During Civil Wars of the Meiji Restoration, no warrior claimed more lives than Kenshin Himura, the Battosai. Yet while guilt over his actions led Kenshin to embrace a pacifistic life in the peacetime that followed, the industrial modern age has its share of villains. The country's darker corners still teem with bloodlust. To quote William Falkner, "The past is not dead. It's not even past."
Speaking of ancient history, I had just started High School when Rurouni Kenshin came on Toonami (right alongside YuYu Hakusho, come to think of it). This was my first exposure to anime that wasn’t Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon or Gundam Wing. While Rurouni Kenshin 3-in-1 Vol. 2 came to me with plenty of rose-tinted nostalgia, it really does hold up in its own right. No previous exposure required!
This second 3-in-1 picks up where the last one left off: amidst his wanderings, Kenshin had settled in Tokyo’s Kamiya Dojo after befriending several of the locals. However, a recent acquaintance of his, the physician Takani Megumi, was captured by the local industrialist/drug lord Kanryu Takeda. Megumi had previously used her skills with medicines to manufacture opium, but like Kenshin, her conscience had gotten the better of her and she’d tried to escape her previous life. Unlike Kenshin, however, Megumi lacked any combat skills and Takeda wasn’t exactly willing to accept the resignation of his drug empire’s most vital member. Having hired the Oniwabanshu, an elite cadre of soldiers-turned-mercenary as his bodyguards/professional kidnappers, Takeda’s holed up in his mansion in the hopes that Kenshin and his friends will die long before they reach him.
The art of Rurouni Kenshin is amazing. Watsuki Sensei was fairly stingy with the screen tones, doing most of the art and special effects with pen-and-ink. You can see his painstaking labor almost everywhere in the various backgrounds and graphic effects. It made me realize just how many modern manga titles rely on screen-toned backgrounds and computer effects. These can also be amazing of course, but it’s still awesome seeing impressive visuals created with nothing more than dipping pens, black ink and elbow grease.
The art's also amazing during the fight scenes. Whether it’s a sword fight with Kenshin or a rough-and-tumble brawl with Sanosuke, each is epic and well-paced. They all have an organic quality that captures the martial arts movie vibe—larger than life, but you can also imagine people really fighting this way. These aren’t magical teenagers blowing apart entire mountainsides with lasers, spells or giant swords, just people making the impossible seem real. Plus, the pen-and-ink techniques also lend themselves to a raw, gritty feel once the blood starts spraying and bones start cracking.
Storyline-wise, I loved this volume’s pacing. There’s a good balance between the humor and the seriousness. One minute you're in the middle of a wacky scene where the cast acts like a bunch of immature goofballs, then suddenly someone reveals a deep, dark tragedy that had ruined their life. And seriously, everyone we meet has had it rough in some way or other cuz, y’know, giant civil wars do that. There’s just something comforting about how everyone can still laugh and/or punch each other even though they’re carrying some crazy baggage.
Japan’s sudden cultural change underlies just about everything that happens in this story. The rapid modernization and Western influence has destroyed many ancient traditions and systems of power, leaving many warriors (like the Oniwabanshu) lost and purposeless. The resulting chaos of any change in regime also creates vast opportunities for vultures (like Takeda) to exploit the defenseless. Yeah, post-war peace times are rough for anyone who’s not a shameless jerk.
Kenshin gets some great character moments himself, particularly when circumstances clash with his new pacifistic lifestyle. Yes, his remorse is legit and he upholds his vow to never take another life, but his opponents are still out for blood and some of them are truly vile. Not to mention that respect for human life flies straight in the face of plenty of ancient traditions; more than one warrior laments how swordsmanship has devolved into mere sport and ceremony. For these and other reasons, pacifism for Kenshin is difficult, to say the least.
On the more fun side of things, many of Rurouni Kenshin’s characters are based on real historical figures, as Watsuki-sensei notes in the character development sketches and descriptions that he inserts between chapters. These are only abbreviated versions of the facts, yet they provide some good leads should you want to do some more research yourself. I mean, if you’re having fun reading the story, why not discover more about the real life events that provided its inspiration?
Rurouni Kenshin is a classic for a reason: it’s got the right balance of romance, comedy, intrigue and action. The characters are lovable and unique, paying homage to the standard shonen archetypes while still being recognizable and unmistakable. We’ve got great fights, great storylines, and great entryways into Japanese history. Really, what more could you ask for in a manga? I mean, besides giant explosions. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even get those next time!
Rurouni Kenshin 3-in-1 Vol. 2 by Nobuhiro Watsuki is available here.
by Chris Turner
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