The X-Shaped Scar
September 24, 2013 1:58 PM   Subscribe

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...

  • And finally...
  • 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.
posted by Atreides (22 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. Something else to look out for and add to my never ending backlog of stuff to read or watch...
posted by MartinWisse at 2:00 PM on September 24, 2013

posted by Sokka shot first at 2:08 PM on September 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

One of my all-time favorite manga/anime. I had an embarrassing number of online handles with "kenshin" in them (in my defense, Kenshin really is a great name).

Still haven't seen the live action movie though. I'm not the kind to grar that bad adaptations ruin my childhood or whatever. BUT MY HEART
posted by fatehunter at 2:10 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trust and Betrayal is a sublime piece of work that stands on its own really really well. Which was good for me because I didn't miss out even though I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate the TV series.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:13 PM on September 24, 2013

Thanks for decoding all of this. I think I saw this on the plane about a year ago on the way back from Japan. I didn't have my headphones on (for some reason I have a hard time concentrating on movies during long flights, but like to watch the flickering images) so I had no idea what was going on.

So, reading your post, everything falls into place!
posted by KokuRyu at 2:15 PM on September 24, 2013

As a P.S. the live action film is presentable available in 7 parts on a popular video site that isn't Youtube. It's also available for order from overseas. The movie did a great job of capturing the essence of Kenshin.
posted by Atreides at 2:17 PM on September 24, 2013

I never thought I would see such a comprehensive Kenshin post on metafilter. Wow.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 2:18 PM on September 24, 2013

The Swirly-Eyed Samurai. I really should break out these DVDs and rewatch the series.
posted by eyeballkid at 2:29 PM on September 24, 2013

Kenshin got me into Bakumatsu/ Meiji era *hard* in the late 90s. Suddenly I was scrounging through Joseph Heco's diaries (featuring the Ishin Shishi's gruesome murders of foreigners and the Japanese who did business with them— the tenchu or "Heaven's Justice" alluded to above) and Isabella L. Bird's book about her trip to Japan (which coincidentally was the same year the RuroKen action took place). I had this hardcore Saito Hajime fan thing, too :D

(Incidentally, it's wolves of Mibu)

And then I started with Nanae Chrono's Shinsengumi Imon Peacemaker and Peacemaker Kurogane manga, and when you've finished with Kenshin, give them a read, too. They have some original takes on a few of the Ishin Shishi that didn't make it to RuroKen like Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsu Kaishu (and Katsura Kogoro, who did and was supposed to be Kenshin's boss), apart from the obvious Shinsengumi troop.

tl;dr: How long am I going to be this big of a nerd? Muron. Shinu Made.
posted by sukeban at 2:35 PM on September 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

The manga/anime never interested me, but I LOVED the movie and saw it twice in the theater (because my Japanese is ... and I wanted to pick up the dialogue I missed). The acting and fight scenes are so much better than the average live action anime adaptation. So much better.

And for people like me who have fond memories of Shinsengumi, the actor who played Ryouma Sakamoto plays Saito.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:40 PM on September 24, 2013

Thanks Atreides. I'm watching the movie on vi- the video site right now. Kenshin putting down his sword in response to Saito's WE ARE WARRIORS b.s. really does capture the essence of the work. This should be good.
posted by fatehunter at 2:43 PM on September 24, 2013

The musical score for Trust & Betrayal is fantastic, by the way, as is the animation.

The Meiji period is absolutely fascinating, if you have the time to just delve into that chapter of history.
posted by lydhre at 2:53 PM on September 24, 2013

Wow, I had no idea there was a Kenshin live action movie. I'll definitely have to check that out. When I was a young kid I watched Rurouni Kenshin all the time, although the "Trust & Betrayal" OVAs were my favorite (at the time I didn't realize that's what they were called, and I think they were the only ones out at the time, so to me they were the OVAs). It was a fun time coming home from school and jumping on DALnet in order to download tons of anime and neglecting my homework. I don't think my parents would have appreciated me watching something that gory when I was in 5th/6th grade though.
posted by gucci mane at 4:06 PM on September 24, 2013

Now, this is an awesome post. Since I fly JAL an enormous amount, I have seen the live action movie twice, and really enjoyed it (the lead was slightly boy-band-looking, but great nonetheless). Rurouni Kenshin is always the answer to the inevitable questions about my favorite manga, but this post really helped structure the whole expanding Kenshin-o-verse. Kudos.
posted by Vcholerae at 4:13 PM on September 24, 2013

Kenshin made me fall in love with Judy and Mary. Sobakasu is such an ear worm.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 6:37 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh man. I loved this series - who am I kidding, I still love this series. Although, Reflections is still, in my opinion, awful. Very beautifully animated, but inaccurate and shamefully detached from the theme and message of the manga. The creator isn't a fan of it either, from what I understand.

