Rurouni Kenshin Season 1: Wandering Samurai Review
I just noticed that I havenâ€™t talked about any anime yet! I really donâ€™t know what took me so long, but now Iâ€™m going to review one of the greatest animes of all time the classic Rurouni Kenshin (better known to some as Samurai X, a title I donâ€™t really like). The original manga ( Japanese comic book) was written and drawn by Nobuhiro Watsuki and was originally published in the Weekly Shonen Jump in Japan and was reprinted multiple times after the mangaâ€™s success. With any successful manga an anime adaptation was inevitable. Studio Gallop, Studio Deen, and SPE Visual Works stepped up to the plate to adapt the manga to the screen. The anime was released with great success and was licensed for North American release by Media Blasters and the Manga was released in the States by Viz Media. This will be a 3 part review for each season of the show. Without any further ado this is Rurouni Kenshin!
PREMISE AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The story of Rurouni Kenshin is a work of historical fiction that tells the story of Kenshin Himura a wanderer (Rurouni in Japanese literal translation is vagabond) that ends up living at a dojo run by a woman named Kaoru Kamiya (the female lead of the show). The show deals with Kenshinâ€™s dark and bloodstained past as Battousai the Man Slayer and his relationships with his friends and his battles and acts of redemption.
Since this is historical fiction there is obviously historical context that needs to be discussed to answer the questions of people unfamiliar with Japanese history. Luckily the show explains the basics of the events quite well and only elaborates on it more and more as the show goes on. Luckily I know a fair amount considering that I love history and the fact that I am half Japanese itâ€™s good to have knowledge on the history of my motherland. Basically in the 1850s U.S Commodore Matthew Perry (not Chandler!) arrived in Edo Bay (Edo was the original name of Tokyo) and demanded with the threat of force that Japan open up its ports for trade and the people were doubting the Shogunateâ€™s ability to handle the growing influence and technological edge of the foreigners and many people demanded that the Emperor be restored to the throne to lead Japan against the foreigners in this modern industrial age. Perryâ€™s arrival is often called â€œThe Arrival of the Black Shipsâ€ because of the steel battleships. Throughout the 1860s the pro imperial group fought against the Shogunate and through various political pressure from foreigners on containing the situation and general instability the Shogunate officially fell at the Battle of Toba- Fushimi of the Boshin Wars (the last set of fighting in the Revolution). Then the Meiji Period had begun. The Emperor was restored to the throne and new slightly modernized systems were put in place. The new government did agree to uphold previous treaties with foreigners even though their platform was against them. This is the period where Japan would establish itself as a fully industrial nation with the latest military training and equipment. In a span of 10-20 years the entire nation of Japan went from medieval feudalism to industrial and modern when it took Europe about 300 years to do that! Thatâ€™s amazing!! Rurouni Kenshin takes place in the Meiji Era in 1878 and references these events multiple times and even features real figures in that time period. In fact many of the main characters were inspired by real people especially the title character (dramatized and altered of course).
SEASON 1 FORMULA
Even though this season has no rigid formula it has a formula none the less. Once the main cast has established in the first 5 episodes the show then enters the simple formula of Kenshin and friends doing something then they run into someone in trouble. Kenshin and friends decide to help. Villain establishes him/herself. Kenshin kicks their ass with relative ease (exceptions are Jin-e Udo and Aoshi Shinomori more on them later) and the episode ends with a final statement on philosophy and morality that has been discussed the entire episode. The formula is solid and thereâ€™s enough specific event deviation that the formula never gets dull.
The characters are all fantastic! Theyâ€™re each well written and serve a satisfactory purpose in the story. Their personalities are clear, expressive and inspiring. A good majority of them have really tragic backstories giving us insight into the character and true emotional depth and meaning to their beliefs and actions. These are the characters we can laugh at, feel sympathy for, feel hatred for, and be inspired by.
Iâ€™m breaking this down because I need to talk about the groups of characters individually for a moment. Please note that the actors are for the English dub. The main cast is great! Theyâ€™re all different and enjoyable and their friendship grows and the bonds get stronger as the show progresses.
