Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection (Director's Cut)
When I first got seriously interested in anime back in 1985 with the release of Robotech, I was not most attracted to the mecha. The Veritech battles were cool and the giant alien Zentraedi and Invid were incredible, but what made me a fan were the relationships. I was young enough not to be jaded, and so when major characters died, I felt it. I was naive and felt my own feelings change as Rick Hunter blundered his way through a love triangle, dating a beautiful but shallow actress only to find himself attracted to another officer with a cold streak towards him. I could feel for Scott Bernard, pained by the loss of his fiancé. These characters somehow felt real, and that reality has kept me enthralled for 20 years. I have seen a thousand anime since then, and I've found that most of what's out there simply isn't emotionally moving. Most people don't want to be moved. It scares them.
I have never been a big fan of Rurouni Kenshin, despite its popularity. Though I've seen a small amount of the television show, its humor never quite clicked with me. Somehow, a funny samurai epic just didn't feel right! Eventually, I'll watch more of the TV show, I'm sure, but I was never drawn to it. Then came Rurouni Kenshin - Trust and Betrayal. These two OVAs filled in the back story of the assassin turned peacekeeper, and that violent, tragic tale pulled me around the corner. This was a show I could understand and enjoy. And what you think of Reflection will largely depend on how you feel about the TV show and that first OVA series. For Reflection is a completely different genre than both, and only from certain perspectives will it feel natural. Where the TV show was a comedic action show and the OVA a brutal but worthy samurai epic, Reflection is a romantic, dramatic finale that somberly ends the story a far cry from its comic origins. Some fans who've gotten through the near-hundred episodes of the TV show may hate it, but in my eyes, it is an honest, tender work that closes the show perfectly.
Kaoru waits for Kenshin. As she waits, we relive her memories of their relationship together, from early conversations to intimate moments when the heart of the Battousai was finally open to her. But the wandering swordsman cannot find peace, despite his years of work trying to undo the damage he caused as an assassin. As we revisit the past, we see how others try to get to Kenshin through Kaoru, attempting to make him pay for his previous misdeeds. We watch how his friendships develop over time. And finally, we go well past anything seen before in the anime and learn of Kenshin's marriage to Kaoru, the samurai living a normal life. But still the past eats at him like the disease that eats away his skin. Kaoru is now his home, but can he ever return?
Skillfully animated, Reflection is as impressive as its predecessor OVAs. Although not as motion heavy, Reflection is great to look at and boasts animation worthy of a big-screen release. And although the story covers some material from within the TV show, everything is newly animated in the OVA style. The version I saw, the director's cut, takes the two original OVAs and splices them together, adding some footage and transitioning it together. I'm not sure of all the changes, but it plays out extremely well as a 98-minute feature. In addition, the music (some of which has shown up elsewhere in the saga) is just great. It's solemnly gorgeous, worthy of a soundtrack release.
However, what really makes Reflection work is its storyline. This movie is really Kaoru's tale, and it works very well. Although there is one problem that keeps it from my top grade--having two stories about kidnappings of Karou is unnecessary and repetitive--the vast majority of it sails beautifully. Though I am not familiar with the plot of the entire TV series, I was never confused by the random flashbacks; that's because they were not ordered by timeline but how they fit into the whole account of Kaoru and Kenshin together. Some reviews here and there on the web have attacked the program's structure, but for the life of me, I don't understand their problem. Either they are continuity geeks or they can't understand a non-linear narrative. (However, I will concede that perhaps the original OVA set, which I have not seen, is harder to follow.)
I can see where fans of the TV show may not like this. It is Rurouni Kenshin completely unlike what they have grown to love. The humor is hard to find, and the show presses us with a deepening sense of loss and sorrow. If you really loved the goofy aspects of the show, maybe this isn't for you. But if you can handle it, Reflection is an emotional powerhouse. I don't want to give away the ending (and make sure to stay through the credits!), but it feels right. There is release. There is closure. It may not be the closure you want, but closure in any anime is unusual. What's also unique about Reflection is that it makes me want to see more of the story I've missed! Through this final story, I want to know more of how these characters became who they eventually become.
I don't claim to know a ton about Rurouni Kenshin, but I do know what moves me, and Reflection did just that. Through this program, I understood what all the fuss was about, and I'm just sorry to learn that some fans dislike it. But that's OK...emotional anime are often frowned upon. Let me just say that if you have seen the first OVA set, a bit of the TV series, and are willing to take this final trip to the edge of despair and back with our long-suffering hero and his loving soul mate, you'll find the journey worthwhile.
Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection (Director's Cut) -- violence, profanity, adult themes -- A