Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal [るろうに剣心 追憶編] (1999)
AKA Rurouni Kenshin: Reminiscence, Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-hen

Starring Mayo Suzukaze, Junko Iwao, Nozomu Sasaki, Masami Suzuki, Shuichi Ikeda, Hirotaka Suzuoki

Directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi

The Rurouni Kenshin series has never been one of my favorites. In fact, I rather disliked the TV series when I gave it a try many years ago. But I’ve heard great things about the film version, which was renamed to Samurai X because that made it sound cooler. The TV series was a misguided slapstick comedy that really didn’t hit very well with its humor. I only watched a few episodes before writing it off as bland and unappealing. This film on the other hand (which is actually a re-edit of a direct-to-video mini-series) is an intense historical drama about a man gone numb from killing, and his growth towards becoming the character portrayed in the TV series.

As an origin story, you don’t need to have any knowledge of the series. It makes just as much sense either way. It starts with a boy nearly getting killed by bandits who massacre the slave caravan he had been trapped in. But a kindly wandering samurai wipes out the brigands and takes the boy under his wing, naming him Kenshin. Kenshin grows up to be a master swordsman with a burning desire to fight for justice. In so doing, he abandons his master’s seclusion and joins a rebellion against the shogun.

Fighting in this rebellion leads to a lot of killing, but this really isn’t an action film. I had heard that the movie was very violent and gory, and it is. Just not the exciting kind of violence. The action scenes are short and brutal, ending almost as soon as they begin. Most of the film is not about the fighting, but rather about the emotional turmoil that they bring about.

That emotional turmoil comes to a head with Tomoe, the fiance of a man Kenshin kills. Tomoe and Kenshin form a bond over the course of the film, and each finds new purpose as they become attached to each other. The war goes on, infighting tears the rebellion apart, and it becomes clear that there’s a spy sabotaging things.

Knowing what I do about the series, I had a pretty good idea where the story would end up, but I was still rather surprised as just how dark and dismal Samurai X is. I thought it would be more of an action adventure, but most of it is slow-paced and methodical. The bulk of the runtime is spent not just between the battles, but also outside of the political troubles as well. Kenshin isn’t involved with any of that. He’s just a soldier following orders, and the film stays pretty focused on him, showing his life as the weight of all his killing drags him into depression.

On the whole I enjoyed Samurai X, but there are a few flaws in it. I was slightly annoyed by its attempts to blend live footage of fire and running water with the animation, which I felt was simply disruptive to the visuals. There’s also a bit of detachment from the political situation. We never get much explanation of just why Kenshin chose to side with the rebels, or even why the rebels are angry at the government in the first place. While the film is primarily focused on Kenshin’s internal emotional battles, knowing more about the cause he was fighting for would have gone a long way towards making me more invested in the story.

Other than that I don’t have much to complain about. The film is rather slow, but I feel like the pacing was always in service to the story. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece by any stretch, but I can see why people like it. If you like samurai dramas, animated or otherwise, this is a pretty good one to check out.