Kenshin Himura voiced by Richard Cansino
Iâ€™m doing the main character first because a huge understanding of what the show is about comes from him. Kenshin was a fierce assassin during the Revolution called Battousai the Man Slayer. He was cold and ruthless and completely apathetic towards his victims. He didnâ€™t care whether they were fathers, sons, brothers, uncles or husbands. He was not much different from the villains in this show and thatâ€™s kind of the point. He believed what he was doing was for the best and the belief that he could make a better future. He was noticed by the imperialists for his extreme skill at a sword technique called the Hiten Mitsurugi style which is all about reading your opponent to predict their movements then use godlike speed to counter and attack them. It is supposedly the best sword style of all. The ideals behind the style are to protect people from pain and suffering, but Kenshin was impatient in his training and left to enlist with the imperialists.Â Â Due to reasons that wouldnâ€™t be revealed until the OVA (original video animation separate from the show) the wool was lifted from his eyes and he had seen how many lives he had destroyed including his own.Â Â He feels an unfathomable amount of guilt and decided to become a wanderer helping people without killing anyone again. He was given a special sword called the Reverse Blade sword where the blade is on the back of the sword. When Kenshin uses the Reverse Blade sword he breaks bones and beats the crap out of people, but doesnâ€™t kill anyone. In his travels he defended a woman named Kaoru Kamiya and he agreed to live with her in her dojo while defending the populace of Tokyo from various threats. Kenshinâ€™s normal personality is very soft spoken, humble and very kind. In Japanese he uses various honorifics that place everyone higher in status than himself. He is extremely wise and knows how cruel the world can be and does his best to make the world better without resorting to death. He always tries to get through to his opponents and tries to make them see the error of their ways because he doesnâ€™t want them to meet the same horrible fate that he faced. This is the type of heroism that I admire a lot. I like and respect Superman, but I donâ€™t really agree with his worldview. His sense of justice and morality comes from a self righteous moral high ground of â€œItâ€™s right because Mama and Papa Kent told me so.â€ Itâ€™s NOT based out of an understanding of how the world truly works. Itâ€™s NOT based on a principle of since heâ€™s powerful he has the responsibility to make sure that this dark world becomes better because he knows what evil does to people he just does it because itâ€™s â€œrightâ€. Not even Disney characters are this naÃ¯ve because in their journeys they experience the negative aspects of the world and they gain a sense of maturity and understanding to cope with that negativity and achieve their dreams. Kenshin knows what itâ€™s like because he has killed 100s of people. He knows what itâ€™s like to take a life. He knows how it degrades the human soul. The greatest thing about it is that it never seems preachy because itâ€™s always true to the villainâ€™s situation and the fact is itâ€™s a potent philosophical theme. When Kenshin starts to act like his former identity of Battousai the Man Slayer when his buttons are pushed or under extreme stress he behaves just as I described above; cold, cruel and makes open threats and taunts of death to his opponent.
Kaoru Kamiya voiced by Dorothy Elias- Fahn
Kaoru is a fairly pretty woman (despite the fact that the show has a running gag that sheâ€™s ugly and looks like a raccoon) who is the instructor at her familyâ€™s dojo where she teaches a sword style called Kamiya Kasshin. This style is very idealistic and pacifistic by having a rule that only wooden swords are used and that the style is to be used defensively and NEVER offensively.Â Â Yeah I prefer the Hiten Mitsurugi style too. Anyway she truly believes this idea because she was raised on those ideals by her father the founder of the dojo. She is for the most part very kind, but does get very angry when someone insults her or when someone doesnâ€™t understand how she feels. She is also a very terrible cook, which is why the main cast either sucks it up and donâ€™t tell her out of fear or they plead to go out to eat. Obviously she is the love interest of the show, but itâ€™s not love at first sight by any means. Her feelings for Kenshin and his for her are quite obvious by episode 7, but nothing happens to further that relationship during the course of the show. They become more open about how much they care, but they donâ€™t kiss or marry throughout the entire 95 episodes (even though they do get married and have a son at the end of the manga). She is the light in Kenshinâ€™s life. She is the one that keeps Kenshin from becoming a killer once he starts to act like Battousai.
