Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 1: The Legendary Swordsman) Review
It was with a slight quiver of trepidation that I sat down to start to watch Rurouni Kenshin, knowing that I would be reviewing it. After all, it has a massive established fanbase, some of whom have been telling me for ages that I would simply love this show. As with anything that has raised my expectations, actually putting in the disc meant I'd now see if all these people were right about this series which, on paper, does sound like the kind of thing I'd like.
First, a quick note about the history of Rurouni Kenshin on DVD. Apparently, originally expecting merely to flog the US rights off to the first TV company that expressed an interest, Sony produced a universally-derided English dub and titled the series 'Samurai X'. Well, things didn't turn out quite as planned and Sony ended up selling the rights to a couple of US animé companies: Media Blasters (for the TV series) and ADV Films (for the OAVs [original animated videos]). This meant the series' name thankfully reverted back to Rurouni Kenshin (with the addition of 'Wandering Samurai') on the Media Blasters releases, while ADV Films retained Sony's Samurai X moniker.
So what is this show all about? Now remember that I've only watched the first disc so far, but already I can give a brief introduction to the premise of this long series (there are 22 DVDs in total, comprising 95 episodes!). The show takes place during the Meiji era in Japan, an era heralded by a revolution and the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Battousai the Manslayer was a central figure in this revolution, killing many on behalf of the Imperialists with his deft swordsmanship. When the Meiji era begins, sword-carrying is made illegal (excepting the most elite of the police forces) and Battousai vanishes from the public eye, taking the name Himura Kenshin and vowing never to kill again - but to instead protect people with his reverse-edged blade.
Now from that small summary we can already tell we're in for some whole-hearted samurai animé, with good swordfighting and a nice, historical setting to flesh it out and add some dimension to the fighting. What it fails to mention is the comedic flair evident even at the start of this series – a welcome touch and something I hope will continue throughout. The characters are immediately likeable and fairly multi-dimensional, with definite potential for the future. We are introduced to four key characters in these first four episodes, and I'm guessing these will all turn out to be recurring main cast members... so this disc is essentially an introduction to the series.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
1: 'The Handsome Swordsman of Legend'
The first episode starts with a quick summary of historical events, setting up the character of Battousai the Manslayer as a fearsome warrior who played an integral role in the revolution and then mysteriously disappeared.
Kaoru Kamiya has a problem. She is currently in charge of the family dojo, responsible for protecting the good name her father established for their martial arts fighting style. Someone is running amok in her town, claiming to be Battousai the Manslayer and using her family's technique to kill people, so she's on a mission to hunt him down. The first person she accuses, however, is Himura Kenshin, who turns out to actually be carrying a reverse-edge sword incapable of killing anyone. Realising her accusation was mistaken, her next move is to challenge a different guy and get slightly wounded in the process.
Kenshin establishes himself at the Kamiya dojo, befriending the local children, cooking, and treating Kaoru's wounds. Kaoru's remaining three students turn up at the dojo and quit because of the Battousai scandal, after which a dream sequence reveals to her why someone might have a grudge against Kaoru and her dojo. Soon Gohei (the murderer who has been masquerading as Battousai) turns up to challenge her... Kenshin, however unsurprisingly, turns up to save the day, establishing himself not only as an awesome swordsman but also as the bona fide Battousai.
2: 'Kid Samurai'
Kenshin is persuaded to take Kaoru and the other residents of her struggling dojo out for a meal, but on the way there he spots a young pickpocket who later makes an attempt on Kenshin's cash. When Kenshin surprises him by openly handing over his wallet, the child reacts badly, rejecting pity outright.
The episode unfolds and shows the kid, Yahiko, being forced to steal by the Shuei Yakuza street gang, believing himself to be paying off a debt for his dead mother's medical bills. Kaoru is outraged at this use of a child and goes to confront the Yakuza gang – and promptly gets in way over her head. Naturally Kenshin saves the day again, displaying not only perfect heroic timing, but also a flair for both comedy and the theatrical.
Yahiko reluctantly becomes Kaoru's student, even though it's clear he'd rather study under Kenshin. At least he learns a lesson about using a sword to protect others rather than merely to inflict damage.
