I'll start this review off by answering a question: Do I plan on buying and watching Part 2? The answer is “yes.”
Okay, now for the details. As far as my Rurouni Kenshin background goes, I've read the entire manga, although long enough ago that I've forgotten a lot, I've seen the first season of the original TV series and most of the second season, and I've read one related light novel. I'm definitely a fan of this franchise, but I had concerns about how well it might work as a live action movie. Happily, I thought it worked out pretty well.
The characters and general story were all faithful to the original. Of them all, I most enjoyed Kenshin. Other than a few moments during the last big battle with Jin'e, I felt that Takeru Satoh did a wonderful job portraying him. The box art image of Emi Takei as Kaoru worried me because she was only recognizable as the character by a process of elimination (I knew the woman in the corner was definitely Megumi). However, in the movie itself she was great and really brought the character to life, although I had forgotten how ridiculously and sometimes painfully naive Kaoru could be. Seriously, fighting Jin'e with a wooden sword? Yu Aoi as Megumi, Yosuke Eguchi as Saito, and Munetaka Aoki as Sanosuke were also pretty good, although they didn't fit my mental images of the original characters as well.
Like I said, it's been ages since I last read the manga. I do, however, own an omnibus edition of the first three volumes. Flipping through that, it looks like this movie blended together a couple of the longer storylines from those volumes and cut out lots of Kenshin's original opponents. In the movie, Kaoru's dojo was losing business due to someone murdering people under Kenshin's old assassin name, “Battousai the Killsword,” and claiming that they were using Kaoru's dojo's techniques. The imposter turned out to be Jin'e, a man from Kenshin's bloody past, who was working for a drug lord named Kanryu. I think that might have been two or three separate stories in the original manga.
One of the things I was most concerned about when I started watching this adaptation was how some of Kenshin's more over-the-top opponents would be handled. I remember one character who literally stored a bag of oil in his belly so that he could spew fire at people. This adaptation toned a lot of that down, for the better. The only truly weird bit was Jin'e's eyes, which gave him the ability to paralyze weak-minded opponents. Viewers were repeatedly told that this was not magic but supposedly something called the Way of the Mind. That said, considering how weird his eyes looked and how immediate the effect was, it certainly looked like magic.
The other opponents were more normal, or at least as normal as you can get in a franchise where the main character has a sword-fighting technique that can take out a dozen or more enemies in a single blow (and without actually killing anyone, even though his sword, while not sharp, is still made of metal). I don't think any of them were from the original manga, or at least I didn't remember them. One was a brawler and therefore a good opponent for Sanosuke, and another wore a mask to hide his scars and fought with both guns and knives.
The movie's biggest strength was its fight scenes. I enjoyed almost all of them, even the slightly weird one with Sanosuke and the brawler. I probably liked the one between Kenshin and the guy with the scars the most, although the final one between Kenshin and Jin'e had the most emotion and tension. I also loved the beginning of the movie, which did a wonderful job showing a little of Kenshin's bloody past.
Unfortunately, all those fight scenes did take time away from other things, like proper explanations, better development of some of the more minor prominent characters like Sanosuke and Yahiko, and quieter moments involving Kenshin and Kaoru. I didn't really notice how oddly some of the pieces of the story fit together until later, but I definitely noticed and was bugged by the way Sanosuke was hastily thrown into the story. Also, one of the deleted scenes in the extras stuck with me, because it was exactly the kind of thing I wished the movie had had more of: Kenshin and Kaoru just having a quiet moment together. It was the one deleted scene that I wished had been left in the movie, even though it would have made this nearly 2.5-hour-long monster even longer.
All in all I enjoyed this, even though I though I found myself wishing it had been a bit shorter and more focused. Its faithfulness to the characters and overall story was both its strength and its weakness – I hate to say this, but it might have been better to just drop Sanosuke from the story and introduce him in Part 2 instead. At any rate, I'm looking forward to being able to see Part 2 soon.
- Interviews with the actors who played Kenshin, Kaoru, Jin'e, Megumi, Sanosuke, Saito, and Kanryu. The interview with Takeru Satoh (Kenshin) came across as extremely cautious (he was "probably excited" about getting the role?), but the others were better.
- Four deleted scenes. Three of them were fairly forgettable, but I really liked the fourth one and wished it had been kept in the movie. Aside from giving Kenshin and Kaoru a quiet moment together, it would have done a nice job of setting up the final battle with Jin'e and Kaoru breaking out of Jin'e's control.
- Making of. A large part of this was devoted to the work and practice that went into the fight scenes.
- Original trailer.
- News flash. This was technically yet another Kenshin trailer.
- Super news flash. Yet another Kenshin ad spot - it basically just laid out the casting decisions.