Aka. Rurouni Kenshin: Requiem for the Ishin Patriots
Director: Hatsuki Tsuji
Screenplay: Yukiyoshi Ohashi
Based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Voice Cast: Mayo Suzukaze (as Kenshin Himura), Miina Tominaga (as Yahiko Myôjin); Miki Fujitani (as Kaoru Kamiya); Takehito Koyasu (as Sadashirô Kajiki); Yuji Ueda (as Sanosuke Sagara); Akihisa Soukuchi (as Ken Ikeuchi); Harî Kaneko (as Aritomo Yamagata)
With any long lasting, exceptionally popular franchise, there's the issue for people who've yet to jump ship onto the franchise when it's gone through many spin-offs, feature length stories, sequels and prequels of where one starts. Naturally most would immediately go to the first piece, the one which gained the popularity in the first place, although there's a problem as can be attested to Rurouni Kenshin where, if not everything is released or in this case has been long out of print in the UK, one is forced into a corner. It's nice to find Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal (1999) second hand, said to be the most rewarding and artistically satisfying of the entire franchise, but having a DVD with only the last two episodes out of four is an utter pain in the arse.1 Rurouni Kenshin, about the titular samurai Kenshin Himura during the early Meiji era with red hair, red clothes and a distinct x mark scared on his cheek, has had a lot of media built from the character, live action films the most recent and easily available examples, so there's another issue as well that, with so many continuations with the character, whether all the spin-off media is actually any good and worth keeping on one's DVD shelf is an issue. As much as one wishes every sequel for a franchise was great, be it books to moving pictures, there's a constant example of bad or utterly pointless tangents which ultimately aren't worth the time in having seen, marring the series as someone's first experience with the beloved character is such a bad or dull story, more so not worth spending ridiculous amounts on the special edition releases with various bits of tinsel and gloss on them.
Samurai X the Motion Picture follows the franchise mid-way into its existence as a one-off story, already establishing main characters to follow - Kenshin himself, Sagara Sanosuke a martial arts fighter and general lovable lunkhead, Kamiya Kaoru the sole female member and the more diplomatic, and Myōjin Yahiko a young boy established as being an orphan in a few lines of dialogue in the film - but setting them against a feature length long story that can be work by itself in spite of the background you'd need to get the most out of it. On one hand it's an advantage for myself as it means this being my first experience of the franchise isn't marred with being lost by context fans would already know of but meaning, without any risk and all narrative consequences taking place to characters only existing in this film, a story like this is fraught with merely doing the bare essentials.
It's interesting to see another period chambara anime in such a long while on the blog - not since entry #5 Sword of the Stranger (2007) - where in this case Western influence is modernising the nation of Japan that's survived civil war but conflicts are still taking place. The narrative is entirely about the lingering wounds of this and backlash against the western presence, a figure Takimi Shigure (Kazuhiko Inoue) secretly plotting to take drastic action, not knowing of how double crossing is involved or how Kenshin has a significant part in his motives. That and the woman who loves him as well, Toki (Yuko Miyamura), having emotional conflict as she bonds with Kenshin and his friends with a Sword of Damocles hung over her love for Takimi.
The problem is entirely about the story being perfunctory. Not wanting to drastically effect the main characters, long form pulp storytelling is fraught with having to either keep coming up with more imaginative stories or keeping the wheels spinning to a dull repetition, an issue which becomes more problematic with the tie-ins for long standard series like feature films which should be more dynamic considering how important a film or a special should be in ideal. It's possible to have one's cake and eat it, especially as this particular story has enough to run with story wise in terms of politics and a character drama between two figures never featured again that can go in any dramatic conclusion, but it feels like mediocre samurai cinema, one which feels shockingly flat too in terms of an animated work one would hope had more flair to it. Part of its cardinal sin is that a lot of its plot is signposted and sanitised, that Kenshin will not use the sharp end of his blade at all and harm anyone, or that there's no dynamic conflict to test his good virtue and show its best, merely what can damningly be argued to be an average episode length story stretched for over ninety minutes. Neither does it help that the most rewarding moment, a pre-credit prologue, when Kenshin was still a cold blooded hired warrior, of a night time fight is constantly repeated over and over again as flashback padding that it loses its impact eventually.
Without any tension for the main characters - Myōjin flirting with joining the anti-Western rebels but with the script cheating so he doesn't get permanently affected by this decision - nor any real dynamic to the new characters for this film, Takimi reduced to clichés of honour and Toki as a worse cliché of the meek woman who only cries and has no affect on the story around her, no amount of sad music or crying, of manly tears as much as Toki's, can help as neither the corrupt member of the Western military helps add spice or the many things you have here that you find in other anime before it done better. Affectively it's the worse way to get into Rurouni Kenshin, as someone who had never seen any part of the franchise before it, and if I do continue on with entries of it, if they're available, I hope this was one of the unfortunately cases of a pointless cash-in.
1Thankfully Trust, while second hand, looks easy to pick up online, so even if the video quality's aged badly there might be a review in the future one day.