Rurouni Kenshin Fight Sequence Analysis Series: Production Design
Welcome back to my series analyzing the filmmaking techniques of the RK trilogy! Over the course of roughly over a year now, we’ve discussed how choreography can grant us insight into a character’s state of mind or even their philosophies as well as how costumes can help us keep track of the characters as they move throughout the screen. They have formed an exciting foundation and are instrumental in the grand scheme of a movie’s visual language: Production Design.
Production Design, like many aspects of filmmaking, is a nebulous term. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that choreography and costumes can be useful tools to reveal a lot about a character and their environment. If that’s true, then production design is the world itself and its aesthetic presentation. People like set decorators and costume designers, art directors, prop makers, hair and make-up artists for anywhere between high fashion or blood or gore, and many other people all work hard to bring the vision of the director to life. Some properties of production design are so iconic that, not unlike costume designs, you don’t even have to be familiar with the film or franchise to recognize its aesthetic. See Star Wars for example.
This essay, however, will be more concerned with the overall production design relating to the final aesthetic of the finished movie rather than breaking it down technically. Occasionally, I will comment on a specific aspect, but mostly we’ll be looking at the overall aesthetic presentation of the film and how it’s used to convey its story and of course, how it is an integral part of a fight sequence. As a result, it will be very generalized for reader convenience.
This post, as all the others may spoil ALL of the live action films thus far, so if you haven’t seen them yet…seriously, why not?
CRAFTING A WORLD
Production design -sometimes called Art Direction- is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking and it’s the heart of any film’s aesthetic. Some cinematographers, for example, can’t even begin to light or plan shots and camera movements until the set or location is ready, making the production design absolutely essential to the production process. Think of it like the setting of a story; the set is where the audience is going to believe these events are taking place, and strong production design is necessary to have the effect of every scene maximized.
Production design is really a series of decisions, much like cinematography and directing -decisions from things as small as what kind of lamps to decorate a scene with or what kind of chairs characters should sit in, to designing entire sets that transport us to a different time or even a different universe. These decisions are essential in creating worlds that are believable and weave seamlessly into the story, adding to it rather than distracting from it. And this brings us to the ultimate question: how does the RK Trilogy’s production design contribute to the fight sequences?
On the top of the food chain in the art department, as well as one of the most important people in making a film besides the cinematographer (Director of Photography or DoP), the Director, and the Producers is the Production Designer or PD, sometimes referred to as the Art Director. To simplify for the sake of brevity, the production designer’s job is to meet with the producers and/or director to discuss the visual aesthetic of the world they’re trying to bring to life in film, with regards to the script and story they’re trying to tell. During these talks, the production designer might provide sketches and designs, as well as lay out plans that take the film’s budget into account. Essentially, one of their responsibilities is to balance the needs of the story and the artistic vision of the director with the amount of money available to them and communicate to the rest of the art department to ensure those perimeters are met.
The man who shoulders this particular burden is named Hashimoto So, according to Variety. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of him or most of the people I wanted to highlight in this section, which is a bit awkward, but please bear with it.
THE WORLD OF RUROUNI KENSHIN
The setting of our film is obviously 10 years into the Meiji era for a majority of all three films, which means that there is a unique challenge the production designer faces: there’s a lot of integral details that need to be accounted for, such as making sure everything used existed either within the source material or belongs in that time period, otherwise, it can conflict with the immersion at best and cause distraction at worst. On top of that, they must also decide which parts of the historical setting they want to emphasize, with regards to the script/story.
Unlike the seemingly endless stream of huge budget films in Hollywood, most movies have a limited amount of money and audiences have even less attention span. Audiences more often than not are not willing to give movies second chances if it doesn’t grab them immediately or bores them. As a result, a movie needs to minimize details to the essential as to not overload the audience with useless information that doesn’t serve the narrative. The emphasis placed on aspects the story requires can cause movies that take place in the same time period to look very different. If you examine a movie that takes place in the Meiji era like, say, The Last Samurai, it looks very different from the Meiji era of Rurouni Kenshin. This is because the two films are completely different narratively and everyone, including their respective production designers, must make decisions that suit their stories.
