Samurai X: The Collection Review
So, back when I started looking at Rurouni Kenshin I had a brief look at the history of the show on DVD, commenting that when Sony's plans for the series didn't quite work out (through a universally-derided English dub) the company sold the rights to a couple of companies. Media Blasters took the television series rights, and this became Rurouni Kenshin, ADV Films acquired the rights for the OAVs [original animated videos] and kept the Samurai X moniker that Sony had given the show in an attempt to widen its appeal for the American audience.
The Samurai X releases were very high profile for Sony and you can really tell that money was poured into them. The animation and transfers are gorgeous and in some cases it's almost frighteningly realistic. The OAVs have a darker tone than the television series (with the possible exception of the motion picture, which is like a very good elongated TV episode), and the character designs, fight sequences and acting all contribute to the fantastic mood each OAV encapsulates.
Each OAV has been released separately, but ADV has brought them all together in a box set which is remarkable value compared to the single releases. And this UK release also includes Samurai X: The Motion Picture, unlike the Region 1 version of the same box set. So instead of just getting the start (Trust and Betrayal) and end (Reflections) of Kenshin's life, the motion picture also allows us a glimpse of the middle.
The Samurai X collection is a must-have addition for any fan of Rurouni Kenshin. Yes, the feel is different, but only in a good way. There's a lot made of the darker feel, but there are some very dark moments in the Kyoto arc (like Soujiro's childhood, for one small example). The difference here is the lack of comedic interplay to lighten the mood. It probably all depends in what order you watch your Kenshin. If you watch the TV series first, then the OAVs round out what you already know of Kenshin's past and what you might guess of his future. Central to the action are the two loves of Kenshin's life; Tomoe and Kaoru. There are also welcome cameos from Sanosuke, Yahiko, Seijuro and last, but in no way least, Saito. The OAVs also detail a lot more of the historical and political mood of the time – so it adds a lot to a general understanding of the period in which Rurouni Kenshin is set. Watch the OAVs first, though, and I'm not sure how the television series would sit. Somewhat uncomfortably for a while, I'm sure... at least until you allow yourself to warm to the different manner of animation and more importantly the different pace of storytelling when you have 90-odd episodes to get through!
Plot Summaries (and Possible Spoilers)
Samurai X: Trust
Trust covers the rise of Kenshin, showing how he started life as Shinta and was taken in as a student by Seijuro Hiko... before getting entangled in the events leading to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and becoming known as Hitokiri Battousai: a legendary manslayer. Dark? I think so! Actually, it's not as dark as I'd been led to believe, but it's certainly more sombre than the mood of the television series. The fighting is more bloody and the story has no dashes of humour to mitigate its hard-edged message.
Japan during those final years before the Meiji Restoration is a land torn by rebellion, with competing bands of soldiers striving to overthrow the Shogunate. Within this perilous background, Kenshin quickly rises through his swordsmanship to become a famous killer – something which entangles his fate with that of Tomoe, a mysterious woman whose kindness engenders a fundamental change in him.
Samurai X: Betrayal
When a traitor is suspected within his group, Kenshin and Tomoe are forced to flee to a small farm in a rural area of Japan, where they live as husband and wife under cover to protect their identities until the commander of their group is ready to call them back into action once more. But living in close proximity, it doesn't take long before the pair start to have feelings for one another. Which also gives Kenshin a chance to take a step back from all the killing for a moment and start to develop a personality separate from his sword – something we'll see a lot more during the television series!
However, this pastoral life doesn't last long, as the confluence of political and ideological conflict soon encroach upon it. There's still a traitor in the ranks hard at work in an effort to destroy the chances of any revolution – and Kenshin along with it. As things build to a surprising climax, Kenshin and Tomoe are drawn back into the conflict.
Samurai X: The Motion Picture
OK, so the motion picture is much more in the style of the television series. This feature-length presentation plays like an extended episode of Rurouni Kenshin, one with a particularly strong storyline though!
Returning once again to the relatively peaceful Meiji era (after the events depicted in the more historical OAVs, Trust and Betrayal), we observe Kenshin crossing paths with someone who seems to share many of his noble ideals. However it isn't long before some demons from his past also return to haunt him – with a strong thirst for revenge in evidence. These two stories are, of course, the same – and as our two combatants square off, we know how much they respect one another. (In some ways the action is reminiscent of some of Kenshin's fights with Aoshi.) In addition to the usual friendship and fighting, Yahiko looks to regain some of his family's honour, and political corruption and intrigue as always succeed in making the world a more sinister place.
Samurai X: Reflections
Fifteen years after the events portrayed in the Rurouni Kenshin television series, Kaoru and Kenshin are married and have a teenage son named Kenji who is off learning swordsmanship from Kenshin's old master, Seijuro. Kaoru falls ill and starts to recollect her many memories of her husband – from their initial meeting on through to the conclusion of the Kyoto arc. There are many, many flashbacks, and more than a few of these touch upon concerns on her part for how Kenshin feels towards her compared to his feelings for his first 'wife', Tomoe.
Enishi (Tomoe's younger brother) also plays a part in a flashback, where we see themes of revenge inevitably crop up again as he kidnaps Kenshin to settle an old score. It's good to see everyone all grown up at last, but the main focus remains firmly fixed on the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru and in that respect this OAV becomes a trifle saccharin-sweet.
For the first three discs, the sound is presented in English and Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes. The final OAV (Reflections) also includes an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack in addition to the former two.
The sound is clean and crisp across all four discs; music and dialogue both meld well together and neither detracts from the clarity of the other. Speaking of which, music plays a major role throughout the Rurouni Kenshin TV series and the same is very much in evidence in the Samurai X series. I listened to the Japanese soundtracks each time, and they're great – really nice acting that flesh the characters out admirably. The voice actors on the dub version do their best, but the English track is of patchier quality throughout, with some of the actors sounding more than a little stilted (no doubt a feature of trying to make the English translations match the Japanese in terms of mouth movements). It's a valiant effort, but my recommendation is firmly with the original Japanese language on all the productions in this box set.
