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.

0 Responses to “Rurouni Kenshin as a Post-Superheroic World”

  1. celestineangel

    Why is this not Facebook so I can like this post?

    (Actually, I don’t want it to be Facebook, so that’s okay.)

    I adore the character of Kenshin, specifically the, as you put it in your other comment, the rurouni/hitokiri conflict. (Also, but I agree with you that “manslayer” as a translation might be correct but sounds stupid. In fact, it’s been so long since I referred to him as anything other than “Hitokiri Battousai” that I’d forgotten that was the English translation.) But it’s a conflict I adore in any sense, in any character, in any series, the good man/woman who nonetheless can be a monster. Is one still doing good when one uses monstrous methods? Where and when does it become worth the price? What are the reactions of others when they find out the truth?

    ~~**SPOILERS AHEAD**~~

    As I’m sure it is for many people, one of my favorite episodes is when Jinei has kidnapped Kaoru. Kenshin comes so close to sliding back into the Battousai mindset during that episode, and Kaoru knew it, and knew what it would do to him if he did.

    ~~**END SPOILERS**~~

    The idea that he’s a superhero so others can be ordinary is a good one, and totally true. But I also have to think about the kid who went into the fight thinking he was going to be a superhero, but really, all he became was an assassin. He’s finally gotten there, in a way his younger self could never have imagined, and lost so much along the way.

    Okay, I just like angsty characters. There, I admit it. XD

    • Marie Brennan

      I first started watching the show back in the days of VHS fansubs (ah, Hecto, how I miss you and your swearing — <snerk>), so got very used to them keeping the phrase. It annoys me that the English release changed it. And while I’m on the subject, I wish they wouldn’t flip the names around into Western order. >_<

      The Jinei episodes are what hooked me and . Prior to that point, okay, sure, the story is fine. As I recall, though, hat’s the first place where the series really shows its core colors, and fleshes Kenshin out into a more complex character.

      But I also have to think about the kid who went into the fight thinking he was going to be a superhero, but really, all he became was an assassin.

      True: he became superhuman, but being heroic took longer. (I really sort of love the flashbacks to “hot-headed upstart Kenshin,” yelling at his master and then running off to have his idealism crushed.)

      And I like angsty characters, too. ^_^ No need to be ashamed!

      Edited to use my shiny new Kenshin icon!

      • celestineangel

        I dunno, what hooked me was the very first episode, when he has the run-in with Kaoru, and he’s such a silly guy, you see, he can’t possibly be this dangerous person she’s yelling about. And then she’s manhandling his sword, and it’s only sillier, and then she flings it in the air to run off somewhere else and he’s panicking because OMGs flying sword–

        –and then smoothly and without a trace of panic on his face he catches the sword perfectly in the sheath.

        Oh…. I mean, I know it’s supposed to be that moment, but it does it so well, the saying of “there’s more to this guy than what he shows you.”

        But then, it’s always the characters I get attached to more than the plots. The plots are important, too, but mostly because they are the lenses through which we view the characters. So that’s why, even though it was the Jinei episodes that are my favorites, this moment in the first episode is my first real moment of visceral yes this.

        (I found an icon, but chose not to save it, of Kenshin’s master with his sake jug boon companion with the words “Sake: It’s what’s for dinner!” and nearly choked.)

        Who said I’m ashamed? XD

        • Marie Brennan

          Well, “admit” usually carries an overtone of “usually I don’t tell.” 🙂

          I’m with you, that I generally attach to characters before anything else. And it isn’t that I didn’t like the show before Jinei showed up, or wasn’t entertained by moments like the one you describe. (One of the things I’m a fan of is layered characterization: in this case, silly guy with a badass flip side.) But that moment could have belonged to a lot of characters; it’s the Jinei stuff, for me, that lifts it up and makes Kenshin a specific individual, rather than an example of a type.

          Meant to add: oh, please, point me at that icon. <g> I’m not likely to save it either, but I would love to see it.

