Rurouni Kenshin as a Post-Superheroic World
Since multiple people have expressed interest in something I said in the comments of the last post, I figure I’ll blow off actual productivity for a while and make a post about how I think the anime Rurouni Kenshin takes place in a post-superheroic world.
Background, for those not familiar: the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended the long rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and “restored” the Japanese emperor to power (hence the English name, though it was more of a revolution, setting the stage for a period of massive modernization and westernization). It also gets called the Bakumatsu, the “end of the shogunate,” and since that’s the name that gets used a lot in the series, that’s the name I tend to use.
The main character, Himura Kenshin (who is very loosely based on a real person), was one of the top assassins on the side of the “imperialists,” the guys overthrowing the shogunate. To the extent that you can break the Bakumatsu down to a binary, that means he was on the side of the good guys; the series makes no bones, though, about the fact that the Meiji side is not wonderful and pure, and there were good people on the Tokugawa side, too. Kenshin believes in what he fought for, but since then he’s forsworn his old identity as the “Hitokiri Battousai”*: he’s taken a vow not to kill, and instead of a katana, he carries a sakaba-tou (rendered in English as “reverse-blade sword” — what would normally be the cutting edge is dull, and the blade is sharpened on the inside curve). He’s a rurouni, a wandering swordsman, and still fights to protect people, but he does so without killing.
*(Side note on language: I wish the official English release didn’t try to translate this. “Hitokiri” can most literally be rendered in English as “manslayer,” but that sounds stupid. And they don’t bother translating “Battousai,” which refers to the fact that Kenshin’s fighting technique includes elements of battoujutsu. Leave the whole phrase in Japanese: the audience will pick it up quickly enough. Here endeth the rant.)
A large number of the plots in the series are some variant on “random guy shows up, tries to get Kenshin to be his old self again.” Usually these guys have scores to settle with him, dating back to the Bakumatsu, and/or are trying to prove they’re the badassest badass ever to walk Japan. To do that, they need to not just defeat Himura Kenshin the pacificistic rurouni; they need to defeat the Hitokiri Battousai. Every so often, for a change of pace, it’s somebody from the Meiji government instead; they have somebody who needs killing, and they think Kenshin’s the only guy who can do it for them. But one of the central themes in the series is the tension between Kenshin’s vow and the need for his abilities: the harder he fights, the more he has to call on his skill and speed and strength to defeat somebody, the more his mind falls into the pattern of the killer he used to be.
So there’s your framework. Where does the superhero bit come in?
Well, this anime isn’t what you’d call 100% realistic. Aside from Kenshin’s ridiculous speed and wire-fu dexterity, there are people who just outright break the laws of nature. One of the major villains of the series is a guy called Shishio Makoto, whom you can pretty much gloss as assassin + Rasputin; he got riddled with bullets and then lit on fire, and not only did he survive, he now has the “flames of hell” burning within him, and this superhuman body temperature fuels his power as a swordsman. Shinomori Aoshi can move so fast, he blurs and creates multiple images of himself. The monk Anji can punch rocks so hard they explode into dust. Etc. As superpowers go, they’re on the minor side — this isn’t a DC or Marvel-style universe — but these guys are definitely more than ordinary humans.
And with one notable exception, they all have something in common: they fought during the Bakumatsu.
Kenshin was an assassin during the war. So was Shishio. Aoshi led the Oniwabanshu. Saito Hajime, another vaguely historical character, was a captain in the Shinsengumi. Anji wasn’t affiliated with any group, but saw all the people he cared for murdered during the war, which sent him down the path of a fallen monk.
Contrast this with the younger generation of characters. Sanosuke was a boy during the Bakumatsu, following around Sagara Sozo of the Sekihoutai; he didn’t fight, but he lived through it. His abilities are, for the most part, over the top, but not on the level of the guys who were active adults at the time. Kamiya Kaoru was likewise a child, but never faced that trouble; she’s good with a shinai, but can’t really go toe-to-toe with that older generation. Myojin Yahiko is just a kid, born around or after the end of the war, and while his dream is to grow up to be “as strong as Kenshin,” there’s a distinct sense that he won’t ever reach that goal . . . and that’s a good thing.
Because the series says, very clearly, that the only way you become that badass? Is to be so steeped in violence and suffering that you become superhuman, or die.
My proof of this is Seta Sojiro: the one character I can think of who chronologically belongs to that younger generation, but has the strength of the Bakumatsu cadre. How did he become so powerful? By living as the despised slave of an abusive household, and then “escaping” it by joining Shishio. Sojiro didn’t fight in the war, but he faced more than enough trauma on his own, and it made him a perfect killer.
Kenshin says, over and over again, that he’s fighting to protect the world Kaoru and Yahiko live in, to keep it from turning back into his world. There are only two places for men like him now: Shishio’s role, pushing Japan back toward chaos and slaughter, or Saito’s role, preserving the (imperfect) peace of the Meiji era. He wants to follow that second path until there is no place for men like him anymore — or at least, men like the Hitokiri Battousai — because the peace is solid enough that no Shishio will be able to destroy it.
He’s a superhero, trying to make it so that everybody else can just be human.
I should note that my comments here are based entirely on the anime, and mostly on the Kyoto season; I’ve seen the whole thing, and remember the earlier season moderately well, but have almost entirely forgotten the post-Kyoto stuff (somewhat on purpose). I’ve never read the manga. If you can think of data points elsewhere to contradict this pattern, I’d love to hear them in the comments. But I think there’s a strong enough body of evidence to support the general theory. It’s the passing of a superheroic world . . . and we shouldn’t be sorry to see it go.