Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 2: Battle in the Moonlight) Review
The second disc of the sprawling Rurouni Kenshin saga contains significantly more exposition concerning the backgrounds of both our eponymous swordsman and the most recent addition to the cast (Zanza), following on well from the introductory episodes presented in the first volume. We witness Sanosuke join the gang full-time (after the obligatory showdown between him and Kenshin, naturally) and towards the end of this disc we also meet another future member of the team... Megumi. Fans keep telling me that the 'real action' of Rurouni Kenshin gets underway on disc 7, but I'm happy to report that this second volume certainly holds its own and has begun to seriously capture my interest. (The way I see it, if I'm already finding the show this engaging and enjoyable at this early stage, I can hardly wait for the later story arcs that people say are the show's high points.) In the meantime, it's good to see Kenshin and Co starting to work together... and it's always fun to watch superb fight scenes!
Before we turn to the episode summaries and a closer look at the disc itself, here's a little more background on the series. As it happens, the word 'rurouni' was in fact coined specifically for this series; the creator of the manga [Japanese comics] on which this animated version is based, Nobuhiro Watsuki, fused together the words 'ronin' [a masterless samurai] and 'ru' [floating, wandering]. The created word implies a wandering swordsman, which is exactly what our hero is. It's also worth noting that despite many people referring to Himura Kenshin as a samurai, this noble title specifically implies membership in the aristocracy and nowhere in the episodes is he actually referred to by anything other than 'swordsman' or 'manslayer'. (Of course, in the land of product packaging, anything is fair game... so Media Blasters appends 'Wandering Samurai' to the TV series' name, and the OAVs [original animated videos] released by ADV Films were retitled Samurai X in reference to the cross-shaped scar on Kenshin's left cheek.)
Speaking of Nobuhiro Watsuki, his manga ran from 1994 to 1999, originally published under the name Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan ('Tale of a Meiji-Era Swordsman') in Shonen Jump Comics. Eventually spanning 255 instalments - and later compiled into 28 volumes - the storyline found broad popularity not only amongst the traditional 'shounen' [male] market, but also achieved unexpected success with female readers, curious as they were where the nascent relationship between Himura and Kaoru would lead!
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
5: 'The Reversed-Blade Sword vs. the Zanbatou'
OK, we finally learn a little more about Zanza's past... in flashbacks, mostly. He was a child participant in the Sekihoutai, a vanguard army for the Imperialist troops which included many farmers. His master there was Captain Sagara, an idealistic supporter of the revolution and a man that the young Sanosuke (in the days before he picked up the Zanza nickname) idolised. However, when it became politically expedient to make them the scapegoats for the movement's unfulfilled promises (such as tax cuts), the Sekihoutai were double-crossed by the Imperialist army and massacred. Zanza was the sole survivor of the ensuing butchery – so we can see why he's not too fond of Imperialists.
Of course, history is generally re-written by those who have seized the reins of power, so it comes as little surprise that Kaoru and Yahiko have heard a completely different story regarding the Sekihoutai... and, convinced that Zanza was a member of a traitorous 'false army' justly executed by the Imperialists, the two of them dash off to try and stop the fight between him and Kenshin. When they arrive, the two men are already locked in combat, but pause long enough for Sanosuke to insult Kenshin and for Kenshin to explain to his friends the true account of what happened to his opponent's group.
However, the extermination of Kenshin is not proceeding fast enough for Gohei's liking - you'll recall that he was the one who hired Zanza in the first place - so he turns up with a pistol. And when Himura manages to deflect Gohei's potshot, the latter takes Kaoru and Yahiko hostage... an action so patently dishonourable that Sanosuke steps in to save them from his erstwhile employer. With this 'distraction' removed, Zanza and Kenshin wade into their duel... and it's only after a long and exciting battle that Zanza admits defeat and decides to join the gang so he can keep an eye on Kenshin, making sure he only fights to protect people in the future. He announces that his name is now Sanosuke Sagara, and the episode closes.
6: 'The Appearance of Kurogasa'
The Chief of Police comes to the Kamiya dojo, asking a favour from Kenshin. He wants our hero to help deal with a serial killer (Kurogasa) on the loose who has not only a penchant for murdering prominent Imperialist politicians, but also the audacity to name in advance the time he'll come to kill them.
Kenshin and Sanosuke agree to help, staking out the next victim along with a roomful of various mercenary bodyguards. When Kurogasa arrives, though, he not only displays truly awesome fighting ability but a special skill that permits him to immobilise his enemy - a style Kenshin recognises as belonging to a famous rogue manslayer, Jinei Udoh. Unsurprisingly, Jinei decides that the legendary Battousai is a much more interesting target than rich politicians... but over the course of a protracted fight, Jinei realises that the bloodlust has gone out of Himura and that he poses no challenge in his current form. Demanding that Kenshin regain the rage of his old assassin days, Jinei departs, promising they shall meet again.
