How does a film visually identify a character in an action sequence? Can an individual convey their history, expertise and anguish through body language, and even in the middle of a fight? This was a unique method of building character in classic Hong Kong cinema made famous by the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and modernized by Gareth Evans’ The Raid franchise. Recently in Japan, the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy took this physical action direction to somewhere few have ever seen captured on film before: emotionally charged characters and high octane action within a single moment of film. This was a foundation set by the classic manga and anime series on which they’re based. Achieving more “showing” than “telling” on screen was a top priority for director Keishi Ohtomo (Ryômaden) and action director Kenji Tanigaki (Kill Zone: SPL, Flash Point). The historical lore within Kenshin features distinguished fighters in a defining era of Japan, and are gorgeously realized through near-perfect casting and lavish, authentic production design courtesy of Kazuhiro Sawataishi, also known for his work on Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins.
The film’s’ principal director, Keishi Ohtomo, was given the taxing job of harmoniously being faithful to the source material, whilst producing accessible, engaging samurai-action films. More often than not, in a contemporary Hollywood “action-film”, the action direction feels haphazard, and comes across as an incomprehensible CGI mess amongst hollow storytelling and flat characters, and the recent decade of Hong Kong martial arts films have been met with the same criticisms to the point of becoming a genre cliché. Rurouni Kenshin, on the other hand, relies on more traditional filming techniques, and wonderfully choreographed action to create legible fight sequences that also grow the characters. This sets the Rurouni Kenshin films in a special position thanks to the work of Tanigaki, who had studied under Donnie Yen’s (Ip Man) choreography team since the 90’s. With his helming of the action direction, the result is a distinct merging of Kenjutsu, parkour and Hong Kong-style action choreography.
The filmmakers of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, and the actors of this franchise (specifically Takeru Satoh as Himura Kenshin) were invested in faithfully representing their respective characters, not only through their dialogue interaction, but through their way of moving and reacting in an action scene. Violence adds an additional complexity to Kenshin’s character, representing his struggle with his former life as a government-hired assassin, and his yearning to lead the life of a Rurouni, a vagrant, without the weight of the lives he’d taken as that infamous assassin Hitokiri Battôsai. To a stunt choreographer, also known as an Action Director, designing a fight sequence can be more than just exciting violent titillation; it can be a valuable lens through which to view character growth, and Kenshin is the perfect character to practice this idea on film with.
Throughout Rurouni Kenshin, the fight sequences don’t just showcase a clash of swords, but of ideologies, with both Kenshin and his opponents trying to prove the strength of their worldview through character action, as opposed to droning dialogue between combat often seen in Japanese anime. Kenshin’s most formidable adversary is introduced within the second arc of the manga, and in the trilogy’s sequels: Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends. That adversary, and the successor of the role of Battôsai the assassin, is Mokoto Shishio, portrayed by Tatsuya Fujiwara (Battle Royale). Kenshin and Shishio are two sides of the same coin, both being “Man-Slayers” enveloped in confidentiality by the new “Meiji” government.
These two once shared a role in the old war as assassins employed under the governmental flag, and controversially slaughtered innocents and soldiers to bring about a new era to Japan in the late 19th Century.
However, in contrast to Kenshin, who is once again considered a tool of the government in their peacetime, Shishio is a crazed, religious zealot. He would exploit his boundless knowledge of government secrets to plummet the country into disorder for his own personal advantage. At the end of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, the series opening flashback sequence, Shishio was allegedly assassinated, stabbed multiple times, burned, and left for dead by his comrades. Because this is based on an anime, Shishio miraculously endured, however left with severe mutilation to his body, and permanently wears bandages from head to toe to conceal his disfigured skin.
Shishio’s endgame is to create a new Japan governed by himself, implementing principles of natural selection through anarchic violence as his way of taking vengeance on the world for the way he’d suffered. He extends the reach of his power by assembling a group of Japan’s most feared swordsman, known as the “Juppongatana” (Ten Swords), most notably Seta Sōjirō, who proves to be the first true challenger to Kenshin’s combat abilities in Kyoto Inferno.
When the Battle of Toba-Fushimi is revisited in the beginning of Kyoto Inferno, viewers are introduced to the ferocity of Shishio’s combat style, and the scene showcases how his movements were designed to directly contrast Kenshin’s. Shishio takes sadistic pleasure in the humiliation of his rivals, and inhumanely utilizes the expendability of life in combat by pressing faces into the ground, stomping on heads and impaling them brutally. He’s an unrestrained, psychotically brutal fighter, and his attacks emphasize supreme pain, to ensure suffering in his opponents.
While Tanigaki staged a sequence of this scale he considered a number of elements that could influence the audience and what they need to know about the characters. How long has Kenshin been fighting? Is he significantly injured from previous quarrels? Is Shishio prepared to fight? Does he fight with grace similar to Kenshin? Does Shishio simply take hits and overwhelm his opponents? These are the questions on set that influence the action sequence when it’s being staged, and need to be deliberated between the director, action director, and actors.