Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 5: Renegade Samurai) Review
And the saga continues, not quite yet to the stage where we start in on the heavy-duty story arcs... but it's getting close now. As it happens, volume 5 of Rurouni Kenshin is made up of a 3-parter bookended by two single episodes. The middle three episodes form an brief plot arc that is apparently very loosely based on certain chapters from the manga. It's a pretty good yarn too, with Kenshin and the gang trying to stop a group of swordsmen (and their schemes to establish a separate kingdom free of the strictures of the Meiji era) from taking advantage of a young heir to an outlying country estate. More examples of using a sword to protect the innocent here, a theme that hasn’t yet tired, nor do I think it shall. Accompanying this tale are two one-off episodes: the first focusing on Yahiko and allowing him to learn yet another important life lesson, the second being a good ol' train robbery story, but set in historical Japan.
This disc maintains the standards of storytelling seen in previous volumes and benefits from slightly higher quality in terms of the picture itself and proofreading. Finally some of the long-term typos (such as the persistent misspelling of 'dialogue' in the Setup menu) have been rectified, and a similar improvement is seen in the DVD packaging. (Not only does the insert correctly list five episodes, but the back cover of the Amaray case names all of them properly.) It's all going in the right direction and that's for sure.
I watched the whole of this disc in the English dub, because - as I stated in my review of volume 4 - I wanted to take a closer look at the North American voice actors in this review. Media Blasters have really hired an experienced crew of VAs to work on this series... only fitting given just how famous and beloved it is by fans. All of their efforts have definitely paid off, as the English dub for this series - in my estimation - has so far been a very solid one. There remain but a few voices that seem a little strange to me after listening to the original Japanese soundtrack, my usual preference when watching animé.
Obviously, one key difference is that the voice of Kenshin is actually provided by a man on the English dub: Richard Hayworth. He does a good job of modulating between the softness of 'wanderer' Kenshin and his more 'manslayer' moments, though he doesn’t quite manage some of the fantastic silly noises the Japanese Kenshin delights us with. This is a minor complaint in the large scheme of things, however, and I do feel Hayworth was appropriately cast and does a good job here. He's also appeared as Legato Bluesummers in Trigun, Lord Kall-Su in Bastard!, Yurimaru in Ninja Scroll, as well as having taken smaller roles in such classics as Armitage, Cowboy Bebop, Sol Bianca, El Hazard and Macross Plus.
Kaoru is voiced by Dorothy Melendrez, and unfortunately remains the one voice I find it hard to acclimatise to on the English dub – although she acts well, it's a little over-the-top for my tastes and somehow always gives me the sense that Kaoru is younger than I think she should be. All the same, it's really just a minor quibble; having established her choice of voicing for Kaoru, at least she's remained consistent with it! Melendrez can also be heard as Meryl Stryfe in Trigun, a broad variety of roles in GTO, as well as having shown up in Digimon (Tai's mum), El Hazard (Miz Mishtal), Love Hina (Naru Narusegawa), and many other shows.
One of the more experienced voice actors making an appearance in Rurouni Kenshin plays the part of Sanosuke; his name is Lex Lang and I think he does an absolutely fantastic job here. He's such an experienced voice-over artist that he even has his own website and fan club... and he was also the ADR Director for both eX-Driver and Mirage of Blaze, so he doesn't only have experience on the acting side of the microphone. His non-animé work includes voice-overs for many film trailers, a role in Days of Our Lives (a US daytime soap opera) and as the announcer on Prime Time Glick (the popular Martin Short vehicle airing in the States). On the animé side of things, he can be heard as the voice of Kuwabara in Yu Yu Hakusho: The Movie, Goemon in Lupin III (the TV series), Olivier in Gestalt, and plenty of smaller roles. As if this weren't enough, he's just released his first CD, showing off a talent for singing as well!!