We get to witness just how deep Kenshin's personal feelings of responsibility run, as he contemplates sacrificing himself so that the murders will cease. Unfortunately for him, Kaoru has no intention of letting him revert to Battousai and seeks him out... a scene witnessed by Kurogasa, who kidnaps her in the hope that this will be the final push Kenshin needs to become a manslayer once more.
7: 'Deathmatch Under the Moonlight'
Kurogasa holds Kaoru hostage and tells her how fearsome Kenshin was during the revolution. We learn that Jinei was once a member of the Shinsengumi, who in the end tried unsuccessfully to execute him for his rampant bloodthirstiness.
Although Kenshin has gone off alone to tackle Kurogasa alone, Yahiko and Sanosuke decide he needs their help and set off together to find him, but do not meet with much success. When Kenshin (looking palpably fiercer than normal and using a different tone of voice; gone now is the softness of expression to which we've grown accustomed) approaches the hut where Kaoru is being held, Jinei plays his final card... hitting Kaoru with a extra-strong strain of his paralysis attack, which prevents her from breathing properly and will thus asphyxiate her within minutes. He announces that the only way to break the spell is for him to be killed, or for Kaoru to somehow overcome the power of his will on her own.
The duel commences, and it's damn good fighting action. We not only learn of Battoujutsu (the style that gave Battousai his name), but we get to see it in action; Kenshin is wounded but in the end overpowers his opponent. Just as he is ready to deal the fatal blow, Kaoru manages to break free of Jinei's spell and shouts for Himura to stop, fearing that with even one more kill he might revert permanently to a manslayer again. Conveniently, the defeated Kurogasa kills himself rather than face arrest.
8: 'A New Battle'
Sanosuke and Kenshin are playing cho han [a dice game] with friends when the former learns that another of his friends has died from an opium overdose. Shortly afterwards a beautiful woman runs in asking for protection from the men chasing her; her name is Megumi and of course our heroes leap to her defence. Her pursuers state that they represent Kanryu Takeda (an upcoming entrepreneur of the criminal world), which fails to impress our lads. However, we also get to meet Beshimi - a more formidable opponent who is keeping an eye on Megumi for Kanryu – who attacks and is roundly defeated.
Megumi is taken to the dojo where she flirts outrageously with Kenshin, much to Kaoru's disgust. Meanwhile, Kanryu despatches Aoshi Shinomori and other key members of the Oniwaban (an elite group of ninjas apparently now in the employ of Kanryu) to retrieve his 'hen that lays the golden eggs' – Megumi. One of these ninjas is Hyottoko, a giant who can spit fire; he arrives at the dojo first and fights both Kenshin and Sanosuke before he is subdued.
Beshimi, spying on the action from a nearby tree, throws a few darts at Megumi... but Yahiko hurls himself into the line of fire and is poisoned in her stead. It is only at the very end of this episode that we begin to understand why Kanryu wants Megumi back so badly, as she evinces a strong understanding of both medical and medicinal lore in her attempt to save the wounded boy's life. Alas, this only seems to confirm Sanosuke's own unvoiced suspicions that she may have a connection to the opium that resulted in his friend's death.
The picture quality is again decent though flaws are still present. I noticed occasional instances of macroblocking, rainbowing and also some artifacting. None of this really affected my overall enjoyment of the transfer or of the show, but it's all present – luckily only in brief, rare bursts. The palette of Rurouni Kenshin continues to be a joy, running the gamut from soft, subtle background colours to blue-washed and reverse-colour scenes and through to richly-pigmented sequences. All of these work in different ways to enhance the viewing experience subtly.
I also noted a number of different modes of animation, moreso than on the first volume. Again we have the artistic, airbrushed stills which are a definite plus and are used perfectly to offset the high action of the series. Chibi [the deformed style that gives everyone childish expressions and faces] is used sparingly once more to heighten emotions or to add comedic moments. Making an entrance during some of the fight scenes on this disc are another couple of styles. The first imbues the show with a look straight out of Western superhero comics, with lots of jet-black backgrounds and vibrant colours on the characters themselves. The second style is akin to a photo-negative – with the reversal of colours bringing out changes in characters. (For example, when Kenshin gets very close to becoming a manslayer again, his colours suddenly reverse.) I really enjoyed how these different animation techniques enhance the story and characterisation and look forward to seeing more of them in future episodes.
