Director: Keishi Otomo
Stars: Takeru Satoh, Kasumi Arimura, Issey Takahashi, Yosuke Eguchi & Kazuki Kitamura
Review by Damocles
It’s not good enough as a romance, nor as an action film.
The last hurrah for the cinematic adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin is ultimately a drama, not an action film.
Centered around Himura Kenshin’s tragic past and the story of how he received his iconic cross shaped scar, The Beginning is a bloody deep dive into the character, before he became a wanderer.
And it is … decidedly average.
This is a difficult review for me to write, because I inherently love the characters and the world it is set in. But unlike The Final, which has incredible choreography to make-up for thin characters and motivations, in The Beginning, I felt a lot of the drama lacked chemistry and proper nuance.
It is difficult to recall last, when a romance left me feeling so empty, but for some reason I was reminded of Spectre’s James Bond and Madeline Swann’s relationship, where the film is telling you that they are in love, but your mind is arguing with the images portrayed on screen.
Chemistry isn’t just the wordplay between characters, it is also present in body language, gestures and meaningful looks.
There just seemed to be a real lack of chemistry between Tomoe and Kenshin. Regardless of the circumstances in which they found themselves in, I couldn’t really discern a noticeable shift in behaviour between the two leads.
Granted, I was not sure if they are going for a realistic, cultural approach to their relationship. In early Japan, the cultural norm did not allow for much physical contact, which I will also note happened with Kenshin and Kaoru’s romance.
But unlike Kaoru, who expressed more, Tomoe’s demeanour came across as stiff and unconvincing, and I was unable to properly chart her character development from beginning to end.
Perhaps I am overlooking something in the performance, but Kasumi Arimura’s portrayal never truly sold to me a woman who went from grieving to in love over the span of the film.
It also did not help much, that Kenshin’s character was an archetype of a moody emo, with Satoh being forced to resort to hunching his shoulders a lot, throughout the film and never truly exploring the actual impacts that Tomoe had on him.
Pacing wise, the film meanders a bit too long, with unnecessary flashbacks, something that The Final also suffered from, and I felt like a lot of the script was underdeveloped, with too many scenes repeating the same stage that the characters have been stuck in for the past couple of scenes.
In regards to the iconic action, that the film series is renowned for, there is too little devoted to Satoh’s impressive physicality, with only a few standout scenes at the beginning of the film.
These are note-worthy, simply because of how bloody they are, which is a definite departure from the more bloodless violence seen in the franchise before.
However the climatic battle sequence is a let-down, because Otomo continues to slavishly repeat his mistakes, of introducing a character who had little development and connection to the main lead, with a long monologue justifying his actions.
Thus, when the, (random I might add) antagonist appears at the end, there are no real stakes involved between the two and again, the fight is more dramatic than choreography-based.
I don’t have an big issue with that approach per se, but when the previous 4 films have had such epic showdowns and satisfying fights for their conclusions, this one stands out as a bit of a weak link.
To be honest, this film proved frustrating to me, because I felt so much of it could be excised out, and reconfigured to be tighter, leaner and more detailed oriented on other elements that I considered important to the lore.
As much as I appreciated the film’s attempts to stay true to the iconic OVA anime, (a lot of the best imagery seen in this film reference the OVAs heavily i.e. the shot of Tomoe and Kenshin in robes together), I felt like a lot more tweaking should have been done from a plot and pacing perspective.
Too much of the dialogue is exposition heavy and clunk. The chemistry and romance is underdeveloped for such an important chapter in Kenshin’s life. Too many random characters have no real bearing on the plot and are introduced without any real fanfare or importance, then dismissed entirely out of the film.
And … far too many emotional scenes only carry weight, because of the excellent score by Naoki Sato, whose work is much more distinctive and unique for this film than the others in the series.
A lot of my dissatisfaction with this film, mainly stems from the endless in and out characters, whose presence never obey the simple film rule of Chekhov’s Gun. If you are in the film, you, as a plot device, should be expected to be tied up at some point down the line.
However there are some small positives. I thought that the cinematography was good in this film, with a lot of attention paying homage to the attractiveness of Japanese natural landscapes. Care was clearly taken in regards to the bloody splatter effects, so that they melded with the environments well and added extra emphasis on Kenshin’s bloodthirsty work.
Tomoe’s constantly evolving kimonos as well as some of the combat uniforms that Kenshin wears were of particular interest to me, another hold-over I am glad they retained from The Final. For much of the film, I spent time marvelling at some of the costumes and colours and wishing I could try something similar on as a fashion statement.
To cap off, Rurouni Kenshin – The Beginning suffers from a lot of the franchise’s issues but without the redeeming quality of beautifully intricate choreographed sword fights.
The drama felt weak, for such an important moment in Kenshin’s life and overall motivations and whilst I appreciated how neatly this film tied into the first instalment back in 2014, I left the film bereft of the sadness I was expecting from this tragic chapter.
I honestly, do wish, this film was a lot more tragic than it ended up being. What a pity tears never ran my cheeks.
A scene to recall: Basically any shot that is set in the countryside. Watching these slower sequences make me realise that cinematographers have the easiest job in the world, when operating in Japan. The absolute picturesque nature of Japanese natural scenery is so easy to capture on film and can make moods tragic and melancholy just … like … that.