Reflection is the sequel to the Samurai X / Rurouni Kenshin legacy, and a conclusion that I find myself contemplating with a few mixed feelings. After the brilliance of Trust and Betrayal, and the sheer volume and breadth of the Rurouni Kenshin TV series, it was a hedged bet as to whether Reflection could live up to its predecessors while labouring under such expectations.
Which is where the mixed feelings come in, because while I don’t believe it failed as a satisfactory conclusion to the series, or as the final third of the Samurai X trilogy, it sometimes seemed as if those expectations were just a little too much.
Of course, that’s not to say it doesn’t carry with it many of the most important strengths of its parents — the rich, graceful use of colour and sound and the grand violence of the fight scenes of the OAVs; the charm and caricaturised villainy of the series, and if it stumbles in places that is perhaps understandable. Its independence diluted by the necessity of having to quote from an almost overwhelming legacy, the first half, like any inexperienced child, borders on confused attempting to articulate its origins. It might not be realistic to expect you to know what happened in all ninety-five episodes, but Kenshin can’t be concluded without knowledge of certain key events. If you hadn’t seen the series it would in fact be impossible for you to not to be confused, and if you’d managed to miss the OAVs, you might find yourself choking on the often wordy melodrama of it all. Some things must just be assumed in either case, some gaps filled in.
But like any struggling offspring, the film’s determination to shoulder these burdens becomes in the second half strengths that are all the more astonishing. As in the preceding OAVs, this OAV doesn’t shy away from the gritty, painful truths constructed from Kenshin’s life as an assassin, nor the human consequences associated with it. It does in fact face them with brutal courage, its concepts of truth and justice and preconceptions of good and bad drawn with the muted greys of personal hardship. But unlike the first two it reflects these things not through Kenshin himself, an unreachable, tragically heroic figure in this film, but through the people around him who he has inspired and changed, and in particularly through those who have come to love him despite or perhaps because of his past.
And it is here where Reflection evokes the same emotional brutality and grace of the first two films. The film’s most poignant, touching and effective moments come through Kaoru, master of the Kamiya dojo, now wife and mother to Kenshin’s son. She is the story’s sole focal point, and her thoughts on Kenshin, as well as her own private needs and choices are at turns magnificent and frustrating. Her arguably passive, sacrificial yet deeply compassionate love for Kenshin transcends the series cannon to the point of myth. This is tragedy in its purest, most theatrical form, and theatrics in its most spectacular. The action sequences are what any series fan might have prayed for and any OAV loyalist would have demanded; stunningly grim and blindingly fast-paced. The quality of animation in this OAV is just breathtaking (and I don’t say things like that lightly). This at the very least is not a film that allows you any feelings of ambivalence.
And perhaps that is the point. Tragedies are designed to transport, to transcend, to make you feel too much too quickly, to drive home with brutal certainty the themes and truths to which they ascribe. The truths in Samurai X’s tragedy are numerous, faceted and deeply drawn, and like a cut stone, they reflect and refract the complexity and painful beauty of the human condition.