Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 7: Shadow of the Wolf) Review
This disc marks the start of the 'Legend of Kyoto' story arc in the Rurouni Kenshin universe. Having been told for ages that I'd love this part of the series, I was pretty excited to actually get hold of the DVDs and put the first one in. From my initial glance at the cover, it was fairly obvious that this disc marks a departure from the way things have been thus far in Kenshin, a new perspective already beginning to take shape. Gone are the pastel colours and floral motifs of the previous volumes' packaging, replaced instead by the stark contrast of black and red. And the change isn't only reflected in the case artwork. As the story starts to unfold, signs of imminent change are also seen everywhere. There are lots of clocks ticking loudly all of a sudden, we see swirling gusts of cherry blossoms on a regular basis [a standard visual metaphor in animé for a key change about to occur], and we also learn the specific date in not one, but two episodes. In fact the characters even take time out to have a discussion about the transition from spring into summer. All this sets a fatalistic mood for the four episodes which make up this volume... a volume which has to transport us from one story arc to another. It accomplishes this magnificently.
This seventh disc introduces us to Saito Hajime, a character we will no doubt see plenty more of in the future. It also brings in yet more of the political backdrop and faces Kenshin with a heady and difficult choice. To stay as he is with his friends at the Kamiya dojo, or to help Japan by moving on to Kyoto on an important mission from a trusted government official. Will Kenshin return to wandering, or is his new family enough for him? It's all good stuff. There's a little less humour evident on this DVD, which is possibly because there's a lot of storytelling to be done in a relatively short amount of time... but then again, there's also a lot more fighting. Good, long-lasting battle scenes; a real pleasure to watch.
I have to say I was a little surprised at just how quickly I fell into loving this volume of Kenshin; despite having been told it was superb, I was still reserving judgment. The characters are still well-acted, the script is punchy and switches between touching and action-packed scenes with aplomb, and the story remains engaging. Although the latter is perhaps the most important in making this volume just such an good viewing experience, without the other aspects being up to snuff it would feel lacklustre. Instead, this DVD quickly plunges the viewer back into Kenshin action while simultaneously managing to explain the political background in an incredibly short amount of time and making us once again care what happens to each of the core characters!
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
28: 'Prelude to the Impending Fight'
As Kenshin ruminates on his past, we actually get to see some scenes of him as a manslayer. (However weird it is to see him wielding a bloody sword, it's very cool also.) His thoughts have turned to past battles against the Shinsengumi (the arch-rivals of the Imperialists)... especially one of their leaders, Saito Hajime. Kenshin's friends at the dojo soon notice how distracted he is when they all head off to eat at Akabeko (their favourite restaurant) and Kenshin keeps lagging behind, his mind obviously elsewhere.
Sanosuke arrives at the dojo too late to be invited to the meal, but while he's there a stranger comes to the door, ostensibly selling pharmaceuticals. Remarkably, Sano spots that this 'door-to-door salesman' is actually a swordsman merely from the calluses on his fingers and a fight ensues. Somewhat ominously, the stranger knows exactly who Sano is and also is aware that Kenshin lives at the dojo. In the end even Sanosuke's epic strength cannot avail him against his opponent, although the latter's sword does break in half as he plunges it into Sano.
It's fortunate then that the others bump into Megumi on their way back to the dojo. When they discover a massive hole in the wall and Sanosuke lying bleeding on the floor, half a sword still in him, she sets to work her medical wonders on him immediately. Kenshin meanwhile examines the evidence and works out exactly who paid a visit to the dojo – now he just has to work out why!
Meanwhile we see the stranger (who is by now identified as Saito) talking to Mr Shibumi (a former Imperialist). It looks very much as if he's in the employ of a bunch of assassins... the same bunch that were responsible for the arrival of Jinei back in volume 2 of the series. Finally in the discussion we learn that Saito is also moonlighting as a police officer during the day, his alias being Goro Fujita.
