Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 3: The Shadow Elite) Review
I'm pleased to announce right from the start of this review that Rurouni Kenshin is already improving on its strong start. Volume 3 concludes a small plot arc begun in the previous volume and includes one episode almost entirely devoted to character development. It's certainly a nice introduction to how larger story arcs will function within the series... an aspect of the show I'm led to believe we can expect considerably more of in the future. This particular arc revolves around Megumi's involvement with Kanryu (the shady, villainous type we encountered at the end of the previous disc) and the showdown between Team Kenshin and the Oniwaban (a small group of incredible fighters, led by their sexy commander, Aoshi).
From my understanding, the last episode on this DVD also concludes the first major section of stories based upon the original Rurouni Kenshin manga [Japanese comics]; starting with volume 4 we'll be seeing some completely original material written just for the animated version. More importantly, the characters of the core cast are getting better fleshed out with each passing episode - something of an achievement I feel - and even minor 'bit part' roles that would normally just take the form of walk-ons or throwaway villains in other series are here given deeper motivations and personal histories to explain their actions. (Of course, this doesn't change the fact that they're minor characters, but it certainly adds welcome dimension... and hand in hand with this extensive character development, the fights just keep getting better too, so no complaints there either.)
Of course, none of this would amount to much if the setting of Rurouni Kenshin weren't believable and self-consistent; fortunately, this is little problem for a period show that pays remarkably good attention to historical details. As mentioned briefly in my previous reviews, Rurouni Kenshin is set in the Meiji era, which began in 1868... a time of great political and economic change for Japan. The preceding period was that of the Tokugawa Shogunate (named after the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu), dating back to 1600, so it had become fairly entrenched before the revolution changed everything. The Shogunate era was based entirely around a rigid class system - nobility, samurai and peasants (with the later addition of merchants as the fourth class). The nobles ruled, the samurai enforced the rules, and the peasants, well... they did what peasants always do: they produced the raw materials and food for all classes and were generally subjugated. When the merchant class evolved, it did not produce anything per se, but nevertheless controlled most of the goods for which there was any kind of demand. As you might imagine, this led to very powerful and poorly-controlled trading consortia, a bloated government and increasingly unhappy peasants. So when Commander Perry of the USA sailed in to demand that Japan open up trade relations with his country, the Shogunate was in little position to refuse.
The Japanese people were unhappy with this decision, though, fearing the negative effects that relations with the outside world might bring about. Thus was born the Ishin (Imperialist) movement and revolution followed shortly thereafter; with the samurai too powerless to interfere and the government too inefficient to hold back the revolution, the Emperor was restored. However, once the revolution was complete the Meiji officials decided that perhaps modernisation was the proper route to take after all, already wary of how European imperialism was performing around the world.
The Meiji period also marked the end of the samurai; with no feudal lords left to serve, the remaining samurai generally joined the army, the bureaucracy, or law enforcement professions. As is famously mentioned (repeatedly) in Rurouni Kenshin, the general public was specifically prohibited from carrying swords by this time. Himura himself is warned of this in the very first episode, and we see other glimpses of Meiji era politics affecting the characters in this series in different ways. Our hero, for example, is no longer a member of the Ishin movement; he has shunned the political struggles in favour of a quieter life as a wanderer, drawing sword only to defend himself or those he loves. But both the new government and those who were anti-Imperialist during the revolution seek him out in order to challenge him – and it's hard for him to find any sort of lasting peace.
Watsuki Nobuhiro has drawn upon this rich societal tapestry to create something truly engaging. Later in the series we will come across characters based upon actual individuals plucked directly from the history books and will learn a great deal more about the background politics of the Meiji era. It's a truly remarkable feat to bring this ghost of Japan past to a wider audience... and through the medium of animé Rurouni Kenshin succeeds in smoothly interleaving fact with fiction without ever deteriorating into a dry history lesson. This period is certainly not something I was all that well acquainted with before; then this interesting series came along, lit a few sparks in my mind, and made me go investigate the details to make sure I wasn't missing any important nuances.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
9: 'The Strongest Group of Ninjas'
OK, here's where we start to gain a better insight into the events of the previous episode. Yahiko has survived his poisoning thanks to Megumi's expert medicinal knowledge, but Sanosuke has made the discovery that she indeed has a connection to opium – the drug that killed his friend. He confronts and accuses Megumi angrily, and it's at this point that Kenshin steps in and provides us with a little background on Megumi. He's worked out from her surname that she's the last in a long line of famous doctors. (And this after she claimed she had no family, too!) She then confesses the rest of her tale – how she was apprenticed to a doctor in Tokyo, a man she later found was making opium for Kanryu. When Kanryu murdered the doctor during an argument, she was forced against her will to assume his place in the manufacturing cycle, but ran away when Kanryu started demanding that she produce a newer, cheaper type of opium.
