Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says to get your mind out of the gutter. This isn't that kind of Samurai X.
Our review of Samurai X: OVA Collection, published March 17th, 2004, is also available.
Ruthless hands. Gentle heart.
Trust, Betrayal, and Reflection began as OVA bookends to the popular 95-episode Rurouni Kenshin anime series based on Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga. Since their initial release on DVD, ADV Films has milked them for everything they're worth. Trust and Betrayal were merged into a feature and released as a director's cut. Reflection was given a director's cut of its own with 13 minutes of material added. The original OVAs were stripped of supplements, repackaged in thinline cases, and released as Samurai X: OVA Collection.
That brings us to this release. The aforementioned director's cuts have now been similarly stripped and repackaged as Samurai X: Director's Cut Collection. The big question is: Will Kenshin fans find any value in this release, or is it just an expression of ADV's covetousness concerning the valuable Rurouni Kenshin series' rights owned by Media Blasters?
Facts of the Case
What follows is a plot breakdown for each of the features. Those who have never seen the series or the OVAs, be warned: It is difficult to discuss Reflection without including spoilers from Trust and Betrayal, so I'm not even going to try.
• Trust and Betrayal
By 1864, Kenshin has grown into a formidable swordsman. Frustrated with his master's seeming apathy toward the political turmoil all around them, he parts ways with Hiko. Kenshin believes political neutrality is a betrayal of Misurugi swordfighting, which is to be used for the protection of the downtrodden. Older and wiser, Hiko understands that, once drawn into violence (particularly in a civil war), a warrior can't avoid damaging the exploited bystanders he seeks to protect.
Kenshin casts his lot with clans in Choshu province who are rebelling against the Tokugawa Shogunate, and becomes one of their most promising assassins. While attempting to kill a Tokugawa envoy, he tangles with Kiyosato, one of the envoy's bodyguards, and receives half of the x-shaped scar on his left cheek that will become his trademark. He slays Kiyosato, not knowing the man was to shortly marry his childhood sweetheart, Tomoe. Kenshin later meets Tomoe, unaware that he's responsible for her fiancé's death.
Through a convoluted set of circumstances kicked off by Choshu's conservative factions' betrayal of the rebels after they set fire to Kyoto, Kenshin and Tomoe are forced to hide out in the countryside of Otsu. They pretend to be a married couple, humble druggists. Slowly, they fall in love. In the meantime, the Choshu rebels reconstitute themselves for a second assault against the Shogunate; Tomoe's kid brother Enishi Yukishiro determines to rise to the level of Shogunate envoy so that he can exact revenge on Kiyosato's killer; and the Shinsengumi—the Tokugawas' elite police force—close in on Kenshin in his rural hideaway. The tragic finale gives Kenshin the second half of his infamous scar, and transforms him into the merciless assassin Hitokiri Battousai, whose purposes are far removed from protecting the downtrodden.
Though the samurai class is largely decimated, replaced by a modern army, Kenshin is recruited into combat by the Secretary of the Army because of his legendary skill at killing (presumably, the skirmishes in which he's involved are those leading up to the Sino-Japanese war, waged from 1894-1895). As old enemies—including Enishi Yukishiro—seeking revenge for past wrongs close in on Kenshin, we flash further back to his meeting a young Kaoru and slowly falling in love, though he already bears the burden of a dark past that includes the slaying of his first love, Tomoe.
Revisiting Trust and Betrayal, it occurred to me that we'd all be much happier right now had George Lucas checked it out before making his Star Wars prequel trilogy. It has the emotional through-line Lucas was reaching for, but that ultimately exceeded his grasp. Trust and Betrayal is a prequel to the Rurouni Kenshin anime series. In the series, the titular samurai wanders Japan trying to atone for his previous murderous life as Hitokiri Battousai. Trust and Betrayal doesn't bring us to the beginning of the Rurouni Kenshin series, but leaves off at Kenshin's transformation into Battousai. It is concerned with the hows and whys of the transformation, the forces (internal and external) that pushed Kenshin to giving himself over to the most ruthless of clan politics. It's a perfect analog to the Star Wars prequels in which we witness Anakin Skywalker's devolution into the personage of Darth Vader, only to have 20 years of nefarious behavior elided as the second half of the story takes up the tale of his redemption.
The thing is, Trust and Betrayal tells the story much, much better—at least on an emotional level. The reluctant romance between Kenshin and Tomoe is believable, though it's propelled by the sort of confluence of wild circumstance common to melodrama. Tomoe's tragic end is sufficiently poignant to be a convincing catalyst for Kenshin's descent into the madness of all-out clan warfare.
Despite its tragic tone (or maybe because of it), Trust and Betrayal is a bloody affair. The swordfights are numerous and kinetic. The animation combines carefully studied naturalistic movement with stylized slow-motion and other effects to deliver violence with genuine visual beauty and narrative excitement. It's easy to get swept up in the movie's precise blend of quiet storytelling and rousing action. It offers a convincing and compelling portrait of the haunted ass-kicker type that plays as empty cliché in lesser entries in the genre.
