Rurouni Kenshin (manga)
Medium: comic
Year: 1994-1999
Writer/artist: Nobuhiro Watsuki
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: Rurouni Kenshin, manga, historical, samurai
Format: 28 tankobon volumes, 255 chapters, 5000+ pages
Url: http://www.animenewsnetwork.co.uk/encyclopedia/manga.php?id=1995
Website category: Manga
Review date: 13 March 2014
I love Rurouni Kenshin. I discovered it through the 95-episode anime series, which my brother liked so much that he watched it all through at least twice and then bought his own DVDs.
Many years later, I finally read the manga. Apparently it's different in tone from the anime, but to be honest it's been long enough that I can hardly distinguish them. The manga doesn't have those two tiny children running around and I suppose the manga's Kenshin isn't such an "orororo" goofball. That's about it, really. Kenshin's still Kenshin and he's still hanging around with Sanosuke, Kaoru and Yahiko. Saito, Aoshi, Shishio et al are arguably even scarier in print. It feels right.
The main difference is the story arcs. The manga was still ongoing when Fuji TV made the TV series, so the anime's third act is a bunch of filler that got the show cancelled but is mostly pretty good, while the manga's third act is the Jinchu arc with Yukishiro Enishi.
So, what's it about? Kenshin is a rurouni, which is a word he's made up from "ronin" (masterless samurai) and a Japanese word that means "wandering" or "flowing". Ten years ago, he was a government killer. It was the Meiji Restoration (c.1868) and the country was in turmoil. Kenshin was trying to do good and serve his country, but he's still got an awful lot of blood on his hands. These days, he's sworn never to take another life and carries a reverse-bladed sword that couldn't kill anyone. He's the friendliest, most easy-going chap in the world. He'd forgive almost anything. Sometimes he's a bit of an idiot. However he's got a dark side buried deep down, waiting to take him over if he ever let his guard down.
Oh, and with a sword in his hand, he's pretty much got superpowers.
My wife pointed out recently that I don't like samurai, but I like Rurouni Kenshin. The reason for this, I think, is that Kenshin is like an anti-samurai. Firstly, he's less macho than Liberace. (Watsuki gave him that X-shaped scar because he looked like a girl without it.) He's the most amiable chap in the world, he doesn't hold grudges and he doesn't do that "I'm too silent and stoic to have a personality" thing. He doesn't even like violence. It's just that he happens to have been trained at it to a terrifyingly high level. Secondly, he has fiercely held moral principles. He never, ever kills. He's always gentle, he treats everyone the same and he never tries to take advantage of his strength or suggest that might makes right.
In other words, he's a hero I can admire. The supporting cast are fun too, though. Kenshin has a habit of turning enemies into friends, even if when they're terrifying stone-cold killers and the equivalent of the Terminator (Saito) or are capable of allying with Kenshin's arch-enemy (Aoshi). Sometimes they're based on real historical figures, incidentally. Kenshin's best friends are:
1. Sagara Sanosuke, who's insanely strong and loves a fight. He's a street tough.
2. Myojin Yahiko, who's an ten-year-old orphan with a mouth like a sewer and an attitude that could strip paint from walls. Having a conversation with him is like being scrubbed with sandpaper. However he has absolutely no fear whatsoever and eventually becomes one of the series's most powerful characters, for the way he'll stare unblinkingly into what looks like certain death.
3. Kamiya Kaoru, the inheritor of her father's dojo and, before long, Yahiko's sensei. She's a decent swordswoman herself, but she's not one of the series's front-line fighters.
As for the story, it's really good. There's quite a lot of it, but it carries its length lightly and knows when to stop. (One Piece, ahem.) The fight scenes are meaningful for the combatants and have emotional power. Watsuki's version of 19th century Japan isn't afraid to tip over into fantasy, but he's not actually taking the piss and I didn't have a problem with it. You might notice with one or two of his character designs that he's not afraid to take inspiration from Marvel superheroes, incidentally. (Watsuki's open about this. He admires American comics.) The only minor thing I didn't like was the reuse of the same drag queen plot twist. Once was funny. Twice was overdoing it.
If you too like Rurouni Kenshin, the good news is that there's plenty of it. As well as the manga, there's the aforementioned TV series, animated movies, some OVAs (don't watch "Reflection"), light novels, video games and most recently a series of live-action movies. The first one came out in 2012 and I'd been expecting it to be rubbish, but the reviews were positive and it was the top-grossing Japanese film of its year. Two more are currently in production.
Most interesting though, for a manga fan, might be Restoration. Watsuki recently started retelling his own story as a new manga, but of course he now has two more decades' experience as a writer-artist.
Definitely recommended. It's darker and more serious than the TV series, but it's not still highly entertaining. It's often funny, for instance. They feel essentially the same to me. I love the moral message of the manga and I don't think it's got a weak link anywhere. (Representation of women, maybe? That's the nearest I can get. You'd have to bend over backwards to get gender equality into this genre and historical era, though, and in any case it's by no means a female-free zone. Kaoru isn't excluded from the fighting.) What's more, the period has been researched in painstaking detail by Watsuki and it's an intriguing setting, with massive social changes and violent disagreements about how to shape the future of Japan.
Intensely character-driven storytelling, great villains and a hero I'd follow off a cliff. Rurouni Kenshin was massively popular in its day and it's no surprise that it's making a comeback. Terrific stuff.