Thoughts on Rurouni Kenshin

Japanese anime is one of those things I have always wanted to watch more of, but for some reason, never did. Perhaps it was because I had stumbled across the wrong shows in the past, and certainly a lot of it was that my parents did not want me watching anime as a kid. Now that I am an adult, I have been slowly getting some anime shows under my belt. I watched the first two seasons of Death Note, which was pretty great. I also, thanks to my sister, watched the series Prince of Tennis—yes, yes, a sports anime about some middle school kids who play tennis as if a matter of life and death. I really enjoyed the storytelling style of both these shows. A show I had always been curious about was Rurouni Kenshin, which used to be on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block during the afternoon. Kenshin’s character design piqued my interest, since he has this awesome cross-shaped scar on his face. However, I kept coming in during the middle of a story arc and was completely lost, so I gave up on it every time I tried. Well, that, and I didn’t want my parents to catch me watching it.

Now, however, I am a grown woman who gets to do what she wants, and a grown woman who has Netflix—and Netflix has Rurouni Kenshin on it. Finally finding the time and energy to get invested in another TV show, I watched the first episode and was instantly hooked.

Rurouni Kenshin is set during the first decade of the Meiji Restoration (circa 1878), something that the show likes to remind you of at least once or twice every episode. The main character, Himura Kenshin (or Kenshin Himura in Western name format) is a 28-year-old man who fought during the revolution ten years ago (circa 1868) as part of the Imperialist forces (those sided with the new government rather than the old Shogunate). He was an assassin and so gained the title hitokiri, which one translation offers as “manslayer.” He became rather notorious and struck fear into the hearts of all who faced him. After the revolution, however, he disappears and becomes a wanderer, exchanging his lethal sword for a sakabatō (a sword with the blade on the inner edge rather than the outer), which cannot kill anyone. He swears a vow never to kill again.

Despite the many conflicts of the series, this concept of Kenshin’s desire never to kill again is the real conflict. You never doubt if Kenshin is going to win; you doubt whether or not he will kill somebody to do so. This is always gut-wrenching and exciting, and is probably my favorite part of the entire show.

I think another thing I like so much about the show is that it glorifies life as something that has intrinsic value. Many of the characters in the show attempt an honor suicide, only to be stopped by Kenshin or another of the main characters. A great line from Kenshin is, “You can die at any time. But it takes true strength to go on living.” We learn that Kenshin himself, despite never presenting as suicidal, does at his core believe he does not deserve to live and that he does not care whether he lives or dies. During a crucial moment, however, he discovers a true will to live—not only for the sake of others, but out of a true desire for life. It is one of the most beautiful moments of the series, and I think it is a beneficial and inspirational moment for anyone who may be considering ending their own life. The message is clear throughout the series: life is precious, no matter what. No matter what you have done, no matter who you are, life is of value simply because it is life. Though the show and the manga it is based on were written in the 90s, I think its message is desperately needed today—a time period in which teenage suicides are at an all-time high.

The show strikes a nice balance between fun and silly moments and the serious, life-and-death stakes. The animation is not what I’d call gorgeous—if you want gorgeous animation, The Children of the Whales is a good show to watch—but it suits the series’ tone perfectly, finding that balance between silly and serious.

If you like anime but haven’t seen this show, you need to watch it. If you hate anime, you may want to pass, but if you’re willing to experiment with a different cultural approach to storytelling, then this is a good anime to start with. I do recommend a quick Wikipedia read-up on the Meiji Restoration before you watch it, though. It makes following the story a little easier. And while the English dub does a fairly decent job with voices, I think that the Japanese voice actors do a much better job of conveying the characters’ personalities. Fortunately, Netflix has both the English dub and the Japanese with English subtitles, so you get to pick whichever style suits your own tastes best.

All in all, I give the show 4 out of 5 stars. It has its typical anime tropes and some storytelling issues, but the action, themes, and character development are all top-notch. If you’re willing to give it a go, I highly recommend it. Please note that it is rated TV-14, for some language and a whole lot of violence. I would say, since the blood is all animated, you could probably let a 12- or 13-year-old watch it, depending on their maturity level. Use it as a way to teach a little bit about Japanese history and culture, and it becomes an educational experience. Note, however, that it is not the most accurate depiction of Japanese history, just like American movies about the Revolution aren’t always the most accurate thing, either.

