Review: Samurai X – Trust and Betrayal, Director’s Cut (1999)

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Some Japanese properties can be very confusing.  I don’t mean that they’re confusing to watch.  I mean that there are so many different versions of the same story, told and retold in series, OAV and film that I don’t always know if what I’m watching represents the best a franchise has to offer.  Such is the case with Trust and Betrayal, the Rurouni Kenshin “movie” that anime fans often rave about.  Known in the states as Samurai X, RK has existed in many incarnations.  This one is supposedly a couple of the OAVs re-edited into a single feature.  I say supposedly because it’s hard to know whose word to trust, but I’m evaluating it as a feature because that’s how it’s presented on the DVD I watched.

The story is that of Kenshin, the main character of Samurai X, so called because of the X-shaped scar on his left cheek.  This is the character’s backstory.  Here, he starts as a child who is rescued from slavery and who vows to become an assassin – a tool by which the world will be set right.  Sadly, he fails to understand the motivations of those he serves and the complexity of the world during the Meiji restoration.  There’s plenty of swordplay here, but the core of the story is the love that develops between Kenshin and Tomoe, a poor girl who’s often at the right place at the right time.  Perhaps too often.  To tell you more than that, I risk spoiling the more enjoyable aspects of the story and the revelations of the layers of motivations at work behind the eyes of these complex characters.

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This is an interesting tale but one that I felt was told too slowly when I watched it the first time.  I was tempted to give up, but the beautiful use of thematic imagery alluded to better things to come.  Now that I’ve watched it a second time, I realize that both halves of the film are told in the same deliberate style.  What changed my take on it was the knowledge of what was actually happening between the two main characters.  The pacing seemed deliberately time-consuming my first time through simply because the messages that were being delivered were incomprehensible to me.  The second time through, I enjoyed it much more.

This is a beautiful late-90’s animated film.  Despite the use of some cheap video tricks, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi makes many interesting choices that reinforce the ideas present in the script.  I especially enjoyed the use of floral imagery and other seasonal elements.  Nature is often a character that’s woven into Japanese dramas, especially historical ones, but it’s rarely used in ways as interesting as these.

I didn’t listen to much of the English voice tracks, but I heard enough to tell you to avoid them.  The subtitles on the DVD are clear if a little bit much to read from time to time.  The Japanese voice actors are all top-notch as is the symphonic score.  The tone of this could have been better reinforced with more classical Japanese music, but the score by Taku Iwasaki does a good job of emphasizing the emotional elements.

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It’s too bad that the DVD video transfer isn’t worthy of the material.  This non-anamorphic release represents the bare minimum of what’s acceptable on a DVD these days.  I’d very much enjoy seeing this on blu ray, but I doubt there’s much chance of that happening during this downturn in the market.

If you’re curious about Samurai X, this is a good place to start, but be warned – this piece rewards those who are patient enough to make it all the way through more than once.  You might also enjoy your initial viewing more if you read spoilers first, but I’ll leave it to you to unearth those for yourself if you so desire.  Recommended.

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