3: 'Swordsman of Sorrow'
Yahiko and Kaoru are trying to get used to their new student-teacher relationship when police officials come to the dojo looking for Kenshin. Yahiko quickly learns of Kenshin's secret identity and runs off to try and warn his mentor... while an ominous cigar-smoking man watches from an official carriage parked outside the dojo.
While looking for Kenshin, Yahiko runs into some 'elite' police swordsmen persecuting the local townsfolk and feels the need to intervene... until he is cornered alongside the people he was trying to stand up for. Of course, Kenshin comes along and gives the police swordsmen a lesson in civility. As the crowd eventually disperses, the cigar-smoking man approaches Kenshin.
Our mysterious man is Yamagata, Lord of the Imperial Army; he and Kenshin obviously know each other and yet more revolutionary history is divulged. The main thing to come from this conversation is that many consider Kenshin a hero of the Revolution. Yamagata seems to be one of them and asks Kenshin to take a high role in the Meiji government – the latter refuses, predictably, though the two part on amicable terms.
This episode introduces us to Sanosuke (Zanza), a man with the most enormous sword you've ever seen (one which, we learn, is rarely mastered due to its sheer weight)! For the record, it's called a zanbatou, and it's how he got his nickname. His personality is quickly built up as we see him looking for a challenge in various places and easily getting bored of it, on one occasion defeating his opponent with but the flick of one finger. This display of strength is witnessed by Kenshin, Kaoru and Yahiko, but it does not go unnoticed by Gohei either. (Remember him from episode 1?) Gohei then seeks out Zanza and hires him to take on Kenshin in retribution for his earlier ignominious defeat.
Zanza seeks out Kenshin to challenge – finding him at the Kamiya dojo – and, reluctantly, Kenshin is drawn into a fight. Although the duel gets disturbed by the appearance of the dojo's children, Kenshin still manages to drop a tree branch on Gohei (spying from behind a wall) – very stylish. Zanza wanders off, and we're certain we're going to see some more of him in future episodes.
The first good thing to report is that I quite like the character designs used in this series. It's hard to pinpoint why but they have a fairly natural feel about them, without huge distortions so they're easy on the eye. The historical feel is enriched by the use of some fairly soft colouring throughout, and also by the fact that in this animé - so far - there are no strange hair colours! Another nice touch is that when stills are occasionally employed, they have a very airbrushed look about them – for me this added a nice stylised touch. In the spirit of the comedic element of this series, the chibi style [where characters are distorted, taking on childlike proportions] also makes an entrance. I'm not one of the people that inherently dislike this type of accentuation, so I thought it fitted in well enough with the characters.
Even though the colours are mostly soft and a little muted, I should also mention that strong colours do make an appearance and when they do, they are deep and clear, no problems with that. There is some artifacting seen though, especially on black lines during fast movements. Other than that the picture is pretty good, from what I hear a big improvement on anything that was available beforehand for this series.
On small drawback is that the English subtitles are presented in white, instead of the oft-used (and more vivid) yellow to which I've become so accustomed. They're clear enough to read easily, but having got used to yellow, I now find white seems a little harsh on the eye. One of the ideas I did especially like, however, is that the translations of the Japanese signs are printed in a Oriental-looking font. This easily distinguishes sign translations from speaking translations, a nice touch which I haven't noticed often in other animé titles. For the record, you can select either signs-only subtitling or full subtitling, another useful feature.
Some people have reported an echo on the original Japanese audio track. I encountered no such problem... the spoken dialogue can be a little on the quiet side, but the acting is good, with solid performances and voices that fit the characters well, as one might expect from such a high-profile series. Apparently the English subtitling present on this DVD is a vast improvement over anything that went before, with Rika Takahashi's new translation working well. For example, Kenshin has a unique speech style (akin to Chichiri in Fushigi Yugi); Takahashi has not only managed to reflect this in the English translations, but she also works in more slang when the Yakuza are speaking. All of the original key terms are also left intact rather than translated, such as Kenshin's style of swordsmanship (Hiten Mitsurugi), which some fans feared would be translated into something like 'Dragon Fighting Style' before Media Blasters thankfully proved such fears unfounded.
