Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 4: False Prophet) Review
And so we come to a stretch of Rurouni Kenshin scripted solely for the animé series and not derived from the original manga at all... and as such, some of the action on this disc gives the distinct feeling of comprising filler episodes. Fortunately, after dedicated series developments like the four-part plot arc concluded on the previous volume, a momentary 'breather' like this does not feel unwelcome. We have a good spread of one-off stories (as well as one two-parter) here, including Kenshin and the gang: 1, helping out an under-performing sumo wrestler; 2, protecting Megumi's reputation as a quack doctor arrives on the scene; 3, helping an ex-manslayer keep his vow never to touch a sword again; and 4, assisting Yahiko in protecting his current infatuation, a circus performer.
As usual, the show's all about protecting people and these episodes continue with that theme, really looking at all of the various ways in which people can be persecuted (physically, emotionally and mentally) and how a small group bound together by friendship can really make a huge difference in the world. These episodes continue to dish out good fight sequences cased within solid storylines; the two-parter dealing with the Jinpuu Squad and an ex-manslayer (one of Kenshin's contemporaries from the revolution, in point of fact) is definitely the strongest on the disc. Another development that's worth mentioning is Media Blasters' decision - beginning with this fourth volume - to move to 5 episodes per DVD. Not only does the video and audio quality appear to have been unaffected, but this represents excellent value for the money, as there are still many examples out there of other animé distributors milking their licences by releasing only 3 episodes per disc across the entire series.
The quality of both the animation and the acting continues to impress me as I watch Rurouni Kenshin; I tremendously enjoy the spectrum of animation styles used in the show and - as mentioned before - I'm already a big fan of the character designs. However, I'm certain it would be a completely different experience were it not for the expertise displayed by the series' voice actors, so I intend to take a closer look at the Japanese VAs in this review and then go on to investigate their English counterparts in my write-up of the next volume ('Renegade Samurai'). So fair warning to any not interested in these sorts of details... go ahead and skip on down to the start of the Episode Guide.
One surprising fact regarding the Japanese vocal cast is that the actresses voicing Kaoru and Kenshin (and, yes, the latter is voiced by a woman in the Japanese version) are both newcomers to the animé industry. Mayo Suzukaze is responsible for the dulcet tones of our eponymous swordsman and she does a remarkable job, able to switch deftly between Kenshin's soft-spoken nature when he's in his 'wanderer' (Himura) role and the harsher vocal edge of his 'manslayer' (Battousai) demeanour. She's also wonderfully adept at the strange little signature noises Kenshin makes (the most famous of which, naturally, are all the variants of his catchphrase, 'oro?'). Before voicing Kenshin for Fuji TV, Suzukaze's primary area of expertise was as part of the Takarazuka acting company (a group famed for women playing both male and female roles), so we shouldn't be too surprised at the fantastic job she does with Kenshin. Frankly, it's more of a shock that she hasn't voiced any other animé characters since her successful gig for Rurouni Kenshin.
Kaoru's voice actress, Miki Fujitani, also makes her debut animé role in Rurouni Kenshin, and her only other voice acting role since that time has been as Chun-Li in Street Fighter II: The Movie. This lack of post-Kenshin experience in no way detracts from the obvious talent she brings to the role of Kaoru. Kaoru often has to alternate quickly between a thoughtful, considered tone of voice and yelling at her recalcitrant student (Yahiko), and Fujitani achieves such transitions effortlessly - she's another real joy to listen to. Not only that, but she contributes her singing talents to the Kenshin soundtrack... also unsurprising as before taking on the role she was known primarily as a singer.
So arguably the two main roles were given to complete newcomers to the world of voice acting, which was in and of itself an inspired bit of casting... though I personally think it would be impossible (without foreknowledge) to work out which of the voice actors on the series had never done this sort of thing before. That said, the other voice actors are all more experienced, even though many of them haven't been in tons of other productions. Ueda Yuuji is perhaps the sole exception to this, constituting the closest thing Rurouni Kenshin has to a 'veteran of the animé wars'. He voices Sanosuke here, but has also appeared as Yue Katou in Angel Sanctuary, Yoshiko Yaegashi in Blue Seed, Amiboshi/Suboshi in Fushigi Yugi (my personal favourite), Keitarou Urashima in Love Hina, Reeden in Escaflowne and Takeshi in a bundle of Pokémon films. He has been able to give each character a distinctive feel and he certainly imbues Sanosuke with just the right mixture of machismo and sensitivity in Rurouni Kenshin. He's another of the cast members who has a great singing voice and makes an appearance on the soundtrack album. (Just for the record, he's also credited with performing the closing theme for the Pokémon TV series.)
