It's another adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin's origin story. (There's also a four-episode anime OVA from 1999, called Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal. I quite like that version too, but it draws all the faces in a realistic style, i.e. dour and boring.)
Ten years before the start of his better-known adventures as an light-hearted wanderer who's vowed never to kill again, Kenshin was an assassin for the Choushuu clan during the Bakumatsu in Kyoto. He killed a lot of people. Very efficiently, very fast. If they're still alive when he's about to walk away, he'll go back and stab them again. He's going to meet and get involved with a woman called Tomoe, who won't be around during any of his subsequent adventures.
It's a samurai tragedy and it's pretty good. It's fairly slow, mind you, for some reason feeling the need to match The Final
's running time even though it's adapting a much simpler story. I watched it across two days, but I didn't have a problem with the pacing. If anything, in fact, I thought a slight weakness of the film was its desire to include sword fights. These Rurouni Kenshin live-action films are built on their explosive action scenes, so presumably Keishi Otomo felt he had a quota to fulfil here even though the story doesn't usually require them.
I wouldn't call that a problem, though. It's context. It conveys the violence of the era.
The characterisation is... not a problem, but definitely worth discussing. I see now why the flashback sequence in The Final
did such a terrible job of conveying what Tomoe was like as a person. The actress (Kasumi Arimura) had some serious work to do here, in a role that could easily have just looked passive. She's apparently wallpaper. There's a lot underneath, with some big secrets, but she's conforming to the traditional Japanese feminine ideal, i.e. she does what she's told without complaint and agrees with everything that's said to her. You've got to be paying attention to start asking yourself questions like, "Does she actually want to die?" (Arimura's a good actress, though, and she overcomes these problems.)
As for Kenshin, he's doing that block-of-wood impassive samurai thing. He'd be boring if we didn't have history with the character. The most entertaining actor here is actually Issey Takahashi, who reminded me of Alan Cumming.
There are only two familiar faces from the rest of the series: Kenshin himself and Saitou Hajime, who's currently with the Shinsengumi. (They're ostensibly a special police force, but they hang people upside-down and torture them.) Saitou's a real historical figure, incidentally.
It's pretty good, as indeed is the whole five-film series. It doesn't have a weak instalment. I probably prefer this film to the 1999 OVA series, although I like both and they're a similar length. If you're thinking of watching these Rurouni Kenshin films, I'd suggest doing them in chronological order with 5 (this one), then 1-4. That could be an interesting experiment. If you try it, let me know what you think!