Director: Keishi Ōtomo
The recently released (in Japan at least) Ruroni Kenshin has received a great amount of buzz. Based on a manga which later became an anime it would also count as a period piece of the Meiji Era. Historically, all you really need to know about that time is the samurai where faded out and a new order faded in to greatly over simplify things.
The commercials for the film did not excite me. But several positive Facebook comments and a 9+ rating on IMBD.com convinced me to give it a chance. Sadly, all my doubts going into the movie, except one, proved true.
To get the good out of the way, the costuming was quite enjoyable. I don’t think they could be called authentic, but that is beyond me. However, they fit the feel of the movie. The clothes looked like they belonged in the world. Both the traditional Japanese and the European style clothing just felt right. The only exceptions were the almost Gypsy inspired samurai ruffian garb and some of the women kimono. They almost looked like they were picked up off for sale rack. Maybe the later is just indicative of how little kimono have changed in almost 140 years.
As for my gripes, well, let’s start with the action sequences. Remember how as a kid you would stick fight? And how much of the play fighting was more about hitting the sticks than actually attacking each other? That was how most of these fights looked. Wave them swords around and occasionally clang them together. The stars pretty obvious lack of martial prowess was partially covered by close in shots where much of the action happened out of frame. Other popular obscuring techniques were foreground objects hiding the action and speeding up the action to an absurd degree. It really makes you appreciate the precision of fight scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies. Or for a different example any fight in Seven Samurai, even the ones that are just peasants waving around swords. Lastly, the flick proves how useless over sized swords are despite how awesome Cloud Strife looked with one. Our big sword user only traditionally connected once in the entire film, which brings the big sword victims to four.
Now for the story. Let me get out of the way that there are likely intricacies and points I missed due to language. I’m not the best at making out growled Japanese, which seems to be a normal form of communication in the film. All in all, the story by itself isn’t bad. Corrupt merchant using mercenaries to achieve his evil goals. Pretty much a staple. What makes it bad is what I’m assuming is its roots to the manga. The movie stumbles along in an episodic format with its half hour sections being connected but not necessarily leading to one another. There was no heroic journey, just a hero waiting around for things to come to him.
The score was also pretty crap. Some of the pieces did do a great job of adding tension to bland fights. Other than that the score was noticeably for its failings. The clownish theme for the villain made him seem, well, a clown. But not in a good way. It was also used every time the villain showed up making it way over used. So much of the score just felt out of place, none more so than the scene of regret backed by something that should begin a tango.
I also want to point out the the two main women fall firmly in the whore/Madonna dichotomy. Just In this flick the Madonna starts out with a sword and the whore lives. They both get the chance to be a distressed damsel, consecutively at that, and both find peace by becoming homemakers for the hero.
Speaking of our hero, he might be the worst aspect of the movie. I’ve been told several times that he is the looks exactly like the manga version. Maybe so. After watching the film I would certainly agree he is a two dimensional, flat actor (rimshot). But seriously, acting has been called the skill of reacting, at least by my high school drama teacher. Our star’s reactions are a series of blank faced stares with a slight pursing of the lips his only emotional tell. Great actors can pull this off. Takeru Sato cannot. He manages a few smiles, several looks of of confusion and a change in grammar that I’m supposing meant anger. Other than that: wooden stares.
One other thing, including a flashback the movie spans 14 years. The opening scene precedes the main portion by ten years. I bring this up for two reasons. One is that there is no age makeup done to the characters. The lead looks the same as he did both 10 and even 14 years ago. Not even his hairstyle has changed. The other reason I bring it up is according to imdb Takeru Sato is 23. And in my grumpy old man eyes he looks younger. His youth hurts the story because at heart it is a story of a warrior trying to repent for sins past and that he has been on this road of repentance for a decade. That the movie keeps bringing up the ill deeds of his past just keeps reminding the viewers that this actor is far too young for this role.
I’m sure that lovers of the anime and manga will flip for this movie as will folk that believe anything that comes out of Japan is sacred regardless of how poorly acted, directed and edited it may be. And, to be honest, I believe those that just want a pretty hero will be thrilled. Those looking for a movie a substance or even just a satisfying action movie will be disappointed.