Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Trusting Betrayal: Aniplex's RUROUNI KENSHIN TSUIOKU-HEN Blu-ray

There's been much ado about Wandering Kenshin: The Meiji Swordsman's Romantic Story -  The Reminiscence Chapter/るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚- 追憶編  - released in English initially as "Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal", and commonly enough simply known as "The RUROUNI KENSHIN OVA" - ever since their premier in 1999, largely because...  well, it's just that fantastic. But first, a little background...

Despite Japan having to some small degree embraced animation as a medium for storytelling closer to - if not quite equal - Japanese live action productions, there are a number of uniquely Japanese genre largely lacking from anime. Sentai and Kaijuu material especially seems virtually non-existent in animated form for reasons I've never been able to understand, outside of being used as satire in shows that are already so far off the deep end they're mocking anything that crosses their path. While not entirely absent from the artform, the number of jidai geki  and chanbara anime - "period dramas" and "swordplay" films - seems disproportionate to the cultural boner Japan still has for its period of bloody civil war.

The 1996 Rurouni Kenshin TV series was perhaps a surprise hit on a number of levels. Despite being a title found in Shounen Jump and focusing on lone men unleashing increasingly convoluted and exciting hidden fighting techniques on another - typical boys fare, when boiled down to core concepts - Nobuhiro WATSUKI's art skews to a lighter, more feminine side that created a cross-over appeal with the fujoushi crowd who were more interested in the lanky, beautiful men leaving their crying women with a stoic gaze than any of the more typical tropes on display. The show remains appealing to both genders, and now 15 years after the start of the TV adaptation, the director and vocal cast that brought the franchise to life is reuniting for a brand new 2011 OVA series... and maybe we'll talk about that another day. For now, we're looking strictly at the "Trust and Betrayal" portion of the story, or as it was called in Japanese, "Tsuioku-Hen". The show was such a hit that Aniplex actually dubbed the show themselves and created an edited for-broadcast version called "Samurai X" that they tried to get on US syndication. Exactly zero fucks were given, and eventually Aniplex sold the rights to Media Blasters while AD Vision already held the rights to the OVA series, ironically giving American audiences the backstory meant largely to close out the franchise as their first taste of Himura Kenshin!

Tsuioku-Hen/Trust and Betrayal is, at face value, the inevitable prequel to the TV series, detailing the hero in his early days as the legendary Hitokiri Battousai ("Slayer of Men"). By the time the series proper begins, Himura Kenshin has had more than enough killing, and now fights using his unequalled Hiten Mitsuguri style using a sword with a blade on the reverse side, forcing him to best opponents without ever actually killing them. It plays an important role in both defining the battle-hardened but ultimately compassionate character, and making the bloody, brutal battles of the samurai era fodder for a TV show targeted at middle school boys (and adult women). The Tsuioku-Hen prequel, however, has none of that pretense, and literally opens with the sight of Kenshin as a young boy watching the only people in the world who care for him die, brutally, trying to save him. The pathos and bodily destruction on display in the Tsuioku-Hen OVA is almost surreal, never quite packing as much gristly chunks on the screen as something like Kakugo no Susume or Violence Jack, but making each and every act of violence more harrowing than the last. Each and every strike of the blade is a rendered with such care and delicacy that it utterly romanticizes the traditional art of Japanese swordsmanship without ever denying it's brutal, destructive power. The Tsuioku-Hen series may be the backstory to a program made for children, but Tsuioku-Hen is certainly the grown up retelling, even if the blood-soaked protagonist is only a teenager.

The less said about the actual storyline, the better; the slightly vague American title "Trust and Betrayal" probably suggests more than it should, but when the four part serial is essentially a two-hour political thriller with human lives being picked off by a mysterious assassin, so odds are someone had to betray Kenshin or he'd probably still be doing it up to the start of the TV series. I'll say no more, and let any of friends of the Kentai blog who aren't familiar with this truly incredible work of art experience it fresh.

