Friday, March 29, 2013

Rurouni Kenshin: Shin Kyoto-hen (Limited expectations might be of great help here)

Allow me some time to blabber before I begin the review: I have to wonder why they even bothered making this two episode OVA. Was it to just to show that they can? Or to milk the popularity of the best selling series? Or perhaps as an indirect promotion for the live-action movie (I'm not entirely sure which came first- If I'm not mistaken, the 1st episode of this OVA came out before the movie)... or perhaps this was meant to drum up interest for a complete reboot of the series? That last possibility is definitely enticing, but no Ruroken fan would ever go along with a reboot if it ends up like this OVA.

Looks like I've concluded this review in the opening paragraph itself. Definitely not a good sign for me, if I ever plan on freelance writing for newspapers (where they pay by word count). Not that it matters. I am not pleased with this Shin Kyoto-hen OVA. This two episode OVA covers the Kyoto arc of the manga/anime, the first main story arc in the series. The first episode is told from the perspective of Makimachi Misao, the little ninja girl, as she follows Kenshin on his way to Kyoto. The story was of course compressed to fit the publishing format, and actually went surprisingly well. Animation was good too, being done in High Definition (or at least, it looked like HD in comparison to the 1997 series). My main complaint was that with Misao as the narrator, it was a little tiring- perhaps because I've never cared much for her character.

Episode 1 had me looking forward to the second episode.
Episode 2 had me wishing the whole thing had never taken place.

Note: entering fanboy mode. Watsuki, what were you thinking when you allowed this to slip past Quality Control? Did you have any say in the production of this OVA? You disapproved of the Reflection OVA (Tsuioku-hen) because it was too depressing. What's your comment on this travesty? End fanboy mode.

Story compression is normal and to be expected when you're cramming 20+ (probably more) episodes into 1 hour (slightly less, actually) worth of screen-time. Some series to movie compressions, like the Zeta Gundam films, are terrible because they seemed more like patches of the series cut out and sewn together into, with barely any narrative sense. Things just happened, one after another. In contrast, Shin Kyoto-hen did a wonderful job of providing a sense of flow. Events segued naturally. The problem was with how they drastically they changed the fight scenes and plot. These changes would have been forgivable if they worked- but they fell flat.

Spoilers from here: Saito Hajime is the first to board the destroyer Rengoku, after a short swim. He is immediately challenged to a fight by Shishio Makoto, and the fight vaguely follows the canon with Saito using a Gatotsu for a pinpoint attack on Shishio's forehead, and Shishio escapes only because of his headguard. All's fine, despite the changes. The oddness begins soon after, when the two seem to come to a shared conclusion that the fight is over when Saito's katana breaks. In point form:

(a) With Saito injured and weaponless, Shishio no longer perceived him as a threat, letting him live to watch the show (and hopefully join his side, having expressed admiration for him earlier on). He even told Soujiro to treat Saito's wounds.

(b) What's odd about this is that Saito seemed to go along with this. Perhaps he sensed that he wasn't in a good position, tactically- injured, weaponless, and in enemy territory. Biding his time to make his next move?  Either way, it's a bad idea to underestimate Saito. Shishio would have been better off killing him immediately, but he didn't- simple arrogance on his part, perhaps? Saito exits stage left, impotent and direction uncertain.

(c) Kenshin arrives soon after. Unlike Saito, he's rowing a boat. Perhaps he's just not a good swimmer. Earlier on, Komagata Yumi (pretty as always) tried to off Saito with a gatling gun, so why didn't she try to kill Kenshin? Perhaps she didn't because Shishio expressly forbade her to do so, wanting to fight Kenshin personally, and Kenshin, believing in this, decided to take a boat. Then again, I see no reason why the enemy didn't pick him off when he took the trouble to present himself so nicely to their cross-hairs.

(d) Shishio cuddles with Yumi on a couch, while Kenshin fights Soujirou. The fight ends swiftly, with Kenshin suffering no more than a few scratches. What's ridiculous is how quickly it ended- Kenshin predicts Soujirou's movements, explains how he discerned it due to Soujirou's fluctuating emotions, Soujirou becomes a wimp and switches sides. Oh, and it seems like Kenshin managed to pull this off with Hiko Seijuurou's advice. More proof that the big man must be a reincarnated god or something.

(e) Sanosuke attempts a career switch, from brawler to philosopher. He tells Anji that "to Shishio, you are his light. Shishio is looking for a path to redemption" (or something along those lines). Anji all but says he is an idiot. I have to agree. Sanosuke should stick to his fists...oh wait, he broke them during the fight. Now I get it.

(f) Kenshin finally comes face to face with Shishio. They exchange hits, and it seems like Kenshin has the upper hand most of the time. Meanwhile it seems that Soujirou's change of heart didn't last long- as he directs the counter attack on the police forces in Kyoto (to save his own skin, perhaps). Back near Aoi-ya (the Oniwabanshu HQ), Hiko Seijuurou charms Fuji into taking off his armor, and quickly defeats him. Fuji was shrunk in this adaptation, probably 10 times smaller. I wonder if the animators were going for realism...

(g) Back to Kenshin and Shishio. After some uninteresting minor blows and wobbling due to the police bombarding the ship, Kenshin takes Shishio's sword to the shoulder (it stays there, Shishio doesn't seem able to recover it). Kenshin then glows blue (eh?) and hits Shishi on the head with his pommel, whereby for some reason- either the earlier trauma from taking a Gatotsu Zeroshiki to the head, or from his own increasing body temperature (slowly tenderizing his flesh), Shishio's head splits in two, and he uses both hands to try to keep them together. Please excuse my lack of boorishness as I curse: what the bloody fucking hell just happened there. Ahem.

(h) Now for the crowning moment of oddness: Shinomori Aoshi confronts Kenshin as he comes out onto the topdeck, badly injured (Shishio's sword is still stuck in him. Awesome place to store your weapon, you'll never drop it). This is the guy who was raring for an honor-fight with Kenshin. He came onto the Rengoku with the sole purpose of fighting Kenshin. In the manga/anime, him waiting until close to the end was justifiable in that they were in Shishio's lair, which was a essentially a labyrinth, thus requiring Yumi's guidance. In this OVA however, they were on a ship. He could have grabbed a deck chair (or borrowed Shishio's loveseat) and waited on deck. Instead he waited until the very end doing who knows what... probably fishing at the stern, and he probably thought the eardrum-rupturing cannon fire was the crew trying to outdo him by blast fishing.

(i) The fight with Aoshi ends simply. Kenshin talks about Misao a little, and then thwacks Aoshi on the forehead with his pommel (his head does not split into two). I suppose he must have laced it with some sort of psycho-neural drug, as the hit jolted Aoshi into realizing how stupid and stubborn he'd been all along. Convenient, eh.

It's possible that they could have covered up the deficiencies in the plot-fights by increasing the action time, and with better choreography- though it's hard to imagine how they'd top episode 30 of the anime (the tense and atmospheric fight between Saito and Kenshin), or the gruesomely beautiful Tsuioku-hen OVA- but it seems as if they didn't even bother trying.

That being said, there are some redeeming points for fans, of course: We get to see our favourite characters in action again. Saito doesn't look as menacing/wolfish as before, but it's still nice to see him. Hiko shows up again and shows Meiji Japan that he's not an alpha male, but really an alpha human. And finally, for all the Ruroken fans who cringed every time Kenshin came out of a major fight like a human ragdoll... at the very least, we can take comfort that this time around, he came out mostly in one piece.


  1. So Kenshin's swordsmanship has been reduced to pommel whacks? What.

    1. He also stands around looking pretty, while lecturing his opponents.