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Movie review: ‘Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno’ a great teaser for the battle to come

Saito Hajime (Yosuke Iguchi) walks up the platform to see an indigo-robed swordsman, his dark, burned face swathed in bandages, with rogue hair strands sticking out.

Shishio Makoto's piercing glare made some premiere night attendees swoon. The character, after all, is the main villain of arguably the best storyline in the Rurouni Kenshin lore: the Kyoto Arc. Finally, he is alive.

The 2012 release of "Rurouni Kenshin: The Movie" in local cinemas was a treat to fans of the anime and the manga. It brought with it the possibility of a sequel featuring the sadistic antagonist on the big screen, and with him many of the characters that were loved on TV and in the comics alike.

Inevitably, Kenshin Himura's big-screen adventures continued with the Kyoto Arc adaptation, and the intricate storyline meriting a two-part treatment for the sequel was no problem: nobody wants 40 anime episodes and almost a hundred manga chapters crammed in one movie. Thus "Kyoto Inferno" and the upcoming "The Legend Ends" were born to make a virtual trilogy for the story also known as "Samurai X."

Takeru Sato continues his spot-on portrayal of Kenshin, the slayer-turned-wanderer who chose protecting others with his reverse-edged sword as his burden. Shishio Makoto is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara of "Battle Royale" (as Shuya Nanahara) and "Death Note" (as Yagami Light) movie fame, a familiar face to local anime fans and Asian film followers alike.

Although he has to act behind the character's bandages and his appearances in this film are still relatively limited, Fujiwara owns the role as a heartless dictator leading through fear, whose principle runs opposite Sato's Kenshin: survival of the fittest against the protection of the weak, leaving much anticipation for the expected fight scenes in the concluding film.

"Kyoto Inferno" is a rightful introduction to the ideological clash highlighted by Kenshin's oath of never to kill. That promise is challenged by the national threat presented by his main foe, who refers to him as sempai, an honorific for a senior in the same field (the movie presents them both as assassins during the Battle of Toba-Fushima, where the first film started).

But Kenshin's friends are there to support the sakabato-wielding hero: Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei), Yahiko Myojin (Kaito Oyagi), and Sanosuke Agara (Munetaka Aoki) also end up in Kyoto where half of the movie takes place. He also meets Misao Makamichi (Tao Tsuchiya), a ninja of the Oniwabanshu. As Shishio takes a back seat for these scenes viewers will see more of Soujiro Seta (Ryunosuke Kamiki). And for those fond of hunting movies with characters played by Filipino or part-Filipino actors, Maryjun Takahashi gets ample screen time and speaking lines here as Shishio's lover, Yumi Komagata.

Just like in the first movie, the fight scenes and stunts are top notch here, from Kenshin hitting a mid-air foe four times in two seconds to the dash sequences (which Sato revealed during the premiere as his favorite move for his character). There are few noticeable computer-generated elements, as the production relied on their trusty wires, choreography and pacing to give justice to the characters' superhuman swordsmanship.

Anime and manga purists may scratch their heads though as the film made numerous deviations from the source material, especially with the origin of Aoshi Shinomori (Yusuke Iseya) and how certain events in Kyoto unfolded. Without spoiling anything, certain iconic scenes did not happen as they did in the series, but understandably so.

The movie opted to stick to realistic scenarios, while providing different details to some characters and moments which may give nitpickers a field day. The changes, as with those made in the first film, are not without reason as they seemed to work well with the more-than-two-hour running time. They also create a new experience for fans who already know the story before going to the cinema. Newcomers to the lore who started with the previous movie, however, shouldn't have problems with the story.

Character-wise, Kenshin remains occasionally absent-minded as his childish nature surfaces, Kaoru remains eternally concerned about him as always, Yahiko is still the brash, tactless lad, and Sanosuke is the all-brawn comic relief. The foes are also spot on: like their hand-drawn counterparts, Sojiro skips and taps his leg while smiling during battle, Cho Sawagejo (Ryosuke Miura) has a squinting eye, and Shishio's appearance is as ruthless as you would expect. These small details will hit the "kilig" button for fans—and it got hit a lot throughout the film.

"Kyoto Inferno" viewers should note that being the first of a two-part movie series, like how "Death Note" was to "Death Note: The Last Name" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was split into two, there will be lots of questions that will have to remain unanswered for now.

But as a friend said after the premiere, it is "the best teaser ever." All will be answered as Kenshin Himura's real battle starts in "The Legend Ends." — BM, GMA News

"Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno" opens locally on August 20. "The Legend Ends" will run starting September 24.