Reviewby Mike Crandol,
Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal
Director's Cut DVD
The amazing prequel series to Rurouni Kenshin is collected into a feature-length motion picture enhanced with new animated sequences. Desiring to bring peace to the land, Kenshin disobeys the will of his master and joins the Chosu clan in the fight against the Shogunate. The gentle Kenshin soon becomes drenched in blood as the Hitokiri Battousai, the rebellion's most feared assassin. While all-out war between the Chosu and the Shinsengumi looms on the horizon, Kenshin meets a mysterious young girl whose fate is intertwined with his. The beautiful Tomoe redeems Kenshin's soul but at a terrible price. Before the revolution is over, Kenshin will learn more than he bargained for about love and sacrifice, get his distinctive x-shaped scar, and cross swords for the first time with Saito Hajime.
Known in America as Samurai X, the four-episode OVA prequel to Rurouni Kenshin is widely acknowledged as one of anime's crowning achievements. A gripping story heavily rooted in historical fact, the episodes feature dynamic characters, incredible animation, and an impressive musical score; the 1999 direct-to-video series has a noble theatrical quality often likened to Akira Kurosawa's cinematic masterpieces. Simply put, it deserved to be made as a movie. Eventually the four episodes were cut together, supplemented with new animation, and released theatrically in Japan as “Rurouni Kenshin: Reminiscence.” It makes its US debut on DVD as “Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal Director's Cut,” but short of seeing this in a theater, there is little reason for American fans to pick up this version over the OVAs.
In any incarnation the sheer brilliance of the production is obvious. Set ten years before the events of the Rurouni Kenshin television series, it trades up the cartoonish look and tone of its forerunner for harsh, uncompromising, realistic tragedy. The stylistic gap between the two series is immense; yet there is no feeling of inconsistency, as viewers of the TV series already know Kenshin's past was dark and violent. Not only does the prequel perfectly illuminate the history of an established protagonist, it is a fascinating and emotional character study in its own right. Kenshin goes from an idealistic youth to a cold-hearted killer, only to be redeemed through love lost and the realization that swinging his sword is destroying his own life as well as the lives of the people on the receiving end. His journey is at once tragic, uplifting, and totally convincing.
And the sword fights kick ass. Terribly bloody, they do not glamorize violence and portray the horror of warfare and murder for what it is. Yet they are beautiful works of art nonetheless. Fully-animated with an attention to detail to rival Disney, such a level of realism is seldom attained in animation. The gorgeous animation fuses with the equally beautiful storytelling in one of the few truly unforgettable anime viewing experiences.
But the new “director's cut” footage is a different story. The sequences made for the theatrical version are few and fleeting; most consist merely of an extra line of dialogue tacked onto a scene or an extra sword thrust in battle. Casual viewers of the OVA version will probably not notice any of them, and most will slip by even seasoned Kenshin fans. There are only two noteworthy additions. Kenshin's first fight against a member of the Shinsengumi has been fleshed out quite a bit; it is of course beautifully animated and adds even more power to an already dramatic scene. But an addendum to the closing moments of the film is less successful. Impressive as it is, Kenshin's lone charge over a heavily fortified bridge comes well past the emotional climax of the picture and slows down the ending. The new sequences are an exciting prospect, but much like the special editions of Star Wars or Beauty & the Beast they are ultimately extraneous. It's hard to improve upon perfection.
There are a few omissions as well--some of them necessary, some of them not. The picture of course had to be cropped to a theatrical aspect ratio, which often results in the tops of character's heads being cut out of the picture. The four individual episodes flow together quite nicely as they are, and only one new bridging sequence was needed; however the dramatic music from the closing moments of the first episode has been lost. This is an unfortunate but acceptable sacrifice for continuity's sake, but there are several other inexplicable musical omissions throughout the film. Taku Iwasaki's original score for the OVAs is just amazing and lends the productions much of its emotional impact. In the theatrical cut the menacing Battousai theme which sets the stage for Kenshin's fatal attack on Kiyosato is gone; the scene is not nearly as effective sans music and will leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans familiar with the original version.
Both the original Japanese and English cast members return to dub what precious few new lines of dialogue their characters have. J. Shannon Weaver does a good job with Kenshin and actually sounds very similar to Richard Hayworth, who performs Kenshin in Media Blasters' dub of the TV show. But ADV's dub of Samurai X plays loose with the translation, and the meanings of some crucial lines of dialogue are blurred. For example, in the Japanese version Kenshin explains his final mission to kill as something he simply must do; in English he specifically implies it is an act of vengeance. As series followers know, the word revenge is not in Kenshin's vocabulary, and diehard fans should stick to the subtitled version.
For a “director's cut” release, the DVD itself is pretty bare-bones. The picture quality is good enough but extra features are nonexistent. Even the historical notes, which provide valuable background information on the era for us gaijin, have been left off of this release. Just one more reason for fans to spend the extra money on picking up the two separate volumes of the OVA release versus the theatrical version.
Casual fans of Rurouni Kenshin, samurai action, or just plain good animation might as well save a few bucks and grab the Director's Cut. More serious devotees of Kenshin or specifically Samurai X will do better to pick up the individual installments of the OVA; you get the whole picture and all of that great music--much more valuable commodities than a few new snippets of animation. And if you already own the OVAs and just have to see the movie version. Trust me, a rental will do. Only the most anal-retentive fanboy need worry about owning both versions.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A+
+ one of the greatest OVA series of all-time gets the theatrical treatment; some cool new fight scenes
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