On April 11, 1994, a red-headed wandering swordsman appeared on the pages of the Weekly Shōnen Jump
. It was ten years after the end of the Boshin War
, and Himura Kenshin no longer answered to the assassin's name Hitokiri Battosai. At his side, he wielded a sakabato
, a katana with the cutting edge along the inside of the blade, in his heart an oath to never kill again, and on his cheek, two intersecting scars that formed an "X." In the the years that followed, Nobuhiro Watsuki
's creation, Rurouni Kenshin
, jumped from the pages of the weekly magazine onto television screens and finally into theater screens as a live action movie.
The tale of Himura Kenshin began not long after the swordsman arrived in Tokyo, (formerly Edo
), only a decade after the fall of the Shogunate, and encountered a young woman, Kamiya Kaoru, in the midst of defending the honor of her family dojo. Kenshin's assistance earned him a home at the dojo and in time, he was joined by others:
- Sagara Sanosuke - a former member of the Sekihotai, his unit and friends were betrayed by the new Meiji government. On his back, the mercenary turned fighter wore the Japanese kanji for evil ("aku"), to reflect his hatred for the government and honor his fallen friends. In his hands, he wielded an exaggerated zanbato, an oversized sword.
- Myojin Yahiko - the orphan of a samurai family, whose elite status means nothing in the new Meiji era, is the wielder of the simple wooden shinai and a student of the Kamiya dojo.
- Takani Megumi - a beautiful doctor, formerly a forced accomplice to an opium trade, Megumi turned to helping the poor as her means to put her past behind her.
- Saito Hajime - Not a resident of the dojo, but the closest thing to a frenemy of Kenshin's, Saito is like Kenshin, a dangerous relic of the earlier age. A former captain in the infamous Wolves of Nibo, the Shinsengumi, a para-military force based in Kyoto, he was Kenshin's rival and foe prior to the fall of the Shogunate. (Saito was actually based after a real historical figure). Now a police officer and more, Saito still carries his katana and the personal code "Aku Soku Zan" (Swift Death to Evil) with a deadly style known as Gatotsu...
- Kamiya Kaoru - the sole remaining instructor of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryū sword(wo)manship ("sword that gives life"), a style of fighting to protect, not to kill. She is fierce, proud and stubborn, and the gradual love interest of Kenshin.
Over the course of many chapters, Kenshin and his friends experience a number of adventures and ordeals, those which often are tied to either Kenshin's past or to the fate of the current Meiji government and those who wish to see it overthrown. Two story arcs stand out as the most well known and favored by Kenshin's fans.
The Kyoto Arc
The Kyoto Arc is premised on the past of the new Meiji Japanese government coming back to haunt it in the form of Shishio Makoto.*
In the midst of the Boshin War, Kenshin had stepped out of the shadows to visibly defend the fighters of the cause and to cease being an invisible assassin. The need for an unknown assassin did not disappear and the future Meiji government turned to Shishio to continue Kenshin's job as an assassin. When the day did arrive that the government no longer needed an assassin, it decided that the man who killed in its name, was a danger to itself and attempted to eliminate the assassin. The attempt to sweep its dark secrets under the proverbial rug failed. Ten years later, Shishio reappeared with the goal to destroy the government and lead a take over of the country. Once again, the government turned to Kenshin for help.
* Shishio Makoto was loosely based on Serizawa Kamo
, a commander in the Shinsengumi.
Kenshin reluctantly agreed to help the government and to stop the young nation from collapsing back into the chaos of war. The swordman thus departs for Kyoto, a place filled with memories of his past. Much of these memories are beautifully captured in an Original Video Animation (OVA) known in the United States as Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal.
The OVA adopts a serious tone, as opposed to the lighter nature of the manga and the anime, and tells the story of Kenshin's origin, how he learned his lethal Hiten Mitsurugi-ryū
swordsmanship style, and his recruitment as an assassin. It also reveals how Kenshin fell in love with Tomoe Yukishiro
, a woman whose fiance Kenshin slew and was hired to kill the battosai. [Importantly - these events lay down the groundwork for the famous Kenshin arc!].
The Kyoto Arc brought in new characters and new enemies, as Shishio surrounded himself with elite killers in his plan to bring down the Meiji government. While all the familiar names above set off for Kyoto separately, by the end of their journey, they had reunited and together found the ability to defeat Shishio. In his defeat, Kenshin believed that his past was finally behind him and upon that belief was unprepared when it returned with a vengeance in the Jinchu Arc
The Jinchu Arc ("judgment from man") resolves around the death of Kenshin's first wife, Tomoe. Her death is vividly told in the aforementioned OVA, Trust & Betrayal, wherein she threw herself in front of Kenshin's blade to save his life and allow him to kill his opponent. Witness to her sacrifice was her brother, Enishi
. Enishi did not see the love between his sister and Kenshin, nor did he recognize her sacrifice for Kenshin. Instead, he laid the blame for her death at her husband's feet and set off on a decade long path of revenge.
His revenge took the form of defeating Kenshin in the Kamiya Dojo and faking the death of Kaoru (while abducting her). In his wake, he left a near comatose Kenshin, fraught with the loss of the one he loved, left Enishi hoped, to a life of living hell of living without the one he loved the most (as Enishi had suffered when Tomoe was slain). Eventually, Kenshin realized the ruse and rescued Kaoru and revealed the truth of Tomoe's feelings to Enishi, which undermined his anger and desire for vengeance.
The story of the wandering samurai, depending on one's taste, is best enjoyed in the original form, the manga written and drawn by Nobuhiro Watsuki. However, for the moving visual representations of Rurouni Kenshin, here are your wonderful options!
- Rurouni Kenshin - the television series. The series accurately carries over the light hearted feel of the manga, but in the midst of its production, outpaced its publication. As a result, the Jinchu Arc never made it into the televisio
- Rurouni Kenshin - The Trust & Betrayal OVAs. As mentioned above, these OVAs take on a serious and dark tone for the world of Kenshin and cover the backstory of the character. It essentially exists as an origin story, though it is unnecessary to watch this before the tv series or reading the manga. Several years after it's release, it was re-released as a director's cut into a straight two hour movie, instead of four separate episodes.
- Rurouni Kenshin - The Reflection OVA. Reflection is the melancholy wrap up of the life of Himura Kenshin, an overview of his adventures, and a glimpse in how he continued his path of helping others to make up for the lives he took. Additionally, it has the only animated scenes of the Jinchu Arc (the manga is still the best way to enjoy it).
- Rurouni Kenshin - The New Kyoto Arc OVA. The New Kyoto Arc is one of the most recent animated productions for Kenshin and represents an oddly more mature representation of the events of the Kyoto Arc storyline, wrapped up in a much shorter and concise two hour piece. Perhaps not the finest, but an essential for those who want all the Kenshin they can get to watch.
- Rurouni Kenshin - Samurai X: The Movie (in Japan known as Requiem for the Ishin Patriots). The movie is another instance of Kenshin being forced to save the current government from another's attempt to destroy it. It is perhaps the weakest of the animated adventures of Kenshin.
- Rurouni Kenshin - The Live Action Movie. One of the highest grossing films in Japan when released, the movie is still awaiting distribution in the United States. The film recreates one of the first storylines in the Kenshin saga involving Kenshin's defeat of opium dealers after arriving in Tokyo. Based on its success, two sequels are now being planned.