The 1990’s gave us enormous perms, hilariously awkward fashions, and bizarre fads. But as many of us revel in our childhood memories of Pokémon cards and pogs, we tend to forget one of the greatest gifts that the 90’s gave us: epic and groundbreaking manga series.
Among those gems is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s riveting series Rurouni Kenshin. At 28 volumes, this shounen series of the historical genre is a tale packed with just the right balance of action, romance, and suspense.
Rurouni Kenshin is the story of Himura Kenshin, a legendary swordsman known as the infamous hitokiri battousai (battousai the manslayer). Ten years after earning his title, Himura Kenshin is a rurouni (wanderer) who yearns to atone for his transgressions committed during the Bakamatsu (a Japanese civil war). After having taken so many lives in the name of justice, Kenshin devotes himself to protecting innocent lives with his reversed-blade sword.
Enter Kamiya Kaoru, a 17 year-old girl carrying on the tradition of her later father’s dojo and the Kamiya Kasshin school of swordsmanship. A man who calls himself hitokiri battousai claims that he is one of Kaoru’s father’s former students. However, the Kamiya Kasshin style is based upon the principle of katsujinken, the sword that gives life. This ruthless murderer is sullying the Kamiya Dojo’s good name and violating its teachings that hold life so precious. Determined to redeem the Kamiya Dojo and its teachings, Kaoru takes it upon herself to discover the identity of this cold-blooded killer and bring him to justice.
If you are looking for a manga whose story is amazing, then look no further, because Rurouni Kenshin is your answer.
There is never a dull moment in Rurouni Kenshin. Because it is a shounen series, Rurouni Kenshin relies heavily on action in order to propel the plot forward. This series is filled with sword fights. However, rather than focusing only on the action component in his manga, Watsuki makes characterization a priority as well. This balance of characterization and action are what sets Rurouni Kenshin apart as a true masterpiece.
Despite the serious tone that much of the Rurouni Kenshin series presents, Watsuki does not forget to sprinkle in comic relief in the proper places. Some shounen series rely too much on comic relief and use it in the wrong places, opting to use it to lighten up serious situations. Unfortunately, this often breaks up the suspense and distracts the reader from what is important. Rurouni Kenshin is not guilty of this sin. Watsuki uses comedy where appropriate, and it is always in-character.
Watsuki also takes full advantage of the series’ historical setting to give the story a more realistic feel. Much of Rurouni Kenshin is based in fact. While the fighting styles and characters themselves are obviously fictional, many details in this series, are not. This series features many characters who are furious with the new government. With the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the rulers of Japan before the restoration of the emperor’s rule) came the loss of status to which samurai were privileged. Watsuki even employs real historical events and changes certain details so that they match up with the story being told.
The characters in Rurouni Kenshin are what make this manga stand apart from other series of the same genre.
Spunky and noble, Kaoru Kamiya is a powerful and positive female role model. In a genre whose female characters can be so unrealistically endowed and defenseless, Kaoru stands out as a strong woman who is fully capable of defending herself. While one could argue that Kaoru’s character is unrealistic in Japan’s historically patriarchal society, it is undeniable that Kaoru is the perfect example of an empowered woman. Rather than wait around for Kenshin to save her, Kaoru’s first approach always consists of using her own abilities to get out of sticky situations.
With his constant internal struggle between the kind rurouni and the fierce battousai, Kenshin Himura is an intriguing character. At first he seems to be nothing more than a clumsy swordsman with a penchant for doing the laundry. However, as the series progresses the reader becomes better acquainted with Kenshin’s tragic past and his complex personality. Kenshin is a profound individual who has been shaped by a plethora of life experiences—both positive and negative.
Nobuhiro Watsuki pays special attention even to supporting characters, spinning each a back story that makes him or her just as interesting as Kenshin and Kaoru. Even the tiniest details that at first glance may seem banal often later lead to a plot twist that while completely unexpected, perfectly entwines the back stories of several different characters.
In such a long series, it is often easy for the antagonists to become too similar or overly simple. However, the antagonists of Rurouni Kenshin, are fantastic. Each villain has his own specific motives that drive his behavior. Rather than simply being evil, the antagonists are complex and believe strongly in their ideals, even if at their core those ideals are wrong. For example, Makoto Shishio, the main antagonist of the second arc, has loyal followers who fight because they believe in the Japan that he wants to create. They do not simply follow him because he is so powerful; they follow him because they respect him.
The artwork at the beginning of Rurouni Kenshin is rather rough. This is not altogether surprising, as Watsuki was only in his twenties when Rurouni Kenshin was being serialized in Japan. However, despite its difficult start, Watsuki’s artwork becomes much cleaner as the series progresses. By the middle of the series, Watsuki has greatly grown as an artist and his manga becomes beautifully drawn.
One of the best features of Watsuki’s style is the detail in which the characters are drawn. Many of the characters’ clothing are representations of who they are. For example, Sanosuke Sagara wears the kanji for “bad” on his back, a remnant of his past as a member of the Sekihoutai army. Kaoru Kamiya wears both gi and kimonos, which reflects her strength without denying that she also has her feminine side. This is doubly true for the series’ villains. Many of their character designs revolve around outfits that coincide with their weapon or their back story. Even though the number of antagonists in this series is very large, no two villains look alike. Watsuki keeps his character designs unique, which keeps the series fresh.
Do not let preconceptions of nineties shounen manga stop you from reading Rurouni Kenshin. Even if you do not normally like shounen series, you should give Rurouni Kenshin a try. Because Watsuki does such a fantastic job of balancing action, romance, and characterization, even shoujo fans will really enjoy this series. It has a strong message that addresses problems that exist in society even today.
It has stood up strongly against the test of time. I first read this manga when I was 15. Almost ten years later and with a very different and much more mature perspective on anime and manga, I still absolutely adore this series. This series’ depth and intrigue will not disappoint.