the old days of warlordism. However, Himura’s old nemesis, Hajime Saito has opted for law and order, so he now serves the new government in a similar, hard-charging capacity. Yet, just like the sinister assassin Udo Jine, Saito is determined to push Himura back into the killing business.

Of the three films, Origins most easily stands on its own. It also gives significant screen time to Takani, which helps explain why a major star liked Yu Aoi occasionally drops into the second two films to offer a bit of sage advice or bandage a wound. She is terrific as Takani, wringing all kinds of intrigue and dignity out of the mysterious role. Takeru Satoh and Emi Takei notably start to develop the subtle chemistry that will be so appealing as the trilogy progresses. Yosuke Eguchi also already starts to steal scenes as the flinty Saito. Teruyuki Kagawa is bizarrely weird as Takeda, but that is a good thing. Likewise, Koji Kikkawa is appropriately menacing as Jine. When he and Himura finally face-off, it does not disappoint.

The live action trilogy clearly demonstrates why the manga series had such a long run. The swordplay (skillfully directed by Kenji Tanigaki) is spectacular, but the characters and their relationships really keep you hooked. You can see it coming together right from the start of Origins. Very highly recommended for martial arts and manga fans, Rurouni Kenshin Part 1: Origins is now available on DVD/BluRay from Funimation.