It was on 25th of April 2015 (a few weeks ago) that Rurouni Kenshin had its 21st anniversary and now it can legally drink alcohol anywhere in the world! So I decided to go through why, it is the best manga/anime for me.
I was introduced to Kenshin and his adventures in the anime, not the manga. It was around 1998/9 that it showed on Portuguese television in an afternoon kids TV show, and from day one I was hooked on it. I was so addicted to it that I saw part of that stupid kids show just waiting for Kenshin, as it did not have a set time every day. For you to have an idea of the pain, the host of the show was a clown, I have a thing with clowns… I don’t do clowns. Ever! Well, anyway, I went through a lot to see the anime but it was always worth it. For those of you who went through the Dragon Ball craziness, it was the same for me, but even more. And I was close to 20 years old those days…
Why did I love Rurouni Kenshin that much, and still do? Mainly it is one of the few manga/anime that can combine realism and fantasy within a perfect balance. Below I will breakdown my favorite parts of the series, henceforth referred to as “X”, be warned that for those who have not read and/or seen it there will be loads of spoilers. And it may be quite a long read, not sure yet but I won’t come back to this paragraph to revise it.
So, I hope you enjoy it!
Mega Quick Synopsis:
Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story, also known as Rurouni Kenshin and Samurai X, is a Manga series that was published in Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump magazine from April 25th 1994 to November 4th 1999, it also spawned the anime series that aired from 1996 to 1998 in Japan, OVA’s, video games and recently 3 excellent live action movies.
It tells the adventures of Himura Kenshin, a wandering samurai who vowed not to kill again.
For years Japan was a closed state due to cultural and geographical circumstances, however between 1850’s and 1868 there was the Bakumatsu, this was the civil war in Japan that ended the Tokugawa Shogunate. The two major factions were the Shogun forces and the Imperial Nationalists, also known as the Ishin Shishi. Once the war ended the new emperor was in power and the Meiji era began. In Meiji, samurai were outlawed to carry swords, boarders were open and foreign relationships with European nations started flowing. Culturally, Japan started adapting to a new mind-set. It is then, 11 years into the Meiji era that we are introduced to the story.
The historical “accuracy” of X, is one of my favourite features. Obviously it is a fantasy story, but it is very well set in history. The cultural depictions of the cities, the adaptation to new trends and cultures is perfectly done. The series is full of characters and situations that refer to the Bakumatsu and Meiji, such as the Shinsengumi who were the Shogun’s elite samurai force. There are several mentions to Okita Soji, captain of the first squad of the Shinsengumi and there are brief appearances of him in flashbacks, but mainly Saito Hajime, captain of the third squad who is in fact a character in the series. There are also references to the Sekihotai who fought on the side of the Ishin Shishi during the Bakumatsu, and were then executed as traitors being called a false army by the newly founded government, Sagara Sozo, the captain of the first unit is also mentioned in the series, as are the events of the executions, as they are tied to another of the series characters, Sagara Sanosuke, but more on them later.
There is also the inclusion of Okubo Toshimichi, one of the main imperialists during the revolution and after the restoration, one of the most powerful men in Japan. Even here with a character that only shown a few minutes in a couple of episodes, X hits a high point. Okubo was murdered on his way to Tokyo on May 14, 1878 by 6 clansmen. In X, on the exact same day Okubo is traveling to Tokyo to meet Kenshin. He is murdered in his carriage by one of Kenshin’s enemies. The 6 clansmen then stop his carriage find his body, and stab it several times to take the credit for his death. The series has other moments like this, but I think this is one of the best to show its historical “accuracy”.