When everyone is out of sight, Megumi is kidnapped by a rather nasty-looking fellow (who looks a little like Darth Maul, actually), Hannya of the Owibawan. He brings her to Kanryu in the nearby forest, where the latter threatens to kill everyone at the Kamiya dojo if she fails to return willingly to him and continue her opium research on his behalf. Luckily for her, she was followed by Sanosuke, who eavesdropped on their dialogue and now is less certain about his own moral high ground. As he confronts her, the two of them are attacked by another member of the Oniwaban: Shikijou, whose superhuman strength is almost equal to Sanosuke's, and whose devastating weapon is a massive ball and chain. While the boys fight, Megumi is grabbed by another of Kanryu's team of hired ninjas.
We have our first amusing moment even before the episode really gets underway - although both the DVD case and the disc menu refer to it simply as 'Aoshi', the full title (displayed as the episode begins) is: 'Aoshi Shinomori: Someone So Beautiful It's Frightening'. You'll recall that we briefly met Aoshi in volume 2, and in this episode we'll see quite a bit more of him in action.
At the start of the episode, the Kenshin gang are all getting ready to storm Kanryu's house and rescue Megumi. They easily plow their way through the ranks of common mercenaries sent out to stall their progress, Sanosuke even developing an interesting new fighting style known as 'chuck Yahiko at a bunch of gunmen'... not graceful, but it does have the desired effect! Once it's patently obvious that all of the outside defences have been breached by Kenshin & Co, Kanryu offers Kenshin a high-paying bodyguard position, clearly not understanding that our man Himura can't be bought. Of course this is refused, with Kenshin saying he'll be right up to collect Megumi.
The action then cuts to inside. After Megumi unsuccessfully attempts to stab Kanryu (only prevented from doing so by Hannya), Kanryu orders Hannya to deal with Kenshin and is flatly refused, as he doesn't take orders from anyone but Aoshi. Luckily for Kanryu, Aoshi saunters in at this point, casually insults Kanryu and his motives, but agrees to take on Kenshin solely so he can prove that his team of Oniwaban are stronger. Removing Megumi from Kanryu's clutches, he locks her in a room and hands her back her dagger, implying that she can always commit suicide. By this time, our heroes have entered the mansion and fight their way with difficulty past Hannya before Aoshi arrives to duel with Kenshin.
11: 'Fare Well, the Strongest Men'
Aoshi and Kenshin continue their fight, and as they do we learn more of the history of the Oniwaban, a group of four extremely gifted fighters who are all a little freakish looking. Apparently Aoshi (their commander) refused to forsake them once their services were no longer needed in the revolution, going so far as to turn down high-ranking government positions in order to protect them. So, finding work how and where they could, he banded them together as bodyguards for Kanryu under his supervision. Aoshi is doing extremely well in the fight, besting Kenshin thoroughly before our hero gets himself together and really starts to fight back. We learn that Aoshi's prime motivation for defeating Kenshin is so he can demonstrate that, despite everything the Oniwaban have been through, at least they can take pride in knowing they are the strongest of warriors.
And so we come to the massive final battle sequence; somewhat surprisingly, though, in addition to the rest of the Oniwaban turning up on the scene, there is one unexpected participant: Kanryu, who has apparently fetched a Gatling gun (an early type of rotary-barrel machine gun, and not anachronistic; it's entirely possible he could have imported it at that period in Japanese history) and wants his revenge of Aoshi for being insulted earlier! Well, it's a bloodbath. Each of the Oniwaban defend their leader in turn, and Hannya creates one final diversion so that Kenshin can retrieve his sword and slice the firing handle off of Kanryu's weapon. Alas for 'the strongest men', although Aoshi is saved by their sacrifice, Kenshin's stroke comes too late to save the Oniwaban themselves from death... and it is in fact only through swift intervention on Sanosuke's part that he reaches her in time to prevent her from taking her own life.
The episode ends with Megumi heading off to finish her medical apprenticeship under Dr Gensai, doctor for the Kamiya dojo and grandfather to the kids that seem to spend all of their time there.
12: 'The Birth of a Boy Swordsman'
So after all that serious and emotional content, we move on to a lighter episode, but a no less important one: Yahiko's first big solo fight. The episode starts with him meeting a cute girl who fixes his shoe for him; he's a little smitten of course, but is also extremely surprised when he finds her waiting tables back at the gang's favourite restaurant, Akabeko. He learns her name is Tsubame and goes off to thank her for her earlier kindness, with the rest of the crew following to spy on their charge and snigger at his obvious crush. However, events turn darker as they all witness Tsubame being bullied by Lord Mikio and his gang of thugs who seem to have some control over the girl. (Apparently her family was more or less owned by his during the Edo period, and he is unlawfully continuing to enforce this master-servant relationship into the Meiji era.)