The English dub is decent, and the acting better than the majority of English dubs I've listened to. The voices of Kaoru and Yahiko are a little more squeaky than their Japanese counterparts; Kenshin and Sanosuke are great though! As a side note, on the Japanese soundtrack Kenshin is voiced by a woman, adding a certain softness to the characterisation. On the English dub, however, Kenshin is voiced by a man – it's different, but it still works well. Overall, the English dub is solid and perfectly functional, though I think I'll always prefer the Japanese voicing.
The menu system here is fairly basic, with static yet utilitarian menus. The images used for them are in the artistic mode found in the original manga [Japanese comics], and it's nice to see the different styles of drawing Kenshin. One of the things I did like about the menu system is that they don't leave you hanging with just the episode titles, unsure of in which order to play them. Behind each title is the number of the episode – I know, it should be an obvious thing, but you'd be surprised how many animé releases I've had to go look up the episode guides for in order to work out in which order I should watch something. Also appealing is the presence of strains of calm, period-style music looping in the background of every screen but the 'Scene Access' sub-menu. (Which, by the way, only offers 4 chapter breaks per episode... however, the first and last of these is keyed to the intro sequence and the end credits, so you can at least skip directly to whatever section you're looking for.)
The jewel of the special features on this disc is a section of detailed (and mostly linguistic) liner notes explaining translation touches, such as Kenshin's speaking style. They also detail interesting facts about the culture of the time that really help a Western audience to understand some of the nuances of the series that we'd otherwise overlook. It's a slight shame that the liner notes are only included as an on-disc extra rather than a physical card in the DVD case (as AnimEigo, another animé distributor, does), because it means you can't read them as you're watching the show. They're also in a very small font that can make reading them difficult depending upon your distance from the screen, so be warned!
The small font problem continues across into the character profiles area as well. Given that the profiles seen here are more insightful and interesting than those seen on most other animé DVDs, the font size is really just one small flaw in what is otherwise a nicely-executed feature. There is also an art gallery which is a little disappointing as it only includes two fairly bland pictures overlaid on a dull background. With luck, they will be able to scrape together more images on the subsequent DVD volumes.
A textless opening is one of those things that really should be included on all animé DVDs – luckily it's provided here and it's nice to watch the bare opening sequence without any adulteration. Another feature offered is the original Japanese credits, which leads me onto an interesting point. The credits on this disc very cleverly use seamless branching to detect which ones should be played at the show's beginning and end. If you have the language set to English you'll get the English ones (that's the English language credits and songs – yes, they recorded an English-language version of both the OP and ED songs!); if Japanese, you'll get the Japanese ones. Having said that, for this feature I could only get English-written credits of the Japanese voice actors. Which is good, don't get me wrong, but it's not what I originally thought of when I read 'original Japanese credits'.
The final feature are trailers for other four other Media Blasters titles, including Magic Knight Rayearth, Ninku, Shinesman and Virtua Fighter.
OK, the packaging, believe it or not, is a controversial subject. Some fans object to the 'floweriness' of the picture on the front of this DVD; personally I don't mind it all that much. It shows Kenshin, sword drawn and posed artistically in hues of purples, surrounded by autumnal leaves in varying reds, yellows and teals. It's a little muted perhaps if it's supposed to represent accurately the action and humour of the series, but I can't really find it within myself to object to it!
I do, however, have some issues with other aspects of the packaging. The font, while pretty and legible on the front cover, is a little hard to make out on the spine of the case. In fact, the Anime Works logo is more noticeable than the series title once the DVD is in amongst others and lined up on a shelf. The episode summaries on the back cover are not only written in a really faint yellow on a fairly pastel background, but they are also in italic – again, legibility suffers.
My big problem with the packaging is that there is no numbering on it anywhere. So, let's recap, this is a series of 22 DVDs – but there are no spine numbers. A shelving nightmare, as it relies on the user to know instinctively in which order the DVDs come. Yes, there is a title for each DVD... which helps, but numbering would be a lot clearer. Oh well, it can't have everything I suppose.
As the first four episodes in a show which runs past 90 overall, there is definitely some introductory action going on here, as both the show's premise and its main characters are revealed on this disc. So far I feel the show has a vast amount of potential and that the characters are already being developed succinctly and well. I like the mix of comedy, history and action, so I have high hopes for the rest of this series. I certainly can't find many faults with this Media Blasters release either, and if the quality continues, I'll be happy!