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Samurai X - Reflection - Director's Cut

ADV Films // Unrated // December 28, 2004
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted January 8, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Movie: One of the biggest controversies relating to DVDs this past year has been the re-release of special director cut, extended edition, or otherwise notable revisits on DVD. In some cases, the company goes all out and provides a wealth of new material in the form of solid extras like deleted footage, new cast interviews, branching technology allowing fans to see a more complete version of the original release as well as a cleaner picture and better sound (the last two items being affectionately known as "the basics"). Other times, the new edition includes minor fixes and little value adding material, making the purchase to forgo buying the "new" edition much easier. Let's face it, most of us watch the extras once (if at all) unless we're totally enamored with the release and I'm willing to bet that the production companies not only know that but are betting that casual fans are going to buy without thinking as the masses are trained to have a collector's mentality combined with a completist attitude. Thankfully, consumers have been using the internet and finding they aren't alone when it comes to making these often tough calls and companies are finding resistance to their plans since increasing numbers of consumers have had enough; in effect telling the companies to release their best effort first, and if need be, a limited version afterwards. The latest director cut release I picked up to review was Samurai X: Reflection (Director's Cut), a story set in the 1800's in Japan. I'll talk about the movie first and then go more into detail about the new material afterwards.

Okay, fans of anime may already know about a historical figure, Rurouni Kenshin, a famed samurai assassin, from the many releases his character has had in recent years. The lengthy series put out by Media Blasters has detailed the exploits of the character during the Meiji period in Japan where the end of the Shogun, and the ruling elite of the samurai warrior, is in plain view. The old ways die hard for the entrenched nobility and the government calls on Kenshin as their means to use his skills to effectively end the era he was brought up in (raising various societal issues for those who want to ponder such things). As a master assassin, Kenshin travels the countryside to help overthrow the corrupt imperial government and makes a number of powerful enemies along the way. The series was marked by sword fights, lost loves and a host of intelligently thought out themes; all of which made it an exceptional series to watch (I can't stress enough how much I liked it for all the minor flaws it had). Enter ADV Films.

ADV Films, the leading source of anime in the US these days, bought the rights to a set of OVA's of this amazing warrior assassin and aptly titled them as Samurai X so as to keep the public from getting confused (so they said). In a world made up of corporate policies designed to prevent litigation, I could understand why they did it but it still rubbed me the wrong way at times. Anyway, they released the OVA's as both separate volumes and as a OVA Collection (if John's review doesn't get you to buy this one, nothing will) with all four discs in a package. Reflection is the final disc of the series and detailed Kenshin's life as seen through the later years, when both he and his wife are ill, have a teenage son, and he simply can't find peace within himself over his sorted past. The changing times that he helped bring about are now catching up to him as well (funny how that happens) and he goes on a lengthy journey to sort out his affairs, much to the chagrin of his wife, Kaoru. The tale has drawn lots of criticism because there's a controversy over whether or not the entire OVA is "cannon" or part of the official story but that's a political discussion more than anything else and a review really isn't the place for it.

Okay, the changes in the director's cut were not all that impressive to me. Some footage from the series was added and it looked like the editing helped the flow of the story at times but it was still a release where you'd want to see the previous volumes in order to sort out the details of what happened. Further, the additional footage wasn't that lengthy and while I can appreciate that the new edit appears to help place the OVA series more solidly within the original series, I was still left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth over the lack of substantial differences making this a weaker director's cut than most. Don't get me wrong, as part of the whole Kenshin Universe, the show is one of my favorites and if you haven't seen it, I strongly advise you do so (consider that a rating of Highly Recommended for the series as a whole, including ADV's OVA release as well as the Media Blaster sets) but as a so-called "double dip", it failed to make it for me. If that sounds frustrating to you, just think about it as thus; if you already have the original release, skip this one but if you haven't gotten it yet, pick it up soon.

Picture: The picture was presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 ratio that looked very crisp and clear most of the time. There was some grain and light video noise at times but it wasn't a major factor for my sensitive eyes. I rented the original disc and didn't see a whole lot of difference between them as each looked very solid and pleasing to the eye. The anime style used was a bit sparse but that made the story stand out all that much more. The colorful backgrounds looked very nice too and contributed to the feel of a movie more than a series (this is something OVA's have over regular series in general too). The compression rate used appeared to be a bit better so maybe purists with top of the line equipment (far out of the range most fans will have access to) will notice more of a difference but on a friend's HD television, they looked substantially the same (beware the sycophants who say otherwise).

Sound: The audio was presented with the standard choice of either the original 2.0 Japanese audio track with English subtitles or a 5.1 English dub; both in Dolby Digital to clean up the sound a bit. I know some of the purists hate dubs but this one wasn't bad at all. Granted, it wasn't as good as the original language track to my ears but it was better than average so the majority of people that hate reading subtitles will be able to accept this version as well done. The English dub also benefited from having a better music mix with much richer tones and separation (not to mention deeper bass by far). In short, this was a strong point of the DVD but it was never considered flawed when first released either.

Extras: The extras consisted of a dozen interviews with the Japanese cast, all thankfully with subtitles so you know what they're saying. Some of them focused too much on other projects they did (or were in the process of doing) but I found this to be a great extra compared to what usually passes as an extra for anime. There were also the same production sketches and trailers as well as a clean opening and closing for the credits. The sole difference between the new and old version was the inclusion this time of a director's commentary where Charles Campbell (the director) was joined by English dub actors J. Shanon Weaver (Kenshin), Gray Haddock (Sanosuke), and Katherine Catmull (Kaoru) as they discussed the show.

I like Campbell's usual commentaries, even on bad shows, but having listened to it, I was left with a number of unfavorable impressions to balance out my appreciation for the commentary as a whole. First, it sounded like they were prohibited from discussing the original series by virtue of it being released by another company. ADV could have bought the rights to it so I have little sympathy in that regard and the material the series covered was crucial to the understanding (at least in any depth) to the OVA series. They did mention bits about it but left out so much that I was convinced they were holding back. Second, they made repeated references to not having seen the entire series, mentioning personal finances and the like. I'd think that ADV would've had a set for reference purposes if nothing else and had I known this was a problem, I'd have lent them my set to improve what was said (although I believe Campbell works out of ADV's Austin office, not in local Houston so that might've been an issue).

The up side to the commentary was that they did seem to recognize, as often as not, the changes that were made (even if I think it was part of the script followed by the director). They also shared some good insight as to the process of making the OVA dub, the loss of a lead voice actor part way through, and other topics that made it worthwhile to listen to. I'm not sure if I'd buy the new version for the commentary alone (unless it was dirt cheap) but I want to be fair about it too. I think adding in some of the character outlines and historical notes from previous versions might've been a good idea too (and it's not like they take up much space; toss a trailer if need be next time).

Final Thoughts: Samurai X: Reflections (Director's Cut) was, at least as part of the entire OVA and television series, a very good show full of some very interesting moments (as long as you don't despise flashbacks) but it fell short as a double dip and as a stand alone purchase. That's probably why ADV Films released the boxed set mentioned earlier; to allow the viewer to understand the show better. If you like samurai tales and get the other volumes, it's great so I'm going to split the difference and rate this as Recommended, keeping in mind the limitations mentioned previously. I liked the earlier parts of the television series best but this re-visitation of a cast of characters had plenty to enjoy too. I commend ADV Films for releasing the OVA although I'd rather they offer a trade in program if they aren't going to change the material all that much (most fans will buy both to keep each version but it'd be nice if they at least threw us a bone once in awhile).

If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article!

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