After Mikio orders Tsubame to make a copy of the restaurant owner's keys so they can break in the following night and steal the proceeds, Yahiko leaps to her defence, initially fighting the gang of grown men well, but eventually succumbing to their superior numbers and receiving a hard beating from his opponents before they disperse. (In case you're curious, it's Kenshin who prevents Kaoru and Sanosuke from interfering, explaining that Yahiko needs to learn how to defend himself, and defeat is part of this process.)
We later find Yahiko practising furiously as he still intends to defeat the gang, and Kenshin drops by to offer him a little friendly advice on fighting multiple targets... as well as to note with some gravity that when one person fights to protect another, should he lose, his charge will be lost too. When Mikio's rabble return the next night to harass Tsubame, Yahiko steps in again and this time runs down into an alley so he can tackle the thugs one at a time. Kenshin and Sanosuke watch from a nearby roof (incidentally scaring off some of the thugs without Yahiko noticing their presence). In the end Yahiko is victorious, Tsubame is delighted, and Kaoru is ecstatic that her pupil has come on so well.
The video quality is again solid on this DVD, with good clear colours and a variety of styles of animation being utilised. If anything, the picture is slightly better than previous discs with slightly less noticeable artifacting and macroblocking. However, I did notice that there is some colour bleeding going on (especially noticeable with the red of Megumi's lips), but that's really a minor quibble in what is generally a very pleasant transfer. Most importantly, as I mentioned earlier the fight scenes are getting progressively better, and the fact that they are animated so smoothly and without any major picture problems on the DVD encode side of things leaves me very happy overall. Another aspect of the animation that's begun to surface on this volume is a penchant for the use of split-screen action sequences, which definitely work for this kind of show.
Once again the English dub is perfectly acceptable with decent acting and good characterisation for the lead roles... however, I mostly stuck to the Japanese soundtrack this time around. Stereo directionality isn't used too often, though I did detect some during a few of the combat sequences. Regardless, when it comes to either combat or dialogue, the sound is clear and crisp throughout.
The menus follow the general format established on the previous releases, matching the first volume more closely than the second one. The static main menu once again includes scene access (inexplicably relegated to 'Extras' on the second volume), and more importantly also sees a return of the atmospheric background music (that also vanished curiously on the last DVD). Alas, it's not only the good points that have returned... we also have that really glaring misspelling of 'dialogue' in the languages sub-menu.
So the content is certainly improving, the fight scenes are getting better, even the picture quality is improving slightly. However, the bad news is that this DVD takes a fall when it comes to special features, which are considerably less impressive than those on the volumes that preceded it. For instance, there are no character profiles this time around (a feature I've really grown to like!), perhaps because they judged there were not to be enough new, interesting characters introduced in this story arc. (Remember, we had Aoshi's profile on the last disc. But even so, it wouldn't have been hard to whip up a quick page for each of his four Oniwaban ninjas.)
The linguistic liner notes are still a great feature, adding cultural insight – but there are only two pages of them here, comprising four notes in total. Maybe not a lot needed to be explained and if so, they can't help that all that much... but it's noticeably less than on previous volumes though, so I was a little surprised. In the same way, the art gallery has gone on a crash diet again, offering us only five pictures to peer at.
A new 'extra' is the contest details screen, which obviously was only relevant to anyone who got this DVD immediately upon its first release. Basically it was a chance to send in fan art to be featured on the volume 4 disc (so I suppose I'll be covering that special feature in my next Rurouni Kenshin review). It's a nice idea to give the fans a chance to contribute something, anyway... even if from the looks of it the contest deadline fell a bit too close to the actual street date of this DVD.
Finally, there's the original Japanese credits, which - as on volume 1 - consist of English-language credits detailing the Japanese cast and crew. (Not the traditional meaning of 'original Japanese credits', no.) There's also the usual pseudo-extra of four trailers for other Media Blasters releases.
The cover continues along the theme of muted colours with characters featured prominently on the front; this time it's Kenshin in the foreground and Aoshi looking villainesque in the background. One nice touch is that the back of the Amaray case is a lot more legible than previously, using the same font but in a bolder typeface. The spine – well, you'd think just having no volume numbering was enough of an oversight. But no, I'm afraid they've surpassed themselves this time... even the volume title is misspelled (reading 'Shadow Eilte' rather than 'Shadow Elite'). Oh dear.
So far the series has continued to improve disc-on-disc for me. I'm really happy with all of the character development that's going on, as well as with the excellent quality of the fighting scenes. It's been a real pleasure to see a full story arc take shape and I'm definitely looking forward to some of the longer ones; I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy them. This DVD continues to succeed on the technical front, with modest improvements achieved in both picture and sound (particularly competent voicings in both languages, which are certainly not to be sniffed at!). There are slightly fewer extras, but I imagine most people will want this for the story rather than the special features and in this regard they shouldn't be disappointed.