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Anime Reviews: Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen


Slick and stylish, Tsuiokuhen is a timeless samurai drama with intense action and a moving storyline, even if it feels a bit cold and distant at times.

Title: Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen a.k.a. Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal a.k.a. Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal a.k.a. Rurouni Kenshin: Reminiscence
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Production: Studio DEEN
Series Length: 4 OVA
Air Dates: 2/20/1999 to 11/22/1999
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, brief suggestive content)

Summary: Near the end of Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate, bandits roam the countryside like locusts, preying on anyone they come across. One such group launches a raid on a party of travelers before a wandering swordsman, Seijuro Hiko, lays waste to the bandits with his powerful Hiten-Mitsurugi sword techniques. Of the travelers, only a young boy, Shinta, is left alive after the bandit raid. When Seijuro returns the next day to bury the dead, he finds Shinta has already done so, and as part of his penance, he gives the boy a new name, "Kenshin," a name befitting a swordsman, as he also takes the boy in as his pupil. The Hiten-Mitsurugi philosophy Kenshin learns instills within him a strong sense of justice and a desire to protect the innocent, and when Kenshin becomes a young man, he leaves his master and his training behind to head to Kyoto--to protect and serve the common man with his sword.

The Good: Hand-drawn animation still looks great; excellent score; timeless story and characters
The Bad: Breakneck pace causes story to jump around; characters feel a little subdued at times; out-of-place live-action effects; lousy English dub
The Ugly: The deaths can be a bit gruesome for some viewers

Confession Time: I've never finished the original Rurouni Kenshin anime. It looked cool and all, and I tried watching it several times, but the slapstick humor and bright art style seemed at odds with its setting and dramatic tone, and I always just ended up dropping it. But Tsuiokuhen hits the spot perfectly, and it really feels like what the TV series should have had more of. Because at the present the TV series is a bit too long for me to cover, consider this review to also be a review of the TV series' high points. And with that said, let's get rollin', shall we?

To start off, I gotta mention that Tsuiokuhen is one of the last great anime of the hand-drawn era, so, by itself, that already sets it apart in terms of visual style, but with smooth animation, gritty set pieces, and a masterful use of color, this OVA is a treat for the eyes. The use of light and shadow also works exceptionally well, creating a stark contrast between the more peaceful scenes and the gruesome nighttime assassinations. The action scenes are likewise very stylish and done with dramatic flair, but there is a strobing effect during the action (likely to make it feel more kinetic and sense-defying) and the director likes to use it far too much, so if you're prone to fits of epilepsy, you have been warned. That said, for everyone else, this is a wonderful film to look at.

Next on our list, we have the soundtrack to discuss. Written by Taku Iwasaki, who would later go on to write great music for Witch Hunter Robin, Now and Then, Here and There, and Gurren Lagann, the soundtrack to Tsuiokuhen is likewise full of greatness. Right from the get-go, we get the titanic behemoth known as "In Memories, a Boy Meets the Man," which is just a stunningly beautiful orchestral piece with a hint of medieval Japanese flair, and several of its melodies are peppered throughout the rest of the score. Other standout tracks include the eerie "Blood," the intense yet stately "The Wars of the Last Wolves," the somber "The Will," and the sinister and unsettling "Shades of Revolution." All in all, a fan-freakin'-tastic soundtrack from a great composer.

As far as the story goes, it's definitely a classic, although the title ADV gave the OVA is a little spoiler-y ("Trust and Betrayal"? Gee, I wonder what will happen...). Whether you're a fan of samurai drama or you've never seen one in your entire life, Tsuiokuhen delivers a gripping, powerful, and moving plotline that is sure to please the veterans' lust for historical detail without alienating the newbies. Being a work of historical fiction, it's also a lot of fun to dig through the actual history and see how the series played with the details to make the story work--figuring out who some of the characters' real-life equivalents are is a bit of good fun, if I do say so. Best of all, if you're not familiar with the Rurouni Kenshin franchise and aren't planning on digging deeper into it, the ending just becomes exponentially more awesome, as you can draw your own conclusions as to what happens; it's not an ambiguous say-nothing ending, don't get me wrong, but it can be up to you to say what happens to Kenshin in the end.

And it's a thought experiment worth thinking about, because Kenshin is a complex and interesting person--brought up pure and innocent, yet forced to kill at such an early age, this conflict of morals and divided personality makes him a compelling protagonist. Our other main character is Tomoe, a very taciturn and mysterious young woman whose fiancé was killed by Kenshin (though it seems she doesn't know that), causing her to drift to Kyoto looking for work. Though they get less screentime, we also meet other interesting characters like Katsura, Kenshin's boss and leader of the Choshu clan, Iizuka, Kenshin's handler and Katsura's information gatherer, Enishi, Tomoe's earnest and hot-blooded younger brother, and Okita, a wayward and childlike swordsman working for the Shinsengumi. There are other, much smaller characters whose names escape me, but they help further paint a lavish and vibrant picture of Tokugawa-era Japan, and not a single one of them feels like a waste or an extra. In short, if you're looking for some narrative meat to go with the OVA's buckets of style, you'll most definitely find it.

But now, there are a lot of little nitpick-y problems I have with Tsuiokuhen, and so the time has come to talk about them. First of all, this OVA moves at a very fast pace, which is good because there's a lot to cover and it keeps the audience's attention, but it comes at the cost of huge, lurching jumps in the story that make it feel a little disjointed. Heck, the burning of Kyoto is reduced to a text crawl before leaping ahead several months, just so we can get to the next main point in the story. I'm not saying this OVA should've been four hours long (that would be nice), but there are some things you just can't handwave away!

Secondly, this is kind of a nitpick I have with Japanese historical works as a whole, but the strict customs of the times our characters must adhere to makes them feel very subdued and flat at some points. Even other great films like Princess Mononoke fall prey to this. I understand that they're going for accuracy here, but it puts a damper on our characters' interesting traits every time they have to behave like inflexible statues simply because their society demands it. Stupid medieval Japanese cultural standards.

Thirdly, there is one visual aspect of the film that just plain doesn't work: the superimposed live-action. To give an example of what I'm talking about, there's a scene where a bunch of samurai are sitting around a fire, talking about their next move. Then the shot cuts to the forest entrance with the fire pit in the forefront, where several others are running towards them saying they've got news, but in this shot, the fire is actual footage of real fire, laid on top of the animation cels. Studio DEEN does the same thing with water at several points, and near the end of the film(?), footage of live-action swords clashing is used. Every time they do this, it just makes that scene look bad and cheap, like, what, you couldn't just animate a still pond or a low flame? Just stupid.

And finally, you all know me. I love dubs. If a dub is even passable, I'll watch it over the original Japanese version, pretty much guaranteed. Tsuiokuhen does not have a passable dub. The acting itself is okay, I guess, but names are mispronounced like crazy and many important lines are drastically altered for seemingly no reason (and remove much of their subtlety). So if you're a dub hound like me, you'll be horribly disappointed with this particular dub. I guess it's for the better, though, as a samurai drama really should be seen in its original language anyway, but having a competent English option would've been nice, too.

But hey, like I said, those are all just small little problems in an otherwise great anime, and should in no way deter you from checking it out if you're huntin' for a quality samurai drama. Tsuiokuhen boasts enough style and substance to more than make up for its minor shortcomings, and if this OVA even remotely sounds interesting to you, I can guarantee that you're in for a good time should you decide to check it out.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen is an intense and gripping samurai drama that delivers slick animation, a powerful score, and a timeless tale of love, war, trust, and betrayal that will surely please any anime fan who longs for such a title.

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