I took the liberty of watching Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, or more commonly known as Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the other day. I was expecting a good hour and a half of backstory to a series that has shaped my perception of shonen themes, a couple of battle scenes, good ol’ pumped up action, and awful 90’s dubbing.
I did not get what I expected.
[Major spoilers follow for the Rurouni Kenshin franchise!]
Tsuiokuhen realizes that every hero leaves a larger shadow of himself in his path, and thus explores the other facets of Kenshin that are revealed as crumbs throughout the original series. It is something between a Greek tragedy and a cinematic movie, a message to the fans and a sombre opening of arms to those who wish to start the Kenshin franchise for their first time. For those of us who are well acquainted with the redhead samurai, we see figures of the past that resurface later on in the show – younger, less complex characters, who still pave an important path for Kenshin. And for those of us who have not, we see harbingers of tragedy – important people that will chase us back to the present time and make us remember Tsuiokuhen (not that they need to; Tsuiokuhen is remarkable in its own distinct way, but more on that later). As someone who hasn’t seen Kenshin in such a long time for my memory to be fuzzy, but at least be familiar with the general arcs and characters, I happened to sit in both seats, feeling a deja vu experience throughout the one and a half hours. My hazy memories of Kenshin, a cheerful yet driven man, were overlapped with the eyes of a boy who could not tell wrong from right. The comedy I would always laugh to was no longer here, washed away with the stains of death and tragic love. Ghosts lingered and drifted.
This is Kenshin, but of another life, another time. This is how Hitokiri Battousai ends and Rurouni Kenshin begins.
We are introduced to a slave boy named Shinta within the first few seconds of the 4-part OVA, only for his family to be killed in front of him by couple of bandits. Before they can take his life, another swordsman saves and takes him under his wing, stating the first important lines that leave slight chills in our bones.
“Shinta? That is a soft name. No…your name from now on is Kenshin.”
Shinta, now Kenshin, trains under his master Hikiro Seijuro, until he pre-determinedly decides to take whatever his sensei has offered him and use it for good, following the ideal way of the samurai: protecting the poor with his sword. Where he lands up is completely different, as he is soon given the task of assassinating criminals under the clan of Choshu in the name of peace. In turn, the ability to kill now lies in his hands. Shinta the victim and student is gone; a fearless and emotionless killer takes his place.
The first one and a half OVAs spend their time quietly focusing on this more cold-blooded side of Kenshin, one we saw brief glimpses of in the original series. A teenager here, Kenshin rarely smiles, saving any difference of expression for the bodies he stares at after killing them. We see how he earns the first half of the cross on his cheek – a scar that literally haunts him to the very end of the OVAs. It is only when Kenshin meets the wife of a swordsman he killed on duty – a woman named Tomoe – do we see something of an elemental change. Dialogue is more focused on, and little by little, we see Kenshin turn into more of a man. His hands no longer bear a weapon when he and Tomoe are forced to pose as an actual wife and husband out of Kyoto. Instead, he is forced to grow medicinal herbs and live a peaceful life out in the rural villages in the mountains. Kenshin the assassin – a figure which predominantly took place in the rain and the dark – is now replaced by a man who spends his time in the light and spring. Once again, an identity has faded only for another to take its place.
The dramatic elements of chanbara are scattered in these OVAs, from the exaggerated blood sprays to the determined yells of the swordsmen Kenshin mows down mercilessly. However, the tone is completely different from that of Rurouni Kenshin. There are no flashy techniques; no large explosions, no taunts. Each fight is quicker than the last, leaving pools of blood behind. No one is spared from the violence – not even the audience, who witnesses throats being slashed and limbs being cut. These are no shonen battles; they are imagined exercises of the ages, mingled with beautiful dynamics and striking poses.
And yet Kazuhiro Furuhashi does not let bloodbath taint the beauty of Tsuiokuhen. Balancing the violence are images of nature – fallen cherry blossoms wherever Kenshin leaves slain bodies, dreary rain flooding the red away. As Kenshin and Tomoe begin to heal slowly in the mountains, the precedence of these images grows stronger. The camera focuses on their tender hands, wielding crops and letting them grow. Silhouettes stand solemnly against the snowy winter landscape, huddling together near a fire in their small house. Much like the poetic Casshern Sins, Furuhashi relies on these images to convey the warmer sides of humanity – two broken souls recovering by relying on honesty and intimacy rather than violence, thus speaking volumes about the kind of bond that Kenshin and Tomoe share. These are two human beings who have committed their own share of wrongs and look to each other not as just a safe haven but as exact reminders of what they have lost and gained in the process of loving. And for a while, it is almost happy.
But of course, happiness does not last in Greek tragedies. Regardless of whether you are acquainted with Rurouni Kenshin the series or not, Furuhashi inserts plenty of symbolic foreshadowing to keep you on your toes, even when the content matter may seem peaceful and sweet. If Trust is about Kenshin and Tomoe nurturing their wounds and understanding the price and sanctity of humanity, Betrayal is about losing all of that to reclaim something much worse. Tomoe attempts to solve her problems through bargaining, but loses her life. And Kenshin in turn, loses the one person who showed him a fair amount of kindness in order to regain his old assassin identity. The landscape in this scene is barren and cold, making the loss as poetic as it is devastating. Tsuiokuhen shows us that Kenshin’s journey of transformation – from child slave to the feared Hitokiri Battousai – is nothing but sorrowful and as painful as tragedy gets. And thus, it leaves us with the same words that marked that transformation: the beginning of how Kenshin got his name, and thus the weight of love and sin that name carries.
So no, I did not get what I expected. What I did discovered was that Tsuiokuhen was about this: a man who sheathes and unsheathes his name like a blade, going from one face to the next; the end of one time and the beginning of another – the Meiji Restoration period, in a time of chaos and restructure; finally, a cycle of vengeance and blood being cut off, but also being born anew at the same time. And it is both tragic and beautiful, conveyed through powerful and immersive storytelling accompanied with some of the most visceral imagery I’ve seen in anime to date. Whether you claim interest in the actual franchise of Kenshin or not, I would highly recommend Tsuiokuhen to anyone looking for an almost perfectly executed story. This is a piece of the ages, not to be missed.