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Hugh David gets on the trail of Rurouni Kenshin

Fan-favourite Rurouni Kenshin aka Samurai X is back. This time Kenshin takes live-action form, in the shape of former Kamen Rider and TV samurai Takeru Sato, while the film adapts various arcs and characters from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original manga into a blockbuster that also works for newcomers. Kenshin remains the hero fans remember: a lone vagabond warrior with the dark past of an assassin, the Hitokiri Battosai, not even able to be a ronin and sworn to avoid drawing his blade lest he kill with it again.

Partly inspired by the 19th century killer Gensai Kawakami, whose cold-blooded nature was concealed by his handsome looks, the manga itself ran from 1994-1999, becoming one of the leading lights of Shonen Jump magazine. The subsequent TV anime adaptation from Studio Gallup, Studio DEEN and SPE Visual Works was a tea-time staple in Japan, running for 95 episodes from 1998; it was this version that was re-christened Samurai X for Sony’s pan-Asian TV airings, a name both appropriate to the character and easy to pronounce in other languages. While these two versions are the ones fixed in the minds of most Asian fans, it is the subsequent Trust & Betrayal videos that really made their mark on international fans.

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The TV series’ style was more family-friendly, with cartoonish interldes and comedy sequences, although the fight scenes were detailed and realistic, but the 1999 videos went with a darker, more violent approach in their telling of the prequel storylines from the manga. This two-parter, also recut as a feature later on with additional animation and a new soundtrack, featured the kind of violence seen in 1970s Japanese cinema, complete with artistic blood spatters and slow motion. It brought a whole new set of fans to Samurai X and Kenshin, but it also made it much harder for the original series to sell in the West, failing to meet the blood-letting expectations raised. The release of the 1997 feature spin-off from the TV series, which was tougher than the series but still animated and voiced in its style, proved as much. A 2001 video, Reflection, provided a suitable finale to the entire saga, although a further “New Kyoto Arc” 2-part video released in 2011 retold that storyline from another character’s perspective.

As such, despite its immense popularity domestically, the TV series has still never been released in the UK, where the BBFC costs alone for 95 episodes would make a release prohibitive for something with such a relatively small audience. The US DVD releases are now out of print and going for silly prices online, as are the UK video collections. Viz Media have released the manga in English, and the most recent video is readily available on Blu-ray and DVD internationally, but for introducing new fans to such a respected and established franchise, the live-action feature could not have arrived at a better time.

Rurou ni Kenshin, the live-action movie, will be released on UK Blu-ray on 17th February 2014.

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