Judge Dan Mancini was under the false impression that this feature-length OVA was about a narcissistic, swordfighting member of the Nation of Islam.
"Recalling our past, both you and I have lived with scars that won't fade. Scars which were carved as a cross."—Kaoru Kamiya
Oddly enough, Samurai X: Reflection is most enjoyable if one hasn't seen either the original Rurouni Kenshin television series, or the Trust & Betrayal—Director's Cut OVA. The first time I watched it was my first experience with Samurai X, and I enjoyed it far more than a subsequent viewing after having seen Trust & Betrayal. Seen in isolation, Reflection offers a satisfying non-linear narrative and elegiac tone. It tosses the viewer into the middle of an unknown world and allows the characters' complex relationships to come slowly into focus. But viewed in its proper context as the final chapter of the sad adventures of Tokugawa-era samurai assassin Rurouni Kenshin, it becomes derivative and redundant, even if the Reflection subtitle tells you the piece is built on thematic repetition.
Facts of the Case
This director's cut of Reflection expands the original 85-minute OVA into a 98-minute feature. The story begins in Meiji 26 (1893), well into Japan's restoration of imperial rule and modernization/Westernization after the Tokugawa era. Kenshin's second wife, Kaoru, waits daily at a harbor for his return from war, as he makes his way home to her aboard a ship tossed by a violent sea. Both are diseased and dying. Their 15-year-old son Kenji, alienated by Kenshin's absence during his never-ending quest for redemption from the sins of his past, has left home and mother to study swordfighting in the hope of someday eclipsing his father's legend. From this point of departure, the story moves back and forth in time, slowly revealing Kenshin's murderous past, and his inability to undo the wrongs he has done to others. Though the samurai class is largely decimated, replaced by a modern army, we see him 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). And 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 murder of his first wife, Tomoe.
Reflection is essentially a history of Kenshin's leaving Kaoru, over and over, driven by his need for inner peace and atonement. 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. Two central episodes 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, Tomoe's brother, Enishi, steals away with Kaoru in order to draw Kenshin out so he can take revenge for his sister's death. We catch flashback glimpses of Kenshin's history with Tomoe and its similarity to his love for Kaoru. It's revealed how he received the X-shaped scar on his cheek, an outward sign of his sins, and how he came to kill his own wife. 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.
Reflection's animation is artful and well-executed. This DVD renders it beautifully in an anamorphically enhanced transfer framed at 1.78:1. Colors are solid and accurate, and potential problem areas like fog and mist are subtle, detailed, and free of artifacts. This director's cut incorporates footage from the previous Samurai X OVAs in order to better place the film's events in context. That material is of a slightly lower quality than the animation produced for the original cut of Reflection, but the difference isn't enough to grate. Aesthetically, Reflection is visually lean, relying on stylish shot compositions and fight choreography rather than over-the-top action and violence. It could easily have been filmed as a thoughtful live-action drama in the mold of Yoji Yamada's recent Twilight Samurai. My only complaint about its visual presentation is in the area of character design, and it's one that comes into sharp focus when viewing Reflection in context with Trust & Betrayal: Kenshin, Kaoru, and most of the rest of the characters look like twentysomethings, which flies in the face of the characterization of Kenshin as a weary, broken warrior wrestling with a long history of violence.
The disc offers two audio options. The default is an English dub presented in Dolby 5.1 surround. The alternate option is a stereo presentation of the original Japanese track, subtitled in English. Both are excellent, though the English track is superior in terms of depth and subtlety. Despite the dub's superiority, and the fact that dubs are less objectionable in animated features, I can't adjust to hearing samurai speak in unbroken English. I favor the original Japanese track. But whatever your personal tastes, there's no reason to complain about the audio options offered on the disc.
The DVD's satisfying array of extras include a feature-length commentary by three of the English-language voice actors; a plethora of interviews with the Japanese vocal cast; the opening and closing animation sequences sans distracting credits; production sketches; and previews to a half-dozen other ADV anime releases, including the director's cut of Trust & Betrayal.
Viewed on its own, Samurai X: Reflection—Director's Cut is a narratively difficult but oddly satisfying tale of woe. Its story of a once-celebrated samurai's fading away during the Meiji Restoration is sure to please anyone with a passing knowledge of 19th-century Japan. Unfortunately, the more you know of Rurouni Kenshin's backstory, the less compelling Reflection becomes. There's a joy in the hazy gaps in the picture's narrative that gets stripped away by knowledge of the events that proceeded it, reducing Reflection to a cursory, redundant wrap-up.
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