Rurouni Kenshin OAV vol. 1 + 2

rkoav1coverJapan in the Meiji revolution was a bleak and violent time (at least I figure it was – I get all my history from cartoons). Murder and slavery were common, both to the corrupt Tokugawa shogunate and the equally murderous revolutionaries. It’s difficult to tell who or what constitutes a hero in this time, and whether or not that word has any real meaning in
its world. Rurouni Kenshin: Remembrance (I think that’s the title, that is what they call it at the end of the show) is a brutal, heartrending story told in this backdrop of the origins of everybody’s favorite oro-ing swordsman, Kenshin Himura.

This pair of discs, sold under the title of Samurai X, follows the life of Kenshin during his tenure as an assassin for the revolutionaries. The four episodes tell a single story, leading up to the end of the revolution. The brutality and graphic violence of this
show are far removed from the more (for lack of a better term) cartoonish fighting that goes on in the TV show, and the humorous and good-natured wanderer is here a sullen and vengeful young man. Kenshin is first seen as a young boy in a train of slaves, about to be murdered by bandits when he is saved by his eventual sword master. Eventually, Kenshin runs from his master to join a faction of revolutionaries where he works as a political assassin, killing men he’s told deserve to die. After a night’s murder he finds and takes home Tomoe, a beautiful woman who has a personal reason for finding Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin is a darkly beautiful work of anime. Behind its brutal, though never quite grotesque, violence lies a story of deep sadness and unhappy circumstance, where the humor and good feelings of the RK TV show could never be born. The animation is often gorgeous, and always realistic (occasionally there are cheats, such as a real film of water interspersed with animation. It isn’t too egregious, but it stands out a bit too much). Fights are brief but gorgeously choreographed. They are also shot interestingly – the show often takes no perspective on the fights. It doesn’t put us squarely in anyone’s point of view. This keeps us from wholly identifying with Kenshin so that we can see his actions outside of his thin justifications: Kenshin for us is a murderer.

The story is equally complexly choreographed. The first episode moves in ellipses, telling the story of Kenshin’s past interspersed with where this past has led him. The next two episodes are equally well-balanced, contrasting the slow life of Tomoe in Kenshin’s inn with the hard and fast-paced assassinations, culminating in the breathtaking burning of Kyoto. The final pair of episodes move slowly and meditatively, giving insight into how all the violence affects not only the victims, but the perpetrators as well.

Rurouni Kenshin has some of the finest direction of any OAV I’ve seen – Kazuhiro Furuhashi (You’re Under Arrest, Ranma ½, RK TV) has created a true piece of filmic art. Visual metaphors slide by on the screen, never interfering with the action but deepening
our sense of a hellish world. Nature surrounds the characters at once delicately and threateningly, as if Kenshin’s actions are fighting against his spirit, wreaking havoc on his own nature.
Water and snow signify the return of old memories, and help all of the show flow together into a coherent, beautiful whole.

Even more impressive are how the actions are motivated – characters’ philosophies, not baser emotions, guide their actions. It is here where the much-maligned dub of this show really works for me. The philosophy and intellectual (though never TOO heady) conversations read unimpressively in the sub, but in the dub they are rendered poetically and effectively. It is one of the most well-written dubs I’ve heard in a long time, which makes the mistakes taken in direction all the more frustrating. There are mispronunciations of names and some flat acting that really put a damper on things. Luckily, Kenshin is fine, and by the third episode (out of four? That’s not a great batting average) Tomoe is equally interesting.

This is a brilliant show. It is directed elegantly, and has the intelligence and style to overcome misgivings one may have over the heavily violent content. There are moments of stunning beauty and sadness in Rurouni Kenshin: Remembrance, and even if you don’t like the RK TV show, this will be more than worth your while. And if you do know the goofy Oro-ing Kenshin from the TV show, this is a revealing and heartbreaking look at what the man was like before he was good. This is the sort of show that makes one an anime fan.
Rating: A

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