The version under the microscope today is the brand-new Aniplex Blu-ray, which has made every prior version of the film thoroughly obsolete - particularly that bullshit "Director's Cut" and it's faux-widescreen shenanigans. I'm not at all exaggerating when I say that the "American" Blu-ray for sale is also Japanese release: Aniplex has literally just set aside a limited number of Japanese Blu-ray, thrown in a translation pamphlet booklet, and said "fuck you pal, take it or leave it". The upside here is Japanese releases are typically the highest quality available... the downside is that they're always jaw-droppingly expensive. RuroKen Tsuioku-Hen is no exception, and it's currently for sale at The Right Stuf for about $65. No discounts, no coupons, no "Got Anime!" membership... it's just plain $65, end of story. Normally I'd say "Holy shit, that's expensive!!", but Japan is paying about $105 MSRP, and even if you were to import this from Japan at a decent exchange rate, you'll be slapped with obscene shipping charges. It sure ain't cheap, but baby, it isn't going to get any cheaper...

This was one of the very last OVA to be crafted using (primarily) plastic cels and 35mm film. It's been treated none too well on DVD in the past, and with word of a brand new HD telecine, hopes ran high... so let's take a look at the results, shall we? All from episode 1 (to avoid spoilers and because I'm lazy), and presented as lossless PNG:

I'm a bit frustrated to report that, while a massive upgrade from AD Vision's initial dot-crawl infested DVD (with some extensive comparisons HERE), this is perhaps not the reference quality the price tag demands. Detail is well resolved, lines are clean and colors are bright and vivid. At a glance the transfer looks very pleasing, but there's clearly some DVNR afoot. It's less obnoxious on the brighter, daylit sequences, but the distinct lack of organic, film-like texture irks me more than it seems to many others, and even when grain is present it has that sluggish quality that makes it look more like manipulated noise than anything I'd typically associate with film. It's not as clean-scrubbed as a Disney classic, perhaps, and I can't say there's any notable issues with smearing or blurring... it's about as minor a manipulation as I could have hoped for, and while I really do wish they'd left well enough alone, we're still looking at a crisp, sharp transfer with very little of the usual complaints DVNR bring to the table. At the end of the day it's "different" than it probably should be, but due to the relative simplicity of the animation itself and high quality of the HD telecine, I can't rightly say that much of the underlying detail has been destroyed.

The transfer is also, at times, very dark without ever dropping off to IRE0 - but this isn't really a flaw of the Blu-ray so much as it is with the animation itself; every single prior incarnation of Tsuioku-Hen has had frustratingly murky shadow detail, and this release is no exception. It isn't always pretty, I admit, and the DVNR has made some of those dark areas worse for wear by smearing them into a blotchy moire pattern (such as in cap 6). Despite these caveats, overall this is a very decent presentation, and it's safe to say that it's probably never going to look better.

I'll note here that a few scenes were composited using rotoscoped footage on SD video back in 1999. They've been presented here upscaled to 1080p from SD material. There's not much else that could be done with it, and I'm not going to dock any "points" from the transfer for preserving the animation as it was created. Keep in mind that the percentage of upscaled material only gets higher, so the first two episodes are largely perfect and give way to more unfortunate material-related issues as they go. This was totally unavoidable, and so far the ONLY anime production to "re-do" the dated digital animation to match with the traditional film animation was Serial Experiments LAIN... and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Ghost in the Shell 2.0. In other words, don't expect it unless the creators behind the show are ABe/Oshii level crazy.

Packaging is absolutely stunning. The release comes in a DVD sized digipak that's housed in a fairly sturdy cardboard sleeve, featuring exclusive new artwork by the OVA character designer Atsuko NAKAJIMA. Inside is the classic, spoiler-riddled key art from the final LD jacket, and there's a floppy paper card that wraps around the back, bottom, and a bit of the front of the package, detailing the contents in Japanese only. It all comes in a resealable bag, which I - in usual form - have made look like a wrinkled and thrashed pile of shit the moment I un-stick it for the first time. Oh well, as long as everything inside remains shiny and new-looking, can't say I give too hard of a crap.

