+ A psychologically complex and emotionally rich story
+ Violence is used so sparingly that it is more powerful when it is depicted
+ Interesting historical background
+/ The somber tone is vastly different from the TV series
Viewers more familiar with the Samurai X TV series may be surprised by this OVA's darker, more somber, and realistic tone. While the popular TV series began as a romantic comedy and gradually developed into a historical drama; Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen begins on a dark and philosophical note which it carries through to the end. While its story of a young warrior seeking justice through violence may seem familiar, it handles the familiar themes of violence, justice, and tyranny with more philosophical complexity and emotional/psychological depth than Hollywood spectacles on similar themes could ever hope to muster.
4 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen OVA Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 6/14/2007
Rurouni Kenshin is a manga and anime series created by Nobuhiro Watsuki. Watsuki originally took up drawing manga in emulation of his older brother. Although his older brother eventually gave up the hobby, Watsuki was able to parlay his interest into a productive career as a manga artist and occasional video game designer as he realized he was too scrawny for a career as a professional athlete. His best known work, Rurouni Kenshin is set in the end of the Edo Period and the early Meiji Period and tells the story of Himura Kenshin a wandering swordsman who is often wracked by guilt over the lives he has taken. In 1996 the long running and popular manga series was adapted into an anime TV series by Fugi TV which ran for 95 episodes. This was followed in 1997 by a film, in 1999 by the OVA series Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, and in 2001 by the OVA series Rurouni Kenshin: Seisohen.
The story of Kenshin is the type of story common to those countries East and West where some form of feudalism took root. Japanese viewers will think of the ronin, Chinese might think of the Xia, and Western viewers might see in Kenshin the knight-errant. In stories these noble warriors travel the countryside righting wrongs and battling injustice. Their outer conflicts often mirror inner struggles between good and evil, innocence and violence, light and shadow.
The OVA begins on a philosophical note which it maintains throughout. On a lonely moonlit night, Hiko Seijuro, a thoughtful wandering samurai contemplates the brutality that has overcome Japan. He believes that the Japanese people are marching headlong towards turmoil and destruction. Meanwhile what appears to be a band of peasants comes under attack from bandits. Hiko jumps into the fray but is too late to rescue any but a young boy called Shinta. After defeating the bandits, Hiko tells Shinta to let his survival be memorial to his slain family. Mankind, Hiko explains in a voice over, has lost all fear of death and created slavery and savagery to surpass the fear of dying. When Hiko returns to bury the dead as a way of maintaining his humanity, he is shocked that Shinta has done this on his own. Shinta explains that the people he was traveling with were not his family but slave traders who had purchased him on the death of his parents. He has marked three of the graves with stones, explaining that they were women who looked after him as if he were their own child. Impressed by Shinta, Hiko changes the boy's name to Kenshin and takes him on as a pupil.
Show More Under Hiko's tutelage, Kenshin grows into a skilled swordsman. However, Hiko fears that Kenshin's mind remains that of a petulant child, he is similar in that regard to another famous swordsman from a galaxy far, far away. One of the themes raised by Rurouni Kenshin is application of violence. Similar to King Arthur in T.H. White's Once and Future King, Kenshin comes to believe that he can use his skills as a swordsman to defend the weak against the tyranny of the strong. The philosophical Hiko believes even such laudable goals are tainted by the fact that a swordsman, in spite of all pretense to warrior codes such as Bushido, is still little more than a professional killer. Against Hiko's wishes, Kenshin rushes off to Kyoto to join the forces opposed to the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Kyoto at the time of Kenshin's arrival is a city divided into factions along a variety of political lines. The most prominent being those who would expel the "barbarians (foreigners) and revere the Emperor" and those who support the Shogunate. The supporters of the Shogunate are represented in an early scene by the presence of Saito Hajime and the Shinsengumi - a roving band of ronin formed by the Tokugawa as a response to the violence and wanton acts of murder carried out by some of the supporters of the Emperor.
