|Signed by Satou!|
If you're familiar with the source material, you'll be pleased to find that the live-action adaptation strongly adheres to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original story. It basically covers the Toukyou Arc of the manga and anime, though some events are shifted around and a few characters are combined. The appearance of Saito Hajime, who previously didn't appear until the bridge between the first and second arcs, is particularly egregious; presumably he was thrust in there because of his unspeakable coolness and fan favouritism, and possibly with a view towards a sequel. But these changes are inherent and necessary in any media adaptation, so you really should go into it expecting them. What's important is that the style and message carry through, and the film does an excellent job of communicating them to the big screen.
On the other hand, if you haven't experienced either of its previous iterations, the plot may well be incomprehensible. The Japanese is generally simple, with the exception of a few speeches and such that are a little more technical, but the problem is the film's tendency to throw major players at you with little or no introduction. Tt would have done well to excise a few of them if only for economy of characters. It really gets down to time, as with only a few minutes to devote to each new face, we're left unable to really grasp the details that make them compelling. When Sannosuke gets into a fistfight with a bad guy, we know rationally that we want him to win, but without any emotional associations built up we don't actually really care whether or not he does. Motivations and logic are also poorly explained, so while it's never tough to figure out what's going on, without a little a priori knowledge it's going to be a challenge to understand why.
Casting is a little odd, with most characters being severely toned down. Satou Takeru does a serviceable job as Kenshin, particularly in his ability to mix the seriousness and slapstick that are in many ways the character's trademark, but somehow can't quite match up to Suzukaze Mayu's anime performance. Takei Emi as Kaoru is especially lacking; former Kaoru could fill a screen with her energy alone, but this one doesn't offer much more to pay attention to than a cute voice. That's not entirely her fault, since Kaoru is a pretty weak and boring character to begin with, but it would have been nice to see her bring a little more presence to the role. Although the role of Saitou doesn't require much more than for his actor to look angry and dress well, Eguchi Yousuke fits it well. Aoi Yuu is perfect as the deviously delicious Megumi, and Tanaka Taketo seems to actually be Yahiko ripped from the printed page.
Rurouni Kenshin is almost worth going to see for the visuals alone. The fight scenes are fluid and exciting, though since it basically amounts to a chanbara flick, I guess it'd better be. Focussing on technique over raw power, and style over realism, they're a little more restrained than those they were based on, but not by much. There's still plenty of the weird “swordsman's spirit” stuff and what basically amounts to hacking physics, which you'll either revel in, or have to look past, depending on your preference. It opens on what might be its most enjoyable scene, depicting one of the last battles between the Shinsengumi and the Ishinshishi, drawing the viewer into the fight with its immediacy and flow as shots are fired at close range, the mob seeths, and bodies are sliced open with a shocking degree of violence given the tone of the work.
But even the more mundane aspects like the doujo, Meiji-era streets and local hangout Akabeko are lavished with detail. The palette is vivid and deep, footpaths look well-travelled, buildings appear lived-in. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, which admittedly took place in a drastically different time period, Kenshin shows us a Toukyou on the cusp of modernization, and the juxtaposition of more traditional Japanese furnishings with contemporary conveniences is fascinating and beautiful. More than once I wished I could hop through the screen and walk around.
The film drags heavily when it spends the bridge to the third act trying to be profound. Kenshin definitely has an interesting history, and Megumi a tragic past, but we're fed way too much material intent on pointing this out. It really isn't a stretch to suggest that most of us came in to watch swordfights, not characters dicking around and emotionlessly narrating the worst things that have ever happened to them. The denouement has a similar problem, starting out all right with an overwrought but at least decent statement on the value of what's all gone on, but then somehow transitioning into a two-minute dialogue just in case we weren't sure how we were supposed to feel about it. The conclusion is also a little awkward as the plot does a clumsy job of fitting the final two battles together, a consequence of a film having two major villains, especially ones who come from completely different parts of the original story.
None of this kills the experience, though, because Rurouni Kenshin is still well worth watching. It's not life-changing, but it is potentially thought-provoking, (mostly) tightly paced, and all kinds of fun, and maybe that's all it needs to be. I'd love to see the rumours of a possible series come to fruition; the duel between Kenshin and Shishi-o could be amazing in live action, and it would be nice to see the manga's ending in moving form. If that ever happens, I'll be right on board.