It takes around seven and a half minutes for there to be a proper conversation in episode 3 of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen. That is not to say there is not dialogue, but there is very much not conversation. Instead, the characters talk past each other, make observations and shut down conversation with simple acceptance or disagreement. If Kenshin and Tomoe are supposed to be pretending to be in love, they are doing an unconvincing job. Something the OVA has done exceptionally well, particularly in the extended sequence of Kenshin and Tomoe’s flight from Kyoto and then throughout the episode, is use non-verbal cues and landscape montages to evoke a mood. It is an extremely understated and repressed anime about repressed and uncommunicative – and, it turns out – secretive characters.
Moments of openness are not permitted until halfway through the episode, at around the fourteen-minute mark; prior to this there is visual, nonverbal and verbal confirmation that this is not a healthy or happy relationship. Iizuka is the most talkative character here, telling Kenshin about the course of the war and saying to Tomoe “I hope you enjoy being a druggist’s wife”; to him, the cover story is just part of a political game and he does not really care about their future. Tomoe leaves at this, and her spoken response is about how she finds it difficult to deal with Iizuka; everyone is cagey and implicit with their words, and so there is a growing ambiguity and ultimately a strong dramatic tension in this story. As episodes pass and the matter of Tomoe’s fiance’s death is still to be raised, it becomes, thematically, an almost Ibsen-esque secret to explode. A Doll’s House is one of my favourite theatrical works, and while it is not directly comparable to Tsuioku-Hen on a narrative level I see a lot of what I like of it in the animation discussed here. It is a play about the inevitable build to the revelation of a secret, a steady drive towards a dramatic climax that is tense and arguably even frightening in the unspoken and implicit power dynamics at play.
Tsuioku-Hen has a similar effect in its continued delaying of an inevitable awful revelation; as the focus of episode 3 is very much on people refusing to talk about or come to terms with their differences, and the body language is furtive and distants, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Tomoe has yet to put the pieces together. And, when the episode ends with that, dragged agonisingly and ambiguously out in a mixture of internal monologue and moments of awful epiphany, it is ultimately not even Tomoe who confronts Kenshin – it is Iizuka who lets him put the pieces together, spun in a way to further his plan to “deal with” the Manslayer. Tomoe has had her own epiphany – that pursuit of blind revenge has gone awry as she falls in love with Kenshin, and so she seeks to leave the whole tragedy – her last scene in the episode is her saying farewell to her “second love” because she cannot bring herself to see him killed, but still, naturally, grieves for her dead fiance. The closest the episode comes to an actual confrontation is Tomoe, after listening to Kenshin finally expound about his troubled conscience, telling the story of her dead fiance and seeing if he reacts. The episode began with Kenshin chopping wood and mentally associating it with the men he has killed. His emotionlessness, his blank-facedness at Tomoe’s tragic story, seen through this filter of realisation that his life as an assassin has been misguided, is another of the OVA’s beautifully implicit scenes.
The avoidance of a soapish, melodramatic shouting match in favour of just agonising moments of realisation makes the whole illusion of humanisation and peace being built to in the scenes of domestic bliss come crashing down. She had obviously figured it out. It seems stupid to have ever thought different, but the subtlty of the staging and the use of body language and music over constant expository dialogue has let the viewer buy into the illusion, entertain hope that this can end some way other than how it must. But of course, knowing with the audience’s omniscience what has happened to hope for this is cruel itself; the only way the happy ending one may want to see can happen is if a lie is lived long enough the truth is forgotten. Tomoe sought her own revenge, and kept it – naturally – from Kenshin. But she has started to believe the lie they have lived, and is stuck halfway between regretting her decision (as seen by her efforts to talk down Enishi) and still grieving for her dead lover. Nothing about this sorry affair is simple or easy; all parties have talked past each other for too long and acted in inadvisable ways, and so the crisis of confidence coming into the episode’s end feels genuinely troubling.
The actual news of what Kenshin has done is not delivered by Tomoe directly; she has tried to make him put the pieces together with her implications. It is Iizuka, plotting to kill him and using Enishi as a pawn, that shows him plainly by encouraging him to go through Tomoe’s diary. And he frames it as Tomoe having betrayed him – something not entirely untrue, but not wholly honestly explained. Enishi himself is an interesting character in this setup; in many ways he is another Kenshin on the “wrong” (from the perspective of this drama, anyway) path. He has seen his sister made to grieve by the actions of the Manslayer, and has gone to join the Shogunate forces – openly and honourably, rather than as an assassin in the night – to try and make her happy by avenging the dead man. He has, ultimately, a child’s simplistic morality much like Kenshin; kill to uphold the law of rightness. His conversation with Tomoe, where she tries to talk him down, is fascinating; she, later in the episode, reveals she has wanted and sought revenge. Her knife is a memento of the dead man. Yet when her family offers to help actually carry out the revenge, she cannot have him do it; there is almost pity in her attitude to another child driven to take up arms in the name of what’s right, she will not see another child broken like Kenshin.
A lot happens with very little dialogue or action in this episode; it progresses slowly and relies on the viewer making connections they have probably been lulled by the tension of episodes 1 and 2 into making too slowly. It shows in painful detail how the cover story of living in the mountains is awkward, uneasy and unbearable for both parties; the motif of two empty beds as Tomoe writes her diary (which ultimately contains Kenshin’s doom) and Kenshin sleeps with his sword for companionship gradually closes as first she comforts him with a blanket and then ultimately sleeps with him. Yet this gradual closing of the distance, this move from awkwardness to some form of love, is itself a painful one for Tomoe; she is finding it harder to rationalise her past lust for vengeance with her current love and pity for the broken man she is trapped with. There is an almost-confrontation earlier, visually punctuated by footage of a log snapping in the fire. Tomoe says “you never ask me about nothing… about anything personal”. She wants to bring up the past, wants to confront Kenshin, but is unable to and he is unable to make the connection at that point, and so the hinted breaking of tension goes nowhere. The episode is possibly more tense in its remote, bleak pastorality than the tense, underground revolutions of the previous ones because it is showing how people cannot live in secrecy forever.