Wassup everyone. As I’ve stated here, I’ve been taking a Japanese Animation class this quarter at my community college, and as the quarter is coming to a close, there’s so many final assisgnments that I have to do. For Japanese Animation class, I have to write a term paper regarding one of the animated features we’ve watched in class. The topic I chose was a literary comparison between an adaptation and its source material, and since I’m a lazy man, I chose something I’ve seen/read a dozen of times and know by heart to save me the trouble: Rurouni Kenshin. To be specific, the first OVA.
And I’ve decided to post it here as well, because it seemed like it would make a good anime review for the blog. Note that since it’s supposed to be five pages long and I tend to be total poop when I’m writing under academic conditions (c’mon, everyone procrastinates on their homework!), it may seem a bit rushed in places.
Instructor Martin Mcnamara
6 June 2014
Literary Adaptation – Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen
Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen (“Remembrance arc”), retitled Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal or Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal for English language releases, was a four-episode original video animation animated by Studio Deen that was released throughout the year of 1999, based on partial parts of the popular Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story manga series by Nobuhiro Watasuki and served as a prequel to the television series of the same name, which is also a television adaptation of the manga series. With that being said, I will be going over the differences between the source material and the OVA adaptation, and how those differences affect the story in the overall presentation (structure, art, characters, mood, etc.).
One of the first aspects of the adaptation that should come to attention is the precise elements that are borrowed directly from the manga. Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, as the title suggests, is based on the Tsuiokuhen chapters of the manga (165–179) where Kenshin Himura recounts his days as an Ishin Shishi assassin during the Bakumatsu, the final years of Japan’s Edo period. This recollection of events are meant to shed light on the events of the final story arc of the manga in which these chapters appear, as well as finally providing the readers with a clear look into the tragic events that gave birth to Kenshin’s current character and complexes in comparison to the infamous Ishin Shishi assassin he allegedly used to be within the story. Now, because this animation was meant to be a supplement to the television adaptation (both works were directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi and animated by the same studio), which never got around to adapting all of this material (the animated series caught up to the manga series right before the final story arc, which forced them to produce original episodes as padding, and was cancelled due to fans being disinterested in these episodes), the sense that this OVA is all a flashback is never made apparent within the animated portion of the franchise, especially on the English releases where the OVA had been retitled from “Remembrance” (a proper English translation of the Japanese title) to “Trust & Betrayal”, because the bigger storyline that takes place in the “present” is not shown in this OVA nor its parent television series.
Furthermore, because this direct-to-video adaptation isn’t a flashback in the sense that it is set off by a character beginning to recollect the past in a previous “episode”, and is presented as a side-story to the television series instead, it starts off differently than it does in the manga. Whereas the manga starts the story of Tsuiokuhen immediately after Kenshin chooses to share the truth of his past with the other characters, the OVA chooses to prioritize introducing the audience to the Kenshin character first and foremost by using chapter 95 of the manga as the powerful opening scene. This is the scene where Kenshin, originally a slave boy named Shinta, witnesses the murder of his “surrogate family” by bandits and saved by Hiko Seijuurou XIII, a master of the powerful “Hiten Mitsurugi” sword style, who takes him and renames him as a swordsman apprentice of the Hiten Mitsurugi. While this scene was already shown in the television series in its rendition of the corresponding chapter (it is essentially the exact same scene as shown in this feature, but reanimated with different background music to fit the art and music direction of the rest of the OVA), I felt that it was the most appropriate material to use as an opening scene within this adaptation, as it is a powerful introduction to Kenshin’s psychological development and state that is presented throughout the rest of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen’s story, such as his loss of innocence or his inherent gentle nature that clashes with his desires to help the innocent and weak that leads him on the path of becoming a killer for the revolution to upend the Tokugawa shogunate. Whether or not the viewers are watching this as their first or only exposure to the series, this ensures that there is some feeling of cohesive development in the main protagonist’s character from beginning to the end of the OVA. Different context calls for difference in execution, and in this case, I feel that the director and screenwriter made the right choice on an alternate lead-in to the “flashback” (the main story of the feature), and I commend them for managing to stick with the source material at the same time.
Fortunately enough, rather than being a condensed version of an entire series of plot threads and character development (like, for example, the live-action Rurouni Kenshin movie or other film adaptations of anything for that matter), this OVA is only based on a miniscule portion of the series. This basically means that most of it is directly and faithfully adapted from the source material, word-for-word. However, that isn’t to say it lacked omission or that plot elements weren’t given some artistic license. Ten chapters of a Japanese manga series is a reasonable amount of material to adapt into four episodes. However, there were still elements from the source material that have ultimately been lost in the transition.- several scenes depicting the clash between Kenshin’s inherent kind nature and his current role as Katsura Kogorou’s cold-blooded assassin “the Hitokiri Battousai” are missing. For example, when Kenshin kills Tomoe’s first love Kiyosato Akira, the scene is largely similar to the manga except for the fact that it omits one very crucial moment: where Kenshin, after appearing to “leave” the scene and treating it as “usual business”, actually turns back and mournfully says, “May you find happiness… in your next life…” There are also several scenes in the manga where, during his time as Tomoe’s “husband” and after her death, he interacts with the village children in a very tender and caring manner and feels tranquil in his short-term “home”, which further indicates that becoming a killer for the sake of a new era is not the right place for his character. These omissions, along with the OVA’s decision at erasing a lot of Kenshin inner monologue, seem to make the OVA’s version of Kenshin come across as a completely cold and unpleasant person.