This means that we can potentially examine a film’s subtexts and themes through the backgrounds the characters traverse to. Production design is more than simply making a world feel alive, it can be used to tell a story, even just by examining extras. There is an enormous amount of thought that goes into extras, like making sure they all have costumes, closing down streets and dressing them to look like they turned the clock back, making sure every location and set is juuuuuuust right for the scene, and making sure it doesn’t run too expensively on the budget.
ESTABLISHING A WORLD
Before we can examine how production design services a fight sequence, we must examine the impact that it has on the story and what the director uses it for, and one of the ways Otomo uses the production design is to introduce the audience to two pivotal time periods: The Bakumatsu, and the 10th Year of the Meiji. So-san must work with the art department to decide how these worlds should look and what details about the time period should be emphasized. Because the central theme of the story is the turning of an era and the story stating that the Bakumatsu was a turbulent time in Japanese history, and the Meiji era was an era of change and modernity, So-San’s primary concern here is to create visual distinction between the two worlds, which we see in the first film’s opening act.
The first things we see when the film first opens and the text crawl ends is a world draped in cold, January snow falling on the battlefield of Toba-Fushimi. The camera slowly pans like an invisible observer as we follow it through the bloody, war-torn battlefield. We’re introduced to a lot of important information in this scene: we see people at war, lots of explosions, dirt, and people dying before finally leading us into Kenshin at the height of his skills in battle. This also serves as our introduction to Kenshin as a character, or more aptly, his legend. Suddenly, he hears his comrades call out victory cries and he realizes he has been victorious. He has successfully won a battle to secure a new future for Japan.
Shortly after we see Kenshin put down the sword, we’re now in a Japan 10 years after that battle where we see bustling and lively streets, people running around and celebrating. Bright summer sun, people sweating, vibrant music… All of this persists, even after the corpse of one of Kanryu’s opium dealers is discovered with Battousai’s call sign. This expresses to the audience visually that this is the start of the Kenshin killed for. This is the world he wanted. When we see men like Kanryuu and eventually men like Jin-e, and Shishio, we begin to realize that they’re out of place. The world and the aesthetic Hashimoto So created contrasts against the main antagonists and serves to highlight how weird and outmoded Jin-e, Gein, Banjin, and the twins look in this world. It’s because they don’t fit in the Meiji Era that Kenshin helped create, and that contrast will boil into the conflict the film revolves around.
This visual motif is repeated even once more with even more to say in the Kyoto Taika-Hen film when we see modernity blooming in Tokyo. We see Caucasian men dressed in western clothing of their time period, Japanese people dressed in western clothing, jazz musicians, and a bustling trade opportunity. These introductory scenes give us the impression that this is a typical day in the Meiji, which reinforces to the audience the stakes Kenshin faces as he eventually goes to battle forces that seek to destroy this fragile new era.
Already, we see a clear distinction between the nature of the two worlds, not just in the color grading, but in the framing itself. So-san takes advantage of his extras and reduces the space between them in both scenes to create a sense of chaos but to polar opposite effects. The opening sequences have chaos in violence, and the new era shots have chaos in celebration. Otomo and his cinematographer then shoot these scenes in medium to longer lenses, which put more emphasis on snippets and details of this world rather than the world itself, making the stakes feel very personal as we see individual people celebrating. Every single one of these people feels important to Kenshin, at least on a thematic level. It runs parallel to the theme that modernity wasn’t Kenshin’s goal: the happiness of the people around him was, and he felt modernity was the best way to achieve that, and that’s reflected in these scenes.
This is the strength of So-san’s production design when directed by Keishi Otomo. Not only does it establish the world of the film, but it also visually reinforces both its central theme, and the most important thing to Kenshin as a character by creating a contrast between the two eras he’s is torn between.
And keep in mind, these are not real people. They’re probably just told to look like they’re having fun, but a costume designer dressed every single one of them. Set decorators designed this set or maybe even dressed up a street to look like Meiji Japan and because it looks so authentic, we believe it which is the sign of a production designer who knows what they’re doing. This plays wonderfully into a later section of this post.
