Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 8: Ice Blue Eyes) Review
Kenshin's big decision has already been made as this disc opens – first of all we see the impact his leaving has had on all his friends back in Tokyo, and then the story moves on. This second DVD of the 'Legend of Kyoto' arc doesn't quite get us to Kyoto yet, but the journey is definitely an interesting one. We learn a little more about Shishio – the 'big bad' of the arc so far, and Aoshi of the Oniwaban returns (last seen in volume 3). In addition, there's a new recurring character to introduce: Misao (also affiliated with the Oniwaban, although more as an adoptee than a full-fledged member). It is a good second volume in the longer story arc – the characterisation is strong, there's a real sense of depth of story as we re-visit the Oniwaban and Kenshin gets to show more of his honourable side. Humour still peppers the story, alleviating some of the show's darker moments and drawing us still further into this historical tale of intrigue, action and friendship.
So this disc starts the action up again, and although the pace is a little slower than the previous volume, that's because the story is beginning to settle in for the long-haul. There's still more character development, even of the established characters such as Megumi, Kaoru and Himura himself, and there's also more airtime for Saito Hajime, one of the characters that has been plucked from genuine Japanese history to appear in this animé series. Yes, Saito is an actual historical character. At 19 he had to leave home because he killed a man, and he was later inducted into the Shinsengumi (who, yes, also really existed). One of Saito's roles in the Shinsengumi was the execution of corrupt members of the group, something alluded to in Rurouni Kenshin. As in the show, Saito eventually joined the police force (in 1877, in fact) and took the name Fujita Goro... following which he became a spy answering directly to the police commissioner.
On to the Shinsengumi then, as this is probably as good a time as any to examine their historical role. They were set up as 'Kyoto Defenders' by a prominent Protector of Kyoto (Matsudaira Katamori, to be exact). They patrolled the streets of the city and kept the peace. They were suspicious of strangers and very exacting in their justice, and in 1864 they helped foil a plot against the Emperor by the Ishin Shishi (known as the Ikedaya Affair). Saito Hajime was captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi, and the names of other captains can also be found in the Kenshin universe. (For example, the captain of the 10th unit was one Harada Sanosuke!! Not to mention, Aoshi is also based on a member of the Shinsengumi; Hijikata Toshizou, a man who controlled his emotions but fought hard and with superlative combat instincts.)
It's this blending of real historical characters and events with fictionalised ones that makes Kenshin that little bit extra-special for me. Not only is it a damn good storyline – with characters who develop over time even when you think there isn't anywhere left for them to go – but the voice acting is solid and the action levels keep up interest. There's something quite remarkable in the fact that while watching an animé series I've found myself inspired to learn more about the historical period it takes for its political and cultural setting.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
32: 'Change Tears to Courage'
Himura has left for Kyoto and his friends are all upset about his leaving and left at loose ends. Kaoru lies in bed weeping; Sanosuke is at the Akabeko restaurant, breaking furniture and shouting a lot about how he wants to go after Kenshin; and Yahiko finally turns up and asks the two staff we met in earlier episodes (Tae and Tsubame) to try and talk Kaoru out of her funk.
In the end, Sanosuke asks his old friend (and now newspaper journalist) Katsu for some money for the journey. As he departs, however, he runs into Yahiko and then Saito. As Sanosuke announces his plans to go to Kyoto in pursuit of Himura, Saito launches into him both verbally and physically, telling him he's only a burden to Kenshin. They have a fight in which Sanosuke initially flounders but finally manages to get in some decent blows. (There's a lot of name-calling involved too, of course.) At the end of it, Saito stalks off... leaving Sano to tell Yahiko to somehow get Kaoru to go to Kyoto, before heading off himself.
Kaoru is really moping... so much so that Tae and Tsubame hardly make an impact on her emotional withdrawal. Fortunately, Yahiko runs into someone who can: Megumi shows up at the dojo and gives Kaoru a real ear-bashing, telling her to stop being whiny and depressed and to get up and chase Kenshin to Kyoto... pointing out she would already have gone if she didn't have local patients she had sworn to take care of. This ploy works and Kaoru and Yahiko determine to get themselves to Kyoto by whatever means they can.
