No American animated hero has had to grapple with the dilemma Kenshin faces: Can he keep his oath never to kill again, or must he revert to being a murderer to prevent a civil war that would cause the deaths of countless innocent people? Rurouni Kenshin offers a depth and complexity lacking in animated films that pit blandly virtuous heroes against screeching villains.
In the TV series, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi stages the sword fights with great panache, using rapid cutting, split-screen and reversed colors to heighten the excitement. The drama and violence are played against the broad comedy involving the friends from Tokyo. Trying to emulate Kenshin, Yahiko clobbers an opponent and shouts, "Hiten Mitsurugi style--or close to it, anyway!" When Kaoru loses her temper and gives Kenshin a hit upside the head, his eyes spin as he stammers his trademark expletive, “Oro…”
If the TV version of Rurouni Kenshin rambles a bit, the New Kyoto Arc suffers from a surfeit of plot. Director Kazuhiro Furhashi tries to cram a storyline that occupied 34 episodes of the series and many volumes of the manga into 90 minutes. He can barely present the key moments in the tale; there’s no time for the character interactions, elaborate sword fights, awkward romance, and broad comedy that made Rurouni Kenshin so beloved. Even the climactic duel between Shishio and Kenshin, with the future of Japan hanging in the balance, is over before it really begins.
J. Shannon Weaver, who provided Kenshin’s voice in the direct-to-video prequel Samurai X, gives a much flatter reading than Hayward did in the broadcast series. The viewer looks in vain for the comic moments that contrast so effectively with Kenshin’s dramatic pronouncements.
It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that Kenshin defeats Shishio in their duel. The spiritual aspects of samurai tradition outweigh mere skill with weapons: Kenshin's humanity and inner nobility triumph over Shishio's misbegotten social Darwinism and hatred. From the Greek myths to "Star Wars," the outcome of a struggle between good and evil is a foregone conclusion. The journey is what matters: the obstacles and temptations the hero faces, the humor and friendships he enjoys between battles, and the satisfaction of the hard-won victory.
The recent Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood showed it’s possible to remake a well-loved series and improve it. But New Kyoto Arc feels as incomplete and unsatisfying a half-hour retelling of “The Lord of the Rings.” It might be possible to create a new animated version of Kenshin’s adventures, but the filmmakers would need enough screen time to present the story and characters properly. In the meantime, audiences will continue to enjoy the "Legend of Kyoto" in its earlier, more engaging form.