EXPRESSION OF CHARACTER
Have you ever noticed when watching a movie and we’re introduced to a character in their room, we always see other characters walking around as the camera slowly tracks them, revealing to us little details like their bookshelf, or maybe their wardrobe? Maybe the main character fidgets with something casually sitting on their dresser?
The reason for this is because, even as we’re engrossed by the dialogue, our eyes are being treated to visual information given to us by the director and production designer. Much like our real lives, our rooms or personal spaces can carry a lot of details about us, and sometimes those details might be relevant to an audience.
What does this room say about the main character of Black Swan? Can you tell whose room it is by the image? What kind of personality do you think she has?
What does this say about her character? What does it say about her mind and world view? Another example:
Just by looking at the environment and the characters in this shot, who do you think this space belongs to? What does it say about that character?
Now that we’re on a roll, how about this?
In this set, we’re introduced to the main antagonist of the latter two films and this set immediately establishes the essence of Shishio’s character. It’s dramatic and gaudy, we see old, decadent structures being consumed by fire, and an insane man and his posse standing behind him. In a lot of ways, it creates a parallel to the first film when we see Kenshin in the Meiji era for the first time, only inverted. This is the world Shishio seeks to create, and it is utterly horrifying. This parallel and contrast in production design also sets up the conflict between Kenshin and Shishio immediately as well as their similarities. This warring ideology motif is echoed again later on in Kyoto Inferno when we see the same blue tinted war ground we saw in the first film’s opening, only this time at the end, we see a bright contrast of the orange fire against the blue-ish snow, symbolizing Shishio’s desire to rebuild the world through fire just as he was.
So how does this relate to crafting a fight sequence? Well, simply put, the essence of a great fight scene isn’t just two people hitting each other: it is the conflict between characters, themes, and environment expressed through the background is the true essence of production design. Each major battle/fight that takes place in the three films all occur in enemy territory since Kenshin doesn’t really have anywhere to protect except the Kamiya Dojo, which means that the main stages for the final conflict of each must express his opponents. He’s walking into enemy territory and the production design must reflect that. Consider the first movie. Each major fight in the third act of the first film takes place in Kanryu’s mansion except the final one. Observing each room, we can tell what kind of character Kanryu is and subsequently, what each of his henchmen is about.
Something unique to So-san is that he uses his production design and choice of location for each fight sequence to constantly remind us what’s at stake, both literally and narratively. The battle for the holy sword in Kyoto Inferno against Cho takes place in a shrine, like the manga. The shrine as the main battle stage could thematically sanctify the ideals of the Sakabatou as well as Iori, while two unworthy titans clash for the future of those ideals. The location for the battle isn’t simply cool, it’s thematically important to the fight sequence and subtly but constantly reminds us what Kenshin is up against and thematically reinforces the situation rather than simply being a cool area for characters to fight. It’s part of the statement the overall scene is trying to make.
Another example we should consider is the Rengoku as it is blasted into oblivion by modernity. This war galley, a symbol of the spark that ignited a revolution, goes up in flames much like Shishio himself. We watch Shishio and his empire crumble under modernity as cannons tear through the ships halls and decks, and Shishio himself exhausted to the point of combustion burns surrounded by the fires that consume his ship.
These sets are not simply the battle stages of a fight, they are carefully and elegantly crafted to express the story’s characters and ideologies. They are important storytelling tools that are a necessary component in creating a compelling action sequence and good production design, through themes and tone, can create memorable and powerfully cinematic experiences when working together with the rest of the filmmaking team.
THE BATTLEGROUND AS A WEAPON
Here’s a mouthful: Verisimilitude. It is what drives all cinema and RK is no exception. For an experience to work and for all the lofty stuff we discussed in the previous sections to pay off, the most basic and crucial element must be secured: the audience MUST believe it. We know it’s a set. We know the light is artificial in a lot of scenes, and we know that the sword Kenshin is smacking people with is just piece of rubber. We know the people falling are just actors. Hell, Kenshin isn’t even Kenshin, he’s just some dude in his mid-twenties playing pretend. But when the opening text pops up on-screen telling us about the backdrop, as the camera pans through a snowy battlefield, and as we see a single red-haired kid tear through a legion of soldiers without even needing to catch his breath, we’re sucked in. It *feels real, and we believe it despite ourselves. We believe it because we want to believe it.