Interestingly, this is the first Kenshin episode without any Kenshin in it (which is not to say that he doesn't appear in a few flashbacks, but still). It aptly demonstrates that the remainder of the core cast is sufficiently strong that the lead character doesn't actually have to be in every episode, and it somehow builds upon the emotions felt regarding his departure.
33: 'For the Title of Strongest'
Kaoru and Yahiko catch a steamboat, seen off by Dr Gensai, Ayame, Suzume and Megumi. Rather more cash-strapped, Sanosuke meanwhile hikes his way through the mountains... getting a trifle lost in the process and knocking some trees down with his bare hands in a show of his frustration with both Kenshin and Saito (as you do). He's determined to prove he isn't merely a useless burden to Himura, if only he can figure out how to get to Kyoto.
As it happens, Kenshin is also walking to Kyoto, taking the less-travelled path in an effort to minimise his contact with other people, who he fears will suffer by association with him. Nevertheless, his journey takes him through a small village where people are frightened at the mere sight of his sword... and in the end a police officer notices it and the action cuts to a comical Benny Hill-esque chase through the surrounding fields.
Back in Tokyo, Megumi (who has been left in charge of the Kamiya dojo) notices that the front door is mysteriously unlocked, and discovers Aoshi Shinomori – who, you may recall, was responsible for re-capturing her for Kanryu in a previous episode). He asks her where Kenshin is and threatens her when she keeps her silence, but about then, in pops Saito just to stir things up and to let Aoshi know exactly where Himura has gone. Meanwhile, one of Shishio's men (Soujiro) is watching all of this from afar.
Soon after, Aoshi is seen making his way through the forest, where he comes across four large men (who introduce themselves as Shishio's men) in the process of defiling the graves of Aoshi's dead Oniwaban followers. They invite him to meet Shishio, but the latter declines and kills them instead. Soujiro then appears, applauding Aoshi's swordsmanship, and Aoshi once again declines the offer to join Shishio, stating that he has no intention of ever fighting on behalf of another group.
Finally, the action cuts to a girl being stalked by several guys in the forest where Kenshin has decided to make camp. Once she's surrounded by these grown men looking for 'a good time', she asks innocently if they have any money. However, the moment they produce a bag of cash (which they stole earlier that very evening), she beats them up and grabs the money. (Yep, she's a practiced highwayman who cons sleazy blokes into trying to rape her somewhere secluded... the oldest trick in the book, eh?) But just as she's set to make a dash for it, Kenshin stops her to give one of his trademark lessons in morality.
34: 'The Girl Bandit'
The girl, whose name we learn is Misao, attempts to rob Kenshin, realising his only valuable possession is his sword... but as the fight progresses, Kenshin uses Misao's cape as a shield against her own kunai [throwing knives]. After a difference of opinion over money and thievery, Misao tells Kenshin she wants his sword as compensation for the ruined cape, and he hands it over (thinking she'll never take it because the reverse blade makes it useless to most swordsmen). Ah, how foolish! She naturally grabs the sword and starts to march off... Kenshin obviously right behind, telling Misao that the sword is really important and offering money in exchange for it, which she accepts.
So Kenshin heads back to town (having decided that he's going to return the stolen money), with Misao chasing after, yelling that it's hers. The amusing thing is, they both more or less already realise that neither of them are 'normal' people. Eventually they do return the money, and when Misao tries to steal some more we discover that the reason she's so desperate for cash is because she wants to get back to Kyoto after an errand took her to Tokyo. We finally learn her background, Misao explaining how she's been all alone since she was very young and was only really saved when a kind person found her, though eventually he and his friends had to leave her with someone in Kyoto. She's hoping to find them again.
The connection eventually becomes more clear as the audience learns that her protectors were the Oniwaban group. Kenshin doesn't reveal what he knows about their fate, though he does mention Aoshi (which piques her interest). Misao decides to follow Kenshin, insulting him for not revealing more about Aoshi. During their forest walk, and sheltered from the rain by a tree, Misao opens up still further. We learn that Aoshi became the Oniwaban leader when he was 15 and that he's responsible and kind. Also she says she's known him for eight years and never seen him smile.