One more thing I noticed this time around was the very clever use of focus and motion, with figures in the background drawn noticeably more blurry than when they're in the foreground. Especially in the fight sequences (of which there are many), there's some very subtle use of shadowing and blurring to make the action feel faster and more fluid. Of course, you can only really see this when watching frame by frame - what can I say, I was taking screenshots! - but they're enjoyable once you spot them nonetheless.
The audio quality here is fairly similar to that of the first volume. If the first two discs are anything to go by, this is going to remain a solid stereo mix with good audio directionality and left/right separation. One thing that was a modest improvement is the bass levels, which seem slightly punchier this time around during the extended fight sequences. Dialogue remains tight and crisp with no noticeable dropouts in either language, and this DVD continues the tradition established on the first volume of playing the OP/ED songs corresponding to whichever language you have selected at the time.
The Japanese dub will always be the one I choose by default, and is again full of solid performances and subtle nuances. The English dub is still acceptable and definitely one of the better ones I've heard recently, so don't get me wrong. Both sets of actors have been chosen really well and seem to relish their roles. The English translation continues to be fun to listen to, as it sounds very natural and each character really is developing his own spoken style.
However, I do like to watch animé in the original Japanese and - as I'm not exactly fluent! - this means I leave the subtitles on. Which brings us to a small problem that I feel needs to be mentioned... typos. I don't wish to belabour the point, but whoever prepared the subtitles for Rurouni Kenshin desperately needs to use a spell-checker. The odd one or two I can overlook, but there really were scads of them this time around (including a persistent misspelling of the word 'commander' which by its ubiquity almost convinced me the character's name was 'Comander'!). It's a shame the proofreading wasn't a little more robust, but at least in most cases I could work out what word was being misspelled.
The main menu is a little different from the first volume, mainly in that 'Scene Access' is now buried inexplicably under the 'Extras' sub-menu instead of being available immediately. No biggie, really. The menus are all static once again with nice pictures of Kenshin on each screen. It's all perfectly functional, if nothing to boast about. I do think it's a bit of a shame that the atmospheric music that played under the main menu on the first volume is absent here. There's something about the dead silence that just isn't as appealing to me.
Once again Media Blasters have furnished a disc with a nice solid set of extras. The real highlight continues to be the detailed linguistic liner notes, provided by Rika Takahashi and explaining some of the translation decisions she had to make. These notes really add a lot to our understanding of the history and culture that provides the backdrop for this animé series and without them I certainly wouldn't get quite as much out of it. In much the same way, the character profiles remain a useful addition to the DVD. This time around the profiles are of Aoshi Shinomori and Megumi Takani and though they have what appear to be mild spoilers in them (it's hard for me to tell as I haven't watched any further into the series yet) I don't think anything they do give away would come as a major surprise to viewers.
This time around we have a textless closing instead of the textless opening that was included on the first volume of the series. This, along with the decision not to rehash the character profiles of Kaoru, Kenshin, Yahiko and Sanosuke, indicate to me that Media Blasters were fairly sure that anyone buying this disc would already own volume 1... but with a long-running series like Rurouni Kenshin, this doesn't seem too much of a stretch. Besides, the profiles included on this disc fit perfectly with the newly introduced characters.
The art gallery on this DVD is much larger than that found on volume 1, containing 20 images; for the vast majority of the pictures there is also no framing or backgrounds (as we saw on the previous disc). The final feature of the extras is a section of out-takes from the recording sessions of the English voice actors. There are nine of these in total, and it's certainly an entertaining addition... even though some are a lot funnier than others.
The packaging continues very much in the same vein as the first volume, with key characters (in this case, Sanosuke, Himura, and Jinei) superimposed above a muted, vaguely-pastel colour scheme. There is still no numbering of any sort provided, so it's clear Kenshin fans are certain to become masters at recalling the individual volume titles if they wish to store their collection in order! Somewhat disappointingly, those typo problems which plagued the subtitles carry over to the text on the back of the Amaray case as well, but as you're probably not going to spend a lot of time reading it, it's a small drawback.
In other news, this second volume is the first to feature an insert, which ostensibly lists the various chapter breaks on the DVD. Unfortunately, the numbering on them is a little dodgy and should perhaps just be ignored. Hopefully this will improve in future instalments as it's nice to see the insert in there.
More characterisation, further exposition, additional history and better fight scenes – what more could one want in a second volume? (Hey, don't ask me.) Rurouni Kenshin continues to entertain and intrigue me. I like the characters and so far am enjoying the events they get themselves involved with and the ways they are being developed. I love the variety of animation styles being used and the mix of action, history and humour has kept my interest level high. However, I have yet to see the episodes that will bring me to really say I 'love' this animé series, though people continue to tell me I will get to them eventually. See you in the next review!