Arguably, the director’s job can be boiled down to them forcing us to want to believe it. They need to lull our incredulity into taking a backseat to anticipation and excitement, and that works, not necessarily by creating a realistic experience, but by creating an authentic one and that requires all of TeamOtomo to accomplish, including So-San.
They have plenty of techniques to accomplish this and to cap this long post off, I want to focus on just one thing TeamOtomo does incredibly well in conjunction with So-san: incorporating the battlefield into the fight by having characters directly interact with their environment.
This involves all of the production team working in tandem. The costumes and actors get sufficiently dirty. The swords get damaged and whack at objects in the environment. The choreography calls for a moment where a character kicks a staircase and sends the splinters flying towards an opponent. The stunt team plans a sequence where Kenshin has to use a tree to maneuver and flank his opponent, and the production design is the hub that all of these decisions are based on.
So-San’ s decision making, choice of location, and aesthetic all play into crafting what amounts to a springboard, from which all of these ideas sore. The gif above can only work in that location because it is a decision Kenshin made BASED on his location. It’s a small detail, some might even say trivial as we’re too busy being dazzled by the high-speed choreography, which judging from the popularity of my choreography post is something a lot of the people notice immediately, but let’s take a moment to appreciate that the choreography is directly informed by production design, which is informed by the script, which in turn informs the cinematographer how to light and move the camera, which feeds back into the costume designs creating costumes and making sure the colors are good for the shot and so on.
When we consider this, we can see how So-San’s production design truly is the bedrock the film’s action sequences are built on, and I don’t think there is a more elegant or telling expression of this than when I see Kenshin run up a wall in Kamiya dojo to procure a bokken to fight with, or when Kenshin actually uses an enclosed area underneath the shrine to limit Chou’s swing to unleash devastating hand-to-hand combat on him. We see the world inform the fight because we see characters use the environment to gain an advantage or to compensate for a weakness. It makes the characters feel richer and alive, autonomous even in a tightly scripted situation, and maybe even real.The emphasis is never drawn away from the character, and the conflict feels real because it comes directly from them. Because of this, at least in part, the fight feels verisimilitudinous; it feels real and authentic.
All great martial arts films do this since it’s an old technique. Jackie Chan, for example, is probably the greatest choreographer when it comes to working with the environment. That said though, Otomo’s Rurouni Kenshin films takes words from the vocabulary established before it and uses it to compose excellent fight sequences that will remain in our memory for as long as we can remember as well as employing old techniques in new ways unique to the story that we all love. Each decision from every member of this team is filled with hard work and faithful to the essence of what made the original manga so amazing. This wouldn’t be possible without men like Otomo at the helm, or men like Hashimoto So designing magnificent sets that bring the manga to life. That’s the magic of filmmaking, and pertinently, that’s the magic of So-san’s production design. Thank you for reading.
so heh like,,,what is the last unicorn,,,for a long time i thought it was something made up that i heard in a tv show as a child but im learning tonight its,,,a real thing???
The general premise is that a unicorn learns that she is supposedly the last unicorn in existence. She doesn’t believe that she could possibly be the last, and sets off on a quest to find the others.
It’s an amazing book and a superb movie. The book was written in like, the 60′s I think? And the movie came out in the early 80s. It’s an interesting story, and it is mind-blowingly beautiful to watch. Plus, ya know, there are unicorns. And tons of other mystical creatures - harpies, magicians, talking skeletons who drink from empty chalices, a sorceress, an angry reclusive king, a tree with big tree tiddies (you think I’m joking, but I’m not joking), talking cats, a ghostly bull made of fire, dragons, everything you could want.
Seriously, I highly recommend it. It’s one of my favorite movies, and one of my favorite books.
Unicorn: That cannot be. Why would I be the last? What do men know? Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished. We do not vanish. There has never been a time without unicorns. We live forever. We are as old as the sky, old as the moon. We can be hunted, trapped…. We can even be killed if we leave our forests, but we do not vanish. Am I truly the last?