Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal
Blu-Ray - Limited Edition
A convoy of slave-traders is attacked by bandits. A sole boy slave survives, saved by a passing swordsman. The swordsman, master of the Hiten Mitsurugi school, takes the boy as an apprentice and renames him Kenshin. After years of training he leaves his master, convinced that the only way to uphold the school's pledge to help the helpless is to join the revolution poised to upend Japan's old order . Before long the Bakumatsu is nearing its end and the boy has become a hardened killer, feared far and wide as the Hitokiri Battousai. Amidst the turmoil and death he meets Tomoe, a beautiful but sad woman, and begins the process that will eventually forge him, through blood and betrayal, into a man of peace.
The characters are embroiled in a very complicated slice of Japanese history and their story doesn't lack for twists and schemes and double-crosses, but ultimately Trust & Betrayal is elemental in its simplicity: the tale of a man, and a woman, redeemed by love. It begins with Kenshin's path, following him as he goes from innocent child to stony murderer. It's a brutal, elegiac action series at this point, with a strong historical component and a pronounced flavor of sad retrospection. When Tomoe arrives, the show turns further inwards. We begin to sense the internal damage wreaked by Kenshin's life of killing; we see his subtle softening under Tomoe's influence. The bloodletting ceases completely as the two spend an idyll living as man and wife, farming and growing close. It's the kind of idyll that can only end badly, and when the other shoe drops it does so with terrible power and cruel irony, propelling the show through a cunning, sadistic scheme to its tragedian's conclusion.
That may sound complicated, but it is executed with such clarity, economy and intelligence that the progression of events feels nothing less than inevitable. There is no extraneous or wasted movement in its plot; everything has its meaning and its role, from the stubborn guard Kenshin dispatches without so much as flinching in the opening moments to the journal Tomoe keeps throughout. As finely fashioned as it is, it's impossible not to see what's coming; the OVA never explains itself, but it never hides or obfuscates either. It unfolds with the sad, resigned fatalism of a Greek tragedy, and something of their minimalism as well. Which only makes the blows, when they come, hurt that much more.
The contributions of original mangaka Nobuhiro Watsuki and lead writer Masashi Sogo should be acknowledged, Watsuki for providing the structure and characters and Sogo for his restrained script, so much closer to that of a period film than a Shonen Jump title (which this is). That said, this is all Kazuhiro Furuhashi's show. Furuhashi comes from a generation of anime directors whose vision owed as much to the wider world of film as to the insular worlds of manga and anime. There's a reason why directors like Hideaki Anno and Mamoru Oshii eventually gravitated towards live-action. Like them, Furuhashi draws upon a broader range of cinematic tools than is common in anime.
The first episode takes a page from the art-cinema playbook, fragmenting chronology so that we get a subjective view of Kenshin's past—more a kaleidoscope of fragmented memories than a straightforward narrative. Things get more linear when the OVA settles into Kenshin's present and then pauses for an episode to soak in the transformative beauty of his fragile rural idyll with Tomoe. The final episode is all stark beauty and beautiful brutality, a physical journey made spiritual by snow-blinded settings and bold symbolism. Disquieting, discontinuous editing and an immense love of natural beauty unify the different stages, while a smorgasbord of formal tricks—inventively composed POV shots, recurring motifs (crosses, reflections in eyes)—allow Furuhashi to pack a lot of meaning into a relatively small space.
The result is a rich, often stunningly beautiful work. Furuhashi is a skilled technician. His action scenes are among the best: lighting bursts of tightly choreographed violence that result in disturbingly beautiful tableaux of blood and bodies. He makes clever use of his medium's limitations, matching the limited emotional range of animated designs with the emotional reserve of his damaged characters. His usage of Taku Iwasaki's perfectly-matched orchestral score is powerful and perceptive. But still, his greatest weapon is his knowledge of film language and willingness to take risks with it. That's what allows him to pull off Trust & Betrayal's emotional and narrative calisthenics without them feeling crowded or forced or manipulative, and what makes rewatching the series such a pleasure.
If there is a warning to be sounded, it's that Trust & Betrayal is indeed a prequel. It is made with the franchise's fans in mind. A glimpse in a bloody alleyway of the man who will become Kenshin's most dangerous enemy, the origin of the two strokes of his signature cross-shaped scar, the dance of almost-meetings with the policeman who will one day be his dark reflection—all are aimed squarely at the faithful. The extent to which the events of the OVA change Kenshin won't be fully apparent unless you've at least seen the television series, and the importance of a good many details, including Tomoe's brother and an assassin shown barely escaping Kenshin, won't be apparent unless you've actually read Watsuki's original manga. Coupled with the historic specificity of many of the events (if you don't at least know what the Meiji Restoration is, you may want to read up), that can make parts of the OVA confusing to new fans.
And that's it. That's the worst you can say about it. And even that has its caveats. The heart of the series—Kenshin and Tomoe's mutual redemption—is entirely self-contained, and Furuhashi does such an efficient job of establishing character that no prior knowledge is necessary to receive the bulk of the series' impact. Plus, not knowing has its own advantages, as any horror fan can tell you. The same principle that says that a monster left to one's imagination is better than one shown can hold true for artfully implied back-stories as well. Fans may gain something by being fans, but they lose something too.
Aniplex of America's Blu-ray re-release includes ADV's English dub, produced when the now defunct company released the OVA back in 2000. It is sufficient to its purpose but is also somewhat flat and self-conscious. It makes a game attempt to replicate the reticence of the Japanese version, but tends to come across merely as emotionless. Its effect is minimal given the overpowering quality of the series, but it is felt.
Also felt is the loss of the ADV version's historical notes and character intros. They were very useful to Kenshin neophytes, but one assumes were deemed useless to Japanese fans, at whom this disc is at least partially aimed. How do you know that? Well, the Japanese-only booklet might be a tip-off. There is a translation, but it's in a separate booklet. Flipping between the two (the Japanese for the pictures, the English for the text) is pretty annoying. If you already have ADV's original releases you may want to stick with them. Even with its snappy new transfer, the disc's price tag ($82) is pretty daunting. If you haven't seen it, though, this is one series where a premium price is justified. If you can afford it, then get it. Simple as that.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Stirring, devastating, smart, redemptive; pure perfection.
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