Yet another entry in the long, long list of popular things I never watched until long after everyone else stopped caring, Rurouni Kenshin is often listed as one of, if not the greatest anime series of all time. We’ll see about that.
|Fuji TV|1996|27 episodes|30 mins.|
So there’s a young woman named Kaoru who runs a sword fighting school in Tokyo, during the 11th year of the Meiji era (1878). But then a couple of guys who were up to no good started making trouble in her neighborhood. Lucky for her, a wandering asshole known as Kenshin Himura happened by and decided to help her out. He’s not just any vagrant, no sir; during the Meiji Restoration and Satsuma Rebellion he was like the very baddest of badasses, a legendary assassin who had no equal.
Afterwards, he stays on at Kaoru’s as a freeloading moocher, and tries to atone for his violent past by righting wrongs and being effeminate. Later on, two new characters join the two, the street urchin/kid samurai Yahiko and criminal-for-hire Sanosuke.
The unique character design is one of the series’…..hang on.
Wait a second.
GOD DAMMIT JAPAN! I MEAN SERIOUSLY, FUCK.
Well, anyway, Kenshin is yet another show my weeaboo friends in high school all adored. The swooning, the gratuitous Japanese, the drawing of yaoi fan art in class, the whole nine yards. And once again, I ignored the show almost entirely because of how much they liked it. Keep in mind I did the same thing with Fullmetal Alchemist, so doing this meant I missed out on a lot and it’s not necessarily anything against the show. So how does it stack up?
There’s a lot that I like about Kenshin, at least conceptually, and in particular the setting and the atmosphere that it lends the show. Actually, hang on, let me put on my internet-proof suit before saying this. I’m scared of the browncoats.
Here’s the thing, internet. Rurouni Kenshin really reminds me more of Firefly more than anything else. Before you all burn me at the stake in the name of our lord and savior Joss Whedon, we’ll get to him soon. But hear me out. Both shows take place not long after a civil war, an event that shaped the backstories of much of the cast, and is still a very present and influential memory. In Firefly the Independents lost the war, and the space-gunslinger is a dying breed. In Kenshin, the shogunate was very recently overthrown and the samurai class has been disbanded.
In the Meiji era, it’s not even legal to carry a sword in public anymore, and this imminent extinction of the warrior class is what drives a lot of the conflict. A group of people once integral to society is now looked upon with scorn. Western influence is creeping into a traditionally isolationist culture. People have to adjust to these things. So that’s cool. Me gusta.
It’s especially impressive with how present this feels throughout the season. Many of the other six skrillion series set during the Meiji era would use something like this as a background detail and forget about in favour of the rule of cool. Kenshin, for the most part, doesn’t. The effects of the war are referenced continually, and most of the cast is forced to fight with kendo sticks or their bare hands.
Another great thing is that in some ways, Kenshin himself is like a Japanese Batman. Actually, wait. Is there Batman manga? I would pay to see that. Anyway, Kenshin’s self-imposed penance for his deeds during the war is to help as may folks as he can, within the confines of his newfound pacifism. He shares the no-kill rule with Bats. His sword has the blade towards the user, and even that is a last resort. Kenshin’s first interaction with a villain is usually trying to talk them out of whatever it is they’re doing instead of going straight to the swordplay. Though, if he ever flips that sword over, you’re in trouble.
Despite all this, Kenshin’s really a pretty cheerful guy. His voice (at least in Japanese) and his appearance are both quite feminine. He uses a rather archaic and humble manner of speech, referring to himself as sessha (this one), rather than some form of “I”. He’s a bit of a ditz and it’s endearing. Oftentimes the latest in a string of villains to come after him will comment that he’s not what they expected from the Manslayer. Hell, he defeats a man using a pink umbrella. BEFORE HAGRID.
Unlike many shonen series, this is not a quest to become Teh Strongast evarz omg you gaiz!!1!! Kenshin is older than your usual teen/preteen anime hero and he’s already the biggest badass around. This combined with his disposition saves us a lot of potential angst, and while I’m not against characters with emotional baggage it’s a welcome break.
The rest of the main cast is pretty good as well. Kaoru and Yahiko, as the woman and child, would in many shows be constantly in need of Kenshin to rescue them. Kaoru is a swordfighting instructor, and she can certainly hold her own against low-level thugs. The only reason she gets pushed aside at times is because when a more powerful villain shows up, she’s just not in her league. It’s not because she’s a woman, it’s just that very few people can fight on that level.
Yahiko is a similar case. As the child of the group, it would be very easy for him to become annoying. That’s not to say he’s never annoying, but he proves himself useful on more than one occasion. He’s also mature beyond his years, and demands to be treated like an adult. For the most part, the others, especially Kenshin, oblige, though he is made the subject of fun every once in a while.
Sano, our buster sword wielding Ryu clone is the weak link here unfortunately. He is nowhere near as well utilized or developed as the others, often ending up as Kenshin’s subordinate. Aside from his introduction and a few episodes towards the end of the season, he’s not given much depth at all.
And he fucking should be, having grown up during the war, traveling with a unit of the Imperialist army that was used for the dirty work and eventually slaughtered by their own superiors. He’s suspicious of the government, and has a lot of difficulty adapting to new technology and European influence. I mean come the fuck on. How can you just leave that shit on the table? That’s a premise for an entire series right there. Perhaps he’ll become a more developed character next season but for now, I find his neglect utterly baffling.
So in terms of concept and characters, we’re off to a good start. However, much of the early part of the season is lackluster in terms of story. Kenshin’s a badass, sure. But that means that for almost half the season there’s no antagonist who can pose much of a challenge to him. A lot of fights are over very quickly, with Kenshin taking down most opponents in one shot. While this is realistic, it doesn’t always make for entertaining television when your protagonist is near invincible.
This is rectified around the 12 episode mark, where the villains are either stronger or command larger numbers, so even if they’re taken down easily, there’s a lot more of them to smack around. By the end of the season, there’s some fairly entertaining fights, though they lack that “holy shit” spark found in the best action sequences. This something that definitely needs more work in future seasons.
My other complaint with the plotting thus far is, I think, just a matter of taste. I find the series far too episodic, and again, this is mostly found in the first half of the season. It certainly has continuity and events have ramifications later on, but there is a distinct air of “on to the next adventure!” at the end of a story. The latter half seems to have moved on to a Doctor Who-style model of small stories of two or three episodes with some scattered standalones. If this continues into the rest of the series, I’ll be a happy tranny.
The animation itself is up to par for the times, though the colors seem washed out in places and the animation can get choppy when the camera is panning. Otherwise, not much to complain about. Movement is fluid, there’s very little recycled footage. Good stuff for 1996.
It’s an intriguing series thus far, but it hasn’t quite hit its stride yet. There’s the potential for greatness here if a little more effort is put in and a few things are tweaked. I’m certainly going to carry on with the rest of the show. A rough first season is not always damning. Overall, Kenshin has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, it’s never really engaged me on a more emotional level. It’s good, and I’m really enjoying it, but it hasn’t made me love it yet.