A Year of Anniversaries Part 1: Ten Years of Rurouni Kenshin

2013 is an anniversary year of sorts for me. It turns out that between ten and fifteen years ago I was discovering a lot of media (books, music, TV, movies, comics, etc.) that would shape my tastes to this day. I have quite a number of anniversaries to talk about this year, but for now, I want to talk about a media franchise I first encountered in the Spring of 2003 just before I graduated high school, Rurouni KenshinBelow is the original promo seen on Cartoon Network that first introduced me to the series:

The Meiji era in which the story of Rurouni Kenshin (RuroKen) takes place was a time of transition for Japan. The country was becoming increasingly modern, and influenced by Western culture. During this time the class system was abolished, and the samurai slowly began to fade into history as their way of life came to an end. By the time the story of RuroKen takes place, it was actually illegal to carry weapons, including the signature weapon of the samurai, the katana, in public. Some samurai were able to make this transition with little difficulty. They sheathed their swords, and hung them on the walls of their home and found new ways to live their lives. Others were not so adaptable, and clung to their swords to the bitter end. (This transitional period and the struggles the samurai faced during the time are depicted grandiosely in The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe.) Enter Himura Kenshin. In the war known as the Meiji Restoration, Kenshin was known as Hitokiri Battousai, a hitokiri and Ishin-Shishi fighting for the deposition of the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled Japan since the year 1600 (Kenshin’s character is fictional, but like many of the characters of RuroKen he is based on a real historical figure, Kawakami Gensai). According to this fictional story, Kenshin’s sword was a key factor in the defeat of the Tokugawa, but where many of his former comrades moved on to serve in positions of the new Meiji government, Kenshin disappeared at the end of the war and his deeds became the stuff of legends. Ten years later, Kenshin appears in Tokyo, where he bumps into Kamiya Kaoru, daughter of a samurai and the sole heir to the Kamiya Kasshin style of swordsmanship. After resolving an incident involving an impostor posing as Hitokiri Battousai and revealing that he has taken an oath to never kill again, Kenshin begins to stay at the Kamiya dojo and much of the story takes place in surrounding Tokyo while also moving to Kyoto for the first long story arc.

Kenshin as he appears in the TV series.

Kenshin as he appears in the TV series.

RuroKen is a story of redemption. Kenshin carries a tremendous burden of guilt for all the lives he took as an assassin during the revolution, and has vowed to never again take a life. For Kenshin, using his sword to protect life, even the lives of his opponents, is a way for him to atone for his past. For me at least, this makes his use of the sakabato especially symbolic. A samurai’s soul is said to be sealed in his sword. The sakabato cannot take a life when used properly because the sharp and dull edges are reversed with the blade itself facing the wielder rather than the opponent, and this actually makes it dangerous for Kenshin to wield his sword as it has greater potential of harming him than his opponents. Whenever Kenshin swings his sword, he is endangering not only his life, but his soul, and there are a few instances in which he nearly breaks his vow never to kill. He knows that if he were to kill again that he would never be able to go back to living a peaceful life, and his soul will be gone forever. I think, Kenshin’s sword is a beautiful symbol that reflects the constant struggle his character faces extremely well.

The main cast of RuroKen. From the left, Kenshin, Kaoru, Sanosuke, and Yahiko at the bottom.

The main cast of RuroKen. From the left, Kenshin, Kaoru, Sanosuke, and Yahiko at the bottom.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the series. I’ve talked a lot about Kenshin, but the rest of the characters are pretty strong and memorable as well. In the main cast, there’s Kamiya Kaoru, the young swordswoman and Kenshin’s primary love interest; Myojin Yahiko, an orphan and the last in a long-line of samurai who is the only student at the Kamiya dojo through most of the series; Sagara Sanosuke, an angry punk and brawler who falls in with Kenshin and the gang after Kenshin thrashes him in a fight. Each of them are memorable, lovable, and all grow and develop throughout the series into unique, rounded characters. The rest of the supporting cast as well as many of the villains are just as memorable.

My interest in the series has been renewed over the last year as it has actually been rebooted. A live action movie was released in Japan (and some international areas, but not the U.S.) last year. To accompany the movie, the creator of the series, Nobuhiro Watsuki (to this day I’m not sure which is his family and individual name) was approached by his old editor who said he should rewrite RuroKen and help generate buzz about the movie. The result is the new, short series, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration (more on this below). I’m definitely biased, but I don’t think that anyone who loves comics, or even a great story, could be disappointed with the original RuroKen manga. However, there are some things you may want to avoid in the various other RuroKen media, so I thought I’d create a short guide for anyone new to the series who’d like to learn more.