35: 'Conquered Village'
As they continue to walk, Misao tells more tales of the Oniwaban, annoyed at Kenshin for not paying attention to her. Kenshin hears a noise in the woods, and they find a boy and a dying man drenched in blood. The man asks Kenshin to save his younger brother and his town from Shishio and his minions. Kenshin is more than a little surprised that Shishio has bothered to take over a small village... and that the town has apparently been abandoned by the government as indefensible. Kenshin asks Misao to look after the boy (Eiji) while he goes off into the village to investigate.
Misao of course follows Kenshin with Eiji, the latter informing her that Senkaku (the leader of the village) is at the mansion to welcome Shishio, as the townspeople are too afraid to fight back. They find two corpses hanging in the middle of the town and we learn they're Eiji's parents, punished for their resistance. When Shishio's men inevitably turn up, Kenshin asks why these people were killed... apparently it's because their sons tried to escape. Oh dear, Kenshin does get quite angry at this and trounces them. To add to the fun, as one of the men takes a swing at Misao, Saito shows up just in time to stab the guy through the head.
It soon becomes evident that it's not just a felicitous coincidence. Saito's there because one of his policemen (Eiji's older brother, operating undercover in the village) informed him that Shishio was present. The villagers try to stop Kenshin from cutting down Eiji's parents for a proper burial, saying they will all suffer if the bodies are lowered. (This doesn’t stop our honourable hero though.) Saito and Himura have a private dialogue wherein they resolve to leave for the mansion where Shishio is staying. Soujiro learns that Kenshin and Saito are on their way and informs Shishio, who's apparently relishing their impending arrival.
Picture & Sound
The picture transfer remains good, with only a few moments of artifacting or rainbowing seen over the course of the four episodes on this DVD. Colours remain well-defined and there continues to be a nice blend of animation styles. There's a lot of split-screening for emphasis, which is good for getting a lot of action packed into a small amount of space... and the show allows itself a bit of graininess to show flashbacks (which is a fairly new innovation for the series, only seen in the last few discs, I think).
As for the sound, it's clean and distinct. The Japanese voice actors remain very strong, with the English cast not awfully far behind them. Interestingly, David Lucas (the voice of Spike in the English dub version of Cowboy Bebop) also voices Shishio here in Kenshin... and there are in fact many people out there who'll recognise his sinister tones behind the bandaged baddie. The only voice in the dub that I'm currently having problems with is Misao's, as it's a bit too high-pitched, excitable, and squeaky for my liking. (But then again, I thought something similar about Yahiko when he was first introduced in the series, so maybe she'll also grow on me.)
Menus & Packaging
The menus are nice and crisp again, of the same fresh, modern style as seen in the previous volume. Additionally, there's some nice atmospheric music present, which changes from menu to menu. The only real downside is the menu department is some of the vertical writing; although no doubt intended to emulate the look and feel of Japanese kanji scrolls, I personally find using this layout (particularly in the 'Extras' menu) makes things more than a little hard to read.
This time around, instead of black as the base colour for the cover art, we now have grey (from the looks of it, the Kyoto arc covers are going to alternate between the two). On this volume, Kenshin is depicted with a moody expression, Kaoru, Megumi and Misao overlaying his image in a pretty decent design.
I'm afraid there are not many extras on this particular disc: a scant three pages of liner notes (albeit of the same high quality as always), a number of not very amusing outtakes from the English dub, and trailers for other Media Blasters releases (Magic User's Club, Samurai: Hunt for the Sword, Twin Signal,and Jungle De Ikou). I'm still missing the character profiles we saw in the earlier volumes of Rurouni Kenshin, and maybe there could have been some more historical background offered (even if they merely re-used the character profile of Aoshi from a previous disc); overall, the extras probably wouldn't persuade you to buy this disc half as much as the story itself will.
The brooding tone we witnessed in the previous volume has lightened somewhat in order to allow for the introduction of an interesting new character, Misao. This is a slight shame as the darker mood was extremely cool, but one of the beauties of Kenshin is the way it manages to effortlessly mix darkness and light. Character development was an unexpected treat at this late-ish stage in the series, and I definitely enjoyed the return of Aoshi. It's good to see the dojo gang are all following Kenshin to Kyoto after all, and we are also learning a great deal more about Shishio and his plans for Japan.
This may not be the strongest of the Kenshin DVDs, but that doesn't detract from the enjoyment level and – as part of a longer story arc – it fulfils a role in moving characters along and filling in background details before we get to the real fighting action.