n 1878, just over a decade after the Meiji Restoration removed
the corrupt Tokugawa Shogunate from power and restored rulership of
Japan to the traditional emperor, Japan is still struggling with
the effects of the new regime. Samurai are forbidden to carry swords.
Although the common people are in theory equal under the law, policemen
and bandits alike lord their weapons and their power over citizens
looking for peace in the wake of years of civil war.
Himura Kenshin is a walking artifact of the war. He's a jovial,
self-effacing wanderer who nonetheless carries a sword in defiance
of the law. Shortly after his arrival in Toyko, he is taken for a
murderer because of the sword, and a local girl named Kaoru attacks
him to preserve her family honor. As it happens, Kaoru is
half-right. Kenshin is not the killer deliberately blackening her
family name, but he is a murderer. As an assassin in one of the
revolutionary groups that drove out the Shogunate, he killed hundreds
of people with a skill that earned him the title Battousai
(translated here as "Manslayer").
Kenshin has sworn never to kill again. The sword he carries is
strangely made, with a blade on the wrong side, making it a weapon
unsuited for murder but useful for defense. With his mild manners
and his country phrasing, he seems harmless enough. And he honestly
wants to protect the innocent and the weak, as he proves when he
and Kaoru rescue an orphan boy named Yahiko from a local group
But after Kenshin and Yahiko settle in at Kaoru's family
dojo, Kenshin's past starts to catch up with him. From the
revolutionaries he once served, to the enemies he once fought,
figures out of history step forward to try and awaken
the Battousai inside Kenshin. Some want to fight him, to prove
their strength or their hatred of the Meiji government. Others
want to use his abilities for their own ends. No matter what
the cause, they all want him to forget his oath and
become the killing machine he once was.
Good start, great series
Rurouni Kenshin was one of the most popular anime series
of the past decade; it ran to 95 episodes in three years before
declining story quality and subsequent declining ratings finally got
it canceled. Media Blasters currently plans to market the series
through episode 68, the end of the famous "Kyoto arc," via an
ambitious plan that would have them releasing a DVD every month
(coinciding with the two VHS tapes released simultaneously every
alternate month) through February of 2002. Production problems have
delayed the second DVD, but the DVDs look to be worth the
wait--if nothing else, for the liner notes, which explain some of
Kenshin's complex history and vocabulary and the decisions
that went into the translation.
The reason behind the series' popularity is obvious.
The characters shine with individuality, both from their strong
personalities and from their sharp, simple design. Kenshin's schizoid
personal conflict between his ruthless-killer side and his country-
bumpkin side almost immediately develops into a plot hook capable of
anchoring a variety of interesting stories. The complex historical
setting gives those stories a sense of background depth that makes
the sudden, dramatic conflicts seem organic and authentic. The
animation flows smoothly, with a great deal of attention paid to
creative ways to stylize combat and make it interesting each time.
And, of course, the series is just plain fun. Sanosuke, the swaggering
mercenary with a horse-sized "sword," is an early indicator of how this
series works--with his insouciant attitude, unbelievably huge weapon
and impossible endurance, he's more of a video-game icon than a character.
But a quick look into his past gives viewers a real sense of his humanity,
recasting him as a tragic figure
whose goofy peccadilloes have solid reasons behind them. Typical
Kenshin--a show that operates on a lot of levels, with a lot
more to come. As Kaoru cheerfully says at the end of each episode
preview, "Please look forward to it!"