3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012 (in Japan)

Himura Kenshin was once a feared assassin during the Meiji restoration period of the 1860s. A decade later, he now carries a reversed-edge sword to prevent himself from killing again. In Edo, he meets Kamiya Kaoru, the impassioned head of a kenjutsu school which teaches swordsmanship for saving lives, rather than for taking them. The school’s idealistic philosophy appeals to Kenshin, who has vowed to atone for his previous sins by protecting others. However, it won’t be easy for Kenshin to just live a peaceful life. He has many enemies from his violent past, and they all want a piece of him!

Thanks to the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, I was finally able to see this live action adaptation of my all-time favourite manga series. Going in, I tried to keep my expectations low; 2-hour film adaptations of long-running series necessarily have to cut a ton of material, and often, the end result is an empty shell of the original story. Also, the trailers we had seen left us questioning whether Takei Emi had the acting ability to portray Kaoru properly.

Happily, I found the film to be very enjoyable; the many action sequences were spectacular and the important themes were left intact. In the end, I was fairly satisfied with Takei Emi’s performance as well, considering the material that she was given to work with, Kaoru’s role having been significantly underwritten for this adaptation.

There was never any doubt, on the other hand, that Sato Takeru was perfectly cast. True to expectation, he turned in a flawless performance in the lead role, capturing Kenshin’s strength, when forced to fight, and more restrained gentleness at other times.

The movie deconstructs about 4 of the early story arcs and combines parts of them back together into a mostly coherent plot. It worked well for me since I was already very familiar with the original manga and seeing the story told this way felt fresh.

Of course there are casualties: lots of good stuff was cut, not the least of which was that Kaoru and Yahiko didn’t get any chance to show their talents and both of them came off looking rather weak. And as a result of the narrative cutting and pasting, some parts of the movie don’t completely make sense if you stop to think about it. Fortunately, there’s so much going on and the action scenes are so intense, that you’re not really given an opportunity to dwell on the minor details.

Another quibble: I found the scenes with Kanryu and his gang to be a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film. They tended to be more goofball and play-like and the accompanying music was too exaggerated.

I think the director and screenwriter made the correct choices in what must have been a daunting task to create this film. I might sound like I’m unhappy with the ruthless edits that have been made, but that’s what the manga is for! All told, the movie succeeds at being entertaining the way it is and I would love to see it again. I believe it is a worthy addition to the franchise. So yes, despite my complaints, I am giving it 3.5 stars!