Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 14: Fire Requiem) Review
Well, it's been a while since Kenshin and his pals made the long journey from Tokyo to Kyoto to bring a halt to Shishio's reign of terror. Rurouni Kenshin's Kyoto arc here reaches its climax... and one that has proved controversial amongst fans of the show. The central story over these five episodes is the showdown with Shishio – Aoshi, Sanosuke, Saito and Kenshin all get to show off further fighting prowess, sheer determination and personal honour as they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the action. Why the controversy then? Well, it's mostly to do with the end of the battle and Shishio's defeat (and no, I don't count this as much of a spoiler – there is never a doubt in any viewer's mind that Shishio will be defeated; it's the manner of his defeat that we're left guessing about until the last moment). If you want to know the full story of the end of the fight, read the episode summaries below. If you'd rather not know, I won't expand more on it in these introductory paragraphs, except to say that some viewers found it disappointing, while I didn't.
Shishio represents a philosophy that asserts that the strongest will always win – 'the strong live and the weak die'. For him it's a basic fact; he is the strongest and this is borne out by the final fights. Shishio not only knocks out Kenshin but also Aoshi, Sanosuke and Saito, and they're all fine fighters. What marks the heroes though is a sense of duty, friendship, honour, and (in Kenshin's case) and all-prevailing desire to keep alive. In the end these virtues are the lynchpin to Shishio's defeat, no matter who strikes that final blow. The strongest doesn't automatically win in the Rurouni Kenshin universe.
Anyway, so back to these five episodes. There's a lot of fighting as you might expect from the climactic volume of this large story arc. While there's still some commentary on techniques and styles the striking difference between this and previous volumes is the amount of fighting action. There are less cuts back to action elsewhere, less flashbacks, less characterisation, and less chit-chat; it's a bumper crop of action here, at least for the duration of the Shishio battle. Everything has been building up to this moment for a long time, so it's only fitting that the pay-off comes with some remarkable sequences.
But to say we know Kenshin will win out isn't to say there aren't tense moments. Shishio dishes out a great deal damage to his opponents and Kenshin is knocked unconscious – there is a genuine moment where the audience is left a little confused over how the good guys can possibly win without some sort of divine intervention. There's no reliance on a deus ex machina, though. It's not as if this volume is all fighting either, though sometimes it seems that way. The final two episodes are almost entirely epilogue to the main storyline; Kenshin finally recovers from his exertions, we learn what's become of the Juppon Gatana, and the core gang finally return to Tokyo.
The Kyoto arc is thought by many to be the most compelling of the Kenshin storylines. It's the one everyone was telling me to look forward to as I started the series with a little trepidation. The hours of watching have more than been repaid by excellent entertainment, fantastic characterisation for an animated series, and a truly compelling storyline. The fights are icing on the cake for me, really. So, time for a number of observations I have on the end of this arc. I think Aoshi became a real favourite for me as the tales unravelled – his journey to chaos and back revealed far more of his character than I thought I'd ever see. The new characters, Misao, Shishio, Seijuro, the Juppon Gatana – I wouldn't have expected to know so much about them, but I'm glad I do. Saito continues to amuse in every way – would quite like to have seen him and Seijuro in a war of words. It's been a good, fun journey and I've enjoyed the series more than I ever thought possible when I started watching it. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone!
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
58: 'The Age Chooses Shishio?'
Kenshin has fallen! His adversary wounded from previous battles and from a nasty bite, Shishio takes this moment to expound his philosophy of the strong ruling the weak. (Yes, debate and dialogue is always going to be a part of these final battles.) It's not all about philosophising though and the fighting continues as Kenshin gets to his feet. Shishio unleashes his second secret sword which involves explosives come into play and knocks Kenshin out.
Shishio, Houji and Yumi all assume that they have won the day – but what no one expects is for Saito to come flying through the door, sword at the ready! This is going to be no normal duel. So now it's Saito squaring off against Shishio – and it's certainly no holds barred when these two get started, with less debate and considerably more hurtling through the air and using cool martial arts techniques. When Saito goes for a point-blank gatotsu, Shishio impales his opponent's shoulder with his hand... eww. Lots of blood flies around and eventually Saito is brought down. Shishio is doing pretty well so far.
And now it's Sanosuke's turn to step up to the plate, as he launches himself at their arch-nemesis. As always he proves himself a little tougher than his opponent expects and even with broken ribs manages to keep fighting, willing to die in order to defeat Shishio. Though his heart is strong and he's brave and tough, Sanosuke is no real match for 'the big bad' though, and becomes the third to fall to the ground.
Yumi begs Shishio to finish off his opponents, stating there is no time to lose. On cue, Aoshi appears, ready to take on his former colleague in chaos – Shishio.
59: 'Not Out of Luck!'
After a quick recap of those Shishio has managed to knock out so far, we're returned to the stand-off between Shishio and Aoshi. The latter states that he's come to fight on Kenshin's behalf because if he himself hadn't fought Kenshin, then Himura wouldn't have been weakened for this final battle versus Shishio. And so the fight commences.