Sanosuke Sagara voiced by Lex Lang
Remember what I said about characters having tragic backstories well Sanosuke, Sano for short, has a backstory that is just that. When he was a boy about 10- 12 he was a member of a group called the Sekiho Army. It was basically a small militia of poor farmers and Sano was the youngest member. He looked up to the armyâ€™s leader like a brother Captain Sagara and even took Sagaraâ€™s last name. The army worked and served the imperialist forces during the Revolution, but when the imperialists ran out of money and couldnâ€™t deliver on promises of financial incentives to people they needed someone to blame so they labeled the Sekiho army as frauds and massacred them all except Sano who barely got away and Captain Sagara was brutally murdered and mutilated. Since then Sano has had a burning hatred for the Meiji Government. He wears the Japanese symbol for â€œevilâ€ Aku as itâ€™s called on the back of his shirt. He wears it because if thatâ€™s what the Meiji Government labeled the Sekiho Army as then he would be happy to label himself as â€œevilâ€. He survived on the street and became a fighter for hire and no one has been able to defeat him. When an individual with a grudge against Kenshin hires him Sano becomes very interested because he has an opportunity to fight the strongest imperialist and claim his vengeance. While fighting Kenshin he learns that what he has been doing has actually shamed the Sekiho Army and decides to quit being a fighter for hire and becomes a part of the main cast. He eventually becomes Kenshinâ€™s best friend and is the only character of the main cast that can actually rush into battle right beside Kenshin and hold his own. He is a very capable martial artist and is fairly laid back and often has friends in the seedy areas of Tokyo and can get info relatively quickly. Heâ€™s very blunt and it can come off as rude, but heâ€™s a decent guy and there is a sense of honor to him even though heâ€™s a free loader and has a tab at the local restaurant as long as the Mississippi River.
Yahiko Myojin voiced by Wendee Lee
Yahiko is the youngest member of the main cast and is about 10-13 years old. He is the son of a samurai and has that sense of pride. He was an orphan due to the Revolution and has lived on the street working as a pickpocket for a Yakuza group to pay off a debt that was fabricated by the gang for cheap labor. After Kenshin saves him and forces the gang to let him go Yahiko resolves to be strong so that he doesnâ€™t need to be saved. Kenshin answers the boyâ€™s wish and suggests that he learn the Kamiya Kasshin Style at Kaoruâ€™s dojo and he reluctantly becomes Kaoruâ€™s student. Yahiko starts out as a disrespectful yet fairly goodhearted punk, but matures in fabulous ways throughout the show. By learning swordsmanship it taught him honor, discipline and respect. He still maintains some of the attitude and semi punk like behavior, but then again heâ€™s still a kid. There are times where he drives Kaoru up the wall, but itâ€™s more out of a little brotherâ€™s way of showing affection and respect.
Megumi Tekani voiced by Mari Devon
Itâ€™s arguable that Megumi is part of the main cast, sheâ€™s a recurring character and she serves a fairly important role so yes I would consider her a main cast member. Megumi is often described in the show as beautiful and as far as looks go far more attractive than Kaoru much to Kaoruâ€™s dismay. The main purpose of including Megumi was to give Kaoru a more mature woman to interact with and a rival for Kenshinâ€™s heart. Megumi comes from a fairly well off family in Aizu and studied medicine both Eastern and Western. She is extremely skilled and talented as a doctor and combines both types of medicine Eastern and Western for very satisfactory recoveries in her patients. She is more mature than Kaoru and has a very strong will and conviction. She can also be pretty sneaky often compared to a fox.Â Â Unfortunately she was forced to work for a crime boss named Kanryu Takeda who forced her to make opium because Kanryuâ€™s goons killed the doctor she was working for and only she knew the formula for the opium (the doctor had money troubles and got trapped in the drug manufacturing web). In an escape attempt she ran into Kenshin and Sano in the middle of a dice game. Kenshin and Sano protected her and the main group of Kanryuâ€™s forces were very upset at the loss. Things got really tense between Sano and Megumi because she manufactured opium that ended up killing one of Sanoâ€™s good friends. Kanryuâ€™sÂ Â group was called the Oniwaban Group and they engaged Kenshin and Sano a while later. Megumi was taken back by the Oniwaban eventually and Kenshin and friends went to Kanryuâ€™s Mansion to save her. After Kenshin and friends defeated Kanryu and the Oniwaban Group they headed for the room Megumi was held in. She was going to kill herself out of guilt and Sano stops her and berates her for taking the cowardâ€™s way and that she can redeem herself by saving lives as a doctor. So she takes an apprenticeship as an assistant doctor and she is always there to take care of the wounds the others may have in their battles throughout the show.
The villains are very diverse and interesting. They can be clearly psychotic and apathetic or have tragic backstories or they have more compelling reasons to do what they do constantly showing the reality that is the grey areas of good and evil. There were 2 villains in the first season that have a prominent impact on the characters and the overall story of the series. Here they are now.
