'Rurouni Kenshin' (2012): A Ronin With A Heart of Gold [REVIEW]

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"Rurouni Kenshin" is screening as part of the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco. The festival runs from July 27-August 4th. You can find ticketing and film info on the festival's official site.

The most striking element of last director Keishi Ohtomo's live-action adaptation of the samurai manga "Rurouni Kenshin" is just how optimistic it is without necessarily being bright, shiny, or silly. Its hero, a skilled swordsman who has blunted the edge of his blade and vowed never to kill again, Takeru Sato, has a moral code based on the preservation of life and the film works hard to show it might not always be the "right" way, but it's what's right for this particular character.

It also helps that this snappily-paced film from drama series director Ohtomo has plenty of well-staged action pieces to go along with this post-feudal period drama, putting a spotlight on its hero and the actor who perfectly captures him.

After dominating the battlefield as an anti-shogunate assassin, Kenshin turns his back on the way of bloodshed, doing the "A-Team" thing of helping those in need, while keeping his notorious name--"Battousai"--a secret. Unfortunately, a supernaturally-powered swordsman (Koji Kikkawa) is going around using his old Kenshin's old name to murder random members of the police force. Meanwhile, Kenshin's old captain during the rebellion wants to enlist him in stamping out a new strain of opium sweeping through the country, as the half-mad Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) amasses a small army of starving ronin.

"Rurouni Kenshin" has a lot of elements at play, including one of those underdeveloped romantic subplots you find in this kind of blockbuster between Kenshin and Kaoru (Emi Takei), the only remaining instructor at a disused dojo. But for all, that the film is able to make it all work, thanks to a script that constantly revisits the question of what kind of world its characters want to live in.

Kenshin has abandoned violence and embraced helping others as a means of spreading peace in a new, more civilized age, while Kaoru uses her dojo as a place to pass along--however feebly--the noble idea that swordsmanship shouldn't solely be the art of killing; Kanryu meanwhile believes in nothing and wants nothing more than to grab land, possess people, and establish a legacy and empire for himself on the backs of dead Japanese. It all fits together--that may sound like faint praise, but in a summer where we've seen arguably one of the most identifiable and inspirational characters in pop culture snap a villain's neck because he was written too poorly to think his way out of it, this kind of thing feels like a big deal. As a counterpoint, "Rurouni Kenshin" approaches a similar moment and uses it to show how our hero has positively affected the other characters around him. It's an odd irony that Warner Brothers, parent company of DC Comics and the studio behind the excreble "Man of Steel," was likewise responsible for "Rurouni Kenshin."

Special attention should be given to the film's lead, 24-year-old Takeru Sato, who's been in a few big screen adaptations including "Goemon" and 2007's "Kamen Rider." Sato takes the character seriously, but doesn't play him as overly-serious. That's a fine line to tread, but the young actor is up to the challenge, communicating Kenshin's kindness and danger in equal measure. Sato nails the character in a way that, simply put, makes "Rurouni Kenshin" work.