Rurouni Kenshin Manga Review

A Short Lesson on Today’s Japan’s History

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Kenshin is a shounen samurai manga. I had mixed expectations when going into it. On the one hand I had heard very many praises about it and on the other hand I had seen the first few episodes a few years ago and I found it extremely boring. Still, I couldn’t ignore the enthusiasm for Kenshin shown by weebs older than me, so I decided to read the manga as that takes less time than watching anime.

Himura Kenshin is a wandering samurai who has vowed not to kill anyone while helping the weak with his blunt sword which doesn’t kill to atone for the assassination’s carried out by him during the wars which restored the Japanese Emperor as officially the sovereign and promised to bring Japan out of its feudal past to a new era of prosperity, equality, and peace. It is not clear whether Kenshin regrets having murdered so many for his revolutionary cause and ideals as an assassin but he clearly wanted to atone for it. This story is the journey of him finding out the answer on how to atone for it. It is also a shounen where everyone shouts out their super-secret samurai moves and side-characters watching these battles go into extreme details explaining these moves.

Kenshin looks rather girly, and thin for a warrior, and he also had long hair tied behind him. I see this as a plus as I find it hard to take hyper-masculine characters like Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star seriously. They look more models and body-builders than actual warriors. I mean Kenshin has a pretty face too but almost everyone in this manga is a pretty boy as it seems to be aimed at girls, despite it being a Shounen manga, but given that everyone is pretty or grotesque, the prettiness does not stand out so much as Kenshiro’s muscles. Sort of like Kenshiro, Kenshin goes around helping the weak with his skills as a fighter, in a setting after a war.

It is not exactly realistic, for example a certain move allows Kenshin to move his sword faster than the speed of sound thus damaging the ear drums of his opponent with a sonic boom and there is this other guy whose blood literally boils because he has burned off his skin. If you go in expecting realistic samurai battles you will be disappointed. To be honest I feel like the manga could have cut out a lot of the explanation about how the moves work and just shown it with the pictures – I just skim read a lot of the action scenes.

The manga is set at the end of Japanese feudalism, during the Meiji restoration, in the late 1800s, when the warrior class was officially replaced by the merchant/industrialist class as the ruling class after a violent nationalistic revolution staged by some samurai against the Shogunate military government which was seen as weak towards the western powers by the revolutionaries.

Many of Kenshin’s opponents are those remaining warriors who saw the new equality of the era as a levelling down of society, the honour-less merchant class at the bottom placed at the top. Of course by the time the warrior caste was replaced, they had already lost their warrior spirit during centuries of peace prior to the war, hence why most of Kenshin’s enemies were just scoundrel cheaply throwing around words like honour while only looking to enrich themselves through violence. Kenshin and the young samurai of the Meiji cabinet for whom Kenshin worked had effectively destroyed their own class.

Later, in the 20th century, as it is alluded to in the manga, the vacuum left by the noble warrior spirit was momentarily filled in Imperial Japan during the second world war but the United States put Japan back on track where it would have been had trends in the Meiji era not being interrupted by a nationalistic frenzy following the great depression. Of course by then Samurai had already gone and disappeared into the past.

Samurai were no longer allowed to carry a sword and the national army was armed with guns while police carried western sabres. Kenshin gets in trouble constantly for carrying his blunt sword. Himura Kenshin’s vow not to kill anyone is pretty silly pacifist nonsense that is not unheard of in manga/anime from the 90s. For example the protagonist of Trigun was like this too.

The best villain, I think, has to be Shishio and the worst has to be Tomoe’s little brother in the final arc. The same goes for their design as Shishio’s looked menacing in bandages with eyes and hair strands sticking out of his bandages and the dark burnt skin showing under his loose bandages whereas Tomoe’s little brother looked like a rockstar with his sun-glasses.

Tomoe’s little brother’s motives were personal and very easily psychologized whereas Shishio’s motives were larger than himself, genuinely at odds with Kenshin’s pacifism, and not immediately dismissible as some psychological trauma and neurosis. It got a bit repetitive when Shishio kept on saying “The strong eat the flesh of the weak” but in the end Kenshin won because he was stronger, no matter how unconvincingly he claimed that his faith in justice is what gave him strength.

At least it was not as bad as when shounen protagonists get stronger through the power of friendship or something. That said there is some truth to the notion that faith and devotion to anything gives people strength, it’s just that Shishio didn’t seem to lack it either.

I have yet to check out the prequel OVAs about Kenshin’s backstory as an assassin but I have read the flashback arc on which it is based. It was okay but my expectations were too high because of all the good things I have heard about the OVA. Perhaps the OVA is better than the manga that it is based on though I can’t think of how it could be.

Is it just me or does Tomoe look like a Rei Ayanami clone? I had very high expectations about this arc and it was alright. To be honest I was disappointed that Tomoe ended up being the predictable, honey-trap, femme-fatale, but it was still a sweet romance with an appropriate if predictable ending.

As for the final arc, I couldn’t care much about the villain’s personal, selfish motivations, nor could I care for the arc especially after a certain character did not really die. I understand the manga-ka’s reasoning that since this is a boy’s manga (a shounen manga) that must have a happy ending but Ashita no Joe was a Shounen Manga too and it was able to kill a main character at the end.

Yabuki Joe would be a villain or a side character in this story but not a hero because the heroes in this story do not just fight for themselves. More over Kenshin’s idea of happiness seems to be the settle down peacefully in a family.

Joe on the hand refuses this offer to go quietly and when he finds out he cannot fight for much longer, he chooses to burn brighter than ever before. Kenshin on the other hand was satisfied to settleddown when he realised that he won’t be able to carry out his super-powerful move and handed his sword to his protege.

Both Joe and Kenshin, are set after a war, Joe is set in the 1960s after WWII, but there is none of the self-less idealism in the post-WWII story like that was something more easily pictured in the feudal era rather than in the slums of post-war Japan even though the latter was richer. Of course the characters in Kenshin obviously live beyond their means. I mean Kenshin doesn’t really do any work whatsoever after his assassin days and the dojo has only one member – an orphan who does one part-time job at a cafe or something.

The truth is that with the rise of a mass police force there was no need for any professional warriors with unique quirks. As for Joe, his fight cannot be about anything greater than himself because he was just a sportsman, a boxer, an entertainer, not a warrior on whose service anyone’s life depended upon.

I can’t deny that at that point when I was not sure whether that character was alive I did hope for a happy ending. Kenshin would have appeared uncaring if he could have recovered his cheerful attitude despite that character staying dead,

It felt like the story was clumsily tying up its loose ends to get to the ending we all wanted to see of Kenshin being happy and married at the dojo. As for Kenshin’s realisation that his atonement for his assassinations was to continue using the sword which doesn’t kill to protect the weak from the strong, I felt underwhelmed by that revelation, because it seemed so obvious like a foregone conclusion that that was all that there was left to do for him as his death would not bring back those who he killed.

Finally, this doesn’t really matter, but I don’t really care that the manga-ka was caught with “CP” and anyone who cares about it is a fool. No, there is no need to “separate the art from the artist,” not if you have good taste that is. I could make a case about why this wasn’t such a big issue because he had bought it legally and simply not followed the absurd retro-active legislation to get rid of it but even if that wasn’t the case it wouldn’t have really mattered as this has always been an issue of mass-hypocrisy, virtue-signalling to appear to be caring, and the general trend of society becoming more and more like a school where we are supposed to behave like good little boys lest we be sent to the head-mistress, I refuse to comply.