End of Rurouni Kenshin: An Introspective Look at Live Actions

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Rurouni Kenshin: The Final came out this April followed by Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (adaptation of the Trust and Betrayal arc of the anime) on June 3 drawing a curtain on this epic action-saga.

I N S I G H T – A N I M E

Noosrat Tasneem

This 3 June marked the end of an esteemed movie franchise that delivered us five amazing movies of which the first three are considered the most faithful and stirring adaptations possible of the anime concerned. Rurouni Kenshin, associated with the childhood memories of many, is an anime which has reached an almost mythical stature of being the one most well-known and celebrated anime both inside and outside Japan. 

A Slew of Disasters

Adapting anything into a motion picture is quite a bit of a feat especially when there is a huge audience and fanbase already very familiar with the source content. The case is even direr when it comes to manga, comic or anime as readers and viewers have already seen the story progress through a visual growth of many characters. The mystique that can be held by an anime is often very hard to translate into live action endeavours, and, therefore, follows a barrage of failed adaptation attempts. From Netflix’s Death Note to a bizarre attempt to adapt Attack on Titan with a Japanese cast (when most of the characters of the manga displayed European names and features), there are just too many examples.

Death Note (2017) has become a source of notoriety regarding Netflix inefficacy; Fullmetal Alchemist (2017); Ghost in the Shell (2017) was heavily criticized for its lack of Asian representation; Attack on Titan (2015) (from left to right).

This year, with announcements of many live actions hitting the screen, it seemed like a perfect time to look into the inner workings of the phenomenon. And with the end of the Rurouni Kenshin films, it almost feels like an end of a decade (quite literally so, since the first movie came out in 2012) which demands critique of this popular genre which is only penetrating the anime fanbase internationally.

What makes Rurouni Kenshin work where others failed?

Though Hollywood is pretty new to this anime adaptation trend, Japan has been doing it for quite some time now. And in that long list of movies Rurouni Kenshin would probably rank at the top. From ambience to story to casting — everything is almost immaculate in this pentalogy. The fight choreography is so beautifully composed that it alone is enough to sway people’s hearts. The thin balance of retaining the awe of the anime and portraying it as realistically as possible is what it nails with an excellent precision. Thematically, Kenshin’s story is very much the story of Japan, as a state and a modern nation. The guilt, the redemption and the hope for a new age while the grips of the past are still at hand — all of it encircles the Japanese consciousness. A former sword-wielding assassin during the bakumatsu period under the setting sun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who helped bring out the Meiji era, Himura Kenshin (otherwise known as the legendary hitokiri battōsai) who is now a rurouni (wandering samurai), suddenly finds new people in his life while fighting off the shadows from his past — an intriguing story indeed. His sakabatō (reversed blade) is a potent personification of the peace sought in this bloody tale of reformation and personal salvation. The anime boasts powerful fight sequences and character development throughout Kenshin’s journey and a retelling of the history through coloured glasses. 

What most anime live action adaptations usually lack is the finesse to successfully contain the story in a limited time span. If you’ve watched the anime, you’ve seen the moments through which the characters grew, and to not do justice to that internal journey is the blunder they make. But Rurouni Kenshin effectively nullifies all those elements and moves forward at its own pace. The brilliant and balanced acting, the amazing set pieces and production design, and the detailed attention to the time and characters of the story make it an incredibly entertaining watch. Satō Takeru is amazingly fitting for the lead role, and so is the rest of the cast. Watsuki Nobuhiro, the writer of the original manga, expressed his unreserved appreciation toward the appropriate casting and their respective performances — which says a lot. I personally really admired Eguchi Yōsuke as Saitō Hajime (this former shinsengumi leader was one of my favourite characters in the anime).

Rurouni Kenshin boasts of an amazing casting. While Satō Takeru brilliantly performed as our wandering samurai, the supporting cast also carried their roles splendidly. Aoi Yū, Satō Takeru, Takei Emi, Aoki Munetaka and Riku Ōnishi (from left to right).

Then again, it’s not precise to the minute detail either. Not that it is required or attainable, but there are issues to consider. The reduction of supporting characters, their motives and origins eclipse some of the plot-building. Sometimes the dialogues fall flat. But on a broader angle, Rurouni Kenshin defeats all those weaknesses with confidence. While Origins (2012) set the sails of an amazing film series, bringing a massively beloved character successfully on screen, the Kyoto arc retains that moral ambiguity of the transition of periods with craft, Shishio Makoto comes alive with vengeance and anguish, and yet it ends on a hopeful note using all the beautiful cues of the changing season. The recent duology brought up the Jinchu arc and the Trust and Betrayal arc putting an end to this lush adaptation. The Final was wonderful in its way of settling Kenshin with his past, again showcasing spectacular fight scenes. The minimalistic music complemented the overall production. It marks a nice ending to our hero’s epic journey of atonement.

So, are all Live Actions train wrecks?

As Rurouni Kenshin ends, we are left wondering why there aren’t more successful live action films out there. Initiatives to bring them on screen are not rare, but these endeavours flop more often than not and laughable adaptations end up dominating the conversation. What Rurouni Kenshin had at its disposal like a human era and a historical ground is often not the case with other anime. Even so, if we look back there are some nice adaptations to consider, like the Japanese version of Death Note (2006) and the acclaimed South Korean adaptation of the manga Old Boy (2004). More recently, the 2018 Netflix adaptation of popular anime Bleach garnered some praise. This year saw the release of the Netflix series Alice in Borderland, which was also widely viewed and applauded. There are some Hollywood features too which deserve commendation — Alita: Battle Angel and the 2014 adaption of the light novel All You Need is Kill titled Edge of Tomorrow attest to that claim.  

Alice in Borderland (2021), Alita: Battle Angel (2019), Death Note (2006), Old Boy (2004), Bleach (2018), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) (from left to right, clockwise).

What lies in the near future?

The numerous failures that overshadow the genre — which probably is on its way to recover due to the recent rise in popularity and interest in the anime industry — remind us to keep our expectations in check. 2021 awaits the adaptation of Tokyo Revengers (coming out this 9 July) which sported a promising trailer. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War is getting a sequel which is coming to screen in August. Kakegurui Part 2 was released this May. Many high profile anime have been announced to grace the big screen with live action adaptations in the late 2020s and this year. From Steins;Gate to One Punch Man to Cowboy Bebop (which already dismayed dedicated fans by casting South Korean actor John Cho as Spike Spiegel), all are expecting adaptation. In 2021, Made in Abyss — the manga series by Akihito Tsukushi — was announced to be in the middle of a Netflix live action production but producer Oka Masayori’s association with the 2017 Death Note creates alarm.

Tokyo Revengers (2021), Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai – Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunosen Final (2021), Kakegurui Part 2 (May, 2021).

So, what to expect from this big list of big name anime adaptations? Since there is a legacy of good works, however scant it may be, the recent upsurge in anime popularity might mean good news, though failures are still to be looked out for. Anything new requires an open mind to venture into, and more so as our favourite 2D characters emerge bearing real life appearance, breaking the frontier between hand drawn imagination and real human expression.


Noosrat Tasneem loves music, books, cinemas, and rain! She enjoys seeing the many worlds through frames, and likes to believe she’s on a journey to learn how to live better.

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