I was first introduced to this film by my friend seven years ago, and I have ever since fallen in love with Japanese anime. Seven years later, having enjoyed such excellent films as Grave of Fireflies, Spirited Away, Akira and Macross Plus etc., this film, Rurouni Kenshin Tsuiokuhen(as it is known in Japanese), still holds a special place in my heart and will never be replaced by anything.
What makes this film a classic is the degree of perfection the makers were aiming at from every angle. Examine it from a superficial perspective, the drawing for instance, is lush, sensual and very realistic. When falling leaves drop in water you can see the ripples; when blood drops on snow it really sinks into it. Everything is shaped and executed with utmost poetry and beauty, and this is true even for the bloody scenes in the movie. In a fighting scene in which Kenshin kills the girl's fiance, the camerawork strikes me as breathtaking and highly effective, it really gives the action speed and momentum and makes it sparkle with fire.
More importantly, the story and characters are what make this film memorable. I have to congratulate the makers of this film because they had an excellent script to start with, into which they weaved elements of tragedy and oriental fatalism, making it into an epic and legendary tale of love and sacrifice. First off, the story starts with a gory scene of massacre, the sky has a color of blood, and the music is gloomy and spine-tingling, setting up a tragic tone for the entire film. In this setting we meet the little boy Shinta(later to become Kenshin) for the first time, he is the only presence in that scene that resembles innocence in this world, but soon later his innocence will be forever lost as he witnesses the killing of the three sisters.(This scene is carried out with ruthless realism and precision, for some people it can be unbearable.) Kenshin's life is tragic and ill-fated right from the beginning. As we keep on watching, we grow attached to the characters, we feel for them, for their sacrifice and suffering, and the rare moments of joy and peace they have.
The contradiction in Kenshin's life is that, he believes that through killing he can help bring a new world to the people, but each time he kills he feels tremendous guilt and unrest. To find solace and justify for his actions, he keeps reminding himself that he is serving for a cause that will eventually bring salvation to the people from war, famine, and corrupt government. But slowly he begins to realize the fact that the people he's trying to eliminate are just oridinary human beings; by killing them he is actually destroying families and making others suffer, and that in turn makes himself suffer in guilt. All this makes him nothing more than a killing machine, a tool! The more deeply he realizes about this truth, the more tormented he feels inside his heart. So at this point, a new character is introduced, the girl named Tomoe who is a heavenly figure shrouded by an aura of mystery and feminine beauty, a person who is bound to change Kenshin's life forever....
I loved the way history and fiction are intertweaved in this film to create a story that is simultaneously legendary and credible. It has been remarked that the character of Kenshin is loosely based on a real person, and the political figures featured in the anime have all existed in history. After thoroughly enjoying this film, I actually spend some time looking into the history of 19th century Japan, specially on circumstances surrounding the Meiji Restoration and various key figures in that revolution. And this research has led me to greater appreciation of the film. More often than not, you don't get such succesful combinations of history and fiction in films alot; another good example that immediately comes to mind is the award-winning film of 1984, Amadeus, which retells the life of Mozart in a comical and sensational way.
Finally, I'd also like to comment on the music in this film. The music is amazing from beginning to end! Not only in the sense that it effectively supports and amplifies the drama, but the music alone forms an emotional journey. It is soulful and introspective, at times sad but weepingly beautiful. If you listen to the soundtracks in full cycle, scenes in the film come back to your mind in vivid details. I remember when I watched this film for the first time, I was left spellbound and speechless as the ending theme sounds its first notes. In the end the music takes you all the way back to where the story started, at which point you hear little Shinta talking to his master, and you are overwhelmed by a flood of emotions as this gruesome but hauntingly beautiful tale is brought to conclusion in a cyclic form.
In my opinion everything about this film is masterful and recommendable. This is a very serious work of art that has raised the artistic quality of anime films in general to an admirable degree. Heart-felt gratitude to all involved in the making of this film!