Audio comes in three flavors: The original Japanese stereo mix is included in uncompressed PCM 2.0, and those of you with 5.1 HD setups will be treated with a brand new DTS-HD MA remix - one that doesn't hesitate to splatter grotesque eviscerations in the rears, at that. The slightly infamous dub from AD Vision is included as a DVD quality 448 kbps DTS 2.0 mix... frankly, if you're watching a samurai film dubbed in English, you're getting exactly what you deserve. Subtitles look fine and aren't dubtitles, which is more than I can say for the old Sony R2 DVDs. I didn't think to check if they subtitled the epilogue text... oh, well. If you need to know what happens at the end of the Tsuioku-Hen OVA, just watch the goddamn Kenshin TV series.

Menus are bilingual English/Japanese, and the disc doesn't spare much time kicking you right to the main feature after a brief FBI-style warning. This is a Japanese release, so the language defaults are Japanese with no subtitles. Menu operations are quick and simple. There are no extras on the disc, only the 16 page Japanese booklet and the fold-out pamphlet with English translations.

RuroKen Tsuioku-Hen is one of those thoroughly incredible anime features that's difficult to put a price tag on. It's spell binding, elegant, grotesque and moving in all the ways that so many people probably don't realize animation can be. It stands up as an inspiring work of chanbara action drenched in raw humanity, "cartoon" or not, and is perhaps one of those precious few titles I'd probably recommend to folks who are ambivalent to the concept of animation as high pop art, but clearly aren't going to be swayed by a Dragon Ball Z or Miyazaki marathon. With all of that in mind I gritted my teeth and paid the price asked, feeling my anus clamp down in pain at the very thought. Had I known about the DVNR I still think I would have taken the plunge, but knowing the way my subconscious works, pre-ordering was largely a tactic to no longer give me the option to pussy out. Take a look at the images above, factor in that the final episode has a fairly large number of scenes that don't look half that good, and decide for yourself if it's worth that much to you. If you falter, hell, I don't blame you...

I've pre-ordered the RuroKen Seisou-Hen ("Reflection") OVA, which serves as a sort of tragic bookend to the end of the Kenshin TV show. It certainly isn't bad, but I wouldn't say it's on the same level as Tsuioku-Hen, and the fact that it's $10 less is a relatively small comfort.

And as for Rurouni Kenshin: The Motion Picture... that's just not happening. I'm not saying it's bad... but it's not a masterpiece, and even it's defenders will admit that. And if it's not a masterpiece, fuck man, it's not worth $60.


Anonymous said...

I think you're being a little hard on this transfer, and leaping to a few conclusions here. High budget late-90s film materials, especially when treated properly, barely even HAVE any visible grain in the first place, so identifying this as heavy DVNR is a real stretch. The murkiness is also pretty clearly the intended effect -- there's no detail we're meant to see that we're missing here. Keep in mind, this was a show animated to be seen on Laserdisc, with all the trappings of NTSC in mind.

Kentai 拳態 said...

I certainly don't think the DVNR on Tsuioku-Hen is "heavy" - I've acknowledged that it's avoided most of the pratfalls that DVNR is responsible for, and is about as light as I could ask for. But I'm pretty damned certain it's still there. Cap 6 is the breaking point: Whatever the murky shadows have become it ain't grain, and the only other possibility I can think of is less than ideal compression... which, while still not technically DVNR, can accomplish much the same effect by smoothing out film grains between frames.

JIN-ROH was released the same year as Tsuioku-Hen, had what appears to be a substantially higher budget, and it has a layer of natural looking film grain on Blu-ray. If the grain present on the BV Blu-ray is there for another reason (sharpening or using an IP versus OCN or whatever), then perhaps Tsuioku-Hen isn't processed. If that's the case, well, then I'm only gravitating towards the "look" that I like. I'm only human, right?

