Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 31st 2011
Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection
Blu-ray Limited Edition
Years have passed since Kenshin Himura laid down his sword and married his long-time sweetheart Kaoru. Most of those who knew them best have since passed from their lives. Kenshin has spent the intervening years tending to the poor and sick with skills other than the sword. It has taken its toll. Their son Kenji has been alienated, studying swordsmanship under Kenshin's old master, and disease is ravaging both their bodies. As Kaoru waits for Kenshin to return one last time, she remembers their life together, trusting that they will be reunited before the last curtain falls on her husband's quest for redemption.
Reflection is Kazuhiro Furuhashi's elegy to Rurouni Kenshin. It's a sad farewell to a long-running franchise, as well as a very final conclusion. It's also quite unfaithful at times, particularly to the tone of the original, and even more damningly, to its characters.
In many ways, Reflection attempts to do for Kenshin's ending what Trust & Betrayal did for its Remembrance arc. Like Trust & Betrayal it moves the focus away from action and onto the characters' emotions. Like Trust & Betrayal it completely excises the original's sense of humor. Like Trust & Betrayal it pares away the more excessive trappings, tones down the martial arts, and generally opts for something a lot closer to reality. Like Trust & Betrayal it is entirely more serious, sober, and sad. Unlike Trust & Betrayal, though, Reflection does not and cannot stand alone. It does not tell a story so much as sum up and conclude an already running one. And that means that the new tone feels a lot less natural. After all, the story it is concluding does have a sense of humor, is action-oriented, and has all of those excessive trappings, outlandish fights, and detours from reality.
Because it's a summation, Reflection also lacks the drive and focus of Trust & Betrayal. It tells Kenshin's post-Bakumatsu story through the fragmented memories of Kaoru and, to a lesser extent, Sanosuke and Yahiko. It's a collection of vignettes: dissociated flashbacks that will mean very little to anyone who hasn't seen Kenshin's television incarnation or read Nobuhiro Watsuki's original manga. The OVA is divided into two parts, each 45 minutes in length. The first of them is entirely consumed by the collage of memories, and thus neither forward-moving nor accessible to outsiders. The second is something of a different matter. It focuses extensively on the manga's never-before-animated Jinchu arc, during which Kenshin earns his forgiveness for the events of Trust & Betrayal, before heading into a wholly original (as in, not based on the manga) epilogue to his story. It finds in the two the cohesion and forward momentum that the first episode lacked, eventually sailing gracefully to the series', and the franchise's, heartbreaking conclusion.
For fans, such drawbacks won't matter. After all, fans will know every character and event alluded to in those opening shards of memory; they can appreciate their import and share fully in the melancholy of Kaoru, Yahiko and Sanosuke's retrospection. Seeing, even if only in passing, their futures and the futures of Kenshin, Tsubame, Megumi and others will be wonderfully fulfilling, and the final episode's final moments will hit like a ton of sweetly sad bricks. Who cares if it isn't cohesive or driven? Elegies aren't supposed to be. Who cares if it isn't self-contained? Elegies aren't meant for strangers; they're meant for friends. For fans.
What will matter to fans are the changes Reflection makes. Unlike Trust & Betrayal, Reflection isn't an unmitigated improvement upon the original. Its simplification of the Jinchu arc results in some odd inconsistencies, including Enishi's frankly dumb motivation for keeping Kaoru alive and a denouement that hinges on Kenshin acting in direct contradiction to his just-stated philosophy.
The real damage, though, is done to Kaoru. The series hasn't always been kind to Kaoru—she tends to get kidnapped a lot—but in general she has been a powerful, strong-willed woman. This is the girl who assaulted Kenshin the first time they met, who trained Yahiko in the sword and fought the Ten Swords when Kenshin was away. Some of that spunk comes across in the flashbacks, but by the epilogue she has been reduced to another of those nobly self-sacrificing samurai women whose only real skill is waiting patiently for her man to come home. Bah. The Kaoru of the series proper wouldn't wait. She'd go out and fight with him. Or drag him back.
Visually, there's only one word for Reflection: beautiful. Akira Matsushima's designs are simple yet sensitive, attractive and yet capable of a great range of emotions when coupled with Furuhashi's meticulous animation. Studio Deen's backgrounds are wonderful, filled with period detail and vast natural beauty. The obvious size of the series' budget allows characters, objects and settings alike a full range of motion, which the series often uses in quiet, subtle ways: the motion of water in a high-seas storm, for instance, or hair in the wind or the paths of cherry petals as they fall from the trees. Action scenes are rarer and even briefer than they were in Trust & Betrayal, but show the same instinctive eye for human motion and the dance of blade and fist. They are beautiful, economical little gems: fluid, carefully choreographed, and exhilarating. You can almost taste the joy of the animators as they indulge their craft to its fullest. In terms of pure technical prowess, Reflection is superior even to Trust & Betrayal.
What it lacks is its predecessor's cinematic complexity. The interplay of story and execution isn't nearly as complex or purposeful as it was in the earlier OVA, a reflection itself of Reflection's less cohesive nature. There is real purpose in the series' preference for bright daylight and lively, westernized environs—the vitality and openness of the new Meiji era comes across effortlessly, and in stark contrast to the bleak, confined world of the Bakumatsu—but that's about as far as it goes. Despite its complicated flashback structure, Reflection is an essentially straightforward enterprise: a long, stylized clip show that eventually segues into a conclusion. There's no need for symbols in that. Or foreshadowing, cinematic signals, or allegorical forests for that matter.
If you're familiar with Aniplex of America's Trust & Betrayal Blu-ray, then you're basically familiar with this one. The packaging is the same, and it has a similar booklet—once again in Japanese with a separate booklet for the English translation. As before, the booklet is built around character bios, plot synopses, and a good-sized interview. The interview, with producer Keiichi Matsuda and Blu-ray authorer Mitsuaki Usuki, is about the new video transfer—which by the way is fantastic. Also included is ADV's dub, which once more does its job and not much of anything else. As with Trust & Betrayal before it, it comes across rather flat, particularly where the female cast is concerned. A real waste considering the effort put into the script's old-fashioned dialogue. There're also some embarrassing flubs with the names and terminology, including one where Tsubame refers to Kaoru as Yahiko. Oopsie.
At seventy bucks, Reflection is cheaper than Trust & Betrayal, but its appeal is very much limited to Rurouni Kenshin fans. If you happen to be one of them, though, you'll be hard pressed to find a better capstone for your collection. The series has never looked better, and even with its flaws, the franchise couldn't ask for a finer swan song. Speaking of swan songs, the show has never sounded better either. Taku Iwasaki's lovely, lush score is as crisp as the day it sprang from the orchestra.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
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