OK, so there are 4 discs here, and their various contents were originally released at different times (with Trust/Betrayal nestling together). The first 2 OAVs are presented in non-anamorphic 4:3, the motion picture is in non-anamorphic widescreen and Reflections (by far the most recent production, having been released in 2002) is shown in fully anamorphic 16:9 widescreen. The changing aspect ratios and anamorphic status doesn't detract from the fact that each disc has been given a remarkably sharp transfer that really benefits the show.
For this box set collection, all four instalments have had a new DVD encode done (as opposed to a video remastering), which has simply led to the OAVs and film looking better throughout. The transfer is exceptionally good and it just looks beautiful – especially in Reflections, where some of the animation is just superb.
Talking of animation styles, there are a variety on display here. Trust and Betrayal are quite different from the style seen in the television series. The tale is darker in tone, so the animation remains consistently more serious – no chibi (or super-deformed) drawings here. Kenshin and all of the characters look older, less stylised and vastly more realistic.
For Samurai X: The Motion Picture there is a return to the familiar animation styles witnessed in the television series. Kenshin's hair returns to its bright orange hue and there's more humour on display (as well as fave Rurouni Kenshin techniques like split-screening). It's particularly interesting that in the midst of all the new character designs seen in the OAVs to have a return to a familiar TV ones for the film.
So what happens in Reflections? Well, the style is somewhere in-between the old and the new. Everything looks more realistic and we're treated to Kenshin et al 15 years in the future; Yahiko has grown up, Sanosuke shows interesting amounts of stubble – Kaoru has a changed hairstyle and Kenshin is beginning to look wan and weak. Everything looks beautiful, and it's hard to explain how really – it's just a massive leap from previous renditions (in animation style, if not in storyline!).
Each disc is responsible for its own special features, as there are no additional extras for the collection beyond those which appeared previously on stand-alone issues of the various OAVs. Because of this, I've broken the selection down by disc below.
The special features on each DVD are a mixed bag, including interesting snippets of information mixed in with more standard fare. Across the collection it's a nice selection albeit a little eclectic – but that just reflects that each disc has been published on its own rather than presented here for the first time.
Samurai X: Trust
Kicking off the solid set of extras is a 6-page text overview of the period that the OAV is set in, with information about the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Era that definitely help to flesh out the action for those of us without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese history. It's well-written and helpful. In addition there are character profiles for Shinta, Kenshin (yes, he gets two, one for each 'age' he goes through on this disc), Tomoe, Seijuro Hiko, Takasugi, Katsura, Saito, Ikumatsu, Kondo and 'The Landlady'. The character profiles add to the historical overview – we find out how much of this is based on people who really did exist, even though their stories may not be well known. It's good stuff.
The final extra is a series of ADV trailers for Sin, Spriggan, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunsmith Cats, and Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040.
Samurai X: Betrayal
Because Trust and Betrayal are completely intended to be watched in partnership, the extras featured here naturally complement those found on the previous disc. Instead of a historical overview, there's a 5-page summary of what it's like to work as an English screenwriter for animé, how much has to be changed when translating it from the Japanese, why, and what it's like to have that responsibility. It's a subject not touched on in too much detail on most animé discs I've seen, so this was a refreshing and interesting insight. There's some more character profiles; this time for Kenshin, Tomoe, Okita, Katagai, Tatsumi, Enishi and Iizuka – a smaller number, but still a good read.
The ADV trailers are the same as those on Trust, these being: Sin, Spriggan, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunsmith Cats, and Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040.
Samurai X: The Motion Picture
This disc, though certainly fun to watch, has barely any extras – all that's included is the theatrical trailer and a trailer for Trust/Betrayal. It's a shame some of the character profiles didn't make it here, but hey, can't have everything, I guess!
Samurai X: Reflections
The lack of extras on the motion picture is definitely made up for here. Instead of lots of textual information, here we have a generous selection of interviews to interest us. And surprisingly, they're not interviews with the North American (English dub) voice actors, which is what I'd have expected. No, we have a series of 3-5 minute interviews with members of the original Japanese voice cast: Mayo Suzukaze (Kenshin), Miki Fujitani (Kaoru), Mina Tominaga (Yahiko), Yuji Ueda (Sano), Shuichi Ikeda (Seijuro), and Akia Otsuka (Jin'e). Unfortunately the first interview (with Mayo Suzukaze) has a nasty and off-putting buzz humming away in the background audio, but thankfully this clears up for subsequent interviews. The cast mostly discuss how they feel about the characters and how they felt about returning to them for this OAV, all matured and with a different focus from the television series (i.e. no comedy).
There's also a textless closing animation and previews of the ADV titles Rahxephon, The Devil Lady, Dai-Guard, and Spriggan.
Samurai X in all its incarnations makes for enjoyable watching, with Trust and Betrayal the standout OAVs in terms of storyline, while Reflections really pushes the boat out in terms of animation for this series. Fans of Rurouni Kenshin should enjoy watching these slightly darker storylines, and hopefully see the different animation as more of a treat than anything else. The motion picture is also a good story told well, but it's more akin to the television series than the others included in this set.
ADV has really done a good job in bringing out a collection for all of the Samurai X stories. For the cost of two of the individual volumes, fans can now get all four packaged together, and as I mentioned earlier, the inclusion of the motion picture is definitely an added bonus for Region 2 purchasers. Although the film doesn't include additional extras, this isn't too much of a problem as the special features already included on the three other discs are more interesting and engaging than are often found on animé DVDs. Good stuff!