Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 9: Heart of the Sword) Review
After the relatively-subdued action seen on the previous disc, this volume starts off with a bang as Kenshin and Saito encounter Shishio face-to-face for the first time. These four episodes also see a return to form when it comes to the high quality fight sequences we've come to expect from Rurouni Kenshin... while still leaving plenty of room for character development (including a bit about Sanosuke this time around). It's also the part of the 'Legend of Kyoto' arc where Kenshin at long last reaches Kyoto and we begin to see how things are going to play out for him in this city he had hoped never to return to. In a sense, it's almost another introductory volume, but instead of kicking the full arc in motion, this time we're being introduced to what feels like the core subject matter of the Kyoto arc.
My particular favourite moments are the fights (of course!), Kenshin's dialogues with both Shishio and Eiji, and our hero's arrival in Kyoto and meeting with Misao's family – a bunch of ex-Oniwaban members who now run a restaurant, as you do. In addition to the escalating action overall, there's a bit more background on both Misao and Shishio, and Sanosuke finds a new teacher (for one episode at least). Sanosuke is certainly one of my fave characters in the Rurouni Kenshin universe, but he gets little airtime in this ninth DVD volume and even the one 'Sano-only' episode doesn't really add that much to our understanding of him, except some humourous moments and a nice twist towards the end.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
36: 'Across the Boundary Between Edo and Meiji'
Kenshin and Saito arrive at the mansion where Shishio is staying and are shown in by Soujiro (whom Kenshin recognises immediately as Okubo's assassin, even going so far as to warn Saito that the boy is a lot more dangerous than he looks). In the presence of their nemesis at last, Kenshin demands to know why Shishio attacked the village, and after a quick feint regarding the local hot springs, the latter admits that it has a certain strategic value before segueing into a few minor revelations about himself. Specifically, we learn how Shishio became the bandaged man he is today – when his employers (the Ishin Shishi) decided he was no longer useful to them (and of course knew far too many of their dirty secrets to be allowed to live), they gunned him down, covered him in oil and burned him alive. He survived, remarkably, and has a healthy disrespect for the Meiji government (can you blame him?); naturally he and Kenshin engage in the usual futile debate about his plans for revolution, but you just can't dissuade a baddie!
All of this chit-chat and no fight? Not for long, Kenshin fans. The floor parts and a gigantic muscular brute appears (Senkaku), boasting that he's killed 99 people and figures Kenshin will round out an even 100 quite nicely. As the fighting commences we switch focus back to Misao and Eiji to see how they're doing. (They have, of course, followed Saito and Kenshin to the compound against the latter's explicit instructions.) While sneaking towards the main building, Misao reveals an acute case of arachnophobia as she spots a spider and launches headlong into a screaming fit. Good thing, then, that she picked up a few combat tricks from hanging out with the Oniwaban, or else the contingent of guards that quickly descends upon the two of them would pose a serious problem rather than merely an inconvenience! Eiji grabs a guard about to duck off for reinforcements and forces him lead them to Senkaku...
...which brings us back to the big fight. Saito and Shishio are observing Kenshin in minute detail, hoping to catch every nuance of his technique, but Kenshin has already learned enough about his opponent from his first few attacks and proceeds to wear him down through sheer speed alone. Misao and Eiji arrive in the main hall just in time to witness Kenshin knocking Senkaku out cold before telling Shishio to arm himself!
37: 'Shock! Reverse Blade Sword Broken'
Ah, but it's a little early in the story arc for this particular engagement, so Shishio makes for a hidden exit, handing Soujiro his sword and telling him to entertain Kenshin. He also jibes Kenshin, saying that he's not worth fighting personally until he becomes a manslayer again, and to meet him in Kyoto. (All of these people wanting Kenshin to kill again... really! But I suppose it does serve some good as a foil for our eponymous hero, as it's important that we sometimes see him struggle to keep to his oath of never again taking another person's life.)