29: 'The Strongest Opponent from the Past'
Saito is sitting in a restaurant with a bowl of soba when he is joined by a colleague in assassination; Akamatsu. This sewn-together hulk of a man wants to take out Kenshin himself and is offended that Shibumi passed him over on the contract, so Saito strikes a deal: he will lay traps that lead Kenshin to Akamatsu, so Akamatsu can finish off the Battousai. True to his word, Saito sends Kenshin a letter that draws him out of the dojo and into a field where Akamatsu attacks. During the fight, Kenshin takes the opportunity to play dead so that Akamatsu will divulge the motivation behind the attack (which Akamatsu doesn't actually know at all, but does let slip that he and Saito are both assassins working for politicians).
However, while Kenshin and Akamatsu fight, Saito turns up at the dojo in his policeman garb and tells Kaoru and Yahiko that someone is after Kenshin. Completely hoodwinked, they invite him in to wait for Kenshin to return home. Meanwhile Kaoru and Megumi talk and make the natural connection that if someone is after Kenshin and bothered to attack Sano, they are all potentially at risk.
Kenshin returns home after his fight and is shown immediately to the police officer waiting for him. Of course he recognises Saito in a heartbeat. After a short discussion about the last time they met in battle and how fair a fighter Saito once was, we learn that Saito has been closely following some of Kenshin's previous fights as depicted in the first six discs (against Jinei, Kanryu and Raijuta, to be precise). After this intriguing chat, the anticipated fight sequence starts...
30: 'The Devil of Vengeance'
...and continues! Saito has already given Kenshin a fairly bad wound, but this only seems to up Kenshin's swordsmanship (for, as we've witnessed in previous episodes, the angrier Kenshin gets, the more he reverts to the killing machine that was the Battousai). Kaoru, watching the two men fight, is extremely worried that Kenshin will turn into a manslayer again. Swords get broken, teeth get spat out, hair gets loosened, belts get used in battle! It's a long exciting fight, lasting nearly the entire episode.
Outside the dojo, two men ride in a carriage towards the fighting, having a curious dialogue. One of them states that the fate of the nation rides on these two men... intriguing! They are obviously riding to end the battle. They get there just in time to stop the final blows (which is done extremely artistically, silence suddenly falling over the fight). Kawaji (the police commissioner) and one of the men in the carriage tells Saito to regain his composure and that he was only meant to test Kenshin's strength. So by this roundabout means we discover Saito has actually been working as a spy within the assassin's group and that in actuality he's almost a good guy! The other man from the carriage enters and Kenshin identifies him to all as the Secretary for the Interior, Toshimichi Okubo (and possibly the most powerful man in Japan). Before departing, Saito files his report verbally, stating frankly that the wanderer Kenshin is no good for their purposes, but that the Battousai would serve admirably.
The final exposition has Megumi and Sanosuke explaining who Toshimichi Okubo is and what his role was during the Revolution. He has come with a proposition for Kenshin – he wants our swordsman to go to Kyoto after Shishio, another manslayer from the Revolutionary days and Kenshin's 'successor'. Shishio has gone somewhat insane and has gathered a huge army of delinquents in the Underworld of Kyoto in an effort to spark revenge between the rivals of the Revolution, hoping to start another confrontation.
The Kamiya dojo gang get to have their say in whether Kenshin goes or not, using interesting arguments to fight against any change in the status quo. Okubo, reasonably enough, tells Kenshin to think about it and get back to him in one week. Meanwhile Akamatsu has overheard that Okubo is involved with the whole Kenshin saga and he runs back to tell his boss about it... but alas for them, Saito turns up and silences them forever.
31: 'A Wish Unrequited'
This episode starts precisely one week after the last, on the day Kenshin has to give his decision to Okubo. His friends are on edge about how Kenshin will decide; Megumi and Yahiko even wake Sanosuke up to remind him of the significance of the date. Kaoru explains to Dr Gensai that they are willing to do anything to stop Kenshin going off to Kyoto despite the pressure from Okubo. Apparently though, Kenshin has said nothing at all on the matter.
Eventually the entire dojo crew catches up with Kenshin and expresses their concern that he might agree to go to Kyoto. Accusing Okubo of being full of greed, they argue that he just wants to use Kenshin for his own ends. Kenshin explains that if Okubo was really dirty, Saito would have slain him long ago, as the latter follows the mantra of 'Slay evil immediately' and wouldn't suffer a dirty politician to live. His respect for his opponent is obvious. Anyway, soon he gets to his feet and tells them he's off to see Okubo, even after Megumi puts a collar and leash on him! Kenshin sets off alone, shunning company for this particular journey.