Matching - and possibly surpassing - Lex Lang's experience in voice acting we have the woman responsible for Yahiko's excitable tones: Else Floyd (more famously known as 'Wendee Lee' – seriously, it seems most of these voice actors have two or three stage names that they use at will). Her experience really shines through, especially as Yahiko is a character that needs to show a lot of development over the course of the series, becoming more mature as he learns life lessons and observes those around him. Whereas I found Kaoru's voice a trifle too squeaky for her nature (and age!), I thought Yahiko was spot-on, a testament to both the actress and the casting director. By the way, Wendee is responsible for many famous animé voices, including Reiha in Vampire Princess Miyu, Ryoko in Real Bout High School, Rumi in Perfect Blue, Kagero in Ninja Scroll, Yui in Fushigi Yugi, Umi Ryuuzaki and Princess Emeraude in Magic Knight Rayearth, Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop, and Kei in Akira. She also voiced BlackRose in .hack//Infection (OK, so I'm only mentioning that one because I've played the game on the PS2 and it amused me). As you can see, she generally voices female characters, so performing Yahiko gave her the opportunity to add 'young boy' to her repertoire!
Other voice actors in the series are perhaps not so well known, but do a good job nonetheless. Megumi, for example, is voiced by Jane Alan, whose credits include Love Hina (Haruka Urashima), Gundam 0083 (Mora), and Magic Knight Rayearth (Presia). Despite having less experience in the field, she does a makes a very solid effort as Megumi, the soft-spoken doctor with a hint of mischief lurking just beneath the surface. It's very distinct from Kaoru and makes Megumi seem much older and mature, and Kaoru even younger. Overall I found the English dub to be an enjoyable experience; often English dubs for animé are over-acted or just poorly acted... not so in this case!
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
18: 'Get Back the Reverse-Blade Sword'
Oh, Yahiko, when are you going to learn? Yes, this episode is another 'life lesson' for Yahiko, this time one to stem his arrogance and force him to realise that the way he's being taught is truly the best for him. The episode opens with a confrontation at the Akabeko (the restaurant that features a lot in Rurouni Kenshin), with our kid hero facing down a potential robber. Although we only witness the very end of the fight, there's no question that Yahiko is the victor... and boy does it go to his head! Strutting around the Kamiya dojo like a prima donna, Yahiko begins to demand a real sword, saying that he's 'surpassed' the wooden one. While Kaoru is outraged and Himura seems merely bemused, someone far more sinister begins to plot how he can turn Yahiko's ego to his advantage. Yes, it's Gohei. (Remember him from episode 1? He's like a bad penny that keeps turning up.)
When the dojo is deserted, Gohei approaches Yahiko and feeds his arrogance, permitting the kid to do well in a duel against him... and then playing down the performance by pointing out that Yahiko naturally wouldn't be able to handle a 'real' sword in a 'real' fight. Convinced by Gohei to bring a real sword to the local shrine where the two of them can duel properly, Yahiko foolishly borrows Kenshin's without the latter's permission. Meanwhile, Gohei has hired the Onisaki brothers of the Tsuchiguma style to murder Kenshin – everything else was merely a ruse to deliver Kenshin into their hands without his reverse-blade sword there to protect him. Although this is more or less how events play out, Yahiko does manage to break free and deliver Kenshin his sword in the nick of time. The good guys triumph and Yahiko gets knocked down a peg or two.
19: 'Raijuta's Ambition'
Hana, Dr Gensai's sister, greets the gang as they start their holiday in Izu – a large estate with beautiful grounds. She asks them to come meet the 'young master' Yutaro, an orphan who owns the estate and all its land. He's a good kid who wants nothing more than to learn swordsmanship and 'become strong' like his late father, but Kenshin refuses to teach him. How convenient, then, that while out riding Yutaro is almost kidnapped, but rescued at the last moment by a huge swordsman by the name of Raijuta. The lad falls for this one hook, line and sinker, and offers Raijuta a position as his sword instructor (and full access to the mansion and its amenities). Unsurprisingly, the latter accepts, promptly snaps Yutaro's wooden sword in two (telling him flatly that it is a 'toy'), and hands him a real one in exchange. We learn that Raijuta is a member of the Shinko school of fighting, and his lieutenants soon begin coming out of the woodwork, turning up on the grounds and living in Yutaro's mansion.