As an added bonus, we finally get to learn a little more about the mysterious Soujiro as he and Kenshin prepare for the fight. Saito explains (to Misao and Eiji, who are still reeling in awe at Kenshin's impressive victory over Senkaku) that Soujiro is totally unreadable emotionally, making it hard for a master swordsman like Kenshin to react to his opponent, and therefore forcing him to go on the offensive instead. True to this observation, during the course of the fight Himura is definitely not doing as well as we're used to seeing – Soujiro is able to match his moves precisely, and eventually they both draw and strike at each other in precisely the same moment. Kenshin's sword breaks (thus the spoiler episode title) and Soujiro's sword – as it turns out, a very rare piece of craftsmanship in its own right – is all cracked. Both weapons thus ruined, Soujiro (still without a trace of emotion at the loss) pleasantly says his farewells and heads off to catch up his master.
The final part of this episode is probably the most interesting, albeit not the most action-packed. As you'll recall, Senkaku is still alive but knocked out, and Eiji wants revenge on him for his village and for his family. Saito tries to reason with the boy that revenge is illegal under the Meiji government, but it's only when Kenshin unleashes a passionate argument against using his brother's sword for bloodshed that Eiji finally stands down. It's one of those moments (of which there are thankfully several in the series) when Kenshin as a character sheds his humorous aspect and shows a wise and philosophical side we don't often get to see.
Finally, Soujiro catches up with Shishio, who orders him to muster the Juppon Gatana ('The Ten Swords' – Shishio's secret army) and to pursue Kenshin with them. As something of a coda to an at-times intense episode, we also learn that Saito is married (!), as he suggests Eiji can be looked after by his wife. Seeing both Himura and Misao reel in shock adds a touch of humour after the seriousness of the previous action.
38: 'Sanosuke's Secret Training'
OK, so this episode obviously shifts our attention back once more to Sanosuke, hopelessly lost on his way to Kyoto. As he's about to eat his very last morsel of food, it's knocked out of his hands by a tremor in the earth, which both annoys and piques the interest of the fighter. Following the distant sounds of chanting, Sanosuke comes across a man in the centre of a ring of small Buddhist statues... which promptly disintegrate as the man strikes the ground with his fist! As it turns out, the man is a hakaisho (a failed priest) who continues to train so he can help others, even though he is no longer a religious representative. In the course of their conversation, he mentions the 'Hou-riki' technique (which according to myth summons an earth spirit). Claiming that the latter spin is but an urban legend, he also lets slip that it's a technique way too advanced and dangerous for someone like Sanosuke.
Naturally this is like waving a flag before a bull to Sanosuke – who's already struggling with a desire to better his martial arts in the wake of Saito's cutting remarks – and begs the hakaisho to train him. The latter accepts only after considerable persuasion, agreeing to show him the world of 'Futae no Kiwani' (the technique Sanosuke saw him use to turn all the statues to dust). Our lad Sano cheerfully shrugs off both the suitably techno-babbly explanation about how it's all supposed to work and the accompanying stern warning that it might take a long time to master, resolving to learn it within a week.
In fact, it doesn't go so well for Sanosuke; try as he might, he has no luck mastering the technique after three days – and eventually the action cuts to the final day of his training. Exhausted, he has a vision of his dead mentor, Sagara, who tells him to admit defeat and to give up before the training takes his life. Sano refuses, caught up in a maelstrom of guilt and desire for revenge, as well as a need to prove genuinely useful to Kenshin, especially as there was nothing he could do to help Sagara when he was killed. As he keeps atttempting the technique over and over, Sanosuke eventually passes out.
In the next scene we cut to the hakaisho's assumption that Sanosuke's died from over-exertion when the latter abruptly wakes up and unleashes his frustration by performing the rock-smashing technique perfectly. As a reward, the hakaisho even gives him proper directions to Kyoto – no more lost Sano, yay! As he rushes off to try and find Kenshin in Kyoto, we see Soujiro approach the hakaisho (whom he calls Anji), informing him that his services as a Juppon Gatana are needed again. Intriguing!
39: 'The Creator of the Reverse Blade'
We're finally in Kyoto! Kenshin explains to Misao what a hellhole the city was when last he was there, a battlefield which leaves him no good memories. But Misao doesn't get too much of a chance to listen as her family rambunctiously welcome her home and invite Himura to stay with them as well. In a bizarre twist (but somehow quite fitting to the Kenshin universe), Misao's entire family consists of Oniwaban members who now run a restaurant called Aoiya! The oldest member of the family is Okina, who recognises Kenshin on sight and sympathises with the latter's struggle against Shishio, offering to help him locate another reverse-blade sword.
