Due to the failure of the anime to hold an audience during the filler laden third season, it was canceled before the final arc of the manga, the Jinchuu Arc, could be animated. Eventually, the animators took pity on the fans (sort of) and released the story of Kenshin’s background in a standalone four-part OVA, collectively referred to in Japanese as Rurouni Kenshin Tsuiokuhen and in English as Samurai X Trust and Betrayal. Released in four half-hour episodes, the OVA touches on Kenshin’s childhood and training under Hiko, but mostly focuses on his bloody career as the Ishin Shishi’s shadow assassin.
To my mind, this is the most beautifully produced piece of RK animation out there. The anime was a bit too silly and cartoony in some parts for me, Seisouhen was a depressing bore and Shin Kyoto Hen was completely unnecessary. Tsuiokuhen, on the other hand, is to me, poetry in motion.
The soundtrack is the best one of all the RK adaptations. The animation is top notch. The character designs, while rather different from the manga, suit the serious nature of this OVA.
Yes, believe it or not, that’s the same guy!
In the first installment, we see what Kenshin’s childhood was like. Hint: It’s not pretty. Originally named Shinta, Kenshin is the sole survivor of a brutal massacre, which occurs almost daily in Japan under the Tokugawa Bakufu. Found and rescued by the swordmaster Hiko Seijuro XIII, Shinta is renamed Kenshin and spends the next four years in the mountains, diligently training in the sword style Hiten Mitsurugi.
After hearing rumors of war, young Kenshin decides to lend his newfound skills to the revolutionaries who wish to overthrow the Bakufu. Hiko knows that Kenshin is too young to fully understand what he is doing and attempts to talk the boy out of his plans. However, Kenshin will not be moved and in the end, abandons his training to aid the downtrodden in the world below.
Not long after, Kenshin’s sword skills are noticed and he is recruited by the Ishin Shishi as a shadow hitokiri, or assassin. Thus begins his bloody career.
One night, Kenshin assassinates a Bakufu supporter and kills his two bodyguards. One of the bodyguards is able to put up just enough of a fight to slash a vertical scar into Kenshin’s left cheek before Kenshin kills him.
This episode is fun to watch because we get to see flashes of Kenshin as a kid and young teenager before he’s warped into a hard-hearted assassin. It also contains lots of good historical information about the Bakumatsu.
In this episode, just after a brutal fight, Kenshin meets Tomoe, a mysterious, beautiful woman who smells strongly of white plum blossoms. Not knowing what else to do with her, Kenshin takes her back to the inn he lives at, where she is installed as a maid of all work. Who is she and what role will she play in Kenshin’s life?
This episode is probably the most pedestrian of the four. However, it contains important information and character development and should not be skipped.
After a series of setbacks for the Ishin Shishi forces Kenshin and Tomoe to flee to the Otsu countryside, they take up residence in a small farmhouse provided by the Ishin Shishi. Posing as apothecaries, they spend their days gardening, selling medicine in Otsu and sharing quiet meals by a roaring fire. The peacefulness of this way of life agrees with Kenshin, who begins to lose his edgy assassin persona as his heart softens away from the fighting.
This part is my personal favorite due to the breathtaking countryside, delicious floral motifs and just overall serene ambiance.
Heartbroken upon learning some horrible news about Tomoe, whom he has been living with for the past six months, Kenshin must journey through the deep forest and fight a band of ninja assassins in order to reach Tomoe, whom he has been ordered to kill. With his heart in disarray as his love for Tomoe wars with his obligation to obey orders, Kenshin struggles mightily against these assassins. Will he and Tomoe survive or will they be torn asunder by forces beyond their control?
This episode is of course the coup de grace of the whole series. Everything is resolved in the single clean swing of a katana and the slice of a dagger. In this, we learn the heartbreaking story behind Kenshin’s signature scar and how it turned a bloody assassin into the gentle rurouni we all know and love.
Overall, I give this OVA a 9/10. I would give it 10/10, but it deviates rather significantly from the manga at certain crucial parts. However, this is a solid story nonetheless. I think its charm is that it stands completely separate from the anime. You don’t even need to see the anime to appreciate this beautiful, tragic piece. Instead, this OVA helps us to understand why Kenshin is the way he is in the anime, why he carries a sakabatou and refuses to kill. Our little rurouni lived through some serious heartbreak, yet he lives on so he can help as many people as he can. Isn’t that why we love him so much?