"Samurai X": Trust That This Disc Won’t Betray You
Most of the people reading this have seen the television series Rurouni Kenshin on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block sometime in the past two years. The series was about a wandering swordsman, atoning for his past. Once known as the Hitokiri Battousai, Kenshin Himura has vowed not to kill in order to allow himself peace after becoming the hero of the Imperialists. This movie, which goes under the name Samurai X due to a whole bunch of boring legal mumbo-jumbo, details exactly how Kenshin Himura came to be, and how he eventually turned into the Hitokiri Battousai.
While traveling with a bunch of slave traders in the late 1800’s, a young boy named Shinta is forced to watch as a group of bandits massacre what he would call his family. Before he himself is killed, a powerful swordsman named Seijuro Hiko arrives and saves the child. Impressed by the young lad’s integrity, he adopts Shinta, renaming him Kenshin, and starts to teach him in the ways of the Hiten Mitsurugi style of swordsmanship. Seven years later, the Bakamatsu Revolution, whose intent is toppling the Tokugawa Dynasty, is raging on across Japan. Feeling helpless, Kenshin deserts his master so he can use his skills to help people. Eventually joining the rebels as an assassin, Kenshin assumes quite a reputation, quickly becoming the rebel’s best weapon and gaining the eye of Hajime Saito and the rest of the Shinsengumi. However, all the killing is slowly tearing away Kenshin’s humanity, which leads to a fateful night when a bodyguard to a politician slices a scar across Kenshin’s left cheek. The strange part is, the scar refuses to heal. Later, Kenshin comes upon a young woman named Tomoe, who witnesses one of his killings. Instead of doing away with her, Kenshin takes her to a hotel to stay. Eventually the two become very close and fall in love with each other. Then the rebellion turns sour. Katsura, the head of the Imperialists, tells Kenshin and Tomoe to leave the area and hide out as a married couple. The two do exactly what they are told, but Kenshin is still gloom-ridden, as his scar refuses to heal, even after a year. To make matters worse, there is a traitor among the Imperialists, one who is about to make Kenshin’s life that much harder.
Instead of the happy comedy/action present in the television series, this movie is pure drama with a bit of action on the side. Kenshin smiles only a couple times in the whole thing and the super-exaggerated poses are not present at all. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. The movie presents a very interesting tale and a very realistic representation of Kenshin’s world (contrary to the television series and manga, which leaves realism behind with the Kyoto Arc), and it actually works. You feel for Kenshin as he loses everything he values and becomes a mindless killing machine instead of the loveable “that he is” wanderer. You even worry about Tomoe, especially after her secret is revealed. Plus, seeing Saito, Hiko, and even Shishio as they were during the Revolution is an added treat. The action is fast and furious when needed, but there’s lots of blood. Certainly much, much more than the series. Most of Kenshin’s battles end up with at least one to two gallons of blood being spilled on the ground. There’s also a heavy gore factor, as people are stabbed through the neck, swords are twisted through the chest, and other such nasty stuff. Those who can’t handle series like Helsingor Princess Mononoke should likely stay away.
Even though it’s obvious by the cover art, I should point out that this movie does not use the same character designs that Nobuhiro Watsuki uses in his original manga. Instead, we get a more dramatic set of designs that makes these characters seem more real. It’s much better used here than in Reflections, where the characters just seem creepy. The movie also takes some real-life shots and inserts them in the story, so flowing rivers and candle fires are all filmed with a camera and Photoshopped in. It’s a bit distracting during the first watch, but eventually it blends in nicely with the rest of the animation. Actual animation is dark and fluid. The sword fights don’t have a fantasy flair to them, so they are very grounded, which suits the movie quite well. The backgrounds are quite detailed and are simply gorgeous.
Different story on the audio front. The English dub desperately tries to mimic the television series’ dub as best they can, but for the most part, they fail the test. J. Shanon Weaver’s Kenshin just isn’t nearly as memorable as Richard Hayworth’s, and he often feels a bit flat. Ken Webster actually does a pretty good impression of Kirk Thornton’s Saito, and is easily the best voice in the dub. Rebecca Davis gives Tomoe her best try, but she doesn’t quite reach the same level as the BangZoom group. The Japanese voices are a bit better, but nothing truly standout. Music in this series is very sparse, but still pretty good. It perfectly sets the atmosphere for what it to happen and enhances the action a lot, but it’s not quite good enough that it makes me want to go out and buy the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, ADV didn’t feel it necessary to put special features worthy of this masterpiece, so we basically get screwed in the extras front. There’s a reversible cover with the proper Rurouni Kenshin title if you hate the Samurai X name, as well as a bunch of trailers. That’s it. No commentary, no featurettes, no interviews, nothing. A shame, if you ask me. Maybe when ADV puts this in its “Essential Anime Collection” we’ll get something.
If you are a fan of swordfights, historical epics, or romantic dramas, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal is just for you. Fans who enjoy the sillier aspects of Rurouni Kenshin should probably rent it first. If only the other two Samurai X titles were this good…