If viewed as a prequel to the television series, the transition from this to his current personality seems a lot more unnatural. And if, for whatever reason, viewed as a standalone; it makes you sympathize with his character a lot less because you see less of the positives underneath, and thus Kenshin doesn’t really get “close” enough to the viewer as a character. Mind you, he’s still very human in the OVA, just a lot more broken due to the omissions of his more emotive scenes and omitting a lot of his inner monologue, so it’s still easy to “empathize” with what he goes through in this film… it’s just harder to “sympathize.” It makes the OVA’s atmosphere a lot darker, yes, but the source material was already dark enough, and the omission of the few moments of compassion and happiness of the original story feels rather unnecessary and takes away from the main protagonist’s depth. There was, however, one change in a character detail that I feel holds a lot more weight than it did in the source material, and this is how Kenshin receives the “Tomoe” portion of his cross-shaped scar. In the manga, as Tomoe dies, she falls over with her knife which accidentally cuts Kenshin’s cheek. Here, she intentionally gives him the scar, which I always interpreted as her “canceling” out her fiance’s curse on Kenshin (his first scar, which constantly bled at certain points in the story) by “reuniting” with Kiyosato in death — symbolized by her scar crossing over with his — and also to intentionally leave behind a permanent reminder for Kenshin to look at every day, as to stick to his vow of never killing again after the Bakumatsu. Other storyline changes involve small details being left out. In the manga, Watatsuki goes through a lot more effort to inform the reader of the identity of Kenshin’s successor (who kills the spy in the epilogue) as Makoto Shishio in both the dialogue and the visuals, whereas the OVA leaves it up to fan knowledge and obscures Makoto Shishio’s face from view.
As far as the art direction goes, that’s where it deviated the most from the original manga and even its parent anime series. While it is done by the same studio that did the television series, it differs heavily from that and the source material in terms of character design. In the original manga, Watatsuki’s character designs and proportions are heavily influenced by a mixture of shoujo (girl demographic) manga characters and American comic book character, giving it a unique feel for a series published in magazine traditionally aimed a young boys. The designer in charge of adapting these character designs for the OVA was Madahide Yanagisawa, who largely kept the basic traits seen on each character from the manga, but opted to give these same characters a more “humanized” style, mostly in terms of their facial proportions. You can easily tell that they’re the same characters upon first glance; however, they were modified to fit the more realistic and depressing tone they were going for in this adaptation. While adapting arguably the grimmest chapters of the original manga, they also opted to take away the “calling of attacks” (ex. Kenshin yelling out “Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu — Sou Ryuu Sen!” when he does the corresponding technique) that was present in the manga’s rendition of this story in order to keep with the literary realism. Which, in my opinion, falls flat on its face in terms of concept, because despite the good choreography of the swordplay and engaging action scenes, they’re still rather inaccurate to how real Japanese swordplay works anyway (as is many other Japanese animations and cinemas that fit within the Chanbara genre – here, just witness the beginning parts of the OVA where Hiko Seijuurou slices apart some of those bandits with Hiten Mitsurugi as if he was slicing through soft cake; note that Japanese swords do not do that), so this “realistic” direction feels rather redundant to me. Nevertheless, the character designs specifically aren’t a detriment to this animated adaptation; in fact, they’re really nice to look at in this animated version. It’s just that it didn’t really change anything for me either way.
No matter how many times I’ve seen Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, it still remains one of the most powerful, saddening, and visually stunning anime OVAs I’ve seen, and remains one of my favorites. The director did a fantastic job translating the source material into something a lot more cinematic. However, story-wise, the script is essentially the same as its source material with some details missing or changed, for better or for worse. I think both interpretations are worth a look into, at least once, since they both have their own individual pros and cons that are easily balanced out if you experience both. However, with both viewed as part of an entire media franchise and overarching story, the OVA seems much more easily assessable as a standalone with minimum knowledge of the series premise — the animated series is incomplete and unfaithful at many points and lacks the corresponding story arc where the Tsuiokuhen OVA shows the most of its relevancy- whereas you have access to the entirety of author’s original intent with the original manga version. In terms of the entire original storyline by Nobuhiro Watatsuki, the Rurouni Kenshin manga is indeed superior to the animated continuity, but in terms of just Tsuiokuhen alone, both the manga and the anime hold up about the same in terms of story value.