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  • Writer's pictureG R Matthews

The swordsman who won't kill...

Rurouni Kenshin

Not the anime series but the live action films based upon it. I’ve watched all three now and, in the depths of my man-flu (cold), they provided some much needed entertainment in the middle of a sleepless night or two.

Set just after the Meiji restoration of 1868 in Japan, our hero, Himura Battosai is, or was, an assassin and killer. Feared by every one for his cold heart and deadly skill with a Katana, Battosai has given up on killing and seeks only to protect the weak. He’s gone so far as to have a special sword made, one with its single blade on the rear – a back-sword. The sword is reversed so that it no longer cuts. That doesn’t stop him ‘whacking’ people with it quite spectacularly again and again.

And the number of ‘whacks’ he delivers to his enemies heads must have resulted in some deaths. It is just not possible to hit someone really hard on the head with a steel bar and not kill them. Anyway…

The actual combat scenes are exceedingly well filmed. Kenshin, as Battosai is now known, can fight multiple enemies, twenty or thirty at a time, without much difficultly. Swords swing and bodies fly – just the kind of thing you’d want to see in a film like this.

There are also those scenes of our hero standing still and silent, brooding, thinking or just calm. When characters speak to each other, they rarely look at each other, preferring to keep their heads down or even walk away from each other as they talk – which would drive me up the wall in real like, “sorry, what did you say? Well don’t bloody walk away when you’re trying to talk to me… my hearing isn’t what it was.” However, in the tone of this film it all fits nicely, creates the mood.

Add to that there is a lot of growling, screaming and general expression of anger from our hero and his enemies. I did lose count of the number of times someone shouted, “Baaaaaaa-TOE-Sai!!!”

So, film 1. This one is self-contained and begins with Battosai leaving his Katana behind as the war ends. Through the next two hours we meet cast of recurring characters, some of whom like Kenshin and some who do not understand his choices, who will appear throughout the next two films. There is the love interest, though in what can be quite typical of this type of film, this is played in a restrained manner – it is unspoken, but clear. The companion, street fighting Sanosuke, is a favourite character of mine in the films. There is an opium maker turned doctor who provides a love interest, also unspoken and implied, and a small, feisty boy who’s learning the art of the sword.

Anyway, in film 1, Kenshin must protect the dojo of the love interest and deal with a gangster set on taking over the town. The interesting aspect of this period is the mix of firearms and swords. The decline of the Samurai way of life which, of course, Kenshin and other characters represent. They move forward to a new age, but cannot leave behind the old one.

Unlike Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai which documents the fall of the swordsmen in the face of modern weapons – every Samurai is killed by the gun, not the sword – in Rurouni Kenshin the sword is a much more powerful weapon.

Films 2 and 3 are really one 5 hour long film. A new threat to Kenshin, and the whole of Japan, emerges. The man who replaced Battosai as the ‘go to’ assassin was himself killed and burnt to death – or rather the government attempted to do that, but Shisho survived and now wants revenge. In these films, the odds are stacked further against Kenshin; the government who first hire him, turn against him. Miss Karou, the love interest / Dojo owner, is in danger and Kenshin’s sword skills, dulled by years of wandering and, perhaps, not killing, are not up to the job. Can our hero prevail?

Luckily, there are the Luke/Obi Wan, Jackie Chan/Drunken Master, student and master scenes. Kenshin must learn who he truly is, who he truly wants to be, if he is to protect all that he cares about. That and learning the ultimate technique of his High Heaven style… because in these things there has to be an ultimate style. And, to be fair, it is better than the Dying Crane (or whatever it was called) that Mr Miyagi teaches Daniel.

The recreation of this era, the mix of architecture from colonial and original, the costumes, guns versus swords, and the fight scenes all draw together to create a series of films which are, at their heart about redemption and the future.

The war is over. The future is co. Can a killer leave behind killing and still protect those he cares about?

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