Our review of Samurai X: Director's Cut Collection, published January 19th, 2006, is also available.
Ruthless, deadly, still a child.
It has been a few days since I completed my viewing of this boxed set, and part of me is still feeling numb. Samurai X: OVA Collection will affect you one way or another. Some fans (on the IMDb) have said that Samurai X is not just among the greatest anime of all time, it is one of the greatest movies of all time, period. That may be a bit of a reach, but the craftsmanship and sensory impact of this tragic story are unmistakable. Anime of this caliber is rare, and stories with such emotional pull are rarer still.
Facts of the Case
This boxed set contains two distinct entities. Trust and Betrayal contain four episodes of an OVA that most Samurai X fans consider a single two-hour film. This prequel to the Rurôni Kenshin television series depicts the early life of Shinta, a young slave. Shinta is discovered by a wandering master swordsman, who takes the boy under his wing and teaches him sword craft. Shinta becomes Kenshin, a powerful assassin who wants to protect helpless Japanese citizens from oppression. His renown grows, along with his troubles. The only certain thing is that death follows where Kenshin treads. Kenshin meets Tomoe (a sad and beautiful woman) in an alley where he is performing an assassination. He takes her out of harm's way and they become intertwined.
Reflection is an 85-minute postscript to the television series. It details Kenshin's last days and his interactions with the important people in his life. Kenshin has been trying for years to atone for the lives he has taken. But old enemies continue to assail him, while old allies ask for his aid.
Allow me a quick note about the television series before the review gets underway. This OVA boxed set hardly alludes to the existence of a television series. I viewed this set for what it is: a collection of OVAs. Having never seen the television show, I cannot comment on how this set corresponds to the series.
Samurai X is ultra-violent. Its depictions of sword combat employ heightened detail and graphic effects to bring home the reality of sword fighting. Animes such as Ninja Scroll and Fist of the North Star are ultraviolent as well. Disembowelings and such glorify the violent aspects of the animation, but they are not entirely realistic: the foes are exaggerated, the gore is white and formless. Samurai X is more potent because of its stark verisimilitude. The blood is red, or brown, or pink on snow. Wounds and decapitations are shown clearly. The combatants are fully human, with fear, fatigue, and distinct personalities. If you are squeamish, you'll have a tough time with these films. If you appreciate realism, you will be pleased.
Samurai X is equally gentle. It becomes clear that Kenshin is not a particularly violent person. He has the soul of a farmer, the innocence of a child. He shows infinite patience and restraint. He answers every question with honesty. The truth that Kenshin routinely murders people is an anomaly in his otherwise peaceable demeanor. Peaceable, yes. Peaceful…no. Kenshin is absolutely torn inside, aware of his deeds, aware of the reasons for them, and aware of the consequences. He cannot put down the sword, but he wants to right the world. He never finds rest. Kenshin is a deeply nuanced character.
Trust and Betrayal belongs in the top tier of anime. The film has many flaws, but few weaknesses. I'll break down some of the elements in a moment, but the whole creates a piercing emotional effect. The anime is aligned in such a way that each aspect contributes towards a central tension and sadness. A melancholy, simple score sets the tone for a reflective posture. An illusion of historical fact grants weight. Beautifully rendered characters inhabit exquisite backgrounds. Kenshin's conflicted ruminations and his effortless violence force us to reconcile his character. The political times are in upheaval, the social pressure is great. Kenshin bears physical and emotional scars that inform his every action. Each facet of the story helps create a complex characterization of Kenshin and his world.
Anime is mostly defined by the animation. There are countless approaches to filling up the screen with lines and colors; this one left me breathless. It is so clean you can see your face in the reflection. Colors are bright but subtle, lines are crisp and varied. The animators and sound technicians create a sensory experience, inviting you to feel the textures, smell the blossoms, hear the birds and insects. Hayao Miyazaki's renowned work (widely regarded as the pinnacle of anime) sometimes seems like an impressionist painting brought to life. Kazuhiro Furuhashi's style is not as detailed as Miyazaki's, nor as naturalistic. Nonetheless, Furuhashi displays a finesse that reveals moments of stylized brilliance. It may be a rain of cherry blossoms, or the glint of a sword being drawn from the sheath, or Tomoe's hands as she writes with the bamboo brush; some details will captivate you if you watch closely enough. Characters' gestures and movements flow to reveal personality traits. For example, Tomoe's exaggerated placidity tells us she is immobilized by sadness and conflict. (The traitor in Betrayal tips us off simply through body language.) This elegance is most noticeable in the sword battles. They are so dynamic and brutal that your reaction will be visceral in spite of yourself.
This isn't the first time that battles have been depicted realistically in anime, but it is probably the best attempt to date to explore the social and political reasons for violence. Each battle in placed in both a personal and political context. Many characters spout philosophical bases for their actions, and each viewpoint is completely convincing. Yet the viewpoints are in conflict. It is easy to see how such an environment led to war.
Voice acting really helps carry Trust and Betrayal's complex themes. The voices display a great emotional range that suits the subtle demands of the plot. Kenshin is alternately touching and chilling. Tomoe smolders with buried anger and newfound happiness. The English track is notable for its adherence to the Japanese tone.
Romance is almost entirely absent, but love is a central theme in Trust and Betrayal. Kenshin and Tomoe display their love in subtle ways. One of the best sequences of the film has Kenshin and Tomoe pose as married farmers in a remote homestead. The false sense of removal from the war gives them time to just be, bare their hearts and minds to each other. There is so much happening between them that one viewing will not suffice. For most of the film, I had to concentrate just to figure out who was who and how they felt about each other. I welcome the opportunity to watch Trust and Betrayal again, just to absorb more of its meaning.
