Although American kids have a reputation for being uninterested in history and geography, tens of thousands of follow the adventures of a samurai warrior-turned-pacifist as he travels from Tokyo to Kyoto in 19th century Japan.
Nobuhiro Watsuki’s compelling manga Rurouni Kenshin (“Kenshin the Wanderer”) began as the brief tale “Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story” in the boy’s magazine Weekly Shonen Jump Special in 1992. Watsuki rewrote the story two years later, and the expanded serial ran through 1999. The saga has been adapted to a 95-episode animated television series, a theatrical feature, a direct-to-video prequel, a live action film, and most recently, Rurouni Kenshin: The New Kyoto Arc, a two-disc set that retells one of the main segments of the story.
The Meiji Restoration of 1868 remade Japanese society, ending the crumbling regime of the Tokugawa Shoguns and restoring real power to the Emperor. Feudalism rapidly gave way to modernism. During the attendant civil wars, Kenshin Himura was the deadly Imperialist assassin Hitokiri Battosai (“Battosai the Man-Slayer”). Although he remains the greatest swordsman in Japan, Kenshin took an oath never to kill again. He fights with a sakabato, a reverse-blade sword: the inner edge is sharpened, rather than the outer one. He can injure his enemies or knock them senseless, but he can’t inflict fatal wounds.
Unlike the muscle-bound brawlers in Dragon Ball, Kenshin is short and skinny, with a long red ponytail. Watsuki partially modeled him on the assassin Kawakami Gensai, a man of small stature. Despite his unmatched swordsmanship, Kenshin has a warm-hearted klutziness that endears him to audiences. Richard Hayworth, who supplies the character’s voice in the English dub of the TV series, comments, “That’s the most difficult part about playing Kenshin: One second, he’s a deadly assassin: the next second, he’s one of the Three Stooges.”
The “Tokyo” arc, which makes up the first 27 episodes of the broadcast series, brings Kenshin to the city, where he befriends three misfits. Kaoru Kamiya inherited an impoverished dojo after her father was killed. Thugs forced Yahiko Myojin to become a pickpocket when he was orphaned. Sanosuke Sagara saw his comrades betrayed during the turmoil surrounding the Restoration. This outré trio aids Kenshin in his fights–when they aren’t squabbling or stuffing themselves.
The tone of the narrative darkens in the “Legend of Kyoto” arc that begins with Episode #28. Makoto Shishio succeeded Kenshin as Japan’s deadliest assassin. Shishio survived a botched execution by government agents and an attempt to incinerate his body that left him hideously scarred. Shishio believes the new government’s faltering first steps toward modernization have betrayed centuries of warrior tradition. He has assembled a private army to overthrow the government and make himself ruler of Japan. Only Kenshin can defeat Shishio.
No American animated hero has had to grapple with the dilemma Kenshin faces: Can he keep his oath never to kill again, or must he revert to being a murderer to prevent a civil war that would cause the deaths of countless innocent people? Rurouni Kenshin offers a depth and complexity lacking in animated films that pit blandly virtuous heroes against screeching villains.
In the TV series, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi stages the sword fights with great panache, using rapid cutting, split-screen and reversed colors to heighten the excitement. The drama and violence are played against the broad comedy involving the friends from Tokyo. Trying to emulate Kenshin, Yahiko clobbers an opponent and shouts, “Hiten Mitsurugi style–or close to it, anyway!” When Kaoru loses her temper and gives Kenshin a hit upside the head, his eyes spin as he stammers his trademark expletive, “Oro…”
If the TV version of Rurouni Kenshin rambles a bit, the New Kyoto Arc suffers from a surfeit of plot. Director Kazuhiro Furhashi tries to cram a storyline that occupied 34 episodes of the series and many volumes of the manga into 90 minutes. He can barely present the key moments in the tale; there’s no time for the character interactions, elaborate sword fights, awkward romance, and broad comedy that made Rurouni Kenshin so beloved. Even the climactic duel between Shishio and Kenshin, with the future of Japan hanging in the balance, is over before it really begins.
J. Shannon Weaver, who provided Kenshin’s voice in the direct-to-video prequel Samurai X, gives a much flatter reading than Hayward did in the broadcast series. The viewer looks in vain for the comic moments that contrast so effectively with Kenshin’s dramatic pronouncements.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Kenshin defeats Shishio in their duel. The spiritual aspects of samurai tradition outweigh mere skill with weapons: Kenshin’s humanity and inner nobility triumph over Shishio’s misbegotten social Darwinism and hatred. From the Greek myths to “Star Wars,” the outcome of a struggle between good and evil is a foregone conclusion. The journey is what matters: the obstacles and temptations the hero faces, the humor and friendships he enjoys between battles, and the satisfaction of the hard-won victory.
The recent Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood showed it’s possible to remake a well-loved series and improve it. But New Kyoto Arc feels as incomplete and unsatisfying a half-hour retelling of “The Lord of the Rings.” It might be possible to create a new animated version of Kenshin’s adventures, but the filmmakers would need enough screen time to present the story and characters properly. In the meantime, audiences will continue to enjoy the “Legend of Kyoto” in its earlier, more engaging form.