Jin-e Udo voiced by Dave Mallow
Jin-e Udo is an apathetic and twisted sadist who lusts for blood. He loves the thrill of a fight and isnâ€™t concerned about winning or losing just the fight and the feel of his opponentâ€™s blood on his face. He was hired by a corrupt government official to assassinate other prominent government figures because of political reasons that are never fully explained. Kenshin is asked by the Police Chief to help stop him and Jin-e finally finds a worthy opponent and after his preliminary fight with Kenshin decides to make him the next target. What makes Jin-e a really special villain is that he is the first villain to really push Kenshinâ€™s buttons. He kidnaps Kaoru in an attempt to draw out the ruthless killer that Kenshin used to be. He has various abilities such as exceptional swordsmanship and an ability called Shin no Ippo. This ability is a type of hypnosis that paralyzes the target and it can only be broken through a very strong will power. He uses Shin no Ippo on Kaoru and paralyzes her lungs in an attempt at forcing Kenshin to kill him and become the Man Slayer again. Kenshin does defeat him, but he underestimates Kaoruâ€™s will and she breaks free of the spell and tells Kenshin not to kill him and Kenshin snaps out of it failing to give Jin-e what he wanted. Jin-e kills himself, but before he dies he tells Kenshin that he canâ€™t escape Battousai the Man Slayer and that part of him will always be there. This leaves a strong impact that does come to Kenshinâ€™s mind later and has a lasting impact on how Kenshin responds to the past he canâ€™t erase.
Aoshi Shinomori voiced by Terrence Stone
Aoshi is one of the more popular characters in the show. He appears in the same story arc where Megumi was introduced. He is the leader of the Oniwaban Group. The Oniwaban Group is a group of ninjas and spies that worked on the side of the Shogunate during the Revolution. He was given the position of leader at age 15 because he was a child prodigy with a genius intellect and extreme agility, martial arts skills, and swordsmanship. He was then assigned with the other members of the group to protect Edo Castle and had promised his men glory and honor and the title of the Strongest of all Warriors. Unfortunately the Revolution ended before they had a chance to fight. For a leader to fail on his promises of honor and glory is the worst disgrace that can happen to a warrior. After the Revolution the majority of the groupâ€™s members moved on to take normal jobs, but there were other members who were only good for fighting and couldnâ€™t get jobs elsewhere. Aoshi being a very talented individual was offered many jobs, but he turned them down to stay with his remaining men. He would bring them the honor and glory they deserved even if it meant working as the enforcers for Kanryu Takedaâ€™s illegal operations. When Kenshin became involved in Megumiâ€™s rescue Aoshi was intrigued and wanted to fight and defeat Kenshin to prove that the Oniwaban was the strongest of all. He put up a good fight, but lost. When Kanryu decided to cut his losses and kill everyone with a Gatling gun the members of the Oniwaban sacrificed themselves to protect their leader. Kenshin defeated Kanryu and left Aoshi to be alone with his fallen comrades. Aoshi was touched and devastated by his comradesâ€™ bravery and loyalty that he left a broken and bitter person planning to become even stronger and he would come after Kenshin again to become the strongest fighter of all. Aoshi is a very cold and serious person yet has great loyalty to his comrades and wants whatâ€™s best for his group even though he betrays all his training and honor by working for a criminal that is completely beneath him. Aoshi would come back as an even better character in Season 2, but thatâ€™s next time.
The action sequences are some of the best because itâ€™s not just two people banging swords together itâ€™s more of a battle of ideas and wills. There is always dialogue dispersed throughout where Kenshin is trying to get through to his enemies and the dialogue also gives exposition to the villainâ€™s backstory. The moves are also very impressive and are stylized and very entertaining to watch. The show also does a very good job of applying logic swordsmanship and physics to the over the top moves making the impossible seem probable. Here are two episodes that in my opinion contain the best fights. One is with Jin-e and the other with Aoshi.
The music by Noriyuki Asakura in this particular season is just okay. Thereâ€™s nothing that really stands out except Sanoâ€™s theme. The song that does stand out is the first ending theme called tactics the English version is sung by Sanoâ€™s voice actor Lex Lang who is quite good hereâ€™s a listen.
The show has a predominantly serious tone, but there is comedy interspersed throughout each episode and a good majority of them are really funny, but the problem is that the transition between serious and funny is sometimes abrupt and doesnâ€™t jive with the previous situation. Itâ€™s only a minor nitpick to the relevant, meaningful and serious goals and moods of the show.
Rurouni Kenshin Season 1: Wandering Samurai does what every first season should do and thatâ€™s to establish. It establishes the premise, characters, historical background of the world and the world itself. There needed to be various stories so that Kenshin and the others could demonstrate how they react in various situations so the creator could just hit the second season running which he does. It proved itself as an excellent work of historical fiction with its great stories (some were a lot better than others) with meaningful themes, great characters, and wonderful historical setting. Join me next time where the sins of Kenshinâ€™s past come back to haunt him and turn his world upside down in Part 2!!