Rurouni Kenshin, the Original Manga

The first volume of Rurouni Kenshin, published by Viz Media.

The first volume of Rurouni Kenshin, published by Viz Media.

This is where it all started. I first discovered RuroKen through the anime and I enjoyed the anime a lot, even though it is much more talkative than I really like. But it was the manga that made me truly passionate about the series. Watsuki’s art and story are both great, and his ability as an artist/writer matured exponentially as the series progressed. It is published in the U.S. by Viz Media, and the English translation is very readable and each volume features a glossary of terms at the back for unfamiliar Japanese phrases and terms. It looks like some of the original manga volumes Viz released may have gone out of print, but there are still a few floating around out there on Amazon and B&N. Viz also released the series in a collector’s edition format referred to as the VIZBIG editions. These books have a larger trim size and larger art by extension, decorative French flaps on the covers, a few color pages, and are printed on much higher quality paper. The Vizbig editions are still readily available, but it looks like they may be going out of print now as well. If all else fails, each volume is also available digitally through the Viz Media app and the Viz website. To top off the original manga, there was a one-shot sequel story, Yahiko no Sakabato, and a short epilogue called Haru ni Sakura. Both of these can be found in Volume 9 of the VIZBIG editions.

Rurouni Kenshin, the TV Series

The anime series proper was first released in the U.S. in 2001 by Media Blasters on DVD. Then it was picked up by Cartoon Network and aired on the Toonami block in 2003. The Media Blasters dub isn’t great, but it gets the job done. The voice acting was pretty decent, but the translated scripts could get pretty atrocious, especially Kenshin’s lines. The animation is pretty good and some of the fight scenes are fantastic with the coolest being the fight with Saito Hajime at the Kamiya dojo at the start of the Kyoto story arc. Even with the dub being average at best though, the story is still really great through episode sixty-two. Starting with episode sixty-three, the series enters a long string of filler episodes (these are episodes created by the anime production staff and the stories they depict never appeared in the manga series). To put it bluntly, everything from episode sixty-three on is atrocious, and the anime was actually discontinued after ninety-five episodes. The final story arc from the manga was never animated for the TV series as a result and the series comes to a hurried, dissatisfying conclusion. You might watch these thirty-three episodes that finish off the anime series out of curiosity, but my advice is to ignore them. Anyway, the DVDs are pretty hard to get a hold of these days, but the series is available to watch for free online on Crackle. A word of warning though, the dub featured on Crackle is actually even worse than the Media Blasters dub. Media Blasters at least had some good vocal talent at work even if their English script wasn’t great. The dub on Crackle, which from what I can tell was done by Columbia Pictures Television, which is now Sony Pictures Television, does not have that vocal talent (though Kenshin’s voice actor is the same) on top of a bad script. A lot of the names have also been butchered, and the dialogue has been censored. I haven’t watched enough to know whether or not any of the more violent scenes were censored, but it is highly possible. I think this dub was probably made before the Media Blasters dub as it is more consistent with anime translations from the mid-to-late 1990s that Americanized many of the character names and censored a lot of the content; Yu-Gi-Oh!, dubbed by 4Kids is probably the best example of this trend. It appears that this is the dub that appeared in other English markets outside the U.S. If you can stand the bad script and voice acting, then give it a shot, and maybe if you search hard enough you could find the original Japanese version with English subtitles.

