In preparation for the upcoming Hokkaido Arc, I am going to reread the entirety of the Rurouni Kenshin manga! This should be a lot of fun! :D It’s actually been a long time since I read the entire manga – and there are obviously portions that I tend to reread more often than others, which skews my general perception of the series. Reading everything in order, without skipping ahead, is just a different experience.
In this first post, I’ll discuss the first 14 chapters, which roughly corresponds to the first two volumes of the original release, everything up to and including the Jinne story.
It’s really interesting to read the beginning chapters of any long-running shonen manga. They’re often quite different from the later stuff that tends to dominate our perception of the series in question. Early chapters are usually episodic, since the series could be canceled at any time; they are often more low-key, sometimes character designs get changed later, and the drawing style is often quite different as well. Sometimes there are even more dramatic shifts in concept or genre! That last thing doesn’t apply to Rurouni Kenshin, but the rest kind of does. The drawing style is the most notably different thing, but I’ll talk about that later.
My tragedy: I didn’t read Rurouni Kenshin in proper chronological order. I actually read a few later volumes first, which meant that when I finally read the beginning of the story, I did so knowing how things would turn out. I didn’t experience the story “innocently”, the way the original readership experienced it back in the day! But I do wonder what their first impressions of this series were. What kind of expectations or hopes did they have? What did they like or dislike? Nobuhiro Watsuki mentions in one of his author’s notes that the overwhelming majority (like 90%) of the fan letters he received in the early period were from female readers. I don’t know if there was something about early Kenshin that especially attracted female readers, or if there was something that put off the male ones, or if the girls just happened to like writing letters more … It’s still sort of an amusing bit of trivia, but I don’t feel like I can read much into it without considering/researching a lot more of the context. :3
Politics, crime and police brutality
I tend to forget completely about the chapter with the armed police squad that abuses its power, or the chapter about Kaoru’s disappointing ex-students who get drunk and pick a fight with some gangsters. These two chapters neither introduce new main characters, nor do they feature any outstanding fights, so they are relatively easy to forget in the grand scheme of things. But they are still good chapters that flesh out the main characters as well as the setting. Rurouni Kenshin presents a world where politicians suck and the police can’t be trusted. There is poverty, families destroyed by civil war and criminals trying to exploit them. It’s a really dark world, but the manga itself has a hopeful tone, since the main characters themselves are fundamentally good people, who manage to build a new life together. Even if the protagonist is a former assassin, Kenshin is uplifting and quite idealistic.
You can tell that Kenshin is a good person because he refuses to profit off his crimes, even when his old comrades urge him to settle down with some cushy government position. Kenshin prefers being a homeless wanderer who helps normal people whenever he can … Good man.
Kenshin & Co.
As a shonen main character, Kenshin is rather unusual. A 28-year-old ex-assassin who doesn’t share much about his past, and often doesn’t really let on what he’s thinking. He isn’t exactly keen on battles either, and he isn’t trying to become strong or ~the best~ at something. Interestingly, he IS the best, and that’s causing him nothing but trouble and tragedy in life … However, the other main characters are more familiar types: Kaoru is the tough but kind, determined but vulnerable heroine; Yahiko is the orphan boy who wants to become stronger and live up to his code of honour; Sanosuke is the typical rough, fun, hot-headed sidekick, foe-turned-BFF.
In a way, you’d expect Yahiko to be the protagonist, and Kenshin the mysterious, impossibly strong mentor. But this would just not be Rurouni Kenshin. Obviously.
The real stand-out fight in this early phase is against Jinne. This battle introduces several key themes and sources of conflict in Rurouni Kenshin:
- The danger that Kenshin might leave the dojo and start wandering again.
- The danger that Kenshin might revert to his old mindset, and kill again.
- There is an enemy who presents a sort of “dark alternative Kenshin”.
Regarding the latter point: Like Kenshin, Jinne was an assassin during the Bakumatsu, but contrary to him, Jinne enjoys killing and still enthusiastically works as a killer today.
Jinne’s hypnosis ability is the first time a “superpower” pops up in Kenshin. Technically, Kenshin’s fighting abilities and techniques aren’t realistic to begin with, but there will be straight-up fantastical stuff later, and Jinne is the start of it. I mean, a lot of the fights fall under “technically just sword-fighting, exaggerated for dramatic effect and more striking visuals”, but then you also have stuff like … Fuji, who is ten meters tall, Shishio, who can basically summon fire, and so on. Sure, there are pseudo-explanations for most of this stuff, and there’s an explanation for what Jinne is doing, too, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kenshin contains a good dose of fantasy.
Jinne is also the first fighter who poses a serious challenge to Kenshin. I know that Sanosuke (who fights Kenshin earlier) is described that way, as being more resilient than the previous opponents …. Buuuuuuut ultimately, that’s just Sanosuke being stubborn, it’s not like Kenshin’s victory was ever really in doubt, right? Jinne, on the other hand, almost manages to – well, not to kill Kenshin, but to make him betray his values by killing again, and that’s a worse threat than mere defeat.
Overall, this first portion of the manga does a good job at introducing the main cast and pretty much all the important themes of the manga. You know, I tend to disregard this part of the manga because it’s just less exciting than some later stuff, but it’s interesting that the Rurouni Kenshin concept was pretty well-defined right from the start. It’s already got the making of a complex and darker story.
Now, let’s talk about the artwork! Watsuki’s style went through a lot of changes during the time he spent on Rurouni Kenshin. It’s a completely different style by the end of the manga. Watsuki often talks about aiming to simplify his art style, because less lines means less work. And I’m sure somewhere, someone is yelping: “Oh my god! How lazy!” but considering the schedules manga artists are on, and considering that they don’t just have to draw the story, but also come up with it, research it, plan it, think it through … I really can’t blame a mangaka who wants to try and find ways to at least spend less time on drawing hair. Because early Kenshin had extremely fluffy hair! And panels crammed full of detail! Even over the course of just the first two volumes, you can see a rapid change in the way the characters’ hair is drawn. It gets a lot less fluffy!
I suspect that some of this is also simply due to the fact that if you draw the same character a lot, you eventually figure out which details define the design, and which details are essentially “superfluous” and can be sacrificed for efficiency’s sake. The same goes for the backgrounds and everything. It’s not like the later panels of Rurouni Kenshin lack detail, but it’s overall cleaner, more to the point?
One of the things that I always loved about Rurouni Kenshin is how it really conveys the atmosphere of its setting. Granted, Japanese culture and history were almost entirely new to me when I first read this manga, and it’s not like Kenshin is the only manga set in oldy-times Japan, but nothing else gives me the same feeling. And that incense pig! It makes its first appearance in the ninth chapter. It’s my favourite Rurouni Kenshin character.
Alrighty, I shall end this post now. :D I get the impression that I touched on a lot of stuff without really getting in-depth about anything, but that was to be expected, considering the episodic nature of the first two volumes. The next arc is a bit longer (two whole volumes), so the post will possibly be more in-depth. But no promises, I might just spend the whole time drawing hearts around Aoshi’s name or something inane like that. ^^