This post will cover volumes 5 and 6 of the original manga, which contain three independent episodes: a “sidestory” focusing on Yahiko, the Raijuta arc, and another “sidestory” focusing on Sanosuke. Spoilers, as usual!
As far as my impression goes, this part of the series isn’t incredibly popular. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this part of the manga. But sandwiched between the Kanryu Takeda arc and the Kyoto arc, these stories don’t leave much of an impression. Especially since the antagonist here is Raijuta! And, well, Raijuta being a disappointment is basically the whole purpose of this character.
Anyway, this part of the manga is really the calm before the storm. The next volume will introduce Saito and kickstart the Kyoto Saga, probably the most famous Rurouni Kenshin storyline, featuring its most iconic villain. More importantly, the Kyoto arc is totally going to break up the sense of normalcy that’s been established during the first six volumes. So these little, less intense stories are, if nothing else, the reason that the Kyoto arc gets to make such a strong impression.
I’ll discuss the three stories separately, though I don’t have much to say about the Yahiko and Sanosuke chapters. =P
Yahiko and Tsubame
Yahiko gets a cute story where he gets a job at Akabeko (planning to use the money to buy a sakabatou of his own) and meets a young girl who works a a waitress but is actually being forced to help a gang of ex-samurai criminals rob the place. Tsubame’s situation is actually rather similar to Yahiko’s situation before he met Kenshin and Kaoru. So on a symbolic level, this is Yahiko ascending to the Kenshin role, saving himself by proxy. By helping Tsubame, Yahiko gets to be the hero this time – although he doesn’t manage to win the day entirely on his own. That would probably be way too soon. Kenshin, Sanosuke and Kaoru find out what’s going on, but stay in the background, letting Yahiko handle things on his own. They only intervene at the very end when Yahiko is in a very bad spot. But it is still he who fights, so no one steals his thunder.
Raijuta – I go off on a Blade of the Immortal tangent! XD
The focus on Yahiko leads very nicely into the next story, because now Yahiko gets a “rival”: Yutaro. Yutaro is the “student” of the arc’s antagonist, Raijuta Isurugi, an imposing, “badass” fighter who thinks that the state of kendo in Meiji Japan is a travesty, and who wants to destroy all inferior sword schools and establish a single, true way of fighting …
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s also the goal of Kagehisa Anotsu, anti-hero antagonist of Blade of the Immortal, which I’ve written about before on this blog. Years ago, I saw comments by Blade of the Immortal fans who were upset about this similarity. This was long ago when I was new-ish to manga and hadn’t read Blade of the Immortal yet. Memories! Anyway, this similarity exists, but it’s purely superficial. For the most part, Anotsu and Raijuta couldn’t be more different: Raijuta is huge, muscular and manly, while Anotsu is pretty feminine; Anotsu has a strong sense of honour and morals, while Raijuta is a selfish asshole. Perhaps more importantly, the readers are clearly meant to sympathize with Anotsu, but Raijuta isn’t written to be likeable at all. And of course, while Anotsu has the charisma and the capabilities to last through the entirity of a 30-volumes series, Raijuta doesn’t make it more than a couple of chapters. And for all the lofty goals and his fancy philosophy – he’s basically a fraud. That’s exactly why I think that “wah, plagiarism” doesn’t apply here. The Raijuta arc is the story of a charismatic villain who turns out to be all talk, whose enticing ideals are ultimately bullshit.
Masculinity, fatherhood etc.
Yutaro’s story is interesting. He is caught between two different male role models: his father, a samurai-turned-merchant, and Raijuta. Yutaro hates his father, first of all for being weak, secondly because he runs a business selling katana to foreigners, which Yutaro considers a betrayal of their culture and values. No wonder he latches onto Raijuta, who seems to be everything that Yutaro’s father isn’t: a real, manly warrior who holds onto old values!!!
However, it turns out that Raijuta is not actually giving Yutaro lessons. He’s not actually helping Yutaro grow stronger! It’s Kaoru who finally gives Yutaro his first kendo lessons, even though her philosophy belongs to those supposedly weak, watered-down modern ideas that Raijuta is whining about.
Many moons ago, someone brought up the question of how Rurouni Kenshin portrays non-fighting male characters. This is a good opportunity to return to this question, because Yutaro’s father is an example of this. He’s also an example of how … ambivalent Kenshin can be about this topic. Yes, Yutaro’s father is weak, too weak to defend his family by himself. He even acknowledges this as something that bothers him. He wants for his son to be stronger, which is why he supports Raijuta. But in the end, Raijuta betrays his own ideals by launching a surprise attack on Kenshin. He severely injures Yutaro, who may never be able to use a sword again because of this. So not only does Raijuta not teach Yutaro how to fight, how to be strong, but he may have permanently destroyed Yutaro’s chances to reach that goal! Ironically, it is Yutaro’s father who can offer his son a possible chance to recover from his injury: They will leave Japan, travel west and seek help from German doctors!
So in order to be strong according to old-fashioned, Japanese ideals, Yutaro has to also embrace modern, Western influences. That’s a pretty interesting solution. East and West, tradition and modernity, appear irreconcilable, but turn out to be compatible after all.
Rurouni Kenshin is always very supportive of its characters’ desire to become strong (as fighters), but always under the condition that they should want strength for a good reason, not for the mere sake of strength and power. Raijuta is yet another character who is bad because he puts his own strength over other people, even over the person he’s expected to care about.
And in the next Story, Sanosuke meets a young artist who used to be a Sekihotai member and Sano’s best friend. Tsunan is an anti-social, gloomy person, so quite the opposite of Sanosuke’s more outgoing personality. Although it needs to be said that when he initially appeared, Sanosuke had a very similar negative attitude towards society. It’s just that he ended up meeting Kenshin and developed a happier world view. Tsunan, on the other hand, has been quietly building bombs with plans to attack a government building … in what he must surely know would be just a symbolic gesture with no power to actually fix what’s wrong with the government? Anyway, Sanosuke decides to join his friend in his stupid, hopeless fight, for sentimental reasons and out of loyalty. But then he pretty much changes his mind as soon as Kenshin shows up to stop them. =P And it was so dramatic for a brief moment, too!
I guess I am kind of underselling this story, but it really doesn’t leave a big impression overall. Tsunan is going to show up, like, once more, so it’s easy to forget about him. =P
- That map of Germany is, of course, totally anachronistic, showing national borders that didn’t exist until 1990. Watsuki did eventually improve int his regard. A map in Embalming shows the proper borders. Or maybe Kaoru Kurosaki deserves the credit for this, since she seems to be heavily into European history …
- Next up_:Saito! I really think the seventh volume deserves a post of its own. I still don’t know yet how I am going to structure the Kyoto arc. HMMMMMM.