Review: Samurai X: Vol.1 Trust & Vol.2 Betrayal (1999)

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Samurai X, a play on words derived from the pattern that scars the legendary Kenshin Himura’s face, despite its rather pedestrian title is anything but ordinary. This is in fact bloody poetry, and I mean that in a literal sense, rather than a derogatory one. From the very first scenes, and if you are at all familiar with the Rurouni Kenshin TV series of which Samurai X is a prequel, it is clear that this is quality, and deadly serious.

Welcome to the OAV.

The OAV (Original Animated Video), a peculiarly Japanese invention, was a creative response by studios constrained and frustrated by low production budgets and market compatibility. Working something like the American concept of the ‘series pilot’, but not confined to a pilot’s function of pitching or introducing a series, the OAV is far more multifunctional. OAVs can be a cinematic version of the series (think Escaflowne the Movie), appear as a series conclusion (like the Neon Genesis Evangelion OAVs End of Evangelion and Death and Rebirth) or even be an opportunity to take a popular series to the big screen and do some things no TV budget would ever allow (for instance, the spectacularly good Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door). There are other reasons of course, but the OAV continues to occupy a unique market niche in anime, often bypassing the small screen, flirting occasionally with the big one but in general often just going straight to video.

[And just so you know, OAV, or Original Animated Video, is exactly the same thing as OVA, or Original Video Animation, so if someone tries to tell you it’s “OAV, not OVA”, just ignore them, or whack them over the head with your Official Saiyuki Merchandising Harisen, which usually works for me!]

Of all the possible motivations for the OAV however, the fact that it allows the animation studio to venture into more mature spaces not only visually but also conceptually is perhaps the one of the most exciting. In the case of Trust and Betrayal, two virtually inseparable instalments of the one story, the way of the OAV was an opportunity to articulate the darker reality of Kenshin’s story, and the result is a breathtaking achievement in symbolism, lyricism and unglorified violence.

Dark, bloody and painfully beautiful in comparison to the series, colours are richer, actions are more detailed and the soundtrack far more consistently dramatic. As the story unfolds, deadly politics combine with increasingly desperate measures and tragic losses, all set at the height of arguably the most turbulent period in Japanese history. War, conflict and brutal assassinations are offset against periods of almost stereotypical Japanese serenity and for the most part there is more silence then there is dialogue. This is one anime that understands the value of showing rather than telling and the arrangement of scenes and the grace with which they are executed adds to the overall impact. What few words there are are chosen with a weight approaching poetic.

The only criticisms one could possibly have about this anime is its unrelenting drama. Trust is almost all action, beautifully and sometimes shockingly portrayed, and this is fine. Betrayal however by necessity is more conclusory, bringing Kenshin’s private tragedy to a head and putting him on the road of the wandering warrior known in the series. It is not a happy ending, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, and leaves you feeling somewhat battered after it’s all over. But it is a mature piece of work nonetheless, almost mesmerising in its differences from its episodic relative, irredeemably serious where the other is light, voicing confusion and loss where the other articulates redemption and hope. Characters are complex, rendering grey the concept of good and bad with a balanced share of both action and sympathy, and everything, from the fight scenes to the character interaction is wholly and utterly gorgeous. If this had been a literary work, it would have redefined the genre. As it is, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal is a benchmark production of exceptional emotional and visual depth and must-have for a fan of the samurai genre, animated or otherwise.

10 Bloody Pasts out of 10.
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