Above historical accuracy, the most important part of X, is the characters, how they are built, how they grow, their inner problems and how they solve them, and although sometimes they start slowly and there are some unrealistic features (but it is manga) they are all very good. I’m going to go through some of my favorite, without going into too much detail, I think that will be better for discussions in the comments or for those who don’t know them to discover the details for themselves:
Kenshin, is the main character of the series, and unlike most of the main characters in this type of manga, he is not one dimensional. There are several layers to him and he is above all, the hub of everything in X. Kenshin was a manslayer known has Hitokiri Batosai during the Bakumatsu. He was first what was known as a shadow assassin, he used to take assassination hits of several of the Tokugawa main men, but eventually he took a leading role in the revolution protecting the Ishin Shishi. In the Meiji era, Kenshin swore not to kill again, as an atonement for the murders he committed he took a sakabato, a reverse blade katana and wandered Japan protecting and helping those who needed.
As much as he tries to run away from his past it tends to catch up to Kenshin (we’ll see this further ahead when I discuss the story plots). Kenshin is trying to live in the new era, everything in him is trying to move forward but there is always something that holds him back, this is particularly evident in his mind as he holds the lives he took as an anchor, and does not allow himself to live a full life until he as repaid his debts to them, he doesn’t believe he is entitled to happiness after what he has done.
Kenshin is an adept of Hiten Mistsurugi-ryu, a fictional sword style that enables him to use an almost superhuman level of speed and agility to face a larger number of adversaries at the same time.
Of everyone that Kenshin befriends in X, there are five that are worth mentioning.
Sano, is one of the most interesting characters for me. Used mainly as comic relief he is actually an extremely important piece in the story. Sanosuke was a member of the Sekiho army as a child, although he didn’t fight he was Captain Sagara Sozo’s assistant. After the execution of the Sekiho army members, Sanosuke swore vengeance on the Ishin Shishi, and upon meeting Kenshin he has a number of fights with him. Sano is defeated not only physically, in spite of his amazing strength and stamina, but psychologically, he understands that the strongest of the Ishin Shishi is taking a new life and is not corrupt as the others that took government jobs. From that point until the end of the manga, Sano becomes Kenshin’s best and most reliable friend. Standing side by side with him in every situation, including in the fight against Shishio Makoto (again, more on this below).
Kaoru is the acting instructor of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu kendo school. Although she is mainly there as a love interest for Kenshin, she does have other particularities that make her worth a mention in this section. Kaoru represents two main aspects in X. She tries to keep the samurai spirit alive in her school, in an era when swords and swordsmanship are outlawed and decaying, in a way she represents the spirit of old in a new person, those who believe that old and new can coexist. Kaoru is also a representation that there should be no genders in swordsmanship. She is a woman in a society where women were viewed as lower than men, however, in a fight she could stand side by side with them.
The Kamiya Kasshin-ryu has a philosophy of being “the sword that gives life” which was her father’s belief, that the teachings of the samurai and swordsmanship made people better, and didn’t necessarily had to be used to kill. This perspective is very similar to Kenshin’s attempts to protect others without killing, although he says in one of their first interactions: “A sword is a weapon. The art of swordsmanship is learning how to kill. That is the truth. What Miss Kaoru says is sweet and innocent talk that only those whose hands have never been stained with the blood of men can believe. But, to tell you the truth, I much prefer Miss Kaoru’s sweet and innocent talk over the truth, indeed I do!”
Much like Sanosuke, Yahiko is used as comic relief and as a surrogate for the younger readers. He is the son of a samurai that was disgraced after the war, and became a pickpocket for the Yakuza after both his parents died. Both Kenshin and Kaoru see the samurai spirit burning inside him and Kaoru takes him as the first apprentice of her student less school. Yahiko grows immensely in the series, not only as a character but also as a swordsman. He eventually manages, at the age of 10, to mimic Kenshin’s techniques just by observing them over and over again in most of his fights, eventually he becomes a master of Kamiya Kasshin-ryu and takes over Kenshin’s Sakabato when he comes of age. Over the series, in spite of his age, Yahiko manages to become a strong swordsman helping Kenshin fight some of his strongest opponents.