          • celestineangel

            Eh, I admit it a little too often to actually be ashamed of it. XD

            Icon is in this icon set. *snorts* And there’s one with Sanosuke that says “Chick magnet.” LOL, I didn’t even see it before.

            But that moment could have belonged to a lot of characters; it’s the Jinei stuff, for me, that lifts it up and makes Kenshin a specific individual, rather than an example of a type.

            Aaaah, I see what you’re saying. Yes, Kenshin is definitely one of a type (a type I can’t help but love), but very much an individual as well.

            Also, can we talk about Reflection/Seisōhen a little more because guuuuuuuuuuuuuh. Whhhhyyyyyyyyyy. So freaking depressing I can’t even. Coherent words? I still have none and it’s been years since I last saw it.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’m a little meh on Seisouhen, actually. I only saw it once, years ago, in a version I think may have been badly subbed — I was too rusty on the language to judge that well, but I know I spent most of the thing being confused as to what was going on. It was very depressing, yes, but my confusion meant it felt kind of random.

            Tsuiokuhen, on the other hand, is a thing of utter beauty.

            Random thing I just discovered: there’s going to be more anime??? I’m kind of baffled by the decision to revisit the existing story (and from Misao’s viewpoint, of all people), plus it would be sad-making to hear Saito with a different voice (since I love his original seiyuu). But on the other hand, wheee! New Kenshin! ^_^

          • celestineangel

            It did have a bit of “WTF” about it, I know. And I remember being unable to look at the cover art for the DVD because Kaoru’s eyes were so empty and soulless. o.o Which is a weird thing to say about a fictional anime character, I suppose, but there you have it. It definitely had a sense of “Come on, hasn’t the guy been through enough already??” And yet… yet… so sad.

            Ah yes, Tsuiokuhen. Tomoe, whom I could never see her name without thinking Tomoe Hotaru from Sailormoon. (First anime ever, which probably isn’t surprising.) I hate being “that fan,” but I never liked Tomoe much. I can’t put my finger on why, other than the fact that I liked Kaoru… Tomoe didn’t have much personality when put next to Kaoru–who, admittedly, had the personality of every young girl in any anime ever–and maybe it’s been too long since I’ve seen this OVA or the series, but from my recollection, Tomoe’s only purpose to the plot is to die. Die, so Kenshin can go on and be even more angsty than before (which I’m not really complaining about).

            If I’m wrong, please correct me. You think such wonderful thoughts, I like reading them.

          • Marie Brennan

            I sort of think the series needs to end with the Kyoto arc. It’s too good of a finale to keep on going after that: Kenshin goes back to Hiko Seijuro, has his epiphany, then uses what he’s learned from that to go and defeat the guy who’s basically his alter ego. Any series so built around a particular inner conflict really ought to stop once that gets resolved, y’know?

            (Especially because I have Thoughts, mostly based on Buffy and Supernatural, about characters who remain on the front lines for too long.)

            Tomoe: well, it’s been a while since I watched the OVA, so my memory is fuzzy. But while I agree she doesn’t have the strongest personality in the world, she’s there to do more than just die; she’s also working with the guys who are out to get Kenshin, i.e. the buddies of her . . . fiancé, I think it was? — the guy Kenshin killed, the one who scarred his face. She’s not very protagonisty about it — she’s more the tool of the other people — but it does give her a layer beyond “is pretty and then dies.”

          • celestineangel

            I would have more to say, but I’m late leaving for work!

            Basically: yes.

          • celestineangel

            Okay, so, because of this, I went looking to see if Hulu has this. It does. Unfortunately.

            It has this terrible dubbed version where Kaoru’s name is pronounced like “Corey,” and if you thought “Battousai the Manslayer” was awful, this one is “Battousai the Slasher.” Because, you know, he slashed people.

            Wwwhhhhyyyyy.

          • Marie Brennan

            Oh, god.

            I wonder if that’s the version I own? I have never listened to the dub, only watched the subtitled version.

