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  • English: Dolby Digital Stereo
  • Japanese: Dolby Digital Stereo
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Rurouni Kenshin Wandering Samurai 1: The Legendary Swordsman

Madman Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 100 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
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Based on the popular manga by Watsuki Nobuhiro, Rurouni Kenshin: Wandering Samurai is an anime television series that is loosely based on historical events and characters that appeared around the start of the new Meiji period. For those not familiar with Japanese history, in 1868 the Meiji Restoration marked the end of the rule of the Shogun and the Samurai, and the re-establishment of the Emperor. During the fierce battles that brought about the overthrow of the ruling Tokugawa clan, the greatest and most ferocious swordsman in Kyoto, Himura Kenshin, slaughtered thousands of people; earning himself the nickname Hitokiri Battousai (loosely translated Hitokiri means 'assassin' and Battousai means 'master of drawing one’s sword'). At the end of the final battle, Kenshin was never to be seen again, and the name of Hitokiri Battousai became one of legend.

Fast-forward ten years or so, and Kenshin lives an anonymous life in Meiji, Japan as a wandering swordsman or rurounin. Haunted by the guilt of his previous life, he has taken an oath against killing, carrying only a sakaba sword – one that has its blade reversed. This means that the leading edge of the sword has no blade at all - it’s dull - and while he can use it to incapacitate his enemies, he does so without killing them.

Determining where in Kenshin's tale the historical facts stop and the fiction starts is all part of the fun, as we follow him on his many adventures - in this case, the first four episodes form a staggering 94 episodes in all.

Saga 1: The Handsome Swordsman of Legend (24 mins)
It is 1878, the 11th year of the Meiji rule, and Himura Kenshin the wandering swordsman arrives in Tokyo. Taken for the legendary killer Hitokiri Battousai because of the sword he carries (swords are banned on the streets of Meiji Tokyo), he is set upon by a young a woman - Kamiya Kaoru. Kaoru seeks revenge against Battousai; in the last few days a masked man going by that name has been slaughtering Tokyo citizens in the streets, proclaiming that he was taught in the Kamiya Kasshin style – the style foundered by Kaoru’s dead father. Clearly this masked killer is out to destroy the good name of the Kamiya dojo, but why? When Kenshin is inadvertently drawn into the conflict, he manages to protect Kaoru and the reputation of the dojo, but his identity as the true Battousai is revealed in the process. Kaoru doesn't seem too fazed by this revelation - truth is she's quite smitten with this mysterious stranger - and she kindly offers Kenshin room and board for the duration of his stay in Tokyo.

Saga 2: Kid Samurai (24 mins)
Things have been very quiet at Kamiya dojo since the false Battousai was defeated, and while Kenshin seems quite content with his cooking and cleaning duties, Kaoru is getting pretty bloody bored of the quiet life. Needing a bit of a change, Kaoru decides that Kenshin wants to shout his new family beef hot-pot. On their way to dinner, Kenshin catches a young pickpocket, Myoujin Yahiko, at work. It turns out that this proud young man owes a large debt to the local yakuza, and in a fit of idealistic fervour, Kaoru decides to free him from their clutches. Not realising just what she’s getting in to, it falls to Kenshin to save her and Yahiko from the gangsters. Will the newly libeated Yahiko join the Kamiya dojo as its first new student since the recent unpleasantness?

Saga 3: Swordsman of Sorrow (24 mins)
Members of Tokyo’s new heavy-handed police force raid the Kamiya dojo in search of Kenshin, having heard from the imposter Battousai that the real hitokiri is residing there. With Kenshin out shopping for tofu, Japan’s newest group of ‘legitimate’ ruffians descend on the terror-stricken townspeople. But what can Kenshin do to stop them, given that it’s him that the cops are looking for? And who the hell is this mysterious man that waits outside the Kamiya dojo in an official looking carriage?

Saga 4: Bad!
There’s a new dude in town - Kenkaku Zanza, a.k.a. Sagara Sanosuke; a right jack-the-lad who enjoys fighting for its own sake. When Kansin’s ever-growing new family meets Sanosuke over yet another beef hot-pot, they can't quite decide whether he's a decent chap or not. Although Kenshin rejects Sanosuke’s offer of a casual fight (just for the fun of it), Sanosuke re-appears that night at the Kamiya dojo. This time he has brought his weapon of choice – the fearsome zanbattou, and having been hired by the imposter Battousai to remove Kenshin once and for all, will not take no for an answer. Will Kenshin convince Sanosuke that fighting is a bad idea, or is there nothing for it but to battle this reckless young man?

If the various anime fan sites are anything to go by, Rurouni Kenshin is one of the most loved anime series ever. And even from the small taste offered by these first four episodes, the popularity of the series does seem to be well founded; providing as it does a little something for everyone. With an animation style and plot lines that are a cross between Ninja Scroll, with which it shares the lone-wolf samurai character and fighting set-pieces, and Ranma ½ with its family dojo setting, romance, and a good deal of slap-stick comedy, there is never a dull moment. When the action takes a break, the comedy comes thick and fast - the visuals employing the ubiquitous (and much loved) ‘super-deformed’ style to represent facial expressions. Although the series does contain some violence (and hence earns an M rating), only a small amount of blood is depicted, and Kenshin never actually kills anyone. The result is a series that everyone can enjoy for different reasons, without each being put off by the other.