Mibu no Okami, the Wolf of Mibu. Saito is based on the actual Shinsegumi Captain, and is as much a friend as a foe of Kenshin. The two met in battle several times but were always evenly matched with no clear winner. Saito is a good representation of what happened to those who had to carry on with different lives after the war. He became a police officer and a spy, in a way and in his point of view he never changed, he keeps protecting those that need to be, and he always keeps living by is code of “Aku Soku Zan”, “Swift death to Evil”.
Saito can’t be considered a friend of Kenshin. He is more of an ally within certain circumstances. Although he is there when needed, their relationship is merely of mutual respect. A curiosity regarding Saito is that the historical character’s favorite move was a “left single-handed thrust” also known as a hirazuki, which inspired the manga’s Saito’s “Gatotsu” move.
Aoshi is the leader of the Oniwabanshu (again actual historical characters that were adapted to X), defenders of Edo Castle in the Bakumatsu. Aoshi is driven by not being able to fight in the war as the Castle was surrendered with resistance. He sees Kenshin’s defeat as the only thing that could save his honor giving the title of “Strongest” to the Oniwabanshu. Aoshi eventually, much like Sanosuke, becomes Kenshin’s friend and helps him in two of the most important fights in X.
Besides that, Aoshi looks cool as fuck!
What is a good hero without great villain? In my opinion, not much, and Kenshin has some amazing ones:
Also known as Kurogasa, he is the first of Kenshin’s main enemies to show up. The first blast from the past, so to speak. Jin-e was also a hitokiri in the bakumatsu and part of the Shinsengumi, however he continues to kill even after Meiji has been established. Although not a very remarkable character on his own, he is important for two features, he represents those for whom times didn’t change for, and he is the first of Kenshin’s direct past characters to show up and make him face what he was and who he wants to be.
Jin-e is a master of the Nikaido Heiho technique that involves using chi to paralyze his opponents so that they do not fight back.
Sojiro is an amazing character. He is Shishio’s right hand man and his best assassin. He is extremely complex and one of Kenshin’s most difficult adversaries due to this.
Sojiro’s two main particularities are that his sword technique “Tenken” or Heaven’s Sword can rival Kenshin’s in speed and agility, but above that he does not feel (or mainly shows) any emotions. Portrayed as a teenager, he is always smiling, however always cool and emotionless. He was trained by Shishio after he found him as a child being constantly beaten by his family. Sojiro had developed this ability not to react to pain and punishment from those beating and aroused Shishio’s curiosity by smiling when he was going to be killed. The two have an interesting father-son relationship from there on, as Sojiro follows his master blindly including in his philosophy of “The strong live and the weak die”. It is this that makes him break mentally as he cannot understand why someone would protect the weak, especially why he wasn’t protected when he was weak. He is an interesting antagonist to Kenshin precisely on this view of what one should do when they have power, protect the weak, or abuse them?
Shishio is THE antagonist, not only is he the mastermind behind the series best story arc, he is Kenshin’s opposite in most aspects.
He took Kenshin’t role as assassin in the shadows killing prominent members of the Shogunate, and in the end of the Boshin War was injured, doused in oil and burned alive. Shishio survived and spent the following years plotting against the Ishin Shishi government and on taking over Japan for himself. Shishio is cool and strategic in everything he does. He is also ruthless. Although may be seen as cold-hearted in several aspects such as plotting and executing his revenge, and his total disregard for human life he is truly in love with Yumi, his companion. He also has an amazing dark humor to him. On their first encounter, when Kenshin asks him why he took over and enslaved a whole village he claims it’s because the hot springs there are nice and he doesn’t like to be disturbed when bathing. He then explains why and that he said that just to see Kenshin’s reaction. I think he is brilliant in every way.
It is in many things that Kenshin and Shishio oppose, in their philosophy towards human life, what is weakness and strength, how it should be used, and even in their swords, both made by the same master Arai Shakku. But while Kenshin’s sword is a reverse blade that cannot be used to kill (using standard Japanese slashing techniques) Shishio’s is the perfect killing sword that never needs to be sharpened.