Meanwhile, as Kaoru and Megumi indulge in some light-hearted hot springs hi-jinks with Sano and Yahiko, Kenshin seems distracted, pondering the abrupt arrival of Raijuta and what it all might mean. When the gang see Hana again, she frets that Raijuta and his cronies have been surreptitiously selling off Yutaro's family treasures in order to purchase and stockpile weapons at the mansion. She also mentions the Shinko school and our man Kenshin gets a little excitable, obviously recognising the name.
One evening Yutaro is practising on the beach when Kenshin tries to approach him with some advice. However Raijuta and his Shinko mates soon turn up and ask Kenshin to join their cause. They are all accomplished warriors, and are finding it hard to adapt to the Meiji era and its ban on swords. So they intend to set up their own kingdom in Izu, making it a nation independent of Japan. Naturally Kenshin refuses and there's a big fight during which Yutaro tumbles into a fast-running river.
20: 'Revival of the Shinko Style'
Kenshin defeats the Shinko present and then dives into the river to save Yutaro. Back at Hana's house, Megumi looks after the near-drowned boy while at the mansion more and more Shinko goons start to gather, preparing for war against the government. Kenshin reveals some of the history of the Shinko but mostly discusses how difficult it is for some to give up the sword, and the various problems this can cause.
When Yutaro wakes and expresses a desire to return to Raijuta, Yahiko interposes himself, calling the other boy foolish; they duel and Yahiko wins easily, despite Yutaro possessing the 'superior' weapon. After Kenshin guesses how badly Raijuta is treating his pupil, Kaoru offers to teach the boy... and Yutaro becomes a devoted student (unlike some!) and he and Yahiko establish quite the little rivalry, promising a re-match in the days to come.
The Imperial army conducts surveillance on the mansion, waiting for an opportunity to strike at the Shinko, whose activities have not gone unnoticed by the Japanese government. The Chief of Police even goes to Hana's house looking for Kenshin and accidentally lets slip to Yutaro some of what's going on there. So by the time Kenshin gets back - learning that Yamagata wants his opinion on how to tackle the situation - Yutaro has already run off and must be rescued. Back at the mansion, the army launches an attack on the Shinzo and carnage ensues.
21: 'The Dissolution of a Nightmare'
Kenshin rushes headlong into the fray and yells for everyone to stop fighting, announcing that he will challenge Raijuta to a duel in order to bring an end to the senseless bloodshed on both sides. As the big fight commences, Yutaro discovers that Raijuta staged the kidnapping rescue solely to get in his good books, and - refusing to believe the truth of it - dashes back to speak with Raijuta. Meanwhile, Raijuta demonstrates the epic strength of his Izuna attack, which apparently operates along the lines of a sideways tornado... allowing him to deal out heavy damage without every actually coming into contact with his opponent.
When Yutaro tries to stop the duel, Raijuta sends him flying, the duel only continuing after Kenshin has made sure Sanosuke and Kaoru are taking Yutaro off for medical attention. However, by this time Kenshin has worked out the principles of the Izuna attack and proceeds to kick butt... and, in perfect Himura style, then prevents one of Raijuta's men from committing suicide in the wake of their leader's defeat, proceeding to lecture them on living without their swords.
Alas for Yutaro, his lasting legacy from this combat is that there is extensive nerve damage in his right arm, which will never be capable of wielding a sword again. A month after Kenshin and Co have departed Izu, they receive a letter from Yutaro saying he's off to Germany with his uncle, so they head to the port to see him off. Everyone is quite sombre until Yahiko launches an attack on Yutaro, forcing the handicapped boy to parry with the crutch in his left hand. In this way, he deliberately stirs up a competitive spirit in Yutaro so the boy won't give up on his dreams. The two swear to meet again, Yutaro already thinking about learning how to fight left-handed.
