© N. Watsuki / Shueisha, Fuji-TV, Aniplex Inc.
I originally had something different planned for this month's pick, but when a work such as this becomes available, you've got to change plans…
Rurouni Kenshin OVA: Trust & Betrayal (Tsuioku-hen)
Official Sites: Japanese, English
Additional Links: ANN Entry, MAL Entry
Video [Free]: niconico
Picture Source: Edited from Aniplex USA's Facebook page
Ever since debuting in 1999, the four-part prequel OVA to Rurouni Kenshin, Trust & Betrayal (Tsuioku-hen), has, statistically, been the highest-rated anime of all-time (according to the two most notable anime databases at Anime News Network and MyAnimeList.net (although it was 2nd behind the classic Legend of the Galatic Heroes on MAL around its height)). More than Cowboy Bebop, more than Neon Genesis Evangelion, more than any of Hayao Miyazaki's or Ghibli's films--obviously, it is no small feat, and for the better part of the decade that followed, it held that distinction in the face of other strong contenders: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist, Mushi-Shi, Bakemonogatari (the best-selling anime of the decade), FLCL, Millennium Actress, and even the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away. It has since yielded that title to some more recent and well-known titles in the last few years, such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, CLANNAD: After Story, and The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, though with the current generation of newer, younger fans growing up in an age of increased Internet access--and with that, a quicker and easier access to anime--and a bigger fanbase, in general, than circa 1999, it is perhaps not too surprising, especially when you also consider that those three (including current MAL front-runner Gintama') all came from recent, more relevant, and very popular franchises.
What is remarkable about Trust & Betrayal is that between the two databases (which, outside of a few works, run very similar), it remains the oldest common factor in their "Top Tens". When observing this and the titles occupying their rankings (largely populated by the "latest-and-greatest"), I think it is possible to take some "inflation" into account, for the reasons stated above. Of course, one could also make the argument that the OVA is just as culpable, seeing how Rurouni Kenshin was one of the biggest series in its heyday. However--and maybe there is a bit of an "old-school" edge to me when I say this--when taking everything above, including its longevity, history, statistics, and its very high, near-universal reviews and word-of-mouth, into account, I still consider Rurouni Kenshin OVA: Trust & Betrayal (Tsuioku-hen) to be the highest-rated title of all-time.
But why, after all of this time, is it still so highly regarded? Is it the peerless animation? The enrapturing score by a pre-Now and Then, Here and There, Gurren Lagann Taku Iwasaki? The amazingly-choreographed swordplay and intense action? Its beautiful and innovative combination of live-action and cel-produced imagery? Perhaps the brutally compelling drama and tragedy of the titular character's backstory? Later this month, Aniplex will be simultaneously releasing Trust & Betrayal on Blu-ray in both Japan and North America as it kicks off the 15th anniversary celebration of the Rurouni Kenshin TV anime series, but this Friday, August 19, at 10 PM (PST) (Sat. Aug. 20, at 1 AM (EST)), the OVA will be simulcasted in its entirety live in Japan, the U.S., and Canada at Nico Nico Douga and its new English counterpart, niconico, so you will have the opportunity to find out for yourself why it is so (or if you have already seen it, to whet your appetite for the upcoming BD release). While it isn't made clear whether the "live screening" is only a one-time (or one-day) showing or if you will be able to watch it again at your leisure like other streaming titles, I am leaning towards the former, so be sure to be there before it the start time.
One does not have to be familiar with the Rurouni Kenshin TV series or original manga to follow its prequel tale, which follows his transformation from orphan boy to hardened manslayer during Japan's feudal war era, and the ill-fated encounter with a mysterious woman that would have an everlasting impact on his life. Though made after the TV series, which follows a reformed Kenshin forsaking killing and adopting a non-lethal style of swordfighting, the OVA stands quite well on its own, and as a prequel, it does not require much upfront knowledge from the viewer. However, unlike the shounen-styled, humor-tinged series, Trust & Betrayal is far more serious and realistic (and considering how unflinching and bloody it can be, the difference is like night-and-day). Suffice to say, it is suited more for mature audiences than the young boy/teen demographic of the series.
Rurouni Kenshin OVA: Trust & Betrayal (Tsuioku-hen) may arguably be the highest-rated anime of all-time (and with good reason), but could one also say, by extension, that it is the greatest anime of all-time, by extension? You can be the judge of that in either case, but overall, just simply sit back Friday night/early Saturday morning and enjoy one darn good anime.