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.
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.
When I began watching Rurouni Kenshin I felt a prequel showing the creation and life of the “Manslayer”, its central character (a retired, remorseful assassin who has laid down arms but cannot escape the past he created) would be superfluous; it seemed as a series to be showing a very “Ryosuke Takahashi” tale of someone with a past they were unprepared to share being reminded of it and trying to deal with it in ways which did not get in the way of their new life – even if they had to give up on that second chance for the greater good (Chirico Cuvie in Armored Trooper VOTOMS being the obvious parallel here but this is a theme that even turns up, in more optimistic terms, in Guy in King of Braves Gaogaigar – prepared to take up the mantle of hero which he believes has irreversibly dehumanised him unto death). Nevertheless, I was strongly recommended Tsuioku-hen, the prequel OVA, as one of the best pieces of animation the recommender had seen and I was richly rewarded by how in its first episode it set up something that far exceeded the usual sort of supersoldier backstory or “dark past seeking redemption” tale.
Prior to watching Rurouni Kenshin I was unaware that Ryosuke Takahashi, a producer of science-fiction anime I greatly respect, had worked on it. And yet, as I watch it, I can certainly see how his experience in working within a very different genre pays off and elevates Kenshin above what I initially expected. Kenshin is ultimately a fantastical period drama, set in an interesting and real period of history and adding supernatural elements to it. Yet on a fundamental level its setup is not significantly unlike Takahashi’s science-fiction works; it is a series, behind its visual comedy and comfortable, sometimes moralistic early episodes, about a confused post-war world and someone who is no less of a supersoldier and outsider than Eiji from Layzner or Chirico from VOTOMS.