Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 10: Between Life and Death) Review
We're getting close to the real action of the Kyoto arc here, in a volume that brings all the major players to Kyoto at last; yes, even Saito finally arrives for the big action. The disc opens on a cliffhanger from the previous volume – Kenshin's fight with Chou of the Juppon Gatana – and ends on a much quieter note. It's an interesting blend of action (with two major fights) and quieter reflection (as Kenshin begs his former master to teach him the final technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi style and then becomes a pupil again).
The character who receives the most impact from this volume, is, without doubt, Misao. She learns that Aoshi is in Kyoto, that he's after Kenshin (her new ally), and what happened to her friends from the Oniwaban. She also has to witness a fight between Okina and Aoshi, and have her beloved Aoshi tell her he never wants to see her again. It's definitely a rough ride for her, but she also gains the friendship of Yahiko and Kaoru and takes a remarkable step towards the end of the volume that will have lasting importance as the story progresses.
It's strange that in the middle of a fairly action-packed story arc there is time for this kind of characterisation – and it's definitely something that makes Rurouni Kenshin so enjoyable for me. Certainly the fights are good, however this is true of many animé series... but the characterisation and the time spent on it, well, that's something more precious. Another example of this comes in the final episodes of the disc, when Seijuro Hiko is training Kenshin once again – there are many flashbacks to their first meeting and we learn some more about Kenshin's history, his parents and his character from a young age. Of course, we also hear a little about his bed-wetting – showing that the writers of Rurouni Kenshin clearly haven't lost the humorous touches that help to flesh out the action and poignancy of the show and make it even more watchable.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
40: 'A Killer Without Mercy'
So, back to where we were at the cliffhanger from the last volume – Kenshin, his sword broken, has gone off to find Chou of the Juppon Gatana ('the Ten Swords') and retrieve the Seiko's young son (Ioku). When Kenshin reaches his mark and demands that the child be handed over, Chou merely laughs and ends up hanging the child on a tree while he prepares for combat. What follows is a long, fantastic and bizarre fight sequence. Chou uses some of his collection of cool and strange swords (including one that's more like a wire whip), while Kenshin manages to dodge blows, swordless as he is.
During the fight Misao, Okina, and Ioku's parents arrive and watch, aghast. Ioku, however, provides comic relief for the episode by perfectly mimicking Kenshin's pattern of speech throughout, which is quite a touching tribute to the man trying to save his life. (Another good reason to listen to the original Japanese, as this great touch is completely missing from the English dub version.) Seiku can eventually watch no longer and tosses Kenshin his father's holy sword, which Kenshin takes up and readies for Chou's next attack. After another skirmish, it appears that Kenshin has killed Chou... his face becomes that of the Battousai once more, Misao is obviously scared of him, and Okina states that Kenshin is lost. But then everyone suddenly notices that it's actually a reverse-blade sword! Kenshin hasn't killed anyone, hurrah! It even comes with a special inscription from the maker. So Kenshin is once more kitted out for battle in his preferred, non-lethal mode – and it's a damn good fight he went through to get it too.
Meanwhile Yahiko and Kaoru have been searching Kyoto for Kenshin. Instead, they spot Aoshi and decide to give chase. In a typical farce moment for the series, Misao (walking along the same street, of course) misses seeing Aoshi, Kaoru misses seeing Kenshin, and Yahiko and Misao collide with one another. Yahiko having overheard Misao yelling about Kenshin, Kaoru immediately starts to ask Misao what she knows about our hero – and the episode draws to a close.
41: 'The Ultimate Technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi Style'
Okina has provided the address of Kenshin's old master, Seijuro Hiko, and so our hero sets off to beg to be taught the final and ultimate technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. He acknowledges that in order to defeat Shishio he will need to improve vastly and hopes for help from Seijuro, who seems to have given up the sword to indulge in a potter's life. Kenshin's master is pretty surly, refusing to teach Himura any further and allowing us a glimpse of when they first met and how he views his pupil.
Misao takes Kaoru and Yahiko to see Okina and – after confronting Kaoru about her intentions regarding Kenshin and the battle he's about to face – gives them the details of where Kenshin has gone and the three of them set off to find him. Meanwhile Okina gets a message from Aoshi and goes to meet him. He tells Aoshi to give up the fight against Kenshin – but Aoshi will have none of it.
Misao, Kaoru and Yahiko reach Seijuro's place in time to hear Kenshin being berated by his old master. They burst in and surprise both men – and while Kenshin seems especially surprised to see Yahiko and Kaoru, he says nothing. Seijuro sends Kenshin off to get some water and then asks the others to tell him what his pupil has been up to. By the time Kenshin returns, Seijuro has changed his mind and accepts him as a student once more. Alas, he also sends Kenshin's friends on their way, so Kaoru doesn't get that big reunion with Kenshin that perhaps we all hoped for!
In the woods on the way back, Misao finds out that Kaoru and Yahiko know who Aoshi is and she presses them for information. Kaoru tells her the full story of what has gone between Aoshi and Kenshin in the past and why Aoshi is after Kenshin, Misao is obviously upset to learn of the fate of some of the Oniwaban but takes it pretty well considering. In the meantime, Soujiro catches up with Aoshi and once again invites him to come meet Shishio – and this time Aoshi complies.
