Ruroni Kenshin on the Big Screen: Classic Samurai Favorite Returns


Tokyohive reported last month that crews from Warner Bros. Japan will begin filming this summer on a live-action movie adaptation of the best-selling manga . Not negotiations, not production,  bona fide filming. This is one manga-related green light you want to know about.

Beyond filming a movie, a TV drama series is also planned, likely hinging on the success of the movie. Twenty-one-year-old Sato Takeru is set to star as the lead role, Himura Kenshin. No news on the female lead, the innocent but strong-hearted Kaoru. Otomo Keishi is slotted as the director.

So here’s a little more about Kenshin: Set in early 1880s Japan, the Ruroni Kenshin manga is known for its fluff, sword-swinging, and larger-than-life characters. The lead is wandering swordsman Himura Kenshin, a man who is repenting his sins from his time as the most feared assassin in the war that brought Japan into the classless (and swordless) Meiji era. Themes in the manga revolve around justice, loss, change, and progress, all with the feel of being witness to a legendary time. As Kenshin finds himself slowly moving on from his old life, with a girl and a place he might finally settle down to, demons from his past try to drag him back to his old murderous self. The red-headed, cross-scarred Kenshin stars in one of the most beloved manga/anime from the 1990s.

A rumor on internet blog sites indicates that the advancement of the production studio’s computer-graphics technology delayed filming. But that begs the question: What part of a samurai drama needs highly advanced CG technology? Are they talking Transformers CG, daytime TV CG, or Star Trek special effects for the various larger-than-life characters? This sounds like it’s not going to be a modern Kurosawa flick or a rendering of the violent but overall realistic Tsuiokuhen OVA’s style.

Some rumors mention that “Hollywood lost out” on the chance to get its hands on the Kenshin adaptation, and that’s why it’s being produced in Japan. However, the production company is Warner Bros. Japan, which illustrates that Hollywood does in fact still have its hand in the pot. One might think that keeping a title’s adaptation close to home would keep it safer, but that is not always the case: The animated, direct-to-video prequel to Kenshin is as renowned for its successes as the direct-to-video sequel is for its disappointments. In the American film industry and the Japanese animation industry, it is standard for authors to have no say whatsoever in the details of films based upon their work. Though, Warner Bros. did what anyone would call a fantastic job on its adaptation of Watchmen, so all is not lost. The company tends to produce darker titles, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of feel the movie goes for.

The biggest questions are, then, what will the story of this movie try to accomplish, and what level of realism are they going for? While some Japanese adaptations of cartoons to the real world feature obvious wigs and sets, Deathnote‘s character adaptation to the real world was good – in part because the original designs were realistic. Kenshin‘s main characters are not abnormal in design, but I worry about Kenshin’s long, red hair. Sato’s promotional head shots show him with shorter hair, so it is likely that a wig will indeed be involved. Kenshin’s hair is so much a part of his character that a bad wig the wrong color could break the audience’s view toward the movie as a whole. Clothing is another aspect: Kenshin’s trademark red shirt and white hakama combination are reversed from historical norms, and I have never in a samurai movie seen someone wear a yellow kimono as Kaoru does. Will these elements be kept? Accommodating these outfits could make for a movie with very interesting color theory, indeed.

As for story, Japan has done a very good job of adapting manga into tv dramas, such as Hana Yori Dango (Eng: Boys Over Flowers) and Otomen: Natsu, for relationship dramas; and for gritty dramas, Great Teacher Onizuka and Bloody Monday. So, with the idea of creating a live-action TV series and international distribution on the table afterward, there’s hope that a good team is on the job and will do Kenshin justice.

On a housekeeping note, it makes sense that the film will be in Japanese, but if released in America, will it be dubbed or subtitled in English? Most broadcast TV companies require dubbing for foreign films to be shown, but highbrow theater audiences tend to enjoy subtitles if the movie is billed as “foreign.” The fate of the language is yet unclear.

All in all, as a joint Japanese-American venture, how much inter-cultural flavor will Kenshin be graced with? Will it be a hit? In any event, it will be one of the most anticipated manga-based titles of next year, even with so many mysteries waiting to be uncovered involving our favorite red-headed swordsman.

**Disclaimer: The writer of this article interns at Kodansha Comics, which owns Bloody Monday. But, she also enjoys a good romance now and then, so she recommends checking out all the adaptations equally.