22: 'Danger on a Runaway Locomotive'
This comical episode is very much a filler one. It opens with a lesson in the history of steam locomotives in Japan. In the fifth year of the Meiji era, a train - symbol of the new age and cultural revolution - began to run between Shinbashu and Yokohama. And guess who's taking a ride on it? Yes, Kaoru has kindly bought tickets for her friends and they are all headed off to Yokohama, where she looks forward to Western clothes and a strange new confection called 'chocolate'. One member of the team is decidedly less keen on the whole idea, however... Sanosuke is utterly terrified of both the train itself and the idea of having a photo taken to commemorate their journey. Kaoru tries to argue with him about the irrational nature of these fears and it ends up in a very amusing lesson in the basics of steam power.
However, all this is aside from the main plot of the episode, which was set up as the gang boarded the locomotive, learning that one entire carriage had been reserved by an English merchant rumoured to be transporting a fortune in gold coins. Predictably, it's Yahiko who wanders off and stumbles upon the robbery attempt. Kenshin soon catches up and we are treated to a number of 'Hollywood action cliché' sequences, like the obligatory chase scene across the roof of the train as it roars down the track. Somewhat less expected, however, is Kenshin getting knocked off the train early into the engagement, leaving Yahiko, Sanosuke, and Kaoru to somehow deal with the train robbers all on their own!
Picture & Sound
The picture quality in the episodes seems to be getting a little better all the time; colours are deep and the transfer is very solid. The openings and endings, however, show less than exemplary quality – they're just a little on the grainy side and include some obvious artifacting. Another observation I should make is that the final episode on this disc is really up and down animation-wise; it's a bit as if the animators decided to begin performing small, random 'tweaks' to the character designs in mid-action... you don't want to believe it at first but you can't help noticing these weird alterations as the episode continues. I can only imagine this is supposed to be some sort of intentional stylistic change, which seems not unlikely considering that some of the opening scenes of that episode (depicting the birth of the rail era in Japan) were also done in a very different style to the rest of the series.
Both soundtracks remain strong in audio quality with clear voices rising above the funky background music and occasional directionality from the speakers. Something that took me a little by surprise was the absence of the English dub versions of the OP and ED theme songs. Media Blasters has removed these entirely from the DVD, so even if you're listening to the actual dialogue in English, you can still expect to hear the original Japanese lyrics at start and finish. I personally won't miss the English dub songs at all, despite their quirky novelty value. In other news, subtitles are now showing a remarkable absence of typos that I welcome with open arms! (It's just distracting when your reading is interrupted as you note misspellings, so now the show seems to flow even better than before.)
Menus, Extras & Packaging
Menus are pretty much as before, but again the proofreading is improving. Finally 'dialogue' is spelled right in the setup menu; I know it's silly, but you wouldn't imagine how much happiness this correction gave me – it's like finally being able to scratch an annoying itch. (The show is so strong and the acting and production values otherwise so impressive that it's always saddened me to have to mention all of the typos.)
There are admittedly fewer bona fide extras on this DVD than on previous volumes, but those here all add a little something. First of all we have four pages of linguistic liner notes which are definitely my favourite features on these discs. (This time around there's an extensive discussion of Japanese swordfighting terms, which as you can imagine is handy in a show like Rurouni Kenshin.) Add to this a textless closing to celebrate the new ending song. You'll recall that textless versions of both the opening (OP) and previous ending (ED) segments were provided back on volumes 1 and 2. In the pseudo-'special feature' category is a set of trailers for four other Media Blasters releases (Magic Knight Rayearth, Magic User's Club, Virtua Fighter and Twin Signal).
As for the packaging, the Amaray insert now lists five episodes and even has the volume name ('Renegade Samurai') at the top of the sheet for easy reference. It's a small change, but I like it. The cover art for this release shows Raijuta and Kaoru shadowy in the background, Kenshin looking fierce in the foreground, and Yahiko and Yutaro facing off in the space between. Instead of leaves or floral patterns, this time we have Japanese writing filling out the design.
The stories on this disc again manage to sneak character development and philosophical ideas into what is essentially an action-filled, comedy-tinted animated series. The ability to mix serious concepts with more humorous moments continues to set Rurouni Kenshin apart for me. In this volume I particularly enjoyed the 3-part story arc, but neither of the 'filler' episodes were exactly out of place either. The improvements in picture quality are obviously welcomed and I look forward to watching the next disc in the series. Until then!