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Samurai X: Reflection, Director's Cut
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2005

Format: Anime
By:   ADV Films
Genre:   Drama
Review Date:   January 22, 2005
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

“My body . . . so heavy. Could it be this easy? There is rest in death. Rest. . . .” — Kenshin contemplates the end of his life.

As Samurai X: Reflection opens, seventeen years have passed since the start of the Rurouni Kenshin TV series. Ex-assassin Kenshin and longtime friend Kaoru are now married and have a son named Kenji. Kenshin’s other friends from the series are still around: Former pickpocket Yahiko is 27 now and and has virtually taken over Kaoru’s fencing school. Tormented physician Megumi is the village doctor, and brawling Sanosuke is off fighting in the Japanese-Chinese war over Korea.

Despite having found love and settling down with a family, Kenshin still has not come to terms with his past as a brutal assassin. In his desire to somehow make amends for what he‘s done, he leaves home for extended periods to wander Japan as a sort of itinerant do-gooder, attempting to help people however he can. Angered at his long absences, his son Kenji has run away from home to study swordsmanship with Kenshin’s own former master. Kaoru, for her part, simply waits patiently at home for her husband, which is the only thing she feels she can do for him.

On his latest, and last, trip, though, Kenshin did not return home. Kaoru falls ill while waiting for him, and most of Reflection is her fevered memory-dreams about her relationship with Kenshin. Using a number of reanimated scenes from the TV series, it retells the story of how she and Kenshin first met, how they gradually fell in love after beginning to understand the depth of pain that burdened each of them, and on through their wedding, the birth of their child, and the numerous times Kenshin has had to fight duel kidnappers trying to abduct Kaoru.

The rest of Reflection wraps up the Rurouni Kenshin storyline as a whole, bringing everything to a touching, if sad, conclusion. Kenshin finally accepts the pain of his past, and shares it with Kaoru, the woman he loves, to achieve his final redemption. Kaoru helps her beloved husband one final time by giving him a home to return to and a reason to return, something the eternally-wandering Kenshin has never had. And Kenji finally understands what drove his often-absent father, accepting the burden his father passes to him: to be a wandering warrior who fights for justice yet has vowed never to take a human life. Life may be fleeting, Reflection says, but there are some things that transcend pain, loss, and even death.

Rurouni Who?

Samurai X: Reflection is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a stand-alone anime. If you haven’t seen Samurai X: Trust and Samurai X: Betrayal, you’re going to be a little confused. If you haven’t seen the TV series, you’re going to be really confused. And if you haven’t seen either, then you will be utterly and irrevocably lost. Reflection is really for fans of the Rurouni Kenshin series only. While newcomers will probably be intrigued enough by the atmosphere and animation to want to pick up the rest of the saga, it’s probably not a good idea to start your Rurouni Kenshin experience with Reflection if you can avoid it.

That caveat aside, Reflection is a brilliant example of melodramatic, emotional storytelling, suffused with a tragic yet ultimately hopeful aura. The story is immensely powerful, especially in the way it explores Kenshin’s guilt, Kaoru’s devotion, and the way that both seem to be two halves of the same soul. It also takes the time to develop (or, rather, to reveal the development of) Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship; unlike the TV series, there’s not much in the way of flashy action scenes or comic-relief antics. It’s a romance, not about kisses and flowers but about a deep connection between two people who love each other so much that they‘re willing to die for each other.

The animation style enhances that tragic-romantic atmosphere. It uses the more realistic character designs and darker color palette of the Trust and Betrayal and eschews the extreme “anime-style” antics that characterized the goofier moments of the TV series. These more realistic designs also allow for more subtle expressions in the characters’ faces and in their body language, which is a very good thing since so much of this anime is about quiet emotional moments and introspective reflection.

The fight scenes, while not nearly as numerous or as bloody as those in Trust and Betrayal, are also brilliantly handled. They’re choreographed and animated in a sort of cinema verité style that really heightens the tension. In other words, while there may be fewer fights in Reflection than Rurouni Kenshin fans are used to, they’re vastly more important to the story and the characters.

The audio also enhances the darker, more introspective tone of Reflection. While the original Japanese actors from the TV series returns for this wrapup OAV, they’re very subdued here, with none of the usual “Kaoru beating on Kenshin” or “Kenshin saying ‘oro!’” antics of the TV series.

The dub actors also match the more sober performances of their Japanese counterparts, and while they’re not the same cast from the TV series, they are the same actors from ADV’s other Samurai X releases, including Trust and Betrayal. And frankly, they do a pretty good job, especially the actor for Kenshin, who brings a lot of depth to his portrayal of the character. The dub cast sounds enough like the TV series dub cast that I had to double check the DVD credits, so fans of the series currently running on Cartoon Network aren’t going to get too much of a mental jolt from the voices they hear when they watch Reflection.

The voice actors also provide almost all of the extras on this DVD. There are a series of short interviews with the original Japanese actors, focusing on their feelings about bringing the Rurouni Kenshin saga to an end and how they adapted their performances to suit the older, wearier versions of their characters.

The dub cast also gets a feature to themselves: an amusing full-length commentary track that has the actors for Kenshin, Sanosuke, and Kaoru sitting down to watch this extended director’s cut for the first time and talking about the anime and their roles in it. While the actress for Kaoru doesn’t actually say much during the commentary, the actor for Kenshin more than makes up for that. He shows that not only is he a massively funny guy, but that he’s also a Rurouni Kenshin fan himself. His commentary is a mix of amusing Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, lovingly mocking comments about the show (like saying “Well, they had no Neosporin in the Meiji era“ when asked about Kenshin‘s famous scar), and explorations of how the characters and scenes in this OAV relate to the rest of the saga. While his commentary won’t really tell a fan of the series anything they don’t already know, it’s certainly entertaining to listen to.

Extended Cut

That brings us to the entire raison d’etre of this DVD: the extended director’s cut version of Reflection. There is indeed a nice big chunk of footage here that wasn’t in the original ADV release of Reflection, and it nicely fleshes out the “lost years” in Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship (finally showing their wedding and the birth of their child, for instance). But all the extra footage is concentrated in a single section of the anime instead of being spread out to enhance the rest of the story. It’s not really an “extended director’s cut” so much as it is “the same anime but now with about 5 minutes straight of stuff that we should have included the first time around.”

At least they edited the two OAV “episodes” that split up Reflection for the original DVD into a single continuous movie, so things feel a bit more coherent. I do vastly prefer this version with the extra footage, though I’m not sure that it’s really enough to make this disc worth picking up if you’ve already purchased the original release. If you haven’t bought Reflection already, though, definitely go with this version.

Samurai X: Reflection is beautiful, touching, depressing, and reassuring, and it tells a mature story about mature people in a very mature way, which even in anime is an unfortunate rarity. However, only longtime fans of the Rurouni Kenshin saga will get the true emotional and dramatic impact of this anime. While that may be the only flaw in this otherwise excellent production, it is a pretty major one. And that’s a shame, since there’s definitely a lot worth seeing in Reflection.

You should absolutely check out Reflection . . . just make sure you watch the rest of the series before you do.

Kevin Pezzano is Samurai Editor for Revolution SF.

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