SPOILERS FOR RUROUNI KENSHIN
You know what you’re wanting to see in a Rurouni Kenshin OVA, fights. You know what this is missing, you guessed it, fights. This is a shonen fighting series that the staff completely forgot half of. I’m not saying that the characters and backstory aren’t interesting in Kenshin, but those things aren’t executed with much grace either.
This OVA is like the reverse of a clips reel. Instead of showing all the cool fights and intense moments, it is a collection of people talking to each other in between all the awesome things that go on during the (arguably) best arc of the Kenshin series. Note, most awesome things not included.
I’m going to admit it. I was not so secretly hyped for this OVA. When I heard they were going to remake the Kyoto Arc from Kenshin I thought that was pretty amazing idea. Take what is one of the strongest arcs of the manga and animate it with modern techniques and a decent sized budget. (Note: Debates over the superiority of the Remembrance or Revenge arcs can be saved for another day.) It seems like a recipe for awesome. Then they announced the OVA would be from Makimachi Misao’s perspective. That was a bit puzzling. I love Makimachi Misao. She is my favorite character from the series. A spunky kunoichi who is a wonderful sidekick for Kenshin during the arc as she adds a much-needed dash of comedy and drama to what would have otherwise been a less engaging solo journey for Kenshin. But as much as I love her she is still firmly a side kick character. So I was a bit worried that a story too much from her perspective would be claustrophobic and miss some of the most important parts of the arc due to their choice of perspective.
So I went in hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. In the end I had nothing to worry about in that regard. They did not do any of the things I was worried about. They botched the OVA is so many other more egregious ways that my initial fears seemed laughably quaint. It takes a special talent to do everything incorrectly. A bad anime will usually be broken in several places. The worse it is the more places it tends to have major flaws. But usually there are some bright spots that lift it out of being a complete train wreck. The thing is this Kenshin OVA does absolutely everything wrong with its plot and characterization it can.
It should be said that this OVA seems made only for fans of the series. It is nay impossible to follow the plot otherwise. I’m not sure if is a good bet or not that everyone is already familiar with the story considering how old it is now though. And unless you are a Kenshin expert you might have forgotten some of the finer details. Even though this is a story seemingly made for fans of the series, that doesn’t mean there needs to be zero set up to events. It throws you in the middle of things so quickly you are never allowed to sink into the pace and emotions of the story.
But as a fan, we certainly remember what stands out in this arc. Things that are important in the first half: Kenshin catching up with Shishio and coming face-to-face for the first time, Kenshin’s sword getting broken and then getting a new one, Saito and Kenshin working together. All of these things happen but without any real emotion coming from the OVA. It’s as if it’s just another day in the neighborhood when Kenshin finds Shishio in the village. Saito questioning Cho in jail originally showed off Saito’s sly skills and made him and Sanosuke work together. Now it was just a throw away scene, which Sanosuke wasn’t even in!
Furthermore there a few new scenes which don’t do anything. There is a sex scene, why? The surprising thing is it is actually all in shadow and there is no nudity. Even then it was still awkward. So they couldn’t even throw in a fan-service scene properly?
And fights? Rather important in Kenshin-land. I was exaggerating when I said there are no fights, but they are over so quickly as to be practically nonexistent.
The Kyoto Arc starts in volume 7 of the manga and does not end until volume 17. That is a good deal of ground to cover. Sacrifices have to be made to condense such a sprawling tale into a short series of OVAs. You have to have a good eye for what to cut, what to shorten, and what to combine to keep the spirit of the original while still telling a coherent story. The problem is, as Narutaki said, the story is a mess. With too much ground to cover Kazuhiro Furuhashi and Mari Okada tried to cut out the extraneous parts of the original Kenshin story and only give the viewer the vital high points. They seem to know what the major beats of the story are but they don’t seem to understand what makes any of those key points work.
The perfect example is Kenshin first meeting with Shishio. They cut the fight with Senkaku which while adding slightly to the story can be cut with almost no consequence. But at the same time there is no build up to anything else that happens. Most of the meeting is Kenshin and Shishio talking at each other. The problem is that half the conversation makes no sense unless you read the source material and the other half has no impact. In the manga it was a struggle to get to Shishio and so there is a weight to the conversation. But since they effortlessly find him the conversation consequently seems cheaper. Also without any build up Kenshin’s fight with Sojiro ends in a flash without giving any menace or depth to Sojiro.
By the same token without all of Cho’s gimmick swords his fight is over before it beings. It takes away from exotic fighting styles that made him a unique character. Also Arai’s son never seems to be in too much danger making the fight toothless. In the original fight Kenshin not only had the handicap of not having his signature sword but he also he also had to constantly keep Arai’s son from harm as Cho would attack him to distract Kenshin. Likewise we only see the last blow in fight between Aoshi and Okina. That is the most important blow but since we practically have no idea who either of them are the scene is more confusing than meaningful.