Reflection catapults us nearly 30 years forward to the end of Kenshin's career. Tragic romance is again the subject of the movie, this time between Kenshin and his long-suffering wife Kaoru. As in the anime series, he leaves her in their village home again and again, driven to travel by his need for inner peace and atonement for his sins. Her love gives him the will to live, but each time he returns from one of his quests he is more physically and spiritually broken than when he left.
The feature is organized around two central episodes that act as counterpoints to one another; reflections, examples of the unending cycle of violence and death at the center of Kenshin's life. The first finds Kaoru kidnapped by Jin'e, an old enemy who wishes to provoke Kenshin into combat. In the second, better vignette, Enishi Yukishiro steals away with Kaoru in order to draw Kenshin out so that he can finally avenge his sister's death. Enishi's anger and sorrow make him more than a raging bad guy, and Kaoru's compassion for his pain makes the spiritual and narrative connections between her and Tomoe even more explicit.
Reflection's biggest problem is one of structure. Despite its use of cyclical action to emphasize theme, it at times feels disjointed and repetitive. Overall there's a gorgeous delicacy to the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, connecting events thematically, emotionally, and spiritually, but the juxtaposition of the Jin'e/Enishi stories is a major failure. The two tales' use of the kidnapping of Kaoru by men who want to bait Kenshin might have worked if the episodes weren't presented back-to-back. If we were given a breather between the stories, a tale that offered contrast, the similarity between the abduction-and-showdown stories might not feel so heavy-handed. As it is, the Jin'e story feels entirely unnecessary. It's less emotionally evocative, and adds little to the central relationship of the film, that of Kenshin and Kaoru. The Enishi story is so dense with meaning it blows the Jin'e story out of the water. In the end, Kenshin's duel with Jin'e feels like an obligatory wrapping up of narrative business, a loose end the writers had to resolve, though they couldn't find a meaningful and satisfying way to do so. It is a distraction that depletes the movie's power.
The tragedy of Reflection is designed to parallel that of Trust and Betrayal (hence its title). Unfortunately, the action doesn't follow suit. Scenes of swordplay are fewer and further between, and they're not executed with anywhere near the élan of the previous film. Because it is concerned with the retrogression and dissolution of Kenshin's life and career, Reflection's story is a unique challenge in terms of pacing. The absence of stellar action sequences creates an over-emphasis of its tragic elements and leaves it sluggish and long in the telling (despite being briefer than Trust and Betrayal by 22 minutes). Moreover, the makers of Reflection fall into the trap of assuming viewers are already emotionally invested in the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, which is a major feature of Rurouni Kenshin. The shorthand with which they compose the picture's emotional storyline will leave anyone viewing Reflection purely as a sequel to Trust and Betrayal with the impression that Tomoe was the true love of Kenshin's life. In fact, she is a reflection of Kaoru—Kenshin's longtime partner—and not vice-versa.
Ultimately, Reflection is a grand idea whose execution leaves much to be desired.
On a purely technical level, both OVAs look great in this DVD release. The newer Reflection fares slightly better than its counterpart in terms of color balance and detail, but Trust and Betrayal doesn't exactly hurt one's eyes, either. Artifacts are minimal, providing a stable, lovely image.
Unfortunately, things aren't quite so rosy in terms of aesthetics. Both features are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. That's just fine for Reflection since that was its intended framing, but Trust and Betrayal was composed for the 1.33:1 ratio. This reframing has been a point of controversy among Kenshin fans. Their complaints aren't entirely unwarranted. While the widescreen presentation works for the most part, there are some isolated shots throughout the feature that are awkwardly framed. Is the issue cause for avoiding this release? Only if you're fanatical about such things. Honestly, I can't say I would've noticed the problem shots (on an initial viewing, anyway) had a loyal DVD Verdict reader not brought the controversy to my attention.
Audio for both features is offered in both a stereo mix of the original Japanese track, and a Dolby 5.1 mix of the English dub. Both tracks are crisp and clean. The English is more dynamic, though I still prefer the original Japanese.
The primary advantage of ADV Films' "Collection" releases is their bargain price. Indeed, this set's $45 retail price represents significant savings over buying the each of the director's cut releases for an individual list price of $30. The primary disadvantage of these boxed sets is a loss of supplemental material. In the case of Trust and Betrayal, there's not much to lose—the original director's cut release only offered some trailers and an insert booklet. The trailers remain (though I have no idea if they're the same reels on the original disc). In the case of Reflection, though, a feature-length commentary by the English cast, interviews with the Japanese cast, clean opening and closing credit sequences, and a collection of production sketches are dumped.
Those who can look past the loss of supplements will receive a stylish package redesign with their purchase of Samurai X: Director's Cut Collection. The cover art from the original director's cut releases has been maintained, though the discs have been moved to thinline cases. The cases slide into a hearty slipcover that's visually pleasing if slightly oversized.
Whether ADV Films' motivations for releasing this set were noble or base, it's difficult to complain about their offering consumers more options. Samurai X: Director's Cut Collection is a great value for longtime Kenshin fans who have thus far held off on buying the individual releases of the director's cuts (assuming such people exist), as well as the curious looking to dabble in the world of Samurai X for the first time. It's a great value, that is, provided you're willing (or eager) to trade supplemental material for the drop in price.
Those who own the original director's cut releases won't find an upgrade here. Those who aren't happy with barebones releases are sure to be disappointed.
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