            I think I would rather not know.

          • celestineangel

            Yeah, not knowing is better. I only watched one episode, and couldn’t imagine trying to watch more.

            (Also, the script has Kenshin a little too forthcoming about the fact that Kaoru’s perception of him as gentle and kind is not entirely accurate.)

  2. Anonymous

    Here via a link on my dwircle, and you have so nailed it. I’d never really thought of Kenshin in those terms (haven’t really spent time analyzing him, maybe because he was my first true introduction to anime and how can I dismantle my first animated love?), but yeah. You’ve put it exactly right.

    Oddly, the discussion in comments about Kenshin & the sword-in-sheath maneuver rang a bell for me, since I had a similar reaction. The extent of my exposure to similar sword-user tropes (ie jidaigeki or even saeguk) probably stopped & started with Jacky Chan and a handful of wuxia — but in every case I could recall, that kind of move is set up differently. It’s often such a subtle thing (ie catching the teacup in Crouching Tiger) and it’s only “those in the know” among the cast that realize this signals they’re dealing with a real master. Except Kenshin has no onlookers, and he actively avoids such tells when he does have onlookers. It’s a completely different kind of characterization, and that subtle difference in the setup had me noticing him far more than the trope’s “I caught a teacup, aren’t you scared now” supposed-to-be-subtle neon sign.

    Which reminds me of the tagline on the upcoming live-action version: “The calm ones are the ones to fear the most”, something like that. So very Kenshin, because when he’s in Battousai-mode, he’s truly not someone you want to mess with. It’s like all his usual humanity is totally wiped, compared to similar heroes (ie Yip Man) who retain some to all of their humanity and are stronger for it — but then Kenshin, in everyday mode, is nearly as approachable as the affable fool that Jacky Chan so often plays. It’s like Kenshin becomes stronger by losing his humanity, which is a really fierce commentary on what war does to people.

    Hmm, I’m not sure I’d say Kenshin is living in a post-superheroic world. Maybe more like… he’s living in a world of superheroes (those who survived the Bakumatsu, that is) and he’s trying to let that world end. So I guess I’d say Kenshin’s position is in a world on the cusp, and his goal is that post-superheroic world.

    – kaigou

    • Marie Brennan

      This was my real first anime love, too. The superhero thing was a minor epiphany at one point, when I was trying to figure out how to explain to a friend where it stood on the fantasy/reality spectrum, and I’m glad to see it makes sense to other fans.

      I love that tag line, because it’s dead on. And yes, the whole point is that Kenshin is stronger when he’s in Battousai-mode, and he is also less human, and these things aren’t unconnected. There’s a very delicate balance point where he can access his full strength without sacrificing his humanity, and very few people can achieve it.

      Maybe more like… he’s living in a world of superheroes (those who survived the Bakumatsu, that is) and he’s trying to let that world end.

      Post-superheroic in the sense that the crisis moment itself has passed and, like characters in a post-apocalyptic setting, the protagonists’ attention is less on surviving that crisis, and more on building a new world to live in. There are still zombies/pockets of disease/guys like Shishio, but they’re not on the rampage the way they were a decade ago.

      • nojojojo

        I always saw Kenshin as a kind of induced sociopath. He wasn’t born that way, but the things he’s been through have nearly fissioned his personality; he’s got a switch in him that he uses to flip from “Kenshin” to “Battousai”, and the Battousai is the sociopath. (Seta Soujirou is an induced sociopath too, which is why I love his character so much; wish Watsuki had brought him back!) For the first part of the series — primarily familiar with the anime, note; only read a few tankouban of the manga — this is completely pathological; Kenshin can’t control it, it’s just a survival mechanism that kicks in under certain circumstances. And once he’s flipped that switch he’s dangerous to nearly everyone around him. Later, Seijurou helps him learn not to switch off the human when he flips the switch — but I get the sense the film won’t go that far into the storyline. (Though I would kill to see him there!)

