Samurai X: Reflection by Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Review)

I was fully unprepared for just how powerful and moving this DVD would be.
Samurai X: Reflection (DVD)

Part of me felt that I was unprepared to fully enjoy this DVD. You see, there are actually two properties out there, Samurai X and Rurouni Kenshin. The former was an OVA series that came out several years ago in two volumes, Trust and Betrayal, both of which I’d already seen. They served as a prequel of sorts to Rurouni Kenshin, a long-running TV series that is now available in its entirety on DVD here in the States and which I’ve only seen the first 4 episodes.

Reflection is an attempt to provide a fitting end to the saga begun in the OVAs and continued through the TV series. While I’ve seen the OVAs, I’ve barely seen any of the TV series (an oversight I hope to correct very soon), which presented me with a bit of a problem. I wondered if I would be able to fully appreciate Reflection, or if too much of it would simply fly over my head due to my ignorance.

Reflection does often flashback to events from the TV series, and while the true significance of some of those references might have escaped me, that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Reflection one bit. It’s to the credit of the filmmakers that they’ve managed to integrate new and old footage so well that even those without much knowledge of the Kenshin story can still enjoy Reflection. Even during those scenes where I was somewhat unaware of the full significance of what was going on, the movie’s beauty and melancholy themes were still completely enthralling.

15 years after the events of the TV series, Himura Kenshin is still a wandering and tormented soul. In the past, he was once known as the “Hitokiri Battousai” (“man-slaying assassin”), a swordsman and assassin who was feared throughout Japan. The blood of countless people is on his hands, and he has spent much of his life seeking to atone for his violent past. Kenshin now travels the land on missions to bring peace and aid to those in need, hoping to bring mercy where he once brought bloodshed. His latest mission finds him travelling to China to aid in the government’s efforts there. While they want him for his military skills, he instead chooses to go in order to aid the suffering.

Patiently awaiting his return is his wife Kaoru. She has always waited and he has always returned, but the situation appears to be hopeless this time. When Kenshin left, he was afflicted by a mysterious disease (one that also ravages her body) and the constant years of battle have taken their toll on his body. Even more distressing Kenshin has been lost at sea. Overcome with heartache and disease, Kaoru slips into a delirium. Her mind travels back into the past, to when she first met Kenshin and their adventures together began.

Much of Reflection is told in flashback, as events that I assume are from the TV series are revisited and examined once again. Through Kaoru’s eyes, we see the demons of Kenshin’s past come back to haunt him, often using her as a pawn to make him suffer. Reflection also hearkens back to events in the OVAs, bringing back characters like Tomoe, Kenshin’s first wife, and those seeking to avenge her death. We see the many partings between Kenshin and Kaoru, but also how their love enables them to endure the trials.

I was fully unprepared for just how powerful and moving this DVD would be. While I enjoyed the original OVAs, they did leave me feeling somewhat cold (though I’ve since grown to appreciate them more). Not so with Reflection, which held me spellbound from start to finish. At its core lies a man who has committed unspeakable acts and has tried to atone for them his whole life. And yet even a guilty man like him has been given the love of a woman like Kaoru, who refuses to abandon him even when she learns his most painful secrets, and friends who now risk their lives for his recovery.

Of course, not all believe that a man like Kenshin should have these things. This conflict is brought to a head by Enishi, Kenshin’s former brother-in-law. Furious at Kenshin for the death of his sister Tomoe, he holds Kaoru hostage, intent on causing Kenshin to suffer like he did. He demands to know why someone like Kenshin should experience happiness when he’s done nothing but bring pain to people like Enishi.

But Kenshin doesn’t seem to realize the blessings in his life, of if he does, he still feels unworthy of them. And in his efforts to atone for his past, his attempts might only make the future worse, as his constant journeys have embittered his young son Kenji who now rebels against his parents. What Kenshin doesn’t seem to realize is that he is forgiven. The love of Kaoru, the memories of Tomoe, and the gratitude of the countless others he has helped, they all contain the forgiveness he has sought for so long. They don’t see him as a murderer, but as a friend and comrade. Even while he is terrified that his true nature could be that of a murderer, they see him as anything but a bloodthirsty man.

For me, this was a stunning example of grace, and like Kenshin, it’s something I often don’t realize but seek to attain through my own efforts. It’s only when Kenshin gives himself to Kaoru’s love, when he accepts the thanks of those he has helped, that he can ever find peace.

Reflection is quite bittersweet throughout, and the ending is especially so. However, it feels very fitting and appropriate, poetic even, given the events that have transpired. Equally fitting is the movie’s artwork and animation, which is very elegant and graceful, especially in the character designs. I know this sounds silly, but one of the reasons why I avoided the TV series was that it looked too “cartoonish” when compared with the more somber OVAs. I have no such qualms, silly as they might be, with Reflection.

While the OVAs were quite bloody with their spectacular swordfights, the violence in Reflection is much more reserved. There are still some stunning battles that take place, such as Kenshin’s duel with Enishi, which reveal Kenshin’s mastery of the legendary “Hiten Mitsurugi” style. But these battles are not the focus of Reflection. Rather, the focus is on a different battle, that of Kenshin to come to terms his demons once and for all.

If you haven’t seen either of the prequel OVAs or the TV series, you might find Reflection a confusing and bewildering experience, with characters and events appearing with little or no introduction. But even if you’ve only seen the OVAs, you’ll still find Reflection to be a powerful viewing. For those who think that anime is nothing more than endless Dragonball Z and Pokémon rehashes, Samurai X: Reflection proves that the media is more than capable of producing rich, affecting material.

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