  Video
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In terms of the quality of its animation, Rurouni Kenshin is quite a mixed bag, but in general the quality is far above average for anime television productions. Yes, in some sequences the typical television cost-cutting techniques (predominantly panning stills) are in evidence. However, these are balanced by some superbly detailed action sequences that look like they’ve been cropped straight from a big budget cinema production. Likewise, the character animation is of a surprisingly high quality, despite the constant use of the aformentioned super-deformation, whilst backgrounds vary from richly detailed to soft-focus blurs. Overall, especially taking into account the television pedigree, Rurouni Kenshin is surprisingly rich anime indeed.

As this region’s premiere producer of anime digital transfers, Madman has a reputation for their outstanding treatment of this animation medium on DVD. Their presentation of this first Rurouni Kenshin disc is no exception, and the full-frame (obviously non-anamorphic) transfer that they provide is very close to perfect. One of the most defining characteristics of anime is a full and vibrant palette, and Rurouni Kenshin is no exception, with the transfer presenting a vivid array of solid colours without bleeding of any sort. Blacks are solid and clean, and in general the image is nice and sharp (although there are a few occasions in which the image has been intentionally softened). Produced for Japanese television, the image does suffer from interlacing – a by-product of producing a PAL image from a reduced frame rate master - and although the source material is crystal clear, the image does display the slightest bit of pixelation from time to time. Thankfully this pixelation is uncommon and only slight; unless you’re looking for it, chances are you won’t see it. All in all another fine job from Madman.

  Audio
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Anime fans can rest easy – accompanying the the obligatory English dub is the original Japanese soundtrack, and although the dub is the default audio track, the disc allows you to select Japanese dialogue with English subtitles in one easy hit.

Both the English and Japanese soundtracks are two channel Dolby Digital mixes that sound pretty reasonable through a Prologic decoder. Whilst the mix of each is predominantly forward – with dialogue emanating clearly and distinctly from the centre channel – the surround channel is utilised to carry a portion of the score; widening the soundstage nicely. Despite filling out the sound effects such as the ringing of swords during the action scenes, the surround channel has little more to do at most other times. Similarly, the subwoofer has little to do throughout, with the exception of the odd Taiko drum in the score.

Thankfully, the English language aspects of the disc are handled very well. The English dub is not too far from the mark; being a little dumbed down for a western audience, but not deviating far from the original plot and dialogue. It doesn’t make use of insipid or overly annoying voice actors - as in the case of other locally released anime releases such as Burn-Up W, and the English subtitles are very easy to read, being yellow with a black border.

  Extras
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With four episodes crammed onto a single-sided, single-layer disc, there isn’t much room for extras, but Madman have managed to squeeze in several space-friendly additions:

  • Liner Notes: A great addition to the disc, we are provided with 12 pages of English translations for various terms and exclamations used throughout the series. Very helpful, I must say, in producing this review!

  • Character Profiles: One page of information on each of the four main characters appearing in these episodes – Himura Kenshin, Kamiya Kaoru, Sagara Sanosuke and Myojin Yahiko. Each page gives a little motivation and back story for the character, but nothing that isn’t revealed during the episodes themselves.

  • Art Gallery: a set of six promotional images.

Not an auspicious collection, but some interesting stuff all the same (well, the liner notes anyway).

  Overall  
Contract

Based on the four episodes presented here, Rurouni Kenshin appears to be both a fun and action-packed anime series, and its historical setting certainly provides a welcome respite from the battling mechas we’ve been bombarded with in the last few years. With this release forming only the first in a mammoth series (there will be 20-odd discs if the whole series is released), the episodes compiled here really only introduce us to what will be the series’ central characters. Despite this, there's definitely enough here to prick your interest, and I now eagerly await the next release from Madman.

Incidentally, also released in region 4 are the Samurai X OAVs that, whilst produced after this original TV series, tell the story of Kenshin’s role in the overthrow of the Tokagawa government. Having never seen the Samurai X releases, after whetting my appetite for the Rurouni Kenshin series, I certainly can’t wait to get my hands on the Samurai X discs as well!


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      And I quote...
    "...with a little something for everyone, this cross between Ninja Scroll and Ranma ½, deftly combines action set-pieces with slap-stick comedy... definitely a series to look out for!"
    - Gavin Turner
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Toshiba SD-2108
    • TV:
          Panasonic TC-68P90A TAU (80cm)
    • Receiver:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Amplifier:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Speakers:
          B&W 602
    • Centre Speaker:
          B&W CC6 S2
    • Surrounds:
          JM Lab Cobalt SR20
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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