The OVA's well crafted screenplay masterfully blends fact and fiction as Kenshin's skill as a swordsman brings him to the attention of a number of historical figures including Takasugi Shinsaku leader of the Kiheitai militia and Katsura Kogoro of the Choshu Clan who was instrumental in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and later an important Meiji statesman. In exchange for accepting Kenshin's services, Katsura swears to never again draw his sword. As Hiko predicted, these men play on Kenshin's innocence and sense of justice and convince him that theirs is the just cause. While restoration of the Emperor was their stated goal, many in the restoration movement secretly lusted after power for themselves - their idea of imperial power being the ancient view where the Emperor performs high priestly duties while his ministers and retainer rule in his name. Kenshin becomes an assassin for the Restoration Movement, believing himself on a righteous mission to bring punishment from heaven to the supporters of Tokugawa; Kenshin kills over a hundred people in the first six months of his career. One of these deaths - the bodyguard of one of his targets - will have serious repercussions for Kenshin. Although Kenshin is victorious in their duel, the body guard manages to strike Kenshin's face - leaving a wound that never fully heals. As the story progresses other connections between the bodyguard and Kenshin are also revealed.
Some of the older warriors grow concerned that the violence hasn't affected Kenshin in the way they expected and it is feared that the buried guilt will eventually boil to the surface and destroy him. Kenshin is however, affected by the wound on his face that reopens whenever he feels guilt about killing. As his masters drink sake and discus the state of their assassin's mind, Kenshin is outside in the rain locked in deadly combat with a fellow assassin. As he dispatches his opponent, Kenshin is startled that the beautiful Tomoe Yukishiro has witnessed the battle when she remarks that he has "caused the rain to bleed."
Tomoe is overwhelmed by the shock of the violence she has witnessed, when she faints Kenshin takes her to the inn used by the Choshu as a makeshift headquarters and begs the innkeeper to let her stay. The next morning, Kenshin's fellow Choshu retainers tease Kenshin for taking up with a street girl. When Katsura arrives the discussion turns to the man Kenshin killed that night - he is not a retainer from any of their pro-Shogunate rivals but rather a ninja hired by a supposed traitor within the Choshu ranks. Izuka one of Katsura's lieutenants suspect Tomoe of being the spy or at the very least she isn't who she claims to be. Meanwhile the Restoration movement has entered a dark period in its struggle. Once sympathetic politicians have distanced themselves from the movement as the Shinsengumi seems to have grown stronger and the sickly Shinsaku seems closer to death. At the same time Kenshin and Tomoe have grown closer, developing a strong friendship, Tomoe sees past Kenshin's rugged exterior to the child who has committed heinous acts of murder that have not as yet robbed him of his innocence. Katsura senses Tomoe's connection to Kenshin and asks her to function as his sheath - protecting Kenshin's inner being from the horrors of the assassin's life. Tomoe agrees to this role as the struggle for power comes to a boiling point. Several of the pro-Imperial clans have planned what they intended to be a secret meeting to plan strategy and the direction of their movement. Tipped off to the meeting by their spy, the Shinsengumi plans an ambush to take out the ringleaders of the Restoration Movement in one fell swoop. Further complicating matters, the movement has factionalized over a plan to burn Kyoto and move the Emperor to another city. This doesn't fit into Katsura's view of the movement and he withdraws from the meeting. When Kenshin hears of the ambush, he rushes off to fight the Shinsengumi unaware that Katsura has already left the meeting. Tomoe vows that as his "sheath" she will stay at Kenshin's side regardless of the outcome. In the aftermath of the ambush, Katsura decides the best way to protect Kenshin is to send him and Tomoe to another village disguised as a newly-weds. After all, the Shinsengumi will be looking for a single swordsman, not a married peasant.