It might seem like I am nitpicking the fights but they are the biggest weakness in the OVA. This could have been at least partially entertaining in the had only condensed the fights from the manga as opposed to reducing them to a single sword swing or two. The dialog and plotting was already an unrecoverable mess. It would take a major overhaul and a great deal more time to salvage anything from this current adaptation. But fights don’t need that much set up to be understandable. Most of the time the little setup they got was sufficient. Some gorgeously animated fights would have made the bad parts go down a bit better and let you fill in the gaps in story a little easier. If you can’t make a dish taste complex you might as well throw in some strong sugar and spice to make it go down easily.
The characters are rushed through relying too much on the audience’s familiarity. Despite what this studio thinks, characters don’t stop developing (hopefully) after you know who they are. You learn more as time goes on, you learn nothing in this OVA.
Misao is introduced in this arc so we theoretically need more explanation of her yet even she has little in the way of presence and development. Her seeking out Kenshin comes off more as “well, we had to start this story somehow” and it is so unclear about why she joins up with him. Her master Aoshi shows up briefly to tangentially kill someone. This is a pretty good scene, I admit, but doesn’t seem to go in the flow of the show.
As I mentioned before Sanosuke is actually cut from a scene. While Karou and Yahiko are actually added to one that seems to waste time. They stumble upon Kenshin’s master Seijuro without Kenshin being there. Seijuro is crazy bad-ass for sure but there is no reason for this scene. Karou and Yahiko look at his pottery, chat, and Seijuro chops some wood.
This OVA just had no idea who or what to spend time on.
If the fights were weak than the only thing that was weaker was the attention paid to the characters. Everything about the plot comes off like someone reciting off a set of cliff notes they glanced over before a test. We see the most of Kenshin and Misaso but we don’t learn much about them. The characters are all too willing to say things like Kenshin is a gentle warrior who refuses to kill or that Misao is a spunk ninja girl but we don’t see that much to back up those claims. Also most of the time you are asked to remember character relationships from previous material more the plot giving you any details involving them. There is no gravity to Misao’s quest to find Aoshi so it makes much of her motivation seem pointless. If they were going to have so much talking they should have at least built up the core characters.
At the same time the side character pop up to equally vapid cameos few of which even properly introduce their characters. Yahiko, Karou, and Sanosuke all appear but you never really learn that much about them. They would be instantly recognizable to fans of the original but to everyone they are mostly enigmas. Even the one member of Shishio’s henchmen that gets any development (including a scene during an oddly tame OVA sex scene) is killed off earlier than he was in the manga. Why bother to develop Uonuma Usui if you are just going to kill him before he gets to do anything really interesting?
I can at least say that this OVA renders backgrounds, land- and cityscapes, and the sky with loving detail. Light is used well throughout, too. And even in taking stills for this OVA, I realized that it might look better than it truly is.
The few moments of action we were privy too also looked good. That is why it was doubly disappointing that they were so few and short. I feel they could have made a good action OVA. Perhaps they are saving it all for the second half.
If I have one complement to pay this series it is that the production values can be high at times. The original TV series by Studio Gallop was usually adequate with it came to animation but it clearly had the budget of a long running TV show from the 90s so scenes were very often done on the cheap. The new OVA clearly has a bigger budget as befits an OVA. That means crisp modern animation, wonderful backgrounds, and some choice animation at key points. But at the same time pan shots and long-range shots often cheat and use a more sub par animation when they assume you are not looking a closely. Also considering the fact that so much of the series is people walking or talking it is not like they were burning through money in about 90% of the time. The fights are often extremely smooth but they hardly last long enough for you to appreciate the quality. The oddest change is that while most of the cast looks exactly like they did in the TV series they oddly enough radically redesigned Misao. You can tell who he is if you watched the original but she looks more like Misao’s long-lost cousin wearing her outfit more than herself.
The soundtrack is mostly made up of new versions of most of the old soundtrack from the TV series. Most character’s leitmotifs are unchanged or slightly tweaked along side a good deal of the more iconic themes of the series. It more than anything helps fill in the gaps missing from the OVA by invoking memories of the TV series (if you had them at all.)
I don’t understand why they bothered remaking this arc in the first place if not to do it any sort of justice. Trying to imagine a production meeting where it is suggested they take out all the fights is laughable but somehow it occurred.
As for the Misao element, I really wouldn’t have known this was supposed to be Misao-focused if Hisui hadn’t informed me beforehand. If it was, it could have accounted for some of the oversights, but it just didn’t do enough to make me believe we were seeing this through Misao’s point-of-view.
This may be one of the most disappointing things I’ve watched in a while.
This OVA made me physically mad. It is just such a wasted opportunity. The Kyoto Arc still has such a strong reputation with fans. With the new Kenshin manga coming out and the live action movie coming out it seemed like the best time for the franchise to put its best foot forward. But instead they have squandered their opportunity. Had this been successful they could have thought about adapting Revenge Arc or make a rebooted series as they are want to do recently. But with a product like this I doubt that will be the case.