42: 'The Formation of an Alliance'
The Juppon Gatana members that Soujiro has rounded up are now at Shishio's and he finally greets Aoshi (who is far and above the tallest and most handsome man in the area so it's a surprise it's takes so long to get around to him; if I were a baddie I'd question the outsider before asking how all my men are!). Aoshi agrees to help Shishio kill Kenshin in return for information about Kenshin's whereabouts – but as no-one actually knows where Kenshin is, they plot to torture the information out of Okina. Aoshi therefore must betray his old Oniwaban friends in order to pursue his revenge.
Shishio's assassins, the owls, attack Okina's house during the night – but the former Oniwaban aren't off-form and fight back with great success. Okina works out that Aoshi is behind the attack and sends him a letter of challenge – arranging a time and place to meet. The meeting goes ahead and Aoshi and Okina square up to each other in combat, in what turns out to be one of the strongest fights of the disc. Misao arrives just in time to see Okina collapse in blood at Aoshi's hands... and he then delivers one final blow when he tells the lovestruck girl that he never wants to see her again.
Meanwhile, Seijuro Hiko continues his lessons with Kenshin, expressing disappointment wherever he can – and making Kenshin really hang on, honing all his previous skills before there is any question of teaching him the ultimate technique of his style. It's an interesting dynamic to see Kenshin in the role of the student, and definitely adds to the episode and the storyline as a whole.
The final scenes show that Okina has survived, but only barely. Misao, at his bedside, reads a letter from him telling her not to weep and disbanding the Oniwaban. Of course, she rejects this and declares herself the new leader of the Oniwaban group – flatly informing the others that they'll be allying themselves with Kenshin against Shishio and Aoshi too!
43: 'Between Life and Death'
The episode starts by taking us back to when Seijuro Hiko and Kenshin first met, Hiko saving Kenshin's life. Flashing back to the present, Hiko is still lambasting his pupil, threatening to continue reminiscing about the past unless Kenshin wakes up from his concussion and continues training. There follows an amusing diatribe from Kenshin against his master's personality traits – but the training continues until finally Hiko is willing to teach Kenshin the final technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.
It's quite a quiet episode, compared to those that went before, and really does spend a long time establishing more of Kenshin's backstory from the day he and Hiko met and he was taken under the older man's wing as a student. We even see Hiko give the young boy the name Kenshin, saying Shinta is too gentle a name for a warrior!
There's also a lot of training and we even learn a bit about swordsmanship, including the nine bodily targets possible and how the technique makes use of all of these. When Kenshin masters one attack, Hiko wheels in another – the final technique. But he says Kenshin isn't ready for it as he is now and sends him away for a night to consider what it is he's missing. The next day, Hiko arrives to challenge Kenshin again, saying he will kill him rather than let him become a manslayer again – this time the fight will be serious, not simply more training. It is Kenshin's desire to live that saves him in the end and he has learned the final technique he so desired. But at what price?!
Saito, meanwhile, has finally arrived in Kyoto and turns up at the local jail to question Chou. As he walks in, he spots Sanosuke languishing in a neighbouring cell and the two exchange words. So it seems that all our major players are finally in Kyoto.
Picture & Sound
Both the picture and sound quality are solid transfers here. The colours remain rich when they need to be, and are dimmed only to reflect new animation styles. Action lines are crisp and the artificial noise during some of the Hiko segments is actually a part of the animation style and supposed to be there – though it's a little off-putting when you're used to the nice clean animation of Kenshin.
The Japanese dub continues to be my favourite, purely in terms of inflections and characterisation – I watched the disc with its English dub too and it's really not bad at all. Of course, Sanosuke still seems a little flat in the English version, but he makes such a small appearance on this disc it's easy to forget.
Menus & Extras
Menus continue with the vertical text and static but beautiful background pictures, as well as the pleasant and atmospheric music running beneath. It's a shame about the legibility of vertical text because otherwise I'd be a big fan of this particular menu layout.
Extras are the traditional linguistic liner notes – four pages this time around, and always well worth the read to learn more about the culture, language and history of the Kenshin universe. Because we have a new opening song, the creditless version is included here and a welcome addition it is too.
Once again there are outtakes of the English dub actors – and you have to be impressed at how few mistakes they really make. (If the outtakes on this DVD are any indication, that is.) It's a shame their mistakes aren't as funny as they could be, just generally fluffed lines, with the odd one that brings a grin to the lips.
The final special feature takes the form of four trailers for other animé: Apocalypse Zero, Kite, Very Private Lesson and Zenki... a different mix of trailers from those seen on previous Kenshin volumes.
Although this may never win any 'best volume of Rurouni Kenshin' awards, in rewatching it over and over it strikes me that it's an extremely good example of what makes the series so enjoyable. From the action sequences to the deep emotional ties between characters and the ability to mix humour, anguish and character development – it's on display here for all to see.