”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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.