Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (2021)

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A strange film to end the series on
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-07-30

First things first, you should probably watch RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE BEGINNING before you watch Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, even though they were released the other way around

This fifth film in the live action series takes us back to a decade or more before the events of the first film, when Kenshin was known as Himura Battosai, a famed and feared assassin fighting to end the Tokugawa Shogunate and usher in a new era for Japan. Battosai's unparalleled sword skills help the rebels weaken the Shogun's power, but the Shinsengumi are hot on their tails when a beautiful woman with an aura of sadness enters Himura's life, making him question the blood on his hands.

If you've seen RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE FINAL you'll know exactly who she is and why she is sad, and also how this film is going to end because you've already seen it.. I don't know why they chose to release The Final before The Beginning but it doesn't seem like a good choice. The Beginning is a self contained story that lays foundations that add weight to the events of The Final, so having some of this film's pivotal moments already revealed in flashback doesn't seem to be in anybody's interests.

I suspect the films were originally intended to be released in the intuitive order and Netflix pulled The Final forward because The Beginning lacks a big action set piece like the final battle of The Final, and after a 7 year hiatus they wanted to lead with a knockout punch. That's also the reason why it makes no sense though, as now the series lacks a climactic finale (action-wise at least, it hits hard in other ways).

There is action in The Beginning but most of it is, err, in the beginning. Whilst there is a final battle it is very short by the standards of the series, and does not end in a rousing victory - quite the opposite.

RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE BEGINNING feels like a middle film, ending with the hero defeated and in despair and setting the scene for a come back (and a redemption). Actually it literally ends with a recap of the first 5 minutes of the original RUROUNI KENSHIN, but that's a coda to remind us that the story doesn't actually end on such a down note.

This is the darkest film of the series, with no comic relief side kicks or pacifist sword teachers to counter Kenshin's intensity. The situation is pretty bleak and everybody's miserable most of the time, though there is a brief period of respite for Kenshin and Tomoe.

Even the action is darker - this is before Kenshin has his signature reverse blade and he strikes to kill. It is kind of refreshing to see him carving off limbs amidst a shower of blood for once, but it does tend to make for shorter fights. There is one mid-film showdown against an opponent with similar skill levels that is more like the fast and fluid exchanges from the other films, but it's shorter than those in Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno or The Final.

One area where RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE BEGINNING does excel though is drama. Previous films have painted their story in pretty broad strokes, so it's good to see one put a bit more meat on the bones and the performances by Takeru Satoh and Kasumi Arimura really carry the more intimate tale.

Even though the film contains less action than previous instalments Kenji Tanigaki's choreography is as fast and intricate as ever and Takeru Satoh is fiercer than he's ever been, so it's not a total disappointment on that front either. The cinematography and production design is up to the superlative standard of previous films as well.

I had thought that maybe The Beginning was coming after The Final because it was paving the way for further films, but the segue into the first film means that the circle is complete. I don't know whether there was more to the story in the manga or anime, but I'd be happy to see more films... it's going to be an absolute nightmare naming them if they do make any though.