        • Marie Brennan

          Make it a dial and not a switch, and I totally concur — but it isn’t a binary on/off effect, it’s something he slides toward when fighting. <pauses to appreciate the face-off with Saito at the beginning of the Kyoto season>

          I don’t expect the film to go very far into that, no. It’s the sort of narrative that works better after you’ve gotten to know the character; to do it in a couple of hours, you wouldn’t leave much room for anything else, and even then I think it would get shortchanged.

          I just did some divination on the entrails of the IMDb, though, and found actors credited as Saito, Jinei, and Kanyruu (aka crazy gatling-gun man). So if I had to guess, Jinei will be used as an introductory threat, Aoshi will be showing up with Kanryuu for the main plot, and Saito . . . hell if I know. The cast list is too short — probably incomplete — for me to guess how they’re fitting him in, when he’s so very much a Kyoto-season guy. But Wikipedia claims the studio is hoping to do a series of films, so we can keep our fingers crossed!

        • Marie Brennan

          Also, the “induced sociopath” really thing makes me want the story of how he got that way. Soujirou, we understand; we see the family he lives with, and how he responds to that situation, and then he gets under Shishio’s thumb and the rest writes itself. But Kenshin pre-Bakumatsu is a lot like (non-Battousai) Kenshin post-Bakumatsu; they’re both pretty passionate about defending people, etc. Obviously Kenshin killed a lot of people during the war, and that often does bad things to the psyche. But how exactly did that idiot apprentice get so cold?

          • kaigou

            I rather liked that the manga (not counting the OVAs) never really explained how Kenshin went from scared orphan and idiot apprentice to some kind of deadly-efficient assassin. Clearly there was a break somewhere along the line, he took a step to the left, and ended up where he did, but the lack of explanation means it’s open to we viewers to place upon Kenshin our own understandings of what we’d have to experience to cross that line. If it had been laid out, then my writerly-brain says the story would also be required to address (in some way, or at least the writer might feel required to address) those users who see this point or that point as “not bad enough” — or, like in the case of Soujirou or Shishio, so bad it’s impossible to see how anyone could survive insane. (And in Shishio’s case, “sane” is pretty much left open to question.)

            I’m not sure I’d say Kenshin is truly, under it all, passionate about defending people. To me, he seems to be passionate about defending an ideal, and if people happen to line up with this ideal, then, well, people being protected is a by-product. He’s repeatedly approached by the new govt, seeking to draw him in and use his skills (for better or worse) but protecting helpless people doesn’t seem to be his ultimate button. It’s protecting the fragile peace that seems to really be the trigger — which is why Kaoru stands out so much, because she (and eventually Yahiko and Sanosuke) are the only exceptions. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall Kenshin’s choice to go after Shishio a matter of “defend unsuspecting Kyoto” so much as a matter of having to clean up untidy ends, and above all, to protect the peace.

            It’s ideals, not people, which has always been (in this viewer’s interpretation) one of the clues about what could have broken Kenshin in the first place. Betrayal by a person is one thing, but to have your ideals broken or betrayed is much harder, because your hold on those can be such a deeply personal thing, an integral part of your identity.

            My impression of the movie is that it’ll be only the first arc or two, culminating in some serious Battousai-moments at that showdown (where Kaoru is held hostage). But if they plan to make more, oh, hell yeah.

            (My dorky side also wonders if Sato had any idea when he played Izo in Ryoma Den that he’d better keep training, to catch the role of a retold-Izo in Kenshin.)

  3. cebuscapucinus

    This is a great post. Did you know that the creator of the Kenshin manga is actually a big fan of American superhero comics, particularly X-men? You can see a lot of visual references to the series in RK. He apparently even made a manga about a superhero at one point, although I’ve never read it myself.

    • Marie Brennan

      No, I wasn’t aware of that. I’m actually pretty ignorant of anime and manga; I’ve latched onto a few things pretty hard, but lack breadth of knowledge.