The murkiness is indeed intentional, and I didn't ever say it wasn't. That doesn't mean it doesn't - at a glance - appear that the shadow detail was sacrificed for one reason or another, so I figured it was worth mentioning.

Again, I don't bother handing out letters or numbers since every film is different. If this release had cost $40 I'd say "It's damn good, buy it now." For almost twice that price, I'm going to become overly analytical, since for the real-world price of two or three Criterion releases, people deserve to know if this is a 9 out of 10 or an actual 10. I tend to think it's a high 8/low 9, and if the review comes off lower than that it's because it cost an arm, and they're coming back for the leg once SEISOU-HEN comes out!

David Mackenzie said...

Kentai is right, it's been grain reduced. From the quick look I had, it doesn't look bad though.

In fact, although I'd rather have seen it with grain intact, I would say that looks very good. The effects of a lens (slight chromatic aberration) look gorgeous compared to 100% digital animation.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Fixed a couple minor oddities - missing sentences and spelling errors, stuff like that. I'm burning the candle at both ends this month and really need to stop posting shit and dissecting video releases so I can get back to work, but so long as it's done next week I shouldn't be any worse for wear. (That typo "price rag" made me chuckle for one reason or another...)

David, I didn't realize you were getting a copy - enjoy, particularly if you've not seen the OVA before. It's great stuff, even without the whole TV show under your belt. And get your brother to watch it too, damn it! That boy needs more quality anime in his diet...

Anonymous said...

Understood, and fair. I suspect Jin Roh is not a fair comparison, since Kenshin was shot open-matte and therefore had a lot more film area to play with. (Also Jin-Roh used that low budget, milky-looking Fuji stock that was commonly used in live action indie stuff, likely for its gritty effect.) Kenshin more likely used one of the then-new Kodak VISION stocks, which were unprecedented for their clarity at standard ISOs (you really only saw grain on the really high speed stocks).

David Mackenzie said...

No, I didn't mean I was getting a copy - just going from what you posted.

Kentai 拳態 said...

MediaOCD: I admit that Jin-Roh and Tsuioku-Hen are on totally different wavelengths, but what's a better point of comparison? There is SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN, but the Blu-ray is such a mish-mash of raw analog animation, optical effects, new digital animation and digital fiddling to analog animation that it's almost its own unique hell. Some scenes look like 35mm film with edge sharpening while others have been "bloomed" into virtual oblivion. I wouldn't want to directly compare Lain to anything else just because it's so... out there, restoration wise. (But I'd still consider that a fairly decent looking release, when you factor in the sum of its parts.)

There's always the COWBOY BEBOP and ESCAFLOWNE movies from 2001 and 2000, respectively. I admit they have varying levels of sharpening going on (particularly the latter), but man, those films are anything BUT grainless!

David: Ah, fair enough. Forgot I linked to 60(!) caps in the article, so you can get a pretty good feel for how the transfer looks on the whole even without having it in front of you.

That said, you totally SHOULD blindly spend all of your money on this thing. Trust me, it's good stuff! Besides what with the US economy so far down the crapper, this'd be what, 40 or 45 pounds? That's like the cost of a bag of Skittles and a liter of cola for you guys, right? :D

jackmaneric said...

Thanks for the review and the pictures! I bought it, knowing this is the best I'll ever see the OVA's.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Jack: If you've seen the Kenshin OVA's prior (and at these prices I'm sure you have!) I think you'll be very pleased by the results. I still think there's been some (minor) processing done for one reason or another, but the results are very good, and considering how awful the film has looked on DVD up until now it's one of those titles that just destroys every single prior transfer. Seriously, if you still have those ADV composite-artifact riddled singles, throw them in the garbage before the BD arrives.

And yes, short of Sony deciding to double-dip with the "Director's Cut" and re-animating big chunks of the show completely, this is the final word on Tsuioku-Hen.