With the last chapter in the story of Kenshin, 'The Beginning' creates the perfect bittersweet ending to a beloved franchise.
"For them, Battousai the Killer is their biggest threat."
Before Kenshin was the hero of Japan, Kenshin Himura was a monster that inspired fear in the hearts of warriors. He is the assassin's blade that could turn the tides of war. And in those early days, he was the very definition of victory and defeat. But despite his success as a killer, he is still a kind man who only does what he thinks will lead to peace. Despite the blood he sheds, he commits his atrocities in the hope that a new era of peace and happiness can arise from the freedom of a corrupt rule.
While he fights, people around him plot and scheme for power. A tumultuous landscape where clans go against clans in a fight for the right to rule Japan. Emperor versus Shogun. Samurai versus samurai. Where people will kill you without hesitation so long as you aren't on their side.
In this blood-soaked world of death and violence, Kenshin Himura meets the mysterious Tomoe Yukishiro. After seeing his light and dark sides, Tomoe and Kenshin find themselves together in this cruel world. This chance encounter between the two creates a path of love and tragedy that forever changes Kenshin. And sets him on the path to the man we all know today.
Possible spoilers ahead!
"A rain of blood is a cliche in tragic plays. But you really... make it rain blood."
Immediately, the biggest difference you can see in 'Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning' and the rest of the films is the tone. While the films have always been violent, 'The Beginning' takes it on another level. The very first sequence in the movie is when Kenshin slaughters an entire group of enemy samurai while tied up. Compared to the brighter and action-oriented approach, this fight sequence is brutal and bloody. Hidden in the shadows of the building, seeing the peaceful Kenshin kill without hesitation or mercy sets a dark tone that the film will follow till the end. This grim brutality is apparent in the visual choices made by the film. Many moments are either shrouded in stark white or dark. While colorful scenes exist, they all seem weighed down by shadows or the harshness of the light. The film rarely feels warm, instead of feeling drab and dreary thanks to the deliberate choice to desaturate the colors. It's such a far cry that it makes even the most violent moments in the previous films look goofy. It doesn't even feel like a live-action adaptation of a manga, but a grim period piece that occasionally has moments of silliness thanks to over-the-top action set pieces. Or like 'Game of Thrones' but with samurai. Those who like the lighter aspects of the earlier films will be very shocked by this film's poetic yet gritty approach.
One sequence, in particular, defines the stylistic approach of the movie. In this sequence, we see Kenshin approach a group of men, contrasted with Tomoe peacefully writing in another place. As the music slowly swells into a chorus of violins, we see the blood splatter from Kenshin assassinating these men without fail, all without sound. The cinematography is combined with slow motion and fast action, creating a visually stunning fight that's violent your gorgeous. It's not cool to watch. It's bloody. It's practically disturbing, considering that the Kenshin people know chooses to be non-violent.
"With all the men he's killed, he's still completely pure at heart."
The story then goes back to the murder of the samurai that gave Kenshin his first scar. With the film's new perspective, we get to see the moments after the fight. Through the more brutal and grittier lens of 'The Beginning', we see how Kenshin still isn't as cold-hearted as he seems. Because he feels disturbed by the death of the samurai, it initiates the very first cracks in his faith in his blade. This characterization of Kenshin is brilliant because it shows how good of a person Kenshin truly is. And it creates this huge conflict because, despite his soft heart, Kenshin can still kill without hesitation. This becomes a form of turmoil for Kenshin that emphasizes the film's biggest thematic point. And then, the film takes a turn as it takes its time to develop the many schemes and plots of the two factions of the civil war. If you were expecting the story to be just Kenshin, you'd be wrong. It gives a lot of time to the way the two sides plot their demise, the way each side is trying to fight for an ideal Japan. Any viewer could dismiss these moments as unnecessary,
but in the context of the film, they carry a lot of thematic weight.
The point of the 'Rurouni Kenshin' series has always been about the tragedy of violence. How violence can be done for any reason, and still create more and more tragedy. An endless cycle of bloodshed. This is seen more visibly in 'Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning'. This cycle of endless violence, only justified by two sides who believe they're in the right, is the idea that the film wants to topple. Because, as seen in the film, any group of people who think they're code of ethics justifies the lives they take are no different to the enemies they fight. And Kenshin is one of those people, fighting for a cause and justifying the deaths. This idea is made manifest in Tomoe. When she enters Kenshin's life, she was just an innocent bystander who witnesses his violence. She witnesses the lengths these warriors will go to bring down one another. As she becomes part of Kenshin's life, she experiences the struggle of being part of their violent lifestyle. And through it all, she questions the purpose of their violence. Questions the justifications made for murder. She is the counteragent to Kenshin's belief, providing the seed of doubt and change that would lead to the new Kenshin. This thematic approach to the writing is what gives greater substance to the story of 'The Beginning', greater than any of the previous films combined. We see how Kenshin the killer is slowly destroyed, how the violence of the villains in the future is justified since they were all born from a war that praised their violence. All the darkness and pain the prior films didn't explore are given the spotlight, making for an excellent source of drama and gray morality that elevates the film more than any action set piece can.
"I will never kill you, even if you had a sword."
Because the film really isn't about action. And while there's plotting and politics, they all exist in the film to show how destructive they all are to the innocent bystanders who just want to live life. The film is a war drama and a love story, all focused on capturing both victims and instigators of war as they try to find either victory or peace in the violence. And this is no more apparent in the way the Tomoe and Kenshin romance develops. While the previous film already confirmed who Tomoe is and why she became Kenshin's wife, watching the way she inserted herself in his life and slowly be changed by him is fascinating. Because despite her initial protests against violence, Tomoe is just as much of a willing member of the cycle as everyone else since she was chosen to kill Kenshin. She has the responsibility of luring and weakening the monster who took the love of her life. Except, she does not meet a monster but a man. A man who is struggling with the weight of his sins, and still has some kindness to his heart. The film gives space for these two to come together, learning to like each other and find solace with one another. We get to see how Kenshin becomes a happier man in her care, and how Tomoe finds her peace while with him. It's a beautiful love story between unexpected people that is only clouded by the lies that could unravel it all. This is what 'The Beginning' really is. It's more than a 'Rurouni Kenshin' film, it's a beautifully tragic love story between two lonely and broken people. And these people who find themselves while trying to survive a war. The camera work, slow pacing, and directing come together to weave a subtle but sweet romance between them that manages to shine, despite both characters being written as withdrawn. Takeru Satoh and Kasumi Arimura manage to bolster the romance with their acting and quiet chemistry that makes the audience root for their happy ending and cry for the inevitable tragedy. 'The Beginning' is not a film about the origins of a legendary killer. It is an epic tragedy combined with quiet visual poetry, thanks to fantastic cinematography, that raises the film to a level of high art. This isn't a live-action adaptation of a popular manga for the weebs, it's honest-to-god poetry put to film that wants the audience to be invested in how Kenshin and Tomoe change thanks to their love for one another. It's an isolated film that stands on its own, without the assistance of the previous films. If there is one film a person can watch in the franchise, it better be this one. This mix of mainstream appeal and arthouse beauty is the reason why 'Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning' is the best film out of the entire series.
In summary: Visually stunning, brutally dark, violent and bloody, yet intimately romantic, 'Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning' is an emotionally rewarding tragedy that gives audiences the perfect yet bittersweet farewell to a beloved character.
Film Rating: 9.5/10