For my 50th post, I felt it appropriate to discuss something special, and having recently bought my favourite anime of all time on DVD now seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on what makes this diamond sparkle.
Plot Synopsis: As an assassin with a troubled past, Kenshin (going by the title “Hitokiri Battousai (The Man Slasher)”) serves the underworld with little passion or remorse. Upon involving the tragically beautiful passerby Tomoe in his affairs, he finds hope for a life of peace. But not all is as it seems, as the lives and love of Kenshin and Tomoe hang in the balance.
Anime adaptations have a tendency to warrant major criticism for production values that are at best inconsistent and at worst consistently poor, bland story-boarding that often copies the manga with little innovation to lackluster results, and dilution of potentially compelling themes through slapstick comedy and pandering to a wide audience. Many of these are a consequence of remaining loyal to the manga or novel without seriously taking into account changes that must be made when adapting the story to a different medium, resulting in a product which more often than not feels like a watered down advertisement for the source material. As a result, a disproportional amount of the most acclaimed anime titles are either completely original (Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion) or exceedingly liberal in how the use their respective source material, such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal.
Trust and Betrayal is a special adaptation in that, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, it tells a story substantially tighter and more cohesively than the source material it adapts with stellar pacing and presentation. However, the comparisons lie deeper than that, as one of the major differences between Trust and Betrayal and the section of the Rurouni Kenshin that it adapts is the shifting of emotional focus through selection omissions. Kenshin’s backstory was revealed in the third and final major arc of the manga to give context to central antagonist Enishi and finally reveal the past of Kenshin, a man whose generally optimistic nature had up until that point been underpinned by lethal coldness. For the most part, the details remain the same, the plot follows an almost identical structure and even some Easter eggs for future characters, like Saitou and Shishio, are gracefully present.
Despite the adapted events occurring near the end of the manga’s run, Trust and Betrayal works perhaps equally as effective as a stand-alone entry. This is accomplished through clear and concise presentation and attention to detail that skews towards the grimmer sections of Rurouni Kenshin without feeling entirely removed from the standard tone. While the original manga and anime series were largely skewed to a younger audience, with its most iconic villain capable of shooting fire and regular feats of inhuman strength, dark and historically relevant topics like opium production, depression and modernisation kept the series grounded without alienating a younger audience. The story of Kenshin and Tomoe retained this tone, with children playing with Kenshin mere pages after he slices through his enemies. The Trust and Betrayal OVA retained this sense of calm by having the two leads move to a safer place and farm, completely omitting the wide eyed slap stick humour and giving Enishi less focus.
This worked much to the benefit of the OVA, as not only were Enishi’s motives still clear, but one of the series most underwhelming antagonists never really warranted a place in a backstory so focussed on Kenshin. He lacked the elegant anguish of Aoshi, the lawful neutrality of the dour yet reliable Saito, and he quite literally paled in comparison to the fiery Shishio, who engaged the audience from his very first scene to well after his last. From an unremarkable visual design to a cliched and impersonal gang of evil henchmen (like from every shounen under the sun) followed by a predictable kidnappping, both Enishi and author Nabuhiro Watsuki tried and failed to make these sections as enticing as those which proceeded them. Enishi might have given the series a satisfying end, though he did not succeed in setting himself apart from the pack. His relegation to what is largely a cameo allows for the story of Kenshin and Tomoe to get the emotional focus it may have otherwise lacked.
As it stands, with the focus being almost squarely on Kenshin’s relationship with murder and Tomoe, it manages to always have its thematic core at the forefront with an omnipresent turbulent Japan in the background. The overall segmentation of the episodes managed to carry the momentum of the story quite well; the first ends with Kenshin meeting Tomoe, the second ends with them leaving (Trust), the third with Tomoe turning to his enemies (Betrayal) and the final episode ends their tale. Throughout all this, each scene serves to further deepen character relationships and push moral dilemmas regarding the far reaching consequences of killing, whether the ends justify the means and what can end the violence. The poetic, almost painterly quality of the interactions and structure can make it difficult to sympathize with these characters, whose vile actions may simply be too reprehensible to excuse despite their tough upbringing or noble intentions. Yet despite this, the hesitance with which the cast approach their tasks, even once they’ve committed themselves to them, is more than enough to make the cast identifiable.