Show More Kenshin and Tomoe make a life for themselves in the country. In an interesting scene, Kenshin chops fire wood in the warm afternoon sun, with each blow of his hand ax, the scene flashes to Kenshin's previous acts of violence. Perhaps he is finally being affected by the horrors of being a hired killer, if he is; he never mentions it to Tomoe. Surrounded by the beauty and simplicity of village life in the idyllic countryside, Kenshin and Tomoe's friendship begins to blossom into genuine affection and love, it is almost as if they really are a married couple and not a hired killer and an inn employee with a shady past running from the violence in Kyoto. They even make a go at farming. Eventually news arrives - the Restoration movement is in shambles, the Shogunate has tightened its grip on the government and conservatives in the Choshu clan have pushed supporters of the rebellion to commit seppuku, Takasugi Shinsaku has been arrested, and Katsura Kogoro has disappeared. To avoid drawing attention, Kenshin is given medicine to sell in town and ordered to wait patiently, posing, ironically, as an apothecary. In contrast to the violence of the early portions of the OVA, this section of the story takes a meandering and contemplative turn, reveling in the beauty and peace of the countryside, with the characters often staring at their reflections. However, the Rebellion hasn't been completely crushed, just pushed underground, violence is just over the horizon. This knowledge shades Kenshin and Tomoe's life; we are reminded of this by touches such as Kenshin feeling his scar or Tomoe examining the dagger she has hidden with her belongings. Eventually, Kenshin and Tomoe settle into their life as peasants and the fire begins to fade from his eyes - which is exactly what the supporters of the Shogunate have wanted. Tipped off to Kenshin's whereabouts by the traitor they have planned an elaborate scheme involving Tomoe, her brother Enishi, and Tomoe's diaries to lure him out and kill him. Tomoe's fiancé was the bodyguard killed by Kenshin and she originally accepted her role in the plot to kill him but has since fallen in love with Kenshin in spite of the fact that has carries the guilt of her fiancé's death - her fiancé took the bodyguard assignment to impress Tomoe. When Enishi arrives to remind her of the plot she throws him out and tells him to never return.
Torn and confused Tomoe leaves Kenshin in the middle of the night. Goaded into reading her diaries by Izuka, Kenshin becomes desperate to find Tomoe and rushes off to find her. This is of course an elaborate plan by the supporters of the Shogunate to draw Kenshin into an ambush. Distracted and confused, Kenshin is unable to bring his full skills as a swordsman to bear and is an easy target for the Shogunate swordsmen hidden in the woods. Or so they believe, concentrating on Tomoe, Kenshin rallies and survives his attackers; however he is terribly wounded and fatigued by the winter cold. Tormented by his memories of his relationship with Tomoe, Kenshin presses forward to the hut where Tomoe is meeting with the leader of the Shogunate forces. Due to the OVAs psychological and emotional depth, Kenshin's confrontation with the Shogunate assassin, although short, has more impact than the bloated final duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi in the similarly themed Star Wars: Episode III.
Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen is a beautifully animated, tightly scripted OVA with more psychological depth and emotional insight than any ten Hollywood spectacles. Somber and complex, it may surprise some people more familiar with the lighter tone of the Rurouni Kenshin TV series. Where the OVA especially shines is in its philosophical tone, even minor characters question their actions and place in the world. The script also makes good use of the story's historical setting, the historical characters who appear throughout are presented as well rounded human beings with believable motivations and aren't merely there for colorful window dressing. The conflict between the Restoration Movement and Tokugawa Shogunate is immediate with real consequences for the people involved, this OVA is the kind of historical fiction that might inspire the audience to further investigate this tumultuous period in Japanese history.
Where the OVA has a failing is in the development of Himura Kenshin. For the first half of the story he is a killer who believes he is bringing the Justice of Heaven to his foes. In the second half of the story the audience is asked to believe that a warrior like Kenshin would simply set aside his sword for the life of a peasant without any real period of adjustment. One moment he is fighting enemy assassins, the next he is planting radishes and selling medicines in the town square without making any of the kind of errors one would expect from someone making a major a transition in life. Questions such as how he learns to farm or figures out what prices to charge for his medicines are never examined, the creators of the OVA seem so focused on their story being deep and meaningful that forget that if they expect the audience to cry a lot they need to let them laugh a little, Kenshin's transition from swordsman to peasant offered ample opportunity for comic relief. Also, his transformation into a more philosophical person who wants to use his sword to heal and build rather than hack and destroy seems to come suddenly like the awakening of Buddha rather than more gradually as might be expected in a normal human being. While this kind of enlightenment might make for good scripture it isn't particularly compelling drama. An extra segment focusing strictly on Kenshin's internal conflict might have served the story well.
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