The next day Kenshin, Misao and Okina try to find Shakku Arai... who not only made Kenshin's sword, but who was simply the best swordsmith in Japan during the the revolution. Alas for our hero, he's since died and left the business to his son Seiku... who disappoints the search team by announcing that he's left the weaponry business due to the Meiji era and the peace it has brought about. While Kenshin seems ready to accept this and willing to look for a replacement reverse-blade sword elsewhere, Misao is bitterly disappointed and whines a lot as they head homeward.
Shishio, also in Kyoto, learns from his spies that Kenshin is seeking a sword. As he discusses the matter with his henchman Houji, one of the Juppon Gatana shows up – Chou Katanagari – who is a complete sword freak (which is a good thing really, seeing as his name means 'sword-lover'). Shishio tells Chou to go deal with Himura, so off he goes... straight to the old smithy of Shakku Arai. While there he terrorises Seiku and his wife, teasing them by swinging their child around on the end of his sword (in its scabbard!). He's heard the last sword of Shakku Arai might be lying around somewhere and he desperately wants to add it to his collection (yeah yeah, he's supposed to be looking for Kenshin, but the sword is obviously more important to him). When Seiku's wife finally caves in and tells Chou the sword is at a local temple, he eventually leaves the couple, taking their child with him as 'insurance'.
Shortly afterwards, Misao arrives at the smithy, in hopes of persuading Seiku to make Kenshin a sword after all. She overhears what has transpired as Seiku and his wife discuss the events and quickly gets a message to Kenshin, who dashes off to the temple. There he's confronted with Chou, still carrying Seiku's son on his sword... and if one thing's clear, it's that there's going to be a fight whether Kenshin has a sword or not!
Picture & Sound
There's no question about it, the Japanese soundtrack is definitely superior, despite the hard work the English actors have put into their roles and despite the generally-natural sounding translation. The English remains watchable though... or at least until Chou makes an appearance in the final episode and graces us with an incredibly annoying 'American hick' accent, at which point I felt the need to switch back to Japanese come over me very quickly.
The dialogue is always clear and clean in either language and there's really no noticeable problems with the sound here. Background music continues to provide a welcome atmospheric element and never swamps character dialogue. There's not a lot of use of left/right directionality here so the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix isn't really given a full workout, but where it is used, it's definitely noticeable and appreciated.
The picture quality continues to impress me, and seems to just get better all the time. There's still a few artefacts and jagged lines, as well as the occasional rainbow, but overall it's a very clean release. The palette remains distinct and rich, which is good as the series tends to be a fairly colourful one.
Menus & Packaging
The menus are, as previous volumes in this arc, static and with atmospheric background music. They follow the same pattern too and my only real problem with them remains the vertical text which I find quite hard to read. Packaging is back to blackish with Shishio, Soujiro and Kenshin on the front cover; Shishio looking particularly menacing, it must be said.
The best special feature on offer here is, as always, the linguistic liner notes that help to flesh out the history and culture of the period, as well as explaining tricky words and how they were translated into English. (And while quality is always good, it's nice to see that they're not skimping on quantity either this time around: this volume has no fewer than 12 pages of them!) There are yet more dub outtakes, which are a bit more fun on this volume, and I do like their addition as an extra even when they don't make me laugh out loud and generally involve the actors flubbing their lines and giggling nervously.
A new end credits song appears during the course of these four episodes, and so we have a creditless closing as part of the extras suite. It shows off the really good animation sequence used for this particular ending theme song and it's always a pleasure to view these things without the text over them. Finally we have a few more trailers for other Media Blasters releases.
The arrival in Kyoto and the fights beforehand mark a special moment, just before the real action of the story arc is about to commence and, as such, this volume sets the scene. There's more action than the previous disc, and slightly less character development though we are given further insight into Shishio, Soujiro and even Misao. The storyline remains strong, getting the audience ready for what's to come. Overall, it's a very enjoyable disc, and the cliff-hanger at the end definitely makes you want to move straight onto the next volume.