Okubo is travelling and Kenshin has worked out where he can bump into him on his journey. However, before the two men meet Shishio steps in and assassinates the Secretary for the Interior, just beating out a gang of men laying in wait for the very same purpose. Kenshin arrives just in time to hear a whispered warning to stay away from Shishio, and when Saito and Kenshin meet with Kawaji later at the police HQ, Saito tells Kenshin he is heading for Kyoto to take on Shishio. Kenshin is left to stand on a bridge and consider his path for the future.
At the dojo everyone is dying to know Kenshin's decision. Yahiko assumes that the death of Okubo cancels the trip to Kyoto. Kaoru decides to go for a walk to look at the fireflies. Out there, she meets Kenshin... and he tells her that he must go to Kyoto to deal with Shishio after this assassination. They hug and he offers his farewells, leaving a tearful Kaoru behind him.
Finally, there's a brief textual epilogue which bizarrely reminded me of the final episode of Quantum Leap, something that probably says a lot more about how quickly this series has managed to hook me than anything else I could write about it.
Picture & Sound
The picture and sound qualities continue to improve as Media Blasters gets even more to grip with the source material. I can honestly say there were a lot less graphical glitches, though there's still a touch of graininess here and there. I didn't notice any rainbowing effects and artifacting was minimal. The colours are really intense and sharp, except where animation styles dictate a softer feel. I still like the mix of animation styles we can see in this series. It's become a real selling point for me and this release shows them off very well.
As for sound, it continues to be mostly clear and sharp, with directionality occasionally where it helps the action. There are a couple of times when the stereo separation fails and the sound suddenly drops off and becomes very quiet, but these don't last long and we quickly return to normal service. The Japanese cast continue to really impress me with their acting, both in characterisation and subtlety. The English dub is fairly strong for this series and again continues to be so on this disc, but I found it a little less flavourful than the original Japanese this time around.
Menus & Packaging
Although the menus are still static, they've also taken a leap forward from those we saw on the previous volumes of the series. The background colours and graphics are rich and dark, with blacks, reds and deep blues predominating in the menus on this seventh disc. Three of the menus (the main screen, Extras, and Setup) all have fantastically moody music playing in the background as well; I was very impressed with it. Finally, all of the menus have speedy access times and are nice and clear... although you have to get used to reading vertical text to find your way around them. (But they look so nice!)
As I mentioned in the introduction, the packaging has switched from delicate pastels and floral motifs to a darker mode. The cover is mostly black and red with a lovely picture of Saito and Kenshin in their respective battle stances on the front. The same picture embellishes the opening menu screen. Finally, the text used on the back cover is nice and clear with no typos! There's no noticeable typos on any of menu screens either. Finally!!
We're still missing the entire character profiles section seen on some of the earlier DVDs, which I think would have been particularly useful for the start of a new story arc. That being said, the included special features are fairly decent, if slightly diminished from some of the volumes of Kenshin we've seen.
Strong as always, the liner notes include five pages explaining linguistic and cultural references as well as fleshing out the history of the period and giving short biographies of the actual historical figures that appear or are mentioned on this disc.
There's a handful of outtakes from the English dub. They're certainly not hilarious, but it's always a nice addition and at least one of them made me grin (I'm sure you'll be able to guess which one once you watch them yourself). The disc includes a creditless opening, a good feature that shows the animation off to its fullest thanks to the removal of all text overlays. They've also included the original epilogue as written in Kanji, so us Western audiences can see what it looked like before the Japanese text was replaced by English.
Finally we have trailers for some other Media Blasters releases; Magic User's Club, Samurai Hunt for the Sword, Twin Signal and Elf Princess Rane.
Can you tell I liked this volume a lot? It's weird. I've been enjoying Kenshin up until this point, getting into the characters, loving the animation styles and getting into the storylines. I was prepared for more of the same but within a larger story arc. Instead the whole series seems to have geared up a notch and with a DVD release to match. Gone are the typos and the somewhat amateurish inserts, replaced by smooth, slick menus, covers and packaging. The new storyline is completely engaging right from the start and the continual way the series manages to switch between fast action, political intrigue and genuinely touching moments makes for some really great watching.