Rurouni Kenshin Reread: Part 4

In this installment of the Rurouni Kenshin Reread, I’ll be sharing my ~extremely complex and insightful~ thoughts on the seventh volume of the manga. Depending on your POV, this either counts as the ending of the first manga’s arc, or the beginning of the Kyoto Saga. I’ve seen it both ways. Actually, I’m only half-kidding when I say “extremely complex and insightful”. This post actually turned out more analytical than I anticipated.

You know … I always feel awkward when I throw around superlatives, but this story, Saito’s introduction, is brilliantly structured and paced! I mean, it’s not ground-breaking, but it’s extremely effective at establishing the general mood of this episode and at introducing Saito as a fascinating character who doesn’t lose his edge when his true allegiences are eventually revealed.

The opening scene alone: Kenshin wakes up from a dream (he dreamt of his past, the Shinsengumi and Saito in particular) and is telling Kaoru and Yahiko about it while walking home. It’s mostly exposition, but the falling cherry blossoms make it a memorable and beautiful scene. They contribute to the feeling of melancholia and foreboding: Cherry blossoms symbolize the fleetingness of life, and renewal. This beautifully mirrors Kenshin’s growing realization that his time in Tokyo is coming to an end and he must soon leave his new-found friends again.

On a more prosaic note, just the changing season draws attention to the fact that time has been passing, and that Kenshin, Kaoru and the rest have been together for some time now.

And this fragile peacefulness is interruped by Saito, who seriously injures Sano and leaves him to be found by his friends. After this brutal scene, we change back to Kaoru, and the sun is setting, casting long shadows … It’s really all around a great example of using weather and nature to convey and strengthen the mood of a scene!

There are more cool twists, like the reveal that Saito is a policeman. Knowing how dangerous Saito is, it’s chilling to watch him put on his uniform and disappear in the crowd like in some serial killer drama. We actually spend a lot of time with Saito in this volume. This is especially interesting because Kenshin himself is really rather passive throughout this volume’s story! Megumi and Kaoru are taking care of Sanosuke, while Kenshin is just … thinking and worrying. There’s a lot going on in his head, of course, and this might actually be the first time we’re given such detailed insight into his thoughts. But everyone else acts, Kenshin merely reacts this time. And like I said, we spend a lot of time watching Saito set his plans in motion and manipulate people. Saito is definitely active, Kenshin is passive.

The effect is that we’re … well, we are more inclined to take Saito’s side, at least in the psychological argument. Saito argues that Kenshin is weak, and that he has failed to protect his friends. He’s not wrong: Saito could have killed Sano, and later he could have killed pretty much everyone, having lured Kenshin away quite easily.

Until now, Kenshin has always appeared superior to his enemies, not just in terms of fighting powers, but especially psychologically. It’s different now: Not only are Kenshin and Saito about evenly matched when it comes to fighting. More importantly, Saito has his own, strong convictions, while Kenshin is led to question his own beliefs – and we are, too.

During the fight with Saito, Kenshin slips back into Battosai mode, which fits this overall sense that Kenshin’s entire way of life, the entire status quo of Rurouni Kenshin, is fragile and endangered. When Kenshin decides to go to Kyoto and says good-bye to Kaoru, it’s nighttime and there are leaves falling, both logical continuations of the symbolism from the beginning scenes.

Further thoughts:

  • I feel terrible for not discussing the Kenshin/Saito battle in further detail, because it’s a really cool, dramatic fight. Especially as the two of them go at it so desperately, and Saito basically takes off half his clothes to use as weapons! Actually, there’s a continuity error in one panel. After Saito has taken off his belt, you can see he is still wearing a belt. It’s a shame that Saito didn’t make strip-fighting his secret technique. It would have been a hit with large parts of the fanbase, I’m sure!
  • The volume has the feeling of a psychological thriller, with classic moments of suspence, where the audience knows more than the characters, and can anticipate their shock: you know the group is going to find Sanosuke injured when they come home; you know who Saito really is when he introduces himself to Kaoru. I love that sort of thing, but it also really fits the themes and atmosphere of this story.
  • This volume reveals who was behind Jinne, and also references all the other major opponents so far, which gives a sense of closure to the Tokyo arc.
  • I realize now that I kind of, sort of, forgot to say anything about Shishio, but I’m sure there will be a good opportunity. And Sojiro! I look forward to rereading his character arc. I don’t think I ever appreciated him sufficiently …

Alright, that was that! Next up: the road to Kyoto … To be continued. :)

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