Well, I’m glad I didn’t go into this one with as much expectation as I did Kyoto Taika-hen. I can safely say that the first film of the trilogy remains the best of all (and isn’t that the case for so many series). I have quite a few issues with Densetsu no Saigo-hen, and not even the epic fight choreography can make up for the deficiencies of the film; fight choreography that I think is even superior to that of the first movie.
The first thing that stood out was the annoying number of flashbacks that kept cutting into the film for the first half. I have a fervent dislike for flashbacks when they disrupt the flow of the story, and I must have seen at least a dozen of those annoying little flashes that serve only to irritate me.
This is compounded by the poor scene transitions that completely destroy any semblance of a story flow, as the film flickered between Kenshin’s training and various other happenings without giving the audience time to focus and absorb what’s happening. This, in turn, ruined any opportunity to build suspense and anticipation, and the movie started to get boring as basically nothing important was happening for the first 45mins.
Not to mention the massive, massive problem I have with Kenshin’s training.
Where is my Kuzuryūsen???
It’s the single most important piece of the puzzle for Kenshin to learn the ōgi, the Amakakeru Ryū no Hirameki. Yet, all that happened was a too-long beatdown of Kenshin, followed by a terrible piece of introspection, and the complete lack of suspense that accompanied Kenshin learning the ōgi. Seriously, if they actually used Kuzuryūsen, and cut it off just as Kenshin had his epiphany, that would have made a far better end to the excessive training montage.
And of course, Amakakeru Ryū no Hirameki ended up being used in such an unspectacular manner, non-fans of Rurouni Kenshin would have absolutely no clue what the fuck happened. The only effects they used were the foot stomp and the sound effects as Kenshin’s sakabatō hit Shishio. That’s it. I would have thought it was merely a finishing move rather than the cherished ōgi of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryū if I didn’t know about it beforehand.
This complaint then ties in with another issue I had. They briefly mention Shishio’s Mugenjin, but it seems seriously stupid to just call it that without explaining anything else. All we see if CGI fire from the sword, and everyone’s going to think it’s silly for a sword to do that without any prior elucidation via exposition. I think it’s bloody cool, the idea of a serrated blade drenched in human fats that ignite upon each swing, but none of that was explained, and I bet most people felt the movie went into fantasy territory right then and there.
Explanations were scarce when they were needed to make sense of things, but were present when unnecessary. You don’t have the same amount of time as a manga to talk about all the side characters in the Juppongatana; then DON’T. Keep them mysterious and dangerous, not destroy their characters with half-assed exposition about why they follow Shishio. It just makes everything so awkward.
And also, the scar explanation. I get that the 2nd scar on Kenshin’s cheek refers to the 3rd major arc of Rurouni Kenshin, which was not featured in the films. But a proper explanation would have been nice for the people who don’t know anything about the series prior to entering the cinema. It’s an interesting and important piece of information that fills out Kenshin’s character more than just that scene where he kills Tomoe’s husband. In the manga, she’s the reason he had his vow not to kill, NOT her husband.
Let’s not forget the terrible lines that were thrown out in the film. So much of the dialogue sounds forced and awkward, and the actors even seemed sheepish trying to deliver them. The training scenes fell foul of this very often, and I felt like rolling my eyes every time another trope gets bandied about.
Oh, and here’s a major plot hole. Ito tried to bomb the ship to bits to kill Kenshin and Shishio together. This not only completely ignores all the cops that boarded the ship with Kenshin (which should have met with plenty of protests from the cops on the shore), but also makes a mockery of that final scene where all the police and Ito salute Kenshin. You just friggin’ tried to kill the guy, and now you’re saluting him? That’s ugly, lazy scriptwriting.
Finally, the only redeeming thing about the film is the fight. But even then, there are problems. The pacing for the fights are totally off, without giving time to build any intensity unlike in the first film, where the major fights are one-on-one. Saito straight-up just owned a Juppongatana member within 30s of his appearance in the battle. Sōjirō vs. Kenshin couldn’t pace itself properly, and ended with a whimper.
The way all the four characters ganged up on Shishio was also just a trove of terribly convenient appearances one after the other. Only the four vs. one battle choreography made up for that bullshit early minutes of Shishio getting interrupted by the protagonists one after the other. And I even have a problem with that too; I think the shōnen trope of teamwork is nice, but Shishio vs. Kenshin should be WAY more even than what was portrayed.
A brief recap via the wiki tells me that the final fight is pretty faithful to the original series, which is nice to know. But without the long development of each character and their respective paths to reach Shishio, it just looks terrible. There’s faithful adaptation, and there’s knowing where to make relevant changes to suit the medium.
Finally, that ending was so anticlimactic. They really should have cut the film right where Shishio combusts, then watch as the ship sinks. Everyone would know Kenshin will survive, but at least it’s not that corny, convenient crap where they managed to get into a boat and row back to shore. Then the final scene should have been being back at the Kamina dojo as in the film.
But of course, the fight choreography almost makes up for the perceived flaws. It’s a vast improvement over Kyoto Taika-hen, which had only one fight scene that stood out for me (the one against the hired goons in the small town). Densetsu no Saigo-hen has even better fighting than the first film, but that’s no surprise given the sheer amount of fighting they get up to.
So was I disappointed? Not really, given that I watched Kyoto Taika-hen and realised that the standard had slipped due to the sheer amount of content the filmmakers had to juggle but failed to do so adequately. I really only appreciated the films for the fight choreography and the nostalgia of Rurouni Kenshin, and in that regard the films worked. But as a standalone film? I can’t recommend it to anyone.