  4. nojojojo

    /me feels joy at finding fellow Rurouni Kenshin fans! It’s been so long since I could talk about this old love. And HOMG you did the grainy fansub thing too! ::fond memories of damaging visual acuity::

    Agreed on your post-superhero theory, although I think that’s explicit in the story; Kenshin himself frames his quest that way, and reiterates it every time he meets up with one of the people that want to force him back into his old ways. One quibble on your list of evidence above, though; Aoshi wasn’t part of the Bakumatsu. That was his problem at first, if I recall; he’d gone through all the trouble of training himself up to superhero level, only for the superhero era to end before he could start the process of testing and refining himself (or dying). I think he was supposed to be younger than Kenshin in the series, though I don’t know if that’s the case in history — more a contemporary of Sanosuke than the other Bakumatsu-tachi.

    And I cannot wait for the film. The last few Japanese live-action adaptations of manga I’ve seen — Death Note, Casshern — have utterly convinced me that American studios should just stay the f away from animanga; they’ll never be able to incorporate the sheer crack that the film adaptations need to work. And, of course, they’ll never hire Japanese actors to be anything but villains and bit parts. -_-

    • Marie Brennan

      Do you remember the Shinsengumi vs. Hecto fansubs? Shinsengumi was better, but didn’t do the whole series; there was a point (somewhere in the Kyoto season, I think) where you had to switch to Hecto, and suddenly everybody was swearing. <g>

      I remember Kenshin explicitly saying he doesn’t want people to live in his world, but I don’t think he ever called himself a superhero. 🙂

      Re: Aoshi — It’s been a while since I saw the relevant eps, so I had to go to Wikipedia to verify my fuzzy memory, but the Oniwabanshuu helped defend Edo Castle during the Bakumatsu. He’s supposed to be six years older than Sano, and being the child prodigy and all, was active even though he was fifteen at the time.

      Speaking of Japanese films, have you ever seen K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces? It is AWESOME SAUCE. Sort of an alt-hist dystopian art-deco-punk superhero caper movie. With Takeshi Kaneshiro the Sexiest Man Alive as the protagonist.

  5. kaigou

    Y’know, I always wondered what Saito was doing in the story, what he really brought to the table. (Other than the rare humor at the idea that there could be a woman who’d put up with him.) He’s a foil for Kenshin but he’s supposedly a good guy, well, on the side of the law — but I think you just finally nailed for me the specific way in which Saito is a foil. If Kenshin leans more towards principles over people, Saito is an example of that at extremes, to the point of forgetting people are even involved — and Shishio is Kenshin’s foil at the other extreme, where the people involved no longer care about ideals but are just in it for sheer revenge (but again with the result of treating bystanders as more canon fodder).

    Sometimes I think, Watsuki’s a great storyteller. Then I read his liner notes, and I wonder if he had any clue of all the undercurrents in the story bubbling up out of his subconscious. He sure doesn’t seem to have been much aware, but man, the story’s got layers deep.

    Ryoma Den (so far, at least) is turning out to be one of the best taiga I’ve seen so far. Not that taiga really have all that high standards to begin with (Toshiie to Matsu, omg, the pain), but still.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve always wondered if Watsuki found out the real-life Saito had been married, and cracked up so hard at the thought, he just had to put it into the story. ^_^

      I sort of think Shishio cares about ideals, too; it’s just that his ideal is chaotic, Darwinian hell. Saito is the “good guy” version of Shishio, and both of them stand at a particular remove from Kenshin. (Probably because I’m playing a character based on Kenshin, my brain wants to put it in terms of D&D alignment: Saito is law, and Shishio is chaos, but both of them fall on the evil — or in Saito’s case, maybe neutral — end of the good-to-evil axis. Kenshin, on the other hand, is probably neutral good.)

      Sometimes I think, Watsuki’s a great storyteller. Then I read his liner notes, and I wonder if he had any clue of all the undercurrents in the story bubbling up out of his subconscious.

      Speaking from experience, I suspect not. 🙂

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