Rurouni Kenshin OVAs and Animated Movies

As well as the TV series, there were two OVAs, and one theatrical movie. The two OVAs are known as Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal, and Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection here in the U.S. They were originally released under the name Samurai X, and you still see that name pop up sometimes. The first of the OVAs, Trust and Betrayal, tells the story of how Kenshin received the “x” shaped scar on his left cheek, and is based on the same story that originally appeared in the manga. This OVA is fantastic. The animation is downright gorgeous, the story is as tragic as it is beautiful, and the action scenes, though few, are brutal and intense. Also, whereas the English dubs of the TV series range from okay to awful, the dub of Trust and Betrayal that was first released in the U.S. by ADV is really, really good (I’m unsure if Aniplex, the company that owns the U.S. rights now, redubbed it). The voice acting is spot on and the script is poetic even though it does change a few details of the story here and there. The second OVA, Reflection, is nowhere near as good. The animation is still stunning, but the story is a rushed version of the final arc of the manga, which was never animated in the TV series. Reflection also has some stories that take place after the ending of the manga. Everything about Reflection just seems rushed and there is no real narrative flow to anything. Lastly, like the latter episodes of the anime, Rurouni Kenshin: The Motion Picture features an original story not seen in the manga. It explores some of the darker consequences that came as a result of Kenshin’s days as a hitokiri by introducing the family of a man he killed who have been nearly irrevocably affected by the death of their loved one. One of this man’s relatives, a wealthy samurai, plots to overthrow the government, and it’s up to Kenshin to stop him while also facing the consequences of his actions as a hitokiri. Unlike the filler arcs that made up the last third of the TV series, the story of the movie is pretty good, though the climactic fight at the end is a little confusing and tries a little too hard to be emotionally charged. The animation is decent, but nowhere near as good as the OVAs that came later. Both OVAs and the movies are also no longer readily available for purchase here in the U.S. though I’m sure they can be tracked down somewhere.

A second movie, Rurouni Kenshin: New Kyoto Arc was released in two parts in late 2011 and mid-2012. This is a remake of the popular Kyoto arc. I actually haven’t seen this yet, so I can’t really comment on it, but it is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray here in the U.S., and I plan to get my hands on it in the next few weeks.

Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration

Cover of Volume 1 of Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, published by Viz Media.

The cover of the first volume of Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, published by Viz Media.

Next up is the new manga series I mentioned above, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration. It was first translated into English last year and was serialized in Viz’s digital Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. The first volume, featuring four chapters, was released last week. The core of the story is essentially the same, but many of the details have changed and it is far more condensed than the original series. Watsuki has matured into a fine artist and the new updated character designs and his artwork are great. I can’t give my full opinion of it yet considering I haven’t read the whole series, but I was very pleased by the first volume, and I think it would be a great intro to the franchise for those unfamiliar with RuroKen.

Rurouni Kenshin, Live-Action Movie

Now, finally, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration was conceived of to market and promote a live-action movie that was released in Japan last year simply titled Rurouni Kenshin. The movie adapts the a few of the short arcs found in volumes one through six of the manga, and primarily the Jin’e and Kanryu arcs. It hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-Ray yet in the U.S. I’m really hoping that Warner Bros., who has the first shot of releasing the movie in the U.S. chooses to do so, and if they decline perhaps Viz or Aniplex will pick up the rights similarly to the Death Note movies and release a proper Blu-Ray/DVD edition with quality subtitles. The casting is perfect, the sets and setting are beautiful, the fight choreography is fast, furious and fun, and Kenshin’s character is wonderfully depicted (he also doesn’t talk nearly as much as he did in the anime, which is a boon). I’ve seen some people criticize it because it isn’t realistic, but seriously people, it is based on a manga after all and I see no problem with warping reality a little bit. There aren’t all that many wire stunts, and the few that are present aren’t that bad with the only, hilarious exception being Saito’s flying Gatotsu-Sanshiki in Kanryu’s mansion. I personally think it is a fantastic adaptation of the manga, and I freakin’ love it! Also, the movie’s producers hope to make a series of movies, and it sounds like a sequel has been greenlit, so that means there should be another movie coming soon!

Rurouni Kenshin Novels

The cover of Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World, published by Viz Media.

The cover of Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World, published by Viz Media.

One last bit of media, there were also a few novels that were published alongside the original manga series in Japan. These are not written by Watsuki. Only one of them was translated and released here in the U.S., Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World. I haven’t read it. I tried, but I wasn’t really impressed. I’m not sure if the translation was just really bad or if the writing was, but I just wasn’t into it after the first 20 pages so I didn’t finish reading it and I didn’t buy it. Looks like it is out of print now, though  it seems as though it is readily available through online used booksellers. Maybe I’ll give it another shot.

That’s it! I hope that I didn’t bore anyone with such a long post, but I do love RuroKen and given that it has been ten years since I was first introduced to the franchise I wanted to give it plenty of attention in this post. If you haven’t read or seen any Kenshin, I hope you’ll maybe consider picking up a volume of the manga, or even watching one of the atrociously dubbed anime episodes on Cracked. I think Kenshin’s story has something that will appeal to everyone, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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