Enishi is the last of Kenshin’s antagonists and also his brother-in-law. Oh… did I forget to mention that Kenshin was married and killed his own wife? I’ll get to that later…
I don’t think I have to say any more about what drives Enishi against Kenshin. I would do the same if he married and killed my older sister. But, would I take almost 10 years preparing a revenge so detailed that it would not only destroy Kenshin physically but also mentally to the brink of insanity, by slowly taking away from him everything that he has, everything that makes him happy and attacking all those around him that he had a positive influence in, regardless of how minor it was, until he had absolutely no desire to live?
Yes, yes I would. And that is the best description and compliment I can give about Enishi.
So… We have a good historical background, we have great main characters and antagonists, but do we have good storylines in X? Hell yeah, we do!
When I think of it I always split the saga in 3 acts. It should actually be 4 acts because the last one is split in 2, but I’ll explain why when I don’t when we get to it. I’ll try not to spoil it too much, if I do, apologies.
Act I – Introductions and minor arcs
The first act of X is where we meet the main characters in small arcs. Although some of them are good, very good, they do work more as set ups for character introduction and initial development. The first stories introduce Kenshin, Kaoru, Yahiko and Sanosuke, and Kenshin fights several minor antagonists, including Jin-e. It is only when we are introduced to Takeda Kanryu, Aoshi and Oniwabanshu that we have a more constructed arc. This is a really good arc that also introduces Megumi, a doctor that is forced to produce opium for drug dealers. It also introduces the rivalry between Kenshin and Aoshi. There is another minor arc with Raijuta who wants to create a nation of rogue samurai.
Act II – Kyoto arc
Here is where the series hits its stride in one of the best written story arcs I’ve read in manga. Here is where we are introduced to Saito and Shishio, we discover his plan to conquer Japan and how it would succeed. It is a very long arc but worth it, not only due to the amazing characters that are introduced but also the development of the already existing ones. Yahiko becomes a grown up swordsman, Kaoru as well, Sanosuke develops his skills and comes to the level of the best in Japan, and Kenshin returns to his master to learn the final technique of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. It is Seijuro Hiko that pushes Kenshin up from his hole and makes him understand that he deserves to live in spite of what he did during the war in a moment where he must either execute the final move or face the inevitable death that walks behind Seijuro Hiko.
Kenshin and his friends face Shishio and his Juppongatana to stop the destruction of the Japanese government in some amazing battles.
Act III – Jinchu
Upon returning to Tokyo the group as little rest as their friends start being targeted by unknown enemies. Eventually they find that it is all related to Kenshin’s past during the Bakumatsu and his marriage with Yukushiro Tomoe. Here is where the story could have 4th act but I don’t consider it separate when Kenshin tells the story of his marriage, how he got the cross shaped scar on his left cheek and killed his wife. The attacks are done by Enishi, Tomoe’s brother who saw Kenshin kill his sister and swore revenge. How the battle is won? I’ll leave you to read it as it is worth it.
Jinchu means something like Heavenly Justice you can get an idea of the scope of the story from that.
Anime and live action
X, as some differences in the anime. Obviously there are some filler stories that are not in the manga, and after the Kyoto arc the producers were given free reign over the series. The stories are not as good as Kyoto but some are at the level of the introduction smaller arcs. I am particularly into the “Son of God” arc on the anime, which is worth seeing even if you skip the rest. Also the flashback story in the Jinchu is beautifully done in the 4 act OVA’s “Trust and Betrayal”.
Finally, over the past years, X was adapted to live action cinema, and although it was adapted with some story changes I didn’t particularly like such as the alterations to Aoshi’s character, it is absolutely brilliant. I am not going to write about it as there are already better reviews than I could ever do here, here and here.
Right, that is all I have to say about Rurouni Kenshin at the moment. If you like it drop me a line on the comments, as I am thinking about doing something similar about my other anime/manga Saint Seiya. Or if you would like me to focus on a subject, make a suggestion.
Cheerios and Lucky Charms