Ruroni Kenshin Vol I
By Nobuhiro Watsuki
So it's the dawn of the 21st century. I'm stationed in Okinawa and like many young men there, bored out of my skull and in a video rental store (In my day you had to go to a store to get movies! In a car! Both ways!) when I see a skinny redheaded dude in a samurai get up plastered on a video box with the imaginative title “Samurai X”. I rented that movie and would watch it 10 times in 2 days during a weekend when we weren't allowed off base thanks to Bill Clinton (he was visiting so no one was allowed to see a civilian so we wouldn't embarrass the old horn dog). That was my introduction to Himura Kenshin the Battosai, and I was hooked. It wasn't until years later that I was able to hunt down the manga that kicked started the whole thing. Ruroni Kenshin was first published in venerable Weekly Shonen Jump magazine starting in April 1994 and would continue until November 1999. From that beginning would come forth anime series, movies, video games and a grand empire of licensed goods. So let's take a look at where it all started, but first, our humble writer and artist.
Nobuhiro Watsuki was born in Tokyo in 1970 and raised in Nafaoka in Niigata prefecture. It is currently a large city and while it was a big one in Nobuhiro's childhood, it has grown a great deal since then. A videogame and anime fan, Nobuhiro studied Kendo in high school but by his own admission wasn't very good at it. He has a long list of works, many of them set in historical periods although like in Ruroni Kenshin he does take certain liberties to tell a story. He does avoid my pet peeve of radically altering real people, or as far as I know he does. He's also known for encouraging his fans to write fan-comics and even asking fans to send them to him. Which honestly speaks well of him in my book. He currently lives in Tokyo with his wife Kaoru Kurosaki.
The Kenshin story is set in the early Meiji era of Japan, where the Shogunate was replaced after a series of battles, upheavals and turmoil known as the Bakumatsu. Our main character Kenshin was in the thick of it during that time working for as an assassin for the anti-Shogun forces. He gained a reputation as a walking blood bath by... being a walking blood bath. At the end of the conflict, Kenshin resolved to find a way to live without being one of the top five causes of death in Japan; even going so far as to have a sword forged that would be difficult to kill with (Katanas usually only have one side sharpened, Kenshin has the other side sharpened so a normal strike won't cut you open, just break your bones). Our story begins when Kenshin wanders into Tokyo and runs into a young lady trying to clear her dojo's name. Some mysterious thug has been running about killing people declaring himself a member of that dojo, giving them a reputation as a pack of mad dogs. As a result of this, most of the students have left. The young lady named Kamiya Kaoru is hoping to find this thug, beat him senseless and turn him over to the police to clear the dojo's name. Kenshin is drawn into this when he witnesses the confrontation and the thug declares himself the Battosai. While he's not proud of being the Battosai and is trying to be a different person… He ain't going to let just any two bit thug pick up his name and run with it either.
That said, I have to mention this: now I know it's before television or even radio but... Humira's a bloody redhead in Tokyo! He looks nothing like the towering thug who's pretending to be him. I mean sure I can understand some confusion over what an assassin looks like but he didn't kill everyone who saw him! Just like 90% tops! Considering everyone else in this series is drawn with a standard Japanese phenotype you think word would get around that hey, the Battosai is a skinny redheaded guy so if you find yourself in the street with one... run! Sorry, but that bugs me. Anyway, when the dust settles, Kaoru imperiously invites Kenshin to stay at her dojo, providing our set up for the series.
Let me touch on Kaoru a bit here, she is the only child of a sword master and dojo owner and when he dies, she is determined to keep the dojo going. This is despite the fact that women aren't really considered proper teachers of swordsmanship at the time. Lucky Kaoru is actually very talented in the martial arts, if completely out of her league at Kenshin's level. Kaoru is kind of the center of the group here, it's her dojo that gives them a base of operations and it's because of her that Kenshin hangs around long enough to form the group. Her main connections are with Kenshin and Yahiko though. Speaking of which let's talk about Yahiko.
Yahiko was the son of a samurai who died during the transition from Shogunate to Meiji Era, his mother being dispossessed of her home and property had to turn to prostitution to keep her son and herself fed. This more or less worked until she contracted a disease and died from it. It's a sad but not uncommon story of the time. What's interesting is Yahiko isn't ashamed of his mother's action, but of his own after her death. He became a pickpocket working for the yakuza and goes after Kenshin. He gets caught and the arc becomes Yahiko wanting to go legit. We learn at the end of the story line that Kenshin is refusing to pass on his skills with the sword and encourages Yahiko to learn under Kaoru instead. Yahiko plays the part of the apprentice in most of the story lines, the jr. member that needs things spelled out to him because well, how else would he know?
We're also introduced to Sanosuke, Sanosuke was a member of a extremist group, the Sekiho Army that was destroyed by the Meiji side of the civil war despite fighting on their side. It's touches like this that I enjoy about this series by the way. While Nobuhiro is clearly not a scholar, he is also very clearly a big fan of history and does study the period he uses a bit. While he does include a lot of fantastical elements, he also brings in little touches. Sano is pretty bitter about this and becomes what he calls a “fight merchant” or what I call a low rent mercenary. He's actually hired to fight Kenshin and is excited to battle him. The fight is a pretty good one without going overboard, in fact a lot of the early fights are actually pretty quick. Which helps enforce the idea that Kenshin is a scary man. Sano is the first fight that lasts for a bit, which helps give Sano a bit of credit with the readers.
We're also introduced to the last member of the crew Megumi, she's a woman from a long celebrated line of doctors, unfortunately it looks like she is the last survivor of a long line of celebrated doctors. Her older family members marched onto the battlefield to provide care for the injured during the uprising and never came back. She did manage to get work as an assistant to another doctor but he turned out to be in bed with a very wealthy drug dealer making a type of super opium (this is another little touch). When the doctor is killed in a disagreement over money, Megumi is left as the only person who knows how to make this super drug. Despite the fact that she has been part of a drug ring that kills people, Kenshin is still more than willing to come to the rescue when he finds out.
Which brings us to the themes present in this collected edition. We met each of the members of the team, Kenshin, Kaoru,Tahiko, Sanosuke and Megumi. With the exception of Kaoru, each member of the team has a past they are not proud of and want to make up for. They all have special talents and skills that are the result of practice, study, and determination. They're all hopeful of a better world while admitting that the current world falls woefully short of the expectations of the people who sacrificed for it. Make no mistake the Meiji government is painted as corrupt and fairly insecure here. So we have hope and redemption against a background of sin and violence. This creates a great dynamic for the story. Nobuhiro manages to avoid the perils of Shonen stories, such as drawn out fights that devolve into “now let me show you my true power” or everyone having to wait around for the main character to solve everything, as Sano and Yahiko and even Kaoru are given things to do (although in many cases Kaoru is turned into a hostage or made to wait at home, the fights tend to be boys only here). There are touches of the ridiculous, such as a villain with flint for teeth and a oil bag in his stomach so he can be walking flamethrower but I'm willing to accept some fantasy here. That said, if you dislike manga on principals and can't stand Shonen stories, then you might want to pass on this. Still I enjoyed the book and for that I'm giving Ruroni Kenshin Vol I (the collected edition) By Nobuhiro Watsuki a A-.
Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.