Miina Tominaga is another female actress voicing a male as she provides Yahiko's excitable tones. She's had a fair amount of experience in animé - if less so than Ueda Yuuji - and she really brings a lot to Yahiko's role. He may not possess quite the emotional diversity of other characters in the cast, but he does have to do the whole excitable teen thing, as well as occasionally being more sombre and mature. Tominaga's other roles have included Naraka from Demon Hunter, Mimi from Hello Kitty, Rastelle from Nausicäa and Irene from Yu-Gi-Oh. To round out the core characters of the series, Megumi is voiced by Mika Doi... also Subaru in Fushigi Yugi, Naoko Akagi in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Misa Hayase in Macross and Arisa in Cowboy Bebop. She may not have been in many productions, but if she was trying to pick a set of famous animé series to show up in, she hasn't done badly! Again her acting is really solid; Megumi seems more serious than many of the characters, and the softness in her voice really brings out some of the tragedy of her past.
What can I say? If you haven't yet watched Rurouni Kenshin with the Japanese dialogue, I'd really suggest you give it a try. The English dub is also fairly strong, but the Japanese voice actors have done a fantastic job... besides, it's always good to become acquainted with the original material. It was really interesting to me that many of the cast haven't had a long pedigree in voice acting as I completely wouldn't have guessed this from their superb performances.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
13: 'Going for the Grand Championship'
Kaoru, Kenshin and Yahiko are in town buying miso when they run across a famous ozeki [an accomplished rank in sumo wrestling] named Senryouyama surrounded by sumo friends. Moments later another ozeki, Toramaru, runs from the Akabeko (the 'beef hot pot' restaurant frequented by Kenshin & Co), not having paid his bill. We discover that he's run away from the training stables and the other sumos take the opportunity to pummel him for this disgrace. When Kaoru tries to stop them, it sets in motion a great 'fight' sequence that somehow ends up with Kenshin facing half a dozen sumo wrestlers armed with nothing but two buckets of miso. It’s very funny! Predictably, Senryouyama is a bit of a bully and Toramaru is, of course, the bullied; Kaoru manages to stop the latter from committing suicide and takes him back to the dojo.
From there, things fall comfortably into the expected formula, underscored by a few in-jokes. For example, Kaoru - not to mention the rest of the gang - is so taken aback by Toramaru's love of her cooking that she offers on the spot to be his sumo trainer, utilising the Kamiya Kasshin style! There are some very dodgy butt-pinching moments to encourage Toramaru (as requested by him to remind him of his mother's chastisements... no comment!), but eventually his spirits lift and he begins to grow more confident again. When Senryouyama and his cronies catch wind of this, they converge on the shrine Kaoru and Toramaru have been using for practice to put him out of action. There's the usual flurry of activity with Toramaru trying to carry Ayame and Suzume (the two granddaughters of Dr Gensai, who seem to spend all of their time at the Kamiya dojo) off to safety as the fight breaks out in earnest.
In the end, everything is settled by a duel between Senryouyama and Toramaru, from which the latter emerges victorious. The master of the sumo stable - who has been watching, having followed Senryouyama to the shrine - chastises him publicly, and the latter admits he was jealous of Toramaru's potential.
14: 'To Save a Small Life'
When Dr Gensai puts his back out and Megumi begins to fill in for him, she establishes quite a reputation in town as an accomplished female doctor who is as beautiful as she is talented. However, the scuttlebutt turns sour after a huge crowd sees her refusing to help a man who collapses before her very eyes and whom is subsequently 'cured' by a Lord Raikou, allegedly with help from the gods. (Yes, yes... it's a scam.) As the simpleminded townfolk start to call her a quack doctor and extol the virtues of Raikou's 'miraculous' healing techniques (all staged, of course), it becomes clear that this episode hinges upon the life of a very ill young girl, whose parents have more money than sense... and are thus easy marks for a 'faith healer'.
Raikou's gang, the Hishimanji, want to put Megumi out of business so they can siphon off all the money from families of the sick, unsurprisingly concentrating on the most wealthy clients first. Sanosuke overhears them discussing their plans and determines to do what he can to stop them. The real showdown comes when Megumi endeavours to stop the Hishimanji from taking away the aforementioned little girl, whose condition is so sensitive that the shock of Raikou's bogus ministrations could well kill her. When things get rough, Sanosuke turns up and defeats the Hishimanji in a proper fight, so they (being ever so slightly insane) roll out a wooden cannon and begin to fire it off indiscriminately at anyone who gets in their way. Kenshin shows up and - as is his wont - puts paid to this nonsense. Raikou, falsely believing himself to have suffered internal injuries during the cannon frenzy, begs Megumi for assistance, and she demonstrates her fox-like nature by giving him a placebo of water in exchange for a public admission of his own quackery.
