In this post, I‘m going to reflect on the Kanryu Takeda arc, which introduces two major players in Kenshin history: Megumi Takani and Aoshi Shinomori! Although the Jinne arc was already a multi-chapter story, I consider this one to be the first real, longer arc, since it fills two full volumes (volumes 3 and 4). Spoilers!
This is also the first time that an arc has a somewhat open ending. Not completely open, the main storyline is wrapped up neatly, with Kanryu arrested and Megumi starting a new life, having regained some hope for the future. However, one storyline doesn’t get wrapped up: Aoshi. After the death of his friends, Aoshi latches onto the idea that he must defeat Kenshin to prove the superiority of the Oniwabanshu. This actually contrasts nicely with Megumi’s story: she gains friends and a purpose in life, while Aoshi had those things in the beginning, but loses them. So for the first time, the Kenshin manga sets up a future storyline instead of neatly tying everything up and moving on to the next thing. The story ends with everyone (the characters and the readers) aware that this isn’t over yet. But there’s also a sense of optimism and hope, because maybe one day Aoshi will find a better purpose in life, too?
The Oniwabanshu, everyone’s favourite ninja squad
The funny thing is this: Originally, Nobuhiro Watsuki hadn’t even planned for the Kanryu storyline to feature the Oniwabanshu, or any outstandingly skilled antagonist at all! Kenshin & Co. were supposed to fight Kanryu’s guards, and that’s that. It was his editor who suggested adding more interesting enemies. Thank you, Mr. Editor! I mean, I’m sure the story would have been just fine without the Oniwabanshu, but the story gains something through their presence. They act as an interesting mirror/contrast to Kenshin, to Megumi and to the Kenshingumi as a whole. What’s more, the Oniwabanshu will go on to play a major role in the Kyoto arc. Can you imagine the Kyoto arc without Misao?! Well, I don’t even want to! =P
I like this bit of trivia because people often talk about editors as if they’re always negative influences, who force an author to cheapen and simplify their stories, who get in the way of the author’s creativity and originality, taining their pure vision … There’s probably some truth to this idea, but that’s all the more reason to talk about the instances when an editor does his job well and helps make the manga better. And Kenshin is totally better with the Oniwabanshu. /bias
On a more frivolous note: Aoshi’s hair
You can totally tell that these characters were a late-ish addition, because of Aoshi’s hair! It is absolute proof that Watsuki hadn’t really finished the concept for this character yet. In his first couple of appearances, Aoshi’s hair undergoes dramatic changes. It’s slicked back at first, looks really odd for a while, and finally settles on the classic Aoshi fringe! Throughout volume 3, Aoshi’s hair is completely out of control, and he even smiles once or twice – Proto-Aoshi is the weirdest thing you’ll ever see!
All things considered, it’s impressive that the Oniwabanshu manage to fit the story’s themes so well, and turned out to have such staying power in the series overall.
But let’s talk about the other major new presence in the world of Rurouni Kenshin: Megumi Takani. I tend to forget just how strongly she was presented as “a rival to Kaoru” in her first appearance here. But I also tend to forget that “Kaoru loves Kenshin” is already treated as a matter of fact this early in the story!
This entire matter is actually confusing for me to comment on because I didn’t read Rurouni Kenshin strictly in chronological order and never got to experience these volumes the way they were meant to be, completely free of expectations! (This never bothered me before, but now that I think about it? Dammit! XD)
You know, I can’t say I’m thrilled that the second major female character is promptly set up as a rival to the first female character. But it doesn’t bother me in the grand scheme of things, since it’s not actually exploited for cheap drama via love triangle, or some such nonsense. Megumi accepts rather quickly that Kenshin/Kaoru is the OTP. Anyway: Kaoru is insecure enough that she feels immediately threatened by Megumi, who is, of course, older, more feminine, flirty and seemingly more confident. But Megumi’s strength and confidence is pretty much just a mask. She’s lonely and scared underneath, and that’s at least part of the reason why she imprints on Kenshin so quickly. (That’s actually something she has in common with Kaoru, in a way.)
I really like the scene between Kaoru and Megumi during the dojo attack. Megumi wants to sneak away while Kenshin and Sanosuke are busy with Hyottoko and Beshimi. But Kaoru notices and confronts Megumi, telling her basically that being part of the Kenshingumi means trusting in their ability to protect her. Loyalty. In this moment, Kaoru really is the stronger of the two, and it all comes down to the fact that she has her friends, and her strong belief in their friendship. Megumi is (still) an outsider, she’s alone and therefore weak. She does subsequently step up and reveal at least some of her secrets in order to save Yahiko’s life when he gets poisoned, so, yay.
Loyalty is also a thing that Aoshi brings up later. It’s the reason he didn’t accept any of the jobs that were offered to him after the war, because that would have meant abandoning his men, who had no such options. It’s really sadly poetic that Aoshi sacrificed his career for his men, and in the end his men sacrifice their lives to save him. (It also makes Aoshi’s future downward spiral all the more tragic. Poor, crazy Aoshi.) And Kenshin gets a lot more sympathetic towards Aoshi after he learns why Aoshi holds onto the whole fighting lifestyle so desperately.
It’s actually funny how much of the ending comes to evolve around Aoshi’s emotional well-being. Especially when you consider that he wasn’t supposed to be in this story at all.
- It’s funny that Aoshi has this typical shonen manga goal of wanting to prove that he is the strongest of them all, except that it’s treated as an awful and unhealthy attitude here! While Kenshin, the protagonist, already holds that title from the start, and it means nothing to him.( Nothing but trouble and painful memories, that is.)
- I know it’s easy to say this in hindsight, but Aoshi really shouldn’t have provoked Kanryu. :<
- And none of that would have happened if Misao was there.
- I’ve always liked that you can tell by Shikijo’s scars that Aoshi defeated him with his sexy special attack, at the tender age of thirteen! This does kind of make you wonder if Aoshi spent 12 years learning nothing new, haha. =P
- Moral conundrum: Dealing opium entails the death penalty, which is why Kenshin, Yahiko and Sanosuke stop Megumi from admitting her involvement. But they watch as Kanryu is taken away by the police. Kenshin may not have killed him with his own hands, but his actions are likely going to result in his execution! I also wonder what it was that Kenshin wanted to tell the police about Aoshi, right before they discovered his disappearance. Is there anything Kenshin could have said or done to save Aoshi’s life, had he been arrested?
- I am oddly bothered by Megumi’s tiny mouth that is never in the exact place you’d expect a mouth to be. I know it’s a stylistic choice and it kind of works for the overall design, but it’s weird to me now! XD
Next up: I think the next post will cover everything up to the first appearance of Saito, the start of the Kyoto arc. I’m not sure yet how to split up the Kyoto arc, but I might juststart reading and see what feels like a natural time for a break and assessment. :D Exciting times!!