A key part of the quality of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen is its pacing and use of processions of dreamlike, almost wordless scenes; characters will move around and say little and yet the series uses visual and body language to make up for the lack of dialogue. It quite fits the characterisation that has been established in episode 1; Kenshin is willingly emotionless, childish in thought and deed, and Tomoe – the girl whose fiance he killed without knowing – is herself repressed and alone. I mentioned in my previous article on this OVA that it was rejecting, in a sense, all of the conventions of the typical assassin’s backstory; even now there is a humanising element (the thing that one would expect would lead to a sharp turn into mawkishness and saccharine cliché) it is in its own way different. It is two people both suffering unspoken emotional trauma (because the series has not even begun to address that Tomoe’s fiance is dead by Kenshin’s hand) talking at each other not about their problems.
It reinforces, in a way, Kenshin’s strange form of childish selflessness; he has no real interest in Tomoe in the usual dramatic device ways that would drive the story the viewer may expect but nevertheless helps her because he believes it is the right thing to do, because she is a person in need. His simple, unquestioning belief in goodness even as he kills without mercy makes him an interesting tragic figure and is a different twist on the assassin with a heart of gold; even when he is “humanised”, even at the episode’s climax when he flees Kyoto with Tomoe, he still kills with the same intensity – and in the moment when he does open up to her, when she asks if being an assassin is all he is good for, he still cannot understand the counterarguments presented to his morality. Her interrogation of his idealism is straightforward and yet his inability to properly challenge it really reinforces how wrong he is; he restates that he never kills “randomly”, to which she replies “you are deciding who deserves to live or die… or, rather you’ve entrusted that decision to others who you follow regardless of how you may feel”. His only reply? “I do what I do to create a better world.” In many ways, the distance between Kenshin’s story and the political machinations that drive the action – and the lack of familiarity the audience may have with who’s who in the Shinsengumi and Shogunate and so on creates a thematic fog; Kenshin has joined a side in a war believing he is doing the right thing, but at this stage in the story, who knows who is right? And, for someone who has grown up alienated from the “real world” as Kenshin has, what is a better world save perhaps a more human one? He has, as was explained in episode 1, reduced everything down to oppression and liberation. His idea of the Mitsurugi sword as a protective martial art is filtered through a simplistic, trauma-influenced view of what protecting things actually means.
His masters are using him; they admit this to Tomoe, claiming their “role in life is to drive his passions and make him kill…” They are equally using her, using the imagery of a woman as a “sheath” for the untamed masculine “sword” they have got in Kenshin; they need to maintain his ruthlessness but temper it so he cannot “cause tragedy unintentionally.” This line, of course, has some resonance to a viewer who knows that Kenshin already has caused tragedy for Tomoe, but nobody knows it yet. The delaying of this revelation – and the way in which it is delayed with genuine ignorance on both sides – is extremely effective. The killer does not know or care who he killed or who the woman he has met really is. The victim’s fiancee doesn’t apparently know the victim is dead.
Come the end of episode 2, the war escalates and Kyoto is burned; Kenshin and Tomoe escape in disguise as husband and wife, and his role in the affair is killing those in the way of his protecting her. This is perhaps the first proper “battle” in the OVA so far, distinct from simple brutal murders in the dark; the Shinsengumi fight to protect Kyoto, and there is an exciting and very well-choreographed raid on an inn intercut with Kenshin’s escape. The series is, almost, allowing the viewer to get excited at sword fights rather than presenting them as something sordid and furtive. What makes this interesting, though, is how it is the culmination of Kenshin and Tomoe’s “interactions” with the Shinsengumi; as one of the factions in the war they are front and centre in the political plotline from which Kenshin willingly excuses himself, and as a result the A-plot (for ultimately Kenshin’s story is the A-plot here) is going on almost under the notice of the more politically important B-plot. The characters are only identified to the senior political and military players by smell – Kenshin is described as a passing smell of blood, and Tomoe as white plum perfume. This is an extremely powerful image, and one that reinforces the way the series is alienating and distancing; the people whose story are watching are servants of people who know them only as a passing smell in the street or a figure seen in the distance. It rather gives the lie to Kenshin’s high-mindedness; he is willingly reducing himself to a non-entity to avoid engaging with anything on a moral level more complex than “be good”.
This is the halfway point of the OVA; it is building to tragedy still, there is no way of avoiding it. An assassin is on the run with the fiancee of one of his victims, disguised as husband and wife. She has orders to “tame” him (by which it is clearly meant salve his conscience without tempering his skill). The point where he realises where he has gone wrong is sure to come, because we as viewers familiar with his later life know he eventually renounces the emotionless Manslayer title; the fact the series has been so, in a way, unjudgmental so far is going to make the fall far worse. The dreamlike nature of many of Kenshin and Tomoe’s scenes – silent movement, minimal dialogue – makes the few words they talk past each other all the more powerful. It is a much better, more mature-feeling handling of the “humanising” of the assassin than you may expect – especially when at the episode’s climax Tomoe insists she wants to see Kenshin at work protecting her. She is described as “like an iris – she thrives in the rain… even a rain of blood.”