Trust and Betrayal ends with authoritative finality. There is an exciting showdown, and events transpire that doom the major players to lifelong fates. Cut it, print it, what a great film! But apparently, there is an entire television series set in the Rurôni Kenshin universe. After that comes Reflection.
Reflection maintains the high level of animation and musical quality, and for a moment or two you find yourself in the special territory that Trust and Betrayal carved out. But the dream fades quickly.
While Trust and Betrayal had a rich and complex plot, the events in Reflection are overwhelming and poorly explained. Time, character, and subplot shift frequently, with no contextual cues. There are fifteen times as many characters, most of whom look vaguely similar. Who the heck are these people? Where did they come from? Who is this woman who looks just like Tomoe but has an entirely different personality? How old is Kenshin? Where is he going? What's the deal with this reverse bladed sword? These questions are never answered.
Reflection follows Trust and Betrayal's lead once too often, with less finesse. (Minor spoilers follow.) The end of Trust and Betrayal had Kenshin battling to reach Tomoe. It was all logical and built into the narrative. Reflection rips that device off, but doesn't lay the groundwork. Kenshin fights to reach Kaoru (Tomoe part II), but the reasons are coarsely introduced. Later, Reflection rips itself off, once again placing Kaoru into the hands of a crazed enemy. This is not the only example of how Reflection poorly imitates Trust and Betrayal. In this movie, Kenshin displays his by-now-trademark innocence and pacifism. We hear that he is conflicted, but we don't feel it. We know that he wants peace, but we don't feel it. We comprehend that he loves Kaoru…but we don't feel it. Trust and Betrayal crafted a world of emotion while Reflection references it.
Where Trust and Betrayal was tragic, Reflection is simply maudlin. (This paragraph will spoil Reflection for you.) Kenshin and Kaoru share some wilting disease. Kaoru apparently spends most of her life waiting by the harbor for Kenshin to come home from his warfaring/peacemaking exploits. Her son has run away. Her husband is an infamous assassin who is never home, and he loves the ghost of another woman, and she gave herself this disease willingly to help share Kenshin's burden, and he is drowning in a cold sea alone somewhere, but she smiles because it is how she helps the world, and it is all…so…sad. The music tells us. The falling clouds of cherry blossoms tell us. The single, silent tear tells us. The music tells us some more. Somehow (unexplained, per the modus operandi of this film), Kenshin drags his dying body home in time to stagger into Kaoru's dying arms, and they lie there smiling near each other before they die. I wanted to gag on my green tea. I fervently hope that this cryptic film works for fans of the television show, because it doesn't work for us uninitiated moviegoers who just want to see more Samurai X magic.
Aside from the self-derivative plot and overdose of sentimentality, Reflection fails to provide enough action to keep us interested. There are a few sword battles, but they are drained of the palpable danger that enhanced the first OVA. Don't get me wrong, Trust and Betrayal had its fair share of downtime. But the downtime was reminiscent of Michael's Italian sojourn in The Godfather—falsely idyllic with an undercurrent of doom. Reflection has a bunch of people we're never properly introduced to talking about Kenshin.
Even with those flaws, Reflection is watchable. The voice acting is great, the animation is better, the music is good, and the characters are enjoyable. This historically based, twisted tale of swordplay and tragedy makes me wonder if Kai Doh Maru was an unsuccessful homage to Samurai X.
The extras demonstrate a high level of professionalism. Discs One and Two both have character introductions, but the text is written to only reveal what the viewer should see at that time. Thus, Disc One is true character introduction, while Disc Two builds on our understanding of the characters. The background notes and screenwriter notes give a great sense of the historical adaptation angle, as well as perspective into the creation of the plot. Disc Three brings us a slew of detailed voice actor interviews, which reveal the actors' deep attachments to their roles. (I have a crush on Miki Fujitani now.) To hear the actors speak in their natural voices, and occasionally in their character's voices, gives you a true sense of how animated lines come to life. The clean closing animation is hardly necessary, since it is mostly footage of waves. (If by some chance those waves were hand-drawn, I am completely impressed.) The production sketches are standard, but set to catchy music.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All is not perfect with the Samurai X: OVA Collection. Its flaws are like blemishes on the surface of a pearl: you wish they weren't there so that you could enjoy a perfect treasure.
The impressive animation is marred by a handful of compression artifacts. A couple of scenes had shimmer or blockiness. In all honesty, these artifacts are hardly a blip, but it is my duty to mention them. The image perks up noticeably with the widescreen anamorphic transfer in the third DVD. The sound is slightly more problematic. There were occasional periods of fluctuation, where dialogue seemed to become flat and distant. This was more noticeable in the Japanese track. Again, this was a periodic annoyance.
The mislabeled Japanese 5.1 audio option is likely to do more than annoy some viewers. The box proudly proclaims a Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but the Japanese track is in 2.0. This is a shame, because the English 5.1 track uses surround effects to increase the tension at key moments.
My enjoyment of Reflection might have increased tenfold if an extra had been provided to explain what the hell was going on.
The third disc of this set contains a mediocre anime film with great animation and music. The real reason to get it is for Discs One and Two, Trust and Betrayal. Together, they form one of the darkest, most involving tragedies I have ever seen—animated or no.
Only the sands of time know how many men and women Kenshin has killed. His penance has been years of atonement. This court merely rules on the artistic merit of the work. Samurai X: OVA Collection is not guilty. Furthermore, the court submits it as evidence of anime's sophisticated emotional depth.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Trust And Betrayal
Perp Profile, Trust And Betrayal
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Trust And Betrayal
• Character Introductions
Scales of Justice, Reflection
Perp Profile, Reflection
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Reflection
• Interviews with Japanese Vocal Cast
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