Review: Rurouni Kenshin (2002)

Directed by:

Distributed in Australia by:

Possibly the longest awaited anime series known to Western shores, and has the wait been worth it? Well if the first two DVDs, eight episodes in all, are anything at all to go by, then hell yes! Kenshin is cool!

Based roughly on a real-life, feared swordsman of the Meiji period, Kenshin Himura is the ultimate hero. Deferential and likeable (hell sometimes even cute) one moment, a cold, lethal killer the next. He’s the kind of hero you want to have around because the bad guys tend not to fear him until it is far too late and by that stage all you have to do is sit back and watch the walls get painted a nice, reassuring Villain Vermillion.

But he’s given all that bloodshed up hasn’t he? That’s why the ‘Wandering Samurai’ bit right?

Of course he’s given it up, but that’s what makes him, and consequently the series, so addictive and appealing, because Kenshin is also the kind of hero that walks The Line, that very thin one between civility and brutality, protector and murderer. The series doesn’t at first give any hint to our wandering swordsman’s violent past, only rumour and legend accompany him and even then he cares to lay less claim to such things than others. He may have been Hitokiri or Manslayer once (a term by the way given to many swordsmen of the Meiji Revolution, which translates to something closer to assassin than warrior and was accorded about the same respect) but he is killer no longer. The fame that precedes him and the title Battousai (sai being a suffix for Master or Mister, battou being ‘a sword drawn for battle’) is tempered by a secret, private tragedy and a vow to never kill again. His katana is the physical manifestation of this oath, a Sakabatou, or reverse-blade-sword. The only way such a blade can be used to kill is if it is turned over and its wielder possess the revered Hiten Mitsurugi style of swordsmanship.

Which of course, Kenshin does. Good thing about that oath.

Good thing too about the people he befriends and is befriended by, because when things get tough and his past comes back to haunt him (as it must) his friends are there to lend him strength when he needs it most. They are there to remind him of the humanity he would lose, should he forget the vow he made or the reasons he made it.

They’re a motley bunch, this band of warriors, but we always love the misfits best, don’t we. Kenshin, a diminutive, relatively young looking man with bright red hair and a cross-shaped scar on his cheek, looks to be the biggest misfit of them all but he is also the embodiment of books and covers and foolish judgements. His friends, Assistant Instructor at the Kamiya Katsushin School, Kaoru, ex-Sekihoutai member and fighter-for-hire Sanosuke Sagano and the young, reformed thief Yahiko Myojin can hold their own as well (although perhaps not so well) and are certainly not to be underestimated in a fight. So maybe the four of them have a little more than their fair share of trouble, but that’s just a normal day in down-town, post Meiji Restoration Tokyo. The Imperialists won, the Emperor is back in power, the Shogunate and their appallingly violent shock troopers, the Shinsengumi, are out, and Japan has been opened to the beneficial (?) influence of the West. Everything should be just hunky-dory right? Right?

The Revolution might be over, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The peace Kenshin desires, that he fought and killed for during the Imperialist uprising, is still far from a reality. His wandering on indefinite hiatus, he sets up camp in Kaoru’s dojo and lets the trouble just come to him. Maybe he’s just tired of all that walking.

You however, will not get tired of all that viewing.

There’s enough in this series, murder, mayhem, blood and glory, romance (well possibly the beginnings of one) and humour, that makes it no difficult feat to sit through eight episodes back-to-back. It’s light-hearted but not frivolous, serious but not heavy. It is in fact entertainment in one of its most easily digestible forms. Don’t mind the crazy exaggerated expressions the characters take on on a regular basis. This is a technique called Super Deformed and is derived directly from manga. It takes a little getting used to, if you’ve never encountered it before, but it’s harmless and often hilarious and it makes a nice balance to all that potential intenseness that we might otherwise find Kenshin falling victim to.

The animation is fairly standard for this sort of series, that is to say the quality is good but sometimes hasty. When it comes to the fight scenes, they tend to abandon detail in favour of visual impact (or perhaps animation budget?). It’s the only shame present, and somewhat disappointing after the awesome action of the Samurai X OAVs. All those speed lines and that frame swiping can get a bit tired after a while but again this is fairly standard for TV anime action, especially the samurai variety. The characterisation more than makes up for this and besides it’s sometimes actually cooler not seeing exactly what just happened than seeing it.

In all, Rurouni Kenshin makes a good, solid start and has a lot of potential to stay good, with the future introduction of some particularly nasty and interesting characters only glimpsed in the last episode of Volume 2.

I can only recommend this series, and sticking with it, with definite enthusiasm. It’s like a soapie and a serial (in the afternoon, Indiana Jones sense of the word) rolled into one, complex enough to be engaging, fun and frenetic, and certainly possessing a generous amount of “Cooooool!”. Don’t expect it to change your life (at least not just yet) but do expect to thoroughly enjoy it and know that if you start walking That Line I mentioned with the Rurouni, things at least will never be dull.

8 Mysterious and Deadly Ronin out of 10.
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