Again there's less dialogue between the combatants than previously, allowing for more swordplay here. But Aoshi has also taken a beating from Kenshin – can he really last long against Shishio? The answer is that of course he cannot, but during the course of the fight Shishio has a revelation: Aoshi and the others have simply been stalling so that Kenshin can recover enough strength to continue his fight.
Though the bad guys mock this display of honour, it is not a wasted one. Kenshin manages to stagger to his feet and regains consciousness (yes, in that order, would you believe). His swordsman's soul shines through as he faces Shishio and pulls himself together enough to be able to launch an attack. Their combat recommences.
Yumi seems very distraught though, noting that the fight has taken over 15 minutes. Why should we care? Well, this time she actually explains... after being burned alive, Shishio has lost the ability to regulate his body temperature – and after 15 minutes of exertion he runs the risk of seriously damaging himself.
Kenshin unleashes a massive combination of attacks and manages to connect with Shishio. Actually damaging Shishio awakens his fighting spirit and the last bout of the battle is finally primed to begin.
60: 'The Man Who Is Chosen For Victory'
The episode starts with Kenshin preparing to launch the ultimate attack of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. The usual dialogue between Kenshin and his foe reveals that they're both ready for this final onslaught! Kenshin unleashes the attack and Shishio deftly parries it, using his final secret sword attack. However, the force of Kenshin's attack was delayed and somehow manages to still ensnare Shishio, slowing the latter's movement and allowing Himura to get a good solid hit in. For the first time, it's Shishio's blood that is flying at the camera and he's also starting to burn up, having fought for way too long.
Yumi runs to the man she loves, interposing herself between Shishio and Himura while begging the latter to stop the fight and explaining why Shishio cannot go on. Bad move. Ever merciful, Kenshin lowers his sword, but Shishio spots the opening and seizes the opportunity to impale him (yes, by plunging his own sword through Yumi and into Kenshin – what a nice guy!). He points out that she won't mind because she truly understands him and indeed, as she dies, Yumi expresses her happiness in finally being of some use to her love.
Kenshin and Shishio both need to get to their feet in order to continue the battle – Shishio stands up first but is soon followed by Kenshin, driven by his will to live and his love for Kaoru. As Shishio attacks, Kenshin parries. But the effort is simply too much for Shishio, who starts to spontaneously combust after finally crossing his own limits. The battle is over and Kenshin is the ultimate victor.
Houji isn't too happy about his master's defeat though; he runs past Kenshin, bashing into him on his way out of the door... and it's enough to knock Kenshin out again after all his exertions. Sanosuke takes up the burden of Kenshin while Saito tells the others to leave while he remains to finish the fight (Houji is meanwhile destroying the Inferno Room, hoping to kill off everybody).
61: 'The Juppon Gatana Who Remain'
This is very much a 'loose ends' episode. The bridge providing the only escape path from the Inferno Room is destroyed and Saito left on the wrong side of it, but (with his usual panache) he casually lights a cigarette and tells the others to leave the compound using the map he gave Aoshi earlier. He must remain though, so it appears for all intents and purposes that Saito is lost. Houji is rescued from the fire by Anji and sits on a hill watching the fire burn in the distance. Soujiro is also there and learns that Shishio and Yumi have died. Soujiro says his farewells and states he has to go on a journey. Anji says he's going to turn himself into the police; Houji says he'll accompany him, but only to tell people of Shishio's greatness, convincing them of a need to change the regime (like that'll happen!). Our heroes at last turn up at the Aoiya, and upon receiving a letter to this effect from Kaoru, Megumi leaves Tokyo for Kyoto so she can tend to Kenshin's wounds.
A month later Kenshin has recovered enough to be on his feet, up and about. Everyone's very relieved to see him so well! As they all sit happily eating their beef hotpot (what else?), Chou arrives. He's really there just to give them (and us) a report on what everyone's up to. He's become a police officer and spy in the same vein as Saito, accepting an offered pardon for his continued services. Henya is now a scout for the army, Saizuchi is a negotiator for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Fuji has joined the Hokkaido militia, and Kamatari is working undercover as a (female) foreign student.
Anji was spared from capital punishment and is serving a 25-year sentence in Hokkaido. Houji, on the other hand, is dead – waiting in a police cell he apparently killed himself. Chou also tells the gathered group about Yumi's past as a high-class courtesan. Soujiro is still on the run and Iwanbo, so stupid he's harmless, is just sitting about somewhere. The catching up over and done with, Chou says his farewells and we cut briefly to a scene of Hell where Houji is greeted by Yumi and Shishio, the latter inviting Houji to help them take over the place. (Well, what else would we expect from an evil genius?!)
62: 'Kyoto, the Engraved Memory'
The final episode of the Kyoto arc of Rurouni Kenshin opens with Megumi explaining to Kenshin that he really mustn't ever get this wounded again – a sentiment she later expands upon in a tête a tête with Kaoru. Kaoru tells Misao and Okina that they are returning to Tokyo the next day. Himura and Sano have both already left the Aoiya early, and Yahiko ducks out as well to pay a visit to Mount Hiei (where Shishio's compound was located). Rather mysteriously, we see Kenshin buying some flowers, but we still don't know where he's heading.