15: 'Assassination Group of Fire'
The Jinpuu squad are a bunch of vigilantes, attacking government officials and politicians suspected of embezzlement. We see them carrying out one of their assassinations at the opening of this episode, setting the sinister tone for all this is to follow. Meanwhile we meet another of Sanosuke's friends, a teacher who instructs the local children in reading and writing. He has come to the Kamiya dojo seeking medical help for a sick child. While Megumi sorts the child out, we're given a clue that the man once used to be something more than just a teacher.
The Jinpuu want to increase their numbers and are seeking someone in particular. It becomes clear precisely whom when Kenshin is out walking and witnesses a surprise attack on the teacher by Toma Sakaki, captain of the Jinpuu goons. When the teacher expertly defends himself, Kenshin realises through a flashback that he is using the Hinoho Ittou style and can be none other than Heihachirou Sasaki... formerly part of the Kyoto Patrol Group, an elite unit of swordsmen as feared as the Shinsengumi.
Sanosuke - becoming something of a master of eavesdropping - later overhears Toma offering Heihachirou a position amongst the Jinpuu; the latter refuses, stating that he has sworn never to hold a sword again and that he is repenting for all those he's killed in the past. At the close of the episode the Jinpuu threaten Heihachirou's students, so he has no choice but to go along with them... but he and they are prevented from killing a target when Sanosuke and Kenshin interrupt the assassination.
16: 'A Promise From the Heart'
Toma promises to deal with Heihachirou, Sanosuke and Kenshin... no idle threat, as he was previously one of the former's martial arts students and has quite possibly surpassed Heihachirou's mastery of the Hinoho Ittou style. Sanosuke (who, by the way, hasn't been seen wielding his massive zanbatou blade in ages) takes a job as bodyguard to protect the school from further Jinpuu attacks, while Kenshin follows Toma into the woods, ostensibly to satisfy the latter's craving for a duel. (In reality it's to discuss politics and assassination with Toma, and try to explain to the younger man that - in his experience - the Jinpuu squad are being used as a tool by unscrupulous men.) Unreceptive to advice, Toma threatens that he's created a new ultimate technique (the 'Shiden Renga') that cannot be parried, but is called away before a real duel can take place.
We learn that his employer (and thus the one ultimately in control of the Jinpuu) is Hashizume, a corrupt politician who makes idle promises of government posts to Toma and his cronies, while plotting on the side to dispose of the lot of them after they have served his ends. Using his assassination squad to eliminate competition, his next target is Yamagata, Lord of the Imperial Army (the cigar-smoking man introduced in episode 3). Going for a two-pronged offensive, a group of Jinpuu attack the Kamiya dojo while the remainder of the squad ambush Yamagata's carriage... only to discover Kenshin inside it. He tells them the truth and ignominy of their employment, but Toma refuses to accept this and we come at last to the final confrontation between him and Kenshin. Eventually the Jinpuu are routed (on both fronts) and arrested along with Hashizume.
17: 'Fly To Your Dreams'
It's carnival time and there seem to be two competing circus establishments. One is run by a nasty piece of work called Sumidaya (his performers seem out of place 'in the Big Top' and more suited to a career as assassins); the other is the Ebisu Cannon Circus and is headed up by Marimo ('the human bullet') and her father. Their spectacular act is drawing customers away from Sumidaya's dolts and he's determined to put an end to it. We soon learn that Marimo and her dad used to work for Sumidaya, but after continuous poor treatment at his hands decided to start up their own venture. Unfortunately, they still owe him the last couple of payments on the money they had to borrow from him in order to make this happen, and now it's all too clear that Sumidaya will do whatever it takes to see them default on the loan and therefore be forced to close up shop and return to his employment. Of course, Yahiko takes a liking to Marimo and when Sumidaya's gang attacks he helps out.
It's all very predictable from here on in. Marimo's dad is ambushed, mugged, and wounded by Sumidaya's thugs, with Yahiko turning up to protect Marimo and Megumi attempting to treat her dad's injuries. The usual 'the show must go on' clichés surface, the only problem being that if the gunpowder mixture isn't spot on, Marimo could well lose her feet in the first cannon shot... and her dad's in no position to prepare it. (Ah, but someone with experience in pharmacology should be able to precisely follow such a recipe!) Undaunted, Sumidaya's staff make off with their gunpowder supplies, so it's up to Kaoru, Kenshin and Sanosuke to keep the paying audience entertained long enough for Yahiko and Marimo to go fetch more. (The highpoints of this episode definitely all fall towards the end, including the desperate clown-like antics of the trio as they strive to keep the audience from rioting and the inventive 'umbrella fighting style' Kenshin develops on the spot to deal with Sumidaya's goons when they at last show up in person.)
