The pressure couldn’t be any higher for the first Rurouni Kenshin live action to deliver on the unending popularity of the anime and manga. The 2012 self-titled movie debut managed to deliver on all fronts: the cast, the characters’ mannerisms, the beautifully choreographed fight sequences, all of it coming together in a way that left no fan unsatisfied despite some obvious omissions from the original source material and some creative liberties taken with it. Fans could not have asked for a better live action debut for Kenshin, a first of a trilogy that left us looking forward to more. Two years later in 2014, we have been treated to not one but two follow ups within the same year: Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends. These two films not only serve as a natural continuation to where the 2012 film ended, but they extensively and faithfully cover the most memorable arc of the anime/manga where Kenshin returns to Kyoto to confront his past, and to challenge a new adversary in Shishio Makoto.
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno retains a lot of what made the original film a critical success but does more of it, and better too. The rich soundtrack in particular is a marked improvement this time around, which becomes apparent within the early moments of the film. The fighting choreography is more intense and extravagant than before, and the best thing about this adaptation is that it manages to fit in more content from the source material and omits very little, unlike the 2012 film which I felt had to cut back on many important details found in the original tale.
Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends are essentially a single story split into two films, which some may criticize but honestly if Hunger Games and Harry Potter were allowed to do this in order to extend the life of their cash cow, then no one should object to the logical decision of splitting the epic Kyoto/Shishio arc into two films. Kyoto Inferno simply needed to be a movie of its own because the journey that Himura Kenshin took which eventually lead to his epic showdown with Shishio Makoto was absolutely important, in fact to me the journey was far more telling and revelatory than the destination.
The cast return to reprise their respective roles in brilliant fashion. Takeru Satoh delivers some emotional intensity in his portrayal of the titular character, and everyone has upped their game including Munetaka Aoki’s hilarious depiction of brawler Sanosuke, guaranteed to bring you laughs at even the more dire of situations. Joining the cast for the first time in this sequel are Tao Tsuchiya who nails her role as the tomboyish ninja Misao, and Yusuke Iseya sells the melodramatic and vengeful demeanor of Misao’s ninja comrade, Aoshi Shinamori. You might recall Ryunosuke Kamiki unforgettable lead performance from the excellent drama film The Kirishima Thing, and so it’s a particular noteworthy pleasure to have him join the cast as the sociopathic and supremely talented swordsman Sojiro Seta. Kamiki executes the character’s subtle mannerisms exceptionally well, with the sociopathic smiles and even the subtle footwork in his fighting style. Finally, Tatsuya Fujiwara takes center stage as the primary antagonist Shishio Makoto, with his bruised and battered voice and one of the best and most convincing costume designs you will see.
Kyoto Inferno sees Kenshin and all of Japan introduced to the wrath and cruelty of Shishio Makoto, his Ten Swords (i.e. top henchmen), and his ever growing despicable army that is hellbent in sending the newly reformed Japan back into a medieval hell. Shishio Makoto is a cruel villain, but he is one that you can sympathize with because he was in fact blatantly wronged by the very same new government that claims to be peaceful and democratic. Political conspiracies and scandals are a major plot device here, and Kenshin finds himself to be the only one who can confront this rogue assassin and save Japan. However, this decision isn’t easy for the former Battousai as it would mean putting his vow to never kill at risk. So this movie is about Kenshin figuring things out for himself, and the journey he undertakes has him witness the wrath and power of Shishio Makoto (the village segment in particular was the most tragic and emotionally charged), to a point where he is compelled to take him on for the sake of withholding the peace that he values so much.
Kyoto Inferno does an excellent job of setting the scene for the epic conclusion that follows in The Legend Ends, and without this methodological build up the grand finale in the third film would not have the same weight to it at all. Kyoto Inferno does an apt job of establishing Shishio and his minions as a force to be reckoned with, a legitimate threat to the vulnerable Japanese society that is still struggling to transition into the Westernized values of the new government. Shishio is portrayed as not only a threat to the very fabric of a struggling Japan, but also a threat to Kenshin’s resolve to never revert to being Battousai the Manslayer.
What’s good about Kyoto Inferno (and this was also apparent in the 2012 prequel) is how convincingly it grounds the otherwise exaggerated anime characters and their fighting styles in reality. Creating something that feels more like a believable samurai action film than some anime adaptation that is too reliant on special effects. Kyoto Inferno ends on a cliff hanger, which is normally a point of criticism but the ending does a good job of raising the stakes and emotional intensity for The Legend Ends, and not to mention that the release dates of the second and third film were roughly a few months apart, so no major loss there.
Transitional sequels are rarely justified in film, but Kyoto Inferno was necessary and this will be apparent to those who experienced the epic anime/manga arc. Kyoto Inferno introduces new characters in convincing fashion, and gives viewers ample time to absorb their respective roles in the saga. With a strong context firmly established, Kyoto Inferno sets the scene for The Legend Ends, thus allowing the third and final entry to go in guns blazing and leave and impact that it would not have been able to without Kyoto Inferno giving it a strong base foundation.