RUROUNI KENSHIN : THE BEGINNING (2021)

Takeru Satoh In a still

One of the greatest renderings of a Manga comes to an astonishingly ordinary and boring culmination

— Ambar Chatterjee

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning commences with a sensational action sequence. We see Battousai the killer tear his way through a host of Tsushima warriors at a lightning speed that is in strong keeping with the legend of the man. This sequence has what none of the previous Kenshin films had — gallons of blood spilled, dismembered body parts, and men writhing and howling in pain. In every previous Kenshin film, we only heard about the legend of Battousai and how gifted a slayer he was. We heard this from different sources but we never witnessed Kenshin kill anyone or shed even a drop of blood through the 4 previous films. This film was of particular interest to me because I wanted to witness the wrath of the Battousai first hand and fully comprehend the legend behind the man. I wanted to see the man before he took up the Sakabato and what he was capable of with a straight blade in his hands.

Shockingly, after the initial flourish, this film turned into a boring and drudging ride of mediocrity that has characters talking about politics and violence and never doing either onscreen. The prolonged portion involving Kenshin and Tomoe Yukishiro gradually falling in love was nothing less than a dreary walk through a desolate desert. While this portion was supposed to be the backbone of the film, it was marred by a total lack of spark between the two and also any semblance of charisma or likeability. To believe that such a poorly envisioned and executed love story would hold sway over the audiences, who have earlier experienced bristling fast storytelling, effective political drama, and simmering chemistry between in the series was a resounding error. Also, the utter lack of substantial action — one of the mainstays of the series — was like robbing the audiences of what many of them came to these films for primarily. I walked into this film expecting the grandest and meanest action sequences of the entire series and was thoroughly disappointed. Subverting expectations can be a dangerous thing and for a film like this, it might just mean the end.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is the story of how, after the murder of her suitor at the hands of the Battousai, Tomoe is recruited by the Shogunate to get close to him and find out his weakness. We already know this from the previous installment and we also know how it ended for her and Kenshin. The only point of interest in this story was witnessing what could have led a dedicated and honorable lover like Tomoe to fall for the killer of her suitor. She was shown crying over the corpse of her lover and that was proof enough of her deep love for him. They grew up together and were meant to be married in days before the man was slain by Kenshin. He fought off against Kenshin with a stern willingness to live just because he was so madly in love and wanted to marry live out his life with Tomoe. All these factors propounded for Tomoe when she learned of his death and the Shogunate utilized her hatred for the murderer and planted her to get close to Kenshin.  

Kasumi Arimura in a still

Tomoe needed to have exceptional reasons to have fallen in love with Kenshin and sacrificed her life for him after all that she had to endure because of him. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the story and the rendering of the characters that could justify her sacrifice for Kenshin. Yes! She learns that he kills only by orders and not for any personal vendetta. She learns that he doesn’t kill commoners. She also realizes that he is gradually drifting towards her and that his feelings are genuine. But were these reasons enough for her to forgive the man who murdered her lover of years? Kenshin retires into a house with her outside Kyoto to maintain his cover and here she watches him grow vegetables and that somehow makes her affectionate towards him. She does get some wise words from Kenshin’s handler and Kenshin himself expresses his desire to do the right thing after all the turmoil is over. But the question still remains, are these reasons enough for Tomoe to forgive the death of her lover and sacrifices herself to save the man?

Once the inspiration and justification behind the action of the most important character of the film are liquidated by a lack of reasons and emotional depth, her drama with the protagonist fizzles out and robs the film of any character. Kenshin falling in love with Tomoe can be explained. She is a beautiful woman who is shown making her approach towards him. He is only just an adult and for someone like that to fall in romantic love is only obvious. However, when Tomoe’s actions and inspirations are rendered questionable, the drama loses its impact and affectivity.

I also felt that the audience knew a lot more about the story beforehand than they should have for it to work. The previous film literally showed us exact sequences out of this film that is repeated here in its entirety. That includes the climactic battle sequences that I believe was the weakest action sequence in terms of content and manner of execution in the entire series. The action sequences in this film never reach their full potential. When you feel that two men are at the cusp of reaching a certain level in their rendering of a particular action sequence, the flow is disturbed by someone or something getting in the way of the fight and saving stopping both the men from tearing each other up. This is a recurring problem in the film.

Issey Takahashi in a still

The film also throws a lot of ambiguous history at the audiences and takes many points from real historical events. You need to know about these incidents in order to understand the stakes and the repercussions of a certain sequence. The best example of this is the” Kinmon incident” that is referenced using a single title card and a sight of Kyoto burning. I had to Google “Kinmon Incident” in order to understand what the makers were getting at. I also had to revisit certain dialogs and situations in the film to comprehend the stakes of the characters and how it was impacting a larger whole. This is never a good thing in a film that is meant to be essentially a love story with bravura action sequences. There is also a lot of extra material like Kenshin’s first day at the rebel training camp that is shown for no particular reason. These sequences have no bearing on the larger picture and should have been avoided.  

Kasumi Arimura plays Tomoe with one expression throughout the narrative. It would have been good to know her inner demons and conflicts through her expression but that is never the case here. She remains unnerved and unperturbed through the film by whatever may be happening around her. When she is faced with certain death, she shows no fear or dread. Even at expressing her love for the man she hates, she shows no heightened emotions and that felt odd. It would have served the film and the story better had she been a little more emotive and displayed some conflicts. Takeru Satoh is his old self but here he is a lot more reserved and that isn’t always a good thing. While it suits his character and the conflicts that he is shown having, it tends to get on one’s nerve after a while. It also makes it exceptionally difficult to understand his mental state and be on the same page with him. Yôsuke Eguchi who plays Saito Hajime strangely looks older than he looks in the films that portray the later portions of the story. But he is the only actor who holds his own and feels like someone who would eventually turn into the character that he plays in the previous installments of the film.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning was an enormous letdown for me in every sense of the term. It’s painful to realize that such an exceptional series is coming to such an underwhelming end. This film will not only upset the fans of the series but will also leave anyone who walks into it for entertainment or action dry.

Rating: 2/5 (2 out of 5 Stars) 

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