Kenshin and Kaoru got married and lived happily ever after. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

And the live-action movie is really well done. They translated it beautifully, lost a lot of the worst of the shounen silliness, and it actually stands on its own as a movie. It's a shame, though, that Shin Kyoto Hen was so... weird and jumbled and poorly done; I would love to see an anime revival. I'm still holding out hope for a real adaptation of the Jinchuu arc, one day.
posted by a power-tie-wearing she-capitalist at 10:29 PM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Loved Kenshin, it's one manga series I pull out on a yearly basis to re-read and enjoy again. For the anime, the TV series does look somewhat dated now, but the Trust & Betrayal OAVs are, for me, one of the pinnacles of anime I've seen. From the quality, the direction, and the handling of the characters and plot - all with an heartbreakingly gorgeous music soundtrack.

And then the live-action film came out. I was hesitant to watch it, but when I did I had such a blast of a time. Too often live-action version of anime/manga try to stick too closely to their source material (eg., hair colour) but I thought the live-action managed to have enough shout-outs to the manga/anime source material without going overboard. Thoroughly looking forward to the next movie!
posted by AlienGrace at 1:31 AM on September 25, 2013

Wow, great post. I never got as deeply into Rurouni Kenshin as I'd have liked, but it may be time for a re-visit.
posted by Gelatin at 3:21 AM on September 25, 2013

Orororo~ I love Mayo Suzukaze (Kenshin's VA) in this; she has the perfect range from silly goofiness to complete badass. Bonus points: she sang one of the ending songs from the anime; as good as many of the other songs are, this one is my favorite.

The first OVA (like gucci mane, it's THE OVA to me) was amazing. It was so atmospheric and the animation was gorgeous and the music was just..perfect. Probably at or near the top of my Top 5 Best Animes list. It also led to what might be the best anime music video ever (spoilers abound). I wish there was a better quality version, but it's so old now that there probably isn't one; I watched this during college, so it was probably made in the late 90s? Regardless, it blew my mind at the time.
posted by ashirys at 7:08 AM on September 25, 2013

Belated additional viewing information - For those who have Hulu Plus, the New Kyoto Arc is available for viewing there. And that is it, that I'm aware of in terms of, ahem, licensed online places to see animated Kenshin. It's entirely possible there's some anime specific sites that have licensed the series, but I'm unaware of them. Cartoon Network for a short while aired dubbed episodes of Kenshin, but the show did not gain a ton of traction.

This post is actually a bit short compared to the novel I wanted to assemble on the Kenshin universe, but I realized I had to let go that dream or I would never end up posting it.

As others have said, Trust & Betrayal is one of my favorite pieces of animation for precisely the same reasons; the incredible soundtrack, the animation, and the direction. I watched it countless times and can close my eyes and see clips of it in my mind's eye, from the firefly flying down the length of a katana blade to Kenshin struggling to make his way through the snow covered wood on his way to rescue Tomoe. In one of the few places I felt disappointed by the live action movie, was the scene, unidentified in the movie, when Kenshin kills Tomoe's fiancee. It completely failed to hold up against the animated scene in Trust & Betrayal, which is damn outright heart wrenching, as one man refuses to die because he cannot let go of his love for his future wife. The connection drawn between the cut that Kenshin receives then and that which he receives at the conclusion is wonderful.
posted by Atreides at 7:12 AM on September 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just watched the fight between Saito and Kenshin in the Kamiya dojo. I am calling my cousin right now to see if he still has all those fansubs because I am going to have Kenshin marathon this weekend. That fight is so fucking intense.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 10:31 AM on September 25, 2013

Oh my god yes. Even I, a dyed-in-the-wool hater of the TV show, have kept a copy of that episode on my hard drive continuously since college because that fight is so goddamn good.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:33 AM on September 25, 2013

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