Sequels are tricky. Prequels are trickier. And the task becomes all that more burdensome when, for some reason, the choice to end a franchise on the note of a prequel is made. Unfortunately, the fifth and final entry to the Rurouni Kenshin saga creates an awkward narrative pivot, hinging the entire weight of the preceding film on The Beginning.
Even worse, is the prequel’s aimlessness in properly establishing the backstories of the one character it really needed to, The Final’s antagonist Enishi, and instead simply churns forward with time entirely focused on neutering the reputation of Kenshin’s past as Hitokiri Battosai.
Supposedly a follow up to The Final, The Beginning seems like it would be an establishing element to better explain this return to the Rurouni Kenshin franchise. However, it misses the mark and instead works as a standalone, working towards simply retroactively portraying Kenshin as an honourable swordsman whose violent and murderous actions were entirely motivated by love for land.
Which wouldn’t have been much of a problem if the whole thing wasn’t built around the crux of a love story that the first three movies largely ignored in their narrative. While retcons are common in fiction, especially comics, this film’s inclusion in the overall saga of Rurouni Kenshin further simplifies the character’s motivations.
While excruciatingly slow as a narrative (running for 137 minutes!), The Beginning does serve the character better than the previous two instalments, making more room for the protagonist outside of the congested action-driven beats of The Legend Ends and The Final. What action there still is however, is still amazing and beautifully filmed, especially against a backdrop unique to this finale.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of the decline of the Rurouni Kenshin films is all too clear when it’s obvious that none of the new characters are worth rooting for–after all, we know that their impact would be limited to only one other film… which was already out.
It also doesn’t help that, as a closing entry to the franchise, The Beginning excludes all the familiar faces from the initial films, with the focus almost entirely on new characters (who, again, won’t be a part of anything else). The sole returning supporting character is Saito Hajime, whose stab-and-slash swagger alone is enough to justify his inclusion, but ultimately functions as a reminder that the series may have lost its way.
Perhaps, Rurouni Kenshin, much like Star Wars, would benefit from an alternate viewing order. Beginning with, well, The Beginning, and continuing with the original trilogy (see what I did there?) and then concluding with The Final, might help lend a better flow to the films.
Or maybe just stick with the original trilogy (a sentiment some Star Wars fans seem to share as well).
Oddly enough, the return of Rurouni Kenshin, and this attempt to give the franchise a better sense of closure, leaves only the sensation that it may need just one more entry to better tie everything together.
Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is out now on Netflix along with the other four instalments, including The Final.