While the talents of Fukuhashi and Iwasaki shine through, the haphazard structure and priorities of Rurouni Kenshin: Reflections has the series end on a largely sour and unsatisfying note.
Plot Synopsis: Kenshin and Kaworu have things happen to them.
One of the major differences between Reflections and Trust and Betrayal is that while the latter serves as a gripping tragedy of lovers that carries arguably equal impact for both those familiar and unfamiliar with the Rurouni Kenshin series, the former is accessible to neither. As a half-recap episode, half-epilogue, it fails to elaborate enough for newcomers to follow leaving both the ending and the details leading up to it almost entirely incoherent. If that were not divisive enough, fans who have not watched the series recently (such as myself) may struggle to separate the seemingly arbitrarily chosen flashback events that alternately drag and flash by like lightning. Even with the context of the manga or the original TV anime, the ending ultimately feels like a betrayal to the tone of the author Nobuhiro’s work.
The largely optimistic ending of the manga is instead glossed over, as the fates of Kenshin and Kaworu are reduced to a melodramatic tragedy that seemingly comes out of nowhere. This leaves Reflections as the other side of the coin to Trust and Betrayal– while both of them make changes to original source material, the latter’s selective omissions are used to heighten the emotional impact of its depicted events within diminishing their meaning, while the former stretches out and dilutes what was already a satisfying conclusion. The non-linear storytelling with a lack of obvious transitions makes it difficult to tell when events take place in relation to each other. Much of this can be attributed to swapping out screen writer Masashi Sogo (Hunter X Hunter 1999, Shin Sekai Yori) for a writer with much less dramatic flair, Reiko Yoshida (Non Non Biyori, School Rumble). There is much more dialogue that means much less this time, as Kaworu drones on and on about doing anything for Kenshin in a narrative where her actions already said more than enough.
The misrepresentation of the character cast isn’t quite as heinous as the structure, though it still adds insult to injury for readers of Rurouni Kenshin. For a start, most of the story is told through the eyes of Kaworu, who is depicted as undergoing negligable character development and having the same monotonous unconditional trust in Kenshin from start to finish. There is no struggle with her, no meaningful obstacles that she must overcome and no doubt that she will ever fail to save Kenshin. Even in the manga she was never the most engaging character, mostly reacting to her surroundings and actively participating in only one important fight scene, though she served her purpose as foil for Kenshin sufficiently. It was an uninspired decision to make such a colourless and unwavering character the lead, and in the many scenes which involve only her and Enishi (one of Rurouni Kenshin‘s least charismatic and imposing antagonists) lack any major development. Kenshin himself lacks any of the humour of his manga counterpart, which when combined with the lack of any major side characters leaves Reflections utterly devoid of levity.
The handling of the supporting cast is slightly consistent with the manga, though some of the creative decisions come across as unreasonable extrapolations. Saito and Aisha are barely on screen in this adaptation, though there absence is perhaps one of the few beneficial omissions to the adaptation given how little they had to add after defeating Shishio. Yahiko and Sanosuke seem to have progressed naturally, the former honing his sword skills while the latter is travelling around to avoid arrest. The same cannot be said for Kenji, the son of Kenshin and Kaworu. At the end of the manga, he was a clumsy child who climbed up trees and pulled his father’s hair, which is nothing unusual. Reflections made the questionable decision to have him be a delinquent who ran away from home and resents his father, though fails to provide much meaning for this due to a lack of running time and poor placement.
The animation quality is impressive given the OVAs’ ages, though they don’t quite ascend to the heights of Trust and Betrayal. The background detail is impressive and atmospheric, the action is fluid and weighty and there is almost never an off-model character in sight. The characters’ eyes are expressive, the use of shadows is succinct and the colour palette follows the earlier OVA’s earthy realism. That being said, the action never quite manages to feel like a lethal duel due to a lack of length and uneven choreography which leaves the slashes lacking impact. While the auteur quality of Furuhashi’s work permeates Relfections as vigorously as his other works, the artistic approach taken here exudes almost a degree of embarrassment towards Nobuhiro’s more cherry manga. The depiction of the character of Kenshin in Trust and Betrayal was less goofy than that of the original manga, but fit within that tragic and peaceful tale. The same cannot be said here, with Kenshin and Kaworu visually drained of all whimsy and humanity. Not only do they not speak like their source material counterparts, but they do not emote like them either.
Taku Iwasaki returned to compose the score and he does a fine job, though the most memorable tunes here are from the earlier Rurouni Kenshin OVA. The call backs are used appropriately, tying a knot between the relationship of Kenshin and Tomoe with the relationship between Kenshin and Kaworu, but these are unfortunately the most memorable tracks on offer. The major problem here seems to be that there was little opportunity to compose new music given how the drab, downbeat tone never let up or developed. Much like every other aspect of Reflections, it’s musical score was completely overshadowed by that of its predecessor.
The one area in which Reflections arguably trumps its sister OVA series is in the localisation department. It’s not excellent, and by modern standards it may not even be considered average, though given poor standard of Trust and Betrayal‘s English dub it only really needed a few good performances to exceed expectations. Much of this comes in the form of Katherine Catmull’s performance as Kaoru, the one whom drolly narrates the entire ordeal, and how some of the more genuinely touching scenes occur when the only sounds are her voice and the ambience of the surroundings. It verges on high school play melodrama in places, though tends to toe the line just enough in the most important scenes. Outside of her, Bill Wise is as stiff as a board as Enishi, sounding bored when he should be authoritative and slightly irritated when he should sound livid. Shannon Weaver matches the abysmal quality of his Trust and Betrayal performance with possibly the worst acting in the entire OVA, made only more bearable this time by how little dialogue he is given. The supporting cast serve their roles sufficiently, but the primary characters overshadow them and leave their efforts largely unappreciated.
Rurouni Kenshin: Reflections serves as something of an antithesis to Trust and Betrayal. While the latter provided a harrowing tragedy of arguably equal impact to both those familiar with and unfamiliar with Rurouni Kenshin, the former is nonsensical to the uninitiated and insulting to those familiar with the manga. It’s messy sequencing, obtuse verbosity and deviations from the source material leave it a Frankenstein’s monster of a recap stitched with an insulting epilogue. Fukuhashi and Iwasaki’s contributions lessen the blow, though calling Relfections a loyal reflection of the series would be an outright fallacy.
Overall (Japanese): C+
Overall (English): D
Rurouni Kenshin: Reflections is available as a part of the Rurouni Kenshin OVA Collection from Madmen. This also contains Trust and Betrayal, so it is a must buy.