Beyond tailoring the narrative to fit the story the staff wanted to tell, the artistic direction and production values are equally worthy of praise. Despite the poor track record of studio DEEN, there are very few modern anime that stack up alongside Trust and Betrayal in terms of visual presentation. For a start, the action sequences are both fluid and deadly, steel slicing through bodies like paper and clanging against each other will gengine weight. The skill (or lack thereof) of even those with no voice or face is communicated deftly throughout the many violent encounters. Make no mistake, this is no Elfen Lied-style celebration of insubstantial gore; each conflict has its own brief build up and pay off, and this only snowballs alongside the emotional stakes. From the way in which the government forces and crime syndicates act in groups to the horrified expressions of those who know they are fighting a battle they cannot win, the character animation does much to make these one-off confrontations feel surprisingly personal.
Even more so than the animation quality, the outstanding atmospheric use of colour in the foreground, middle ground and background serve as a potent method of visual storytelling. A vast variety of cinematic techniques are implemented in both action and conversation scenes with pitch perfect prediction; the illuminating use of depth of field, the poetic blood red on white and the muted colour palette serve not only as a method of setting the mood, but flesh out the setting and make each character visually distinct even to those with no prior knowledge of the anime. Much like in DEEN’s recent masterpiece Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu the dark hues on the meticulously designed outfits and architecture serve to both ground the story in the setting and provide a constant downbeat tone.
The audio design matches that of the visuals through brilliance and restraint on every front. Swords clang sharply, the wind whistles gently and explosions ring out with devastation, matching and complementing the cinematic quality of the visuals. The musical score, composed by the acclaimed Taku Iwasaki, is both piercingly haunting and hypnotically beautiful, more in vain with his work on Katanagatari than Gurren Lagann or Soul Eater. The implementation of the music does the score justice, with the most outstanding track “In Memories ‘A Boy Meets The Man’“being peppered throughout the anime before finally playing out in its entirety at the end. With its multiple dips and peaks, strong eastern traditional windpipe sections and minimal repetition, it provides the same anxious calmness laced with tragic melancholy as the anime, and just as effectively.
While the production from director Furuhashi Kazuhiro and the staff at DEEN are almost entirely free of substantial faults, the localisation is not nearly as impressive. While this OVA is a substantial cinematic upgrade of the original TV anime, the changes to the dub cast results in a shocking drop in the quality of the English performances. The localisation team would always be at a disadvantage; such an eastern narrative fits the Japanese language so well, similar to how Baccano! is more fitting in English. For the most part, the few incidental characters have serviceable performances, nothing special though certainly nothing detrimental. The same cannot be said for the performances of the main cast, which are inexcusably poor. The acting of Richard Cansino in the original Rurouni Kenshin was much grittier than the very feminine tone of Japanese counterpart Mayo Suzukaze, though he succeeded in making the character his own and did the best he could with occasionally shaky dialogue. Trust and Betrayal‘s Shannon Weaver, on the other hand, is as flat as a board, absolutely apathetic in a role that demands resonance and deliberation and falling flat on his face in even key moments. Rebecca Davis as Tomoe is the nail in the coffin, her inexperience seeping throughout every awkward line and wooden delivery (this was her second role after Sakura Tsuushin) as she consistently fails to match the nuanced and quiet torture of Junko Iwao.
Trust and Betrayal is an artistic tour de force of blood and lilies, of love and lies, of dreams and despair. It earned its spot among the most important anime ever created not only because of its exquisite production design, its precise adaptation changes and its philosophical undertones. After all these years, I have seen few other anime so razor-sharp in storytelling, so ambitious in execution and so (initially) devoid of meaningful flaws that it leaves me partly wanting to play it immediately after finishing it and partly never wanting to suffer through it’s tragic tale again.
Overall (Japanese): A
Overall (English): B
Rurouni Kenshin may be purchased on DVD from Madman Entertainment in Australia and the series to which it serves as a prequel is available on Netflix.