15:00 - 11th October 2015, by David West

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Keishi Ohtomo concludes his big budget blockbuster trilogy adaptation of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga with a lot of sound and fury, but not a great deal of substance.

The second film, Kyoto Inferno, ended on a cliff-hanger with both the hero Kenshin (Takeru Sato) and the apple of his eye Kaoru (Emi Takei) falling into a stormy sea as they failed to stop the launching of the huge gunship commanded by the villainous Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara). It was quite the nail-biter, but The Legend Ends never reaches such heights of intensity, with a plot that is over reliant on coincidence and a pace that never gets much above a steady jog. It begins with Kenshin waking up on land, having been found unconscious on the shore by his old sword master Seijuro Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama). Surely Ohtomo and co-writer Kiyomi Fuji could have found a more convincing way to bring these characters together than having the ocean deliver Kenshin right to Seijuro’s door like UPS.

Anyway, that leads to some training sequences with Kenshin hoping to master the ultimate technique of Seijuro’s High Heaven sword style, so that he might finally be able to defeat Shishio. The villain, meanwhile, is not up to much of anything. He’s got his awesome gunship, but he mostly seems content to let it float about while he harangues Ito, the Minister of the Interior, about past crimes committed during the civil war. It was well established in the previous film that Shishio’s goal is to topple the nascent Meiji Government and bring chaos back to Japan, but instead of cracking on with that, he struts and pontificates and, quite implausibly, gives the government plenty of time to build gun emplacements to target his inactive warship. He used to be such a competent evil megalomaniac. What happened?

Eventually, over an hour into the running time, Kenshin finishes his training and sets out to find and confront Shishio and stop his nefarious scheme that hasn’t actually advanced at all. The story culminates in a big battle aboard the gunship as Kenshin, his buddy Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki), tough as nails cop Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), and angry ninja Aoshi (Yusuke Iseya) team up to take on the nigh unstoppable villain.

Aoshi is the ninja who went rogue in Kyoto Inferno and became obsessed with killing Kenshin, but ended up fighting his old ninja master instead. The subplot involving Aoshi never feels connected to the main story, and his character could easily be cut completely without weakening the narrative. His inexplicable presence in the big showdown slices through credibility faster than the sharpest katana ever could.

What is noticeably absent from the story this go round is any meaningful screen time for the female characters. The previous entries in the trilogy introduced several strong, memorable female characters, from Kenshin’s love interest Kaoru, to the glamourous doctor Megumi (Yu Aoi) and lady ninja Misao (Tao Tsuchiya), but they are all brushed aside here, leaving the lads to get on with the important business of hitting each other with swords. The relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru was a major component of the first two films, but they share scant minutes of contact this time, and Misao, who was great fun in Kyoto Inferno bouncing off the walls and kicking bad guys in the chops, now does nothing of any consequence at all.

The action choreography by Kenji Tanigaki continues to be reliably energetic. The rematch between Kenshin and the teenage psycho Seta Sojiro (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a highlight. Sanosuke has a vigorous punch-up with a Buddhist monk, although their fight brings with it a considerable sense of déjà vu, as it recalls the big brawl between Sanosuke and the Christian priest played by Genki Sudo in the first movie, which was the superior battle of the pair. Of the cast, Tatsuya Fujiwara impresses as Shishio even though the actor is unrecognizable beneath the special effects make-up and bandages.

One issue that the series has consistently grappled with is Kenshin’s dilemma of how to defeat his enemies without resorting to killing anyone. His back-blade sword, which is dull on the outside of the blade, is iconic to the character and emblematic of his vow to never again resort to lethal force. This creates some considerable moral ambiguity in the tale, as it often forces other characters, like the cop Saito, to slay the many minions in Shishio’s ragtag army just so Kenshin can keep his blade and his conscience clean. Shishio’s final fate is particularly contrived, absolving Kenshin of the need to make a difficult decision about how to nullify the threat that the madman poses to the peace and stability of the nation.

The film looks great throughout; the budget is all up on the screen with swathes of extras in period costumes, elaborate sets and beautiful cinematography from Takuro Ishizaka, who shot the ravishing drama Sakuran for director Mika Ninagawa in 2006. The CG on Shishio’s heavily armoured ship is not quite up to Hollywood standards, but Japanese CGI has improved in leaps and bounds even just since Kamui The Lone Ninja, which came out in 2009. It will be interesting to see whether Warner Brothers Japan chooses to leave Kenshin in peace now that the trilogy has wrapped. The films were huge in Japan where The Legend Ends had a bigger box office opening than Guardians of The Galaxy. Don’t be surprised if the swordsman comes out of retirement one more time.

Despite the two-hours plus length, The Legend Ends feels like the least substantial entry in the trilogy. Partly that’s because Kenshin’s character development is not particularly compelling or coherent this time, and there are too many contrivances in the plot. However, the second half delivers handsomely on the action front, ensuring that the swordsman bows out with a bang.
SCORE: 3/5
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