Apparently this is the first of the Rurouni Kenshin DVDs that has been produced in-house by Media Blasters. The animation is still very sharp here but the colours are a little more muted than on previous volumes. The palette is now a more accurate representation of the source material and - once I got used to the change - I found the slightly more subdued tones fit the action very well. There are still occasional picture errors, such as artifacting and rainbowing, but less than on previous volumes. And I didn't spot any of the colour bleeding that was going on in the previous instalment, so perhaps this is a side benefit of the new encode. It's definitely an improvement from where I'm looking at it.
On a related note, the drawing uses less of the various 'special effects' modes we've seen on earlier volumes, particularly little of the 'airbrushed' artistic style being brought into play. However there's still plenty of high-action fight scenes, rich - if a little more muted - colours and excellent animation work.
As with previous volumes, the sound quality is good and solid with a small amount of directionality and solid performances by both casts. There are new end credits and a new end song ('Namida wa Shitte Iru')... I still have to get used to both before I really pass judgment; this time around they just looked and sounded weird to me. The incidental music used in this series continues to enhance the action – there's a particularly funky piece in one of these episodes which caught me completely off-guard but made me smile. Voices remain distinct and extremely well acted: very little to really complain about sound-wise.
Menus & Extras
There's not a lot new to report on the menu front. We still have the nice atmospheric music playing as the menu sits on the screen, something I love. The menus are still static and the scene access is still available from the main menu (something that wasn't true of volume 2, but which seems to be a standard on every other disc in the set). About the only actual change is in the presentation of the individual episode titles, from a four-corner 'box' to a five-item 'X'.
There aren't many extras here, but those that do exist add a huge amount to my enjoyment of the series. Again there are no character profiles, possibly because no new recurring characters are introduced on this disc. The liner notes contributed by the translator Rika Takahashi are once again really on top form, with no fewer than eight pages of handy cultural and linguistic information (including some very detailed information about sumo jargon).
We also get to see the outcome of the fan art contest advertised on volume 3, with the inclusion here of a fan art gallery. All 16 winning entries are included on this DVD and there's even a bonus picture from one of the winning artists. It has to be said, some of these entries display a very high calibre of artistic skill as many of them are remarkably good. As I said previously, it's a nice touch that Media Blasters turned to fans for some extra content for this extremely popular series, and something I hope they'll do again.
The final special feature included here are the out-takes (which, in the continuing tradition of Rurouni Kenshin typos, is spelled wrong under the 'Extras' menu... but oh well). Again the only out-takes available - unsurprisingly - are of the English dub actors, and we get to hear them fluff 13 different scenes. I genuinely like the inclusion of this as an extra, but whereas I can usually count on at least a couple of them to make me laugh out loud, this time around none were quite that funny. (Still, they'll always bring a smile at least.)
The packaging continues to be quite pretty, using similar artwork to that seen on previous volumes (albeit this time working around an autumnal colour palette). Alas, that's the end of the good news, as this release sets a new record for the number of glaring mistakes in the Rurouni Kenshin packaging. First off, there's still no volume numbering (and won't be for any of the remaining volumes, I'm sure, so I'm going to leave off mentioning it from now on). There are fewer typos than usual, but this is more than made up for by the fact that the overall summary of the disc's contents actually refers to the episodes on volume 3! (In fact, it's the same blurb from that disc, just cut-and-pasted over to this one.) And as for the insert card inside the Amaray case... well, it only lists four episodes, despite this being a five-episode disc. Nor do I understand why these inserts invariably refer to 'Episode 1', 'Episode 2', etc. when for this disc (for instance) it should read 'Episode 13', 'Episode 14'...
It's true that these sorts of proofreading errors are not a huge deal, but they're just a disappointment on an otherwise excellent series of DVDs. With each new volume I examine, I hope I'll discover that someone on the DVD production team caught and corrected them... but so far this hasn't been the case.
OK, so this is definitely more of a filler disc than the ones that preceded it. We know and accept that. However, the stories are all thankfully still in-character and appropriate to the show's theme... and although there is less character development than we have seen before, we still get small pieces - like the hints of attraction between Megumi and Sanosuke. And it's appealing to have whimsical, humorous episodes such as the final one sitting alongside slightly more meaty fare, such as the Jinpuu two-parter. I'm unquestionably still enjoying the series, its characters, its animation, and the welcome set of special features that Media Blasters strives to provide on each of these releases.