Yahiko gets to Mount Hiei and discovers Sanosuke already there. While Yahiko just wants a peek at where the final battle took place, it's fairly obvious that Sanosuke is searching for Saito – despite their endless in-fighting, he wants to know whether Saito is really dead, even though his fate looked pretty sealed the last time we saw him. Meanwhile, Kaoru thanks Megumi for her treatment of Kenshin and Megumi explains that Kenshin cannot take another beating like this one as his wounds are accumulating – she tells Kaoru to stop being so wishy-washy and express her love for Kenshin, as this will also bolster his will to live.
Cutting back to Himura, we see him laying his flowers at a graveside, kneeling, and offering a prayer. His old master Seijuro appears behind him and comments that it's the first time in ten years Kenshin has visited that grave. At this point, we only learn that it's someone Kenshin cared for whom he killed with his own hands. Before departing, he promises to return to the grave.
Finally Yahiko, Sanosuke, Kaoru and Megumi meet up again on the streets of Kyoto. Kenshin joins the group and they chat a little before they return to the Aoiya that evening. Having thanked Okina for everything, the gang (along with Misao) visits the shrine where Aoshi sits meditating and finally gets him to say something before they board the train for their journey back to Tokyo.
Picture & Sound
The picture quality remains as strong as in recent volumes. There's some colour-bleeding, but it's really not very noticeable unless you're looking out for it. The colours hold up very well through all the various animation styles used here. It's really a delight to watch, and Media Blasters' dedicated transfer work has really paid off.
The sound quality is back on form after a couple of dropouts on the last volume. Although possessing a very strong centre-channel feel, the stereo mixes come into their own during the opening and closing songs, so you get some of the directionality. Both sets of actors do a fine job to bring Rurouni Kenshin to life – although I tend to listen to the Japanese soundtrack on my first viewing, I do watch it all in English too, and I don't wish I could switch all that often!
Menus, Extras & Packaging
OK, we've become used to certain aspects of the 'Legend of Kyoto' discs (as the Kyoto arc is named by Media Blasters). The cover art for this volume continues the trend of visually striking artwork – this time Kenshin looms in the background, while Shishio and Yumi take foreground. The menus remain clear and colourful, with background music and vertical text – looking forward to seeing the next iteration of menus and artwork for Rurouni Kenshin with the coming story arc, 'Tales of the Meiji'.
Extras have taken pretty much the same structure throughout these volumes also, so we have the normal set here too. The trailers here are for Berserk, Kurogane Communication, Zenki Saga 2 and let's face it, the most important – Kenshin: Meiji Tales! Linguistic liner notes remain a strong feature, but here there are only two pages, which is simply a reflection of the amount of action versus conversation there is in these episodes.
Oh, and let's not forget the outtakes. Anyone reading my previous reviews of Rurouni Kenshin will know that the outtakes are often a little on the lame side, comedy-wise. That is certainly not the case here – I laughed out loud on a number of occasions; it's honestly as if the actors were suddenly told to lighten up and have some fun! There's around 35 outtake scenes here, and it's such a difference from the offerings in previous volumes that I was a little shocked – but I certainly enjoyed them.
So that's the standard bag of outtakes. But this is the final disc in a long story arc so we're treated to a few more special features. Firstly there's an attack list which lists the attacks of various characters and what their literal translations are. The characters represented include Kenshin, Anji, Sanosuke, Saito, Misao, Aoshi, Shishio, Chou, Henya, Hannya, Raijuta, Jinei, Kamatori, Okina, Usui and Yahiko. It's a fun addition, especially for the completist.
The final extra takes the form of character messages, in-character comments by the English voice actors thanking us for watching the Kyoto arc and inviting us to return to watch 'Tales of the Meiji'. I thought this would be quite dreary, to be honest – but again it shocked me. I laughed so much – they sound like a great bunch of people. We have messages from Aoshi, Kaoru (who tells us to get up and come join her dojo), Misao, Yahiko (interrupted by Kaoru and Sanosuke), Sanosuke, Saito (surly as always), and Kenshin. Oh, there's also the matter of a rip-roaringly funny message from Shishio, I think it even made me like the character more!
Once again, if you've been watching up until this disc you're hardly going to stop now. For me, it's a fitting ending to a superb extended storyline... one that's included interesting characters with their own motivations, a bad guy whose followers love him (rather than fear him), and some incredible action sequences. Kenshin himself has had quite a journey, not just geographically, but also having his philosophy challenged and having to return to his master for further training. I couldn't wait to get this disc into the DVD player when the previous one came to an end, and I think it's a very enjoyable set of episodes with some better-than-expected special featuers and the same strong audio and picture quality I've come to expect from this series.
For those interested in catching the full Kyoto arc as a unified set of DVDs, the 'Legend of Kyoto' premium box set including all of the episodes in this story arc is now available from Media Blasters.