Like many American anime fans in the 90s, my first introduction into Rurouni Kenshin wasn’t the TV anime, but rather the OVA—localized at the time as Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal. In stark contrast to the light-hearted yet action-filled TV series, Trust & Betrayal proved to be dark, gritty, and emotional. This new film, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning, brings its tale of Kenshin and Tomoe’s tragic romance into the live-action world in spectacular fashion.
Let’s not mince words: Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (Rurouni Kenshin Saishūshō The Beginning) is the best live-action adaptation of a manga/anime I have ever seen—and I have seen a lot of them. Part of this is because of the nature of the story. While it’s connected to the greater Rurouni Kenshin plot, it is also a self-contained tale due to its nature as a flashback in the original story. Moreover, thanks to it being a prequel, you don’t need to know anything about Rurouni Kenshin to understand what is going on—or to sympathize with the characters and their tragedy.
The other aspect that makes the film work so well has to do with the direction and overall visual style of the film. Despite sharing a director with the rest of the live-action Rurouni Kenshin movies, this film doesn’t look like the others. Visually, the world is less vibrant. Colors are muted and everyone seems to be covered in a layer of dirt.
Except for Tomoe, that is. She alone is presented as clean with colors that pop. Not only does this make her instantly recognizable even in a crowd, but it is excellent visual storytelling as well: she looks that way because that’s how Kenshin sees her. She is the only pure thing in his world of violence and death. It’s only during the climax, when her backstory is revealed, that she appears as dirty as the rest of the world.
This gritty realism also bleeds into the action of the film. This movie is far more bloody and violent than its predecessors. Yet, with the exception of a single use of Saito’s signature attack, the superhuman aspects of Rurouni Kenshin are completely absent in this film. There is little in the way of wire-fu or insane acrobatics. Instead of beautifully choreographed sword fights, the film’s battles look like nothing more than people frantically trying to kill each other. This even applies to Kenshin himself: he doesn’t look superhuman—he just seems like a man who is very very good at killing.
On the thematic side of things, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning tells the story of two broken people, each driven only by their own singular, all-consuming goals. Kenshin was once an idealist but has become dead inside due to the constant stream of death he has caused in his wake. He’s withdrawn from his companions in the rebellion and sits alone even in a crowded room. Tomoe, likewise, has lost her idealism and now lives only for revenge—a revenge she cannot attain on her own. Their relationship is a testament of how love and hate are not mutually exclusive things, and how one does not necessarily replace the other—even as they find a new life within each other’s hearts. It is the great tragedy of their love.
When it comes to the soundtrack, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning fits right in with the other films in the series—right down to its banging ONE OK ROCK theme song, “Broken Heart of Gold.” However, there is one bit of musical storytelling in the film that stands out. While present in various songs as a leitmotif, the triumphant Rurouni Kenshin orchestral theme so prevalent in the other films doesn’t come out in full until the final scene in The Beginning—the moment when Hitokiri Battousai sheds his name and his murderous ways to become the wandering Kenshin. It’s an awesome moment that makes the ending all the more powerful.
The only problem I have with this film is its release date—i.e., a month after Rurouni Kenshin: The Final. The plot of The Final is intimately connected with the events of The Beginning. While there is a short recap showing some abridged scenes from The Beginning within The Final, it is almost completely devoid of the emotional impact we get in this film. I can’t help but feel The Final becomes a better film if seen after The Beginning. It not only adds real weight to Enishi’s motivations but also helps you understand Kenshin’s mindset—and just how personal the fight between the two men actually is. So while finishing the live-action Rurouni Kenshin franchise with The Beginning certainly ends things on a high note, it feels like The Beginning should be watched before The Final for the sake of experiencing a better story as a whole.
All in all, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is a great film, regardless of whether you’ve seen the other films in the series or not. In fact, even if you know nothing about Rurouni Kenshin, this film is absolutely worth a watch. It’s a romantic tragedy of Shakespearian proportions filled with stunning practical effects and impressive sword-fighting action. And who knows, you might even learn a bit about Japanese history in the process of watching it. When the film has its inevitable international release, make sure you catch it. You won’t be disappointed.