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Samurai X: Trust and Samurai X: Betrayal
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2005

Format: Anime
By:   ADV Films
Genre:   Action/Drama
Review Date:   January 31, 2005
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

”It's better that I do not know why they should die. Doing so would disrupt my concentration.” — Kenshin attempts to delude himself about the nature of his killing.

In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his Black Ships into Tokyo Bay, opening Japan to the outside world after over 200 years of isolation. The resulting social and economic shock split Japan apart, with various political factions bloodily struggling for control of Japan’s future. The Shinsengumi, forces of the old order who supported the Shogunate and the existing Emperor, were eventually defeated by the revolutionary armies of the Ishinshishi, who put the young Emperor Meiji on the throne in 1868 and set Japan on the course to modernization and integration with the outside world.

For his manga series Rurouni Kenshin, artist Nobuhiro Watsuki used that historical backdrop to tell the fictional story of Himura Kenshin. Young Kenshin, orphaned by war and raised for battle, was a feared assassin-soldier of the Ishinshishi, and known as the hittokiri battousai… the Manslayer. He single-handedly butchered uncounted numbers of Shinsengumi solders during the civil war, and the mere mention of his name struck terror in the hearts of those who opposed the revolutionary armies. But a chance encounter with a young woman who taught him love and then was torn tragically and bloodily away turned Kenshin from the path of a killer, and now he wanders Japan seeking to atone for his past and vowing never to take another human life again.

This manga (and the TV anime adapted from it) is about Kenshin’s first steps along his road to redemption, twelve years after the end of the violence that marked the Meiji Restoration.

While the Rurouni Kenshin series often delves into the dark, tragic past of its main character and how it has followed him even into his new life, it does have its lighter comedic moments. The Rurouni Kenshin OAVs, however, take things along a much different, far darker path.

Brutal History

Released under the title Samurai X by ADV, these OAVs, Trust and Betrayal, are a prequel to the TV series and manga, telling the story of how Kenshin obtained his skill with the blade, became the feared hittokiri battousai, received his famous scar, and was driven by tragedy to make his vow to never kill again.

A young boy named Shinta, whose family is brutally murdered by bandits in the first scene of Trust, is taken in by a wandering samurai. The samurai teaches Shinta the way of the sword, and renames the orphan Kenshin (“ken“ meaning “sword“ in Japanese). Ten years later, the now-teenage Kenshin finds himself embroiled in the brewing Japanese civil war between the Shinsengumi and the Ishinshishi.

At first, Kenshin uses his incredible swordfighting abilities to protect those unable to protect themselves. As time passes and his body count rises, though, he realizes that he is doing nothing but killing people he knows nothing about for reasons he can no longer define. His idealism becomes overwhelmed by his life of violence, and he becomes cynical about the senseless killing.

Then he meets a young woman named Tomoe after viciously murdering her fiancé during one of his “missions,“ and his growing relationship with her makes him rethink his life of blood and blades. But their love may not survive the dark secret that connects them, or the violent and brutal existence that is reluctant to let Kenshin escape so easily.

Unlike the TV series, which has its share of humorous moments and wacky character antics, Trust and Betrayal are relentlessly dark and brooding. Those fans who only know Rurouni Kenshin from its run on Cartoon Network are in for a pretty big shock. The colors are as dark as the tone, and the character designs are done in a harsh, realistic style. And though the plot is slow-paced and contemplative, it's not short on action; the swordfights are intense, extremely graphic, and very, very frequent. But the extreme violence is there not to be gratuitous but to serve as a cold counterpoint to Kenshin's noble intentions and the warmth of his and Tomoe’s love.

Despite the violence, the story is quiet and lyrical. A lot of time is spent on political machinations, as well as the slow realization on Kenshin's part that one cannot be both noble and a relentless killing machine at the same time.

All of this leads up to one of the most tragic and powerful climaxes in anime. The combination of animation, slow character development, quick violence, and the dramatic music make the ending a masterwork of storytelling.

Evocative Animation

The animation is realistic and fluid, making excellent use of music, moonlight, blood, and character design to create a growing sense of the inevitable as the terror of violence inexorably corrupts Kenshin's ideals and poisons his newfound love. Mixed in with the standard hand-drawn animation is also an occasional, barely-noticable use of live-action and computer-generated imagery, to emphasize certain plot and character elements. While the TV series was a fairly standard anime in terms of its look and feel, these OAVs are more like an animated Japanese woodblock painting, and it makes Trust and Betrayal beautifully, darkly compelling.

The original Japanese language track features the same voice cast that portrayed the characters in the TV series, but the English dub cast here is not the same one that dubbed the TV series. That’s really not too surprising, since the TV series was released in the US by an entirely different company. Fortunately the dub is very well done, with understated, almost deadpan character portrayals. It fits the serious, slow tone of the story. Those of you who prefer an old-style Kurosawa-samurai-drama feel will probably want to stick with the subtitles, but the dub is definitely worth checking out.

There are some nifty extras on these discs, too. Trust, for instance, contains an exhaustive character introduction section, featuring a full text writeup, voice actor credits (for both the sub and dub), and short video clips for each character. It also has a historical background section to help place Kenshin’s life and the events of these DVDs in historical context, which ought to help those who are less than expert on 19th-century Japan. The other disc, Betrayal, is less blessed with goodies, but it does feature a nice section where the English-version screenwriter explains some of the dialogue and translation decisions that were needed to make these OAVs accessible to Western audiences.

Samurai X: Trust and Samurai X: Betrayal have fantastic animation, sharp action, a gripping story, tragic characters, a soul-shattering climax, and gobs of DVD extras. Fans of Akira Kurosawa films or Shakespearean romantic tragedies shouldn’t think twice about picking these DVDs up. Don’t be put off by the deep historical background or the radical shift in tone from the TV series; there’s enough action to satisfy even the most testosterone-laden anime fan. This is seriously good stuff.

Anime and Comics Editor Kevin Pezzano is known as the feared hittokiri otakusai…the Fanslayer.

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