It’s weird, but it’s amazing all the same. Give Rurouni Kenshin a try, and hopefully you won’t be disappointed. Just be prepared for some silliness and a serious need to suspend disbelief, and you’re good to go.

What are your thoughts on this classic anime? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Once you’re done binge watching Rurouni Kenshin, you might enjoy having a book to read! Check out my fantasy novel, Charybda. It is available for Nook, Kindle, and in Paperback. Follow the story of Nivin, a blind seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a land where all defects are punishable by death. When she is discovered and flees, she finds herself pulled into another world, where she is dragged into a centuries-long conflict between the Freemen and the wicked sorcerer Scyllorin and his dragon bride, Scylla.

Learn more here or read the first chapter for free here!


Image of Kenshin and title is a picture I snapped of the front of one of the DVDs, then edited on my computer. It is used for editorial/review purposes only.


 

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Review: Stormdancer

 

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is the first book of The Lotus War Trilogy. It was named one of the best teen books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. The fantasy world Kristoff creates is imaginative and rich, full of mythology and great plot twists. The book is marketed as “Japanese Steampunk” and does not disappoint. It has chainkatanas—and yes, a chainkatana is a katana that is also a chainsaw. It has shuriken-throwers—weapons that spit out throwing stars like a machine gun. It is all pretty cool, truth be told.

The story is set on the fantasy island of Shima—or as I like to call it, the island of It’s-Totally-Not-Japan-You-Guys. Shima’s technology is all powered by “chi,” a fuel derived from a plant called the blood lotus (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Fossil-Fuel-You-Guys). The pollution from the chi exhaust has devastated Shima’s ecosystems, and it has induced a fatal disease called blacklung in a large portion of the population. To avoid this, everyone must wear filtered breathers or cover their mouths with cloths in hopes of preventing the deadly smog from ruining their lungs. The atmosphere has become so depleted that the sun’s radiation is no longer filtered properly, so everyone must wear polarized goggles to protect their eyes during the day. Almost all of the island’s animal population has been decimated.

The blood lotus itself is an interesting plant—not only can it be converted to chi, it also can be smoked for recreation. Many people—known as lotus-fiends—are addicted to it. The roots can be used to create a deadly toxin, which in smaller doses can be used as a sedative. It is such a lucrative crop that almost every farmer on the island wants to grow it—except for the region of Daiyakawa, which is reserved for the nation’s food growing. Blood lotus has an unfortunate side effect on the environment, however—it eventually depletes the soil so that it can no longer yield anything. Crop rotation does nothing to prevent this. However, the use of the fertilizer “inochi” (provided, incidentally, by the same people who provide the lotus seed) can stave off the killing of the land. Already, however, a huge portion of Shima has been consumed by dead lands, known as “The Stain.” The Lotus Guild (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Monsanto-You-Guys)is responsible for everything pertaining to blood lotus and chi, as well as developing the technology.

Because Shima’s resources are becoming so depleted, they are waging war on the neighboring country in order to procure more lands—and also, they claim, the gaijin are just plain evil.

The plot begins with the emperor of Shima deciding that he wants a griffin—or as they are also called, arashitora (literally Japanese for ‘stormtiger,’ though often translated in the book as ‘thunder tiger’). He sends his royal hunter out to find one, despite the fact that arashitora have been extinct for decades. The hunter, Masaru, brings his sixteen-year-old daughter Yukiko (the protagonist) along. Yukiko is blessed with a gift known as the Kenning, which allows her to commune with the minds of beasts—however, the Lotus Guild is obsessed with eliminating everyone with this gift from the island, calling it a sign of impurity. Yukiko has been careful to keep her gift hidden, though she makes a mistake which almost gets her caught. However, nothing happens and so they proceed with their seemingly futile hunting trip. However, they do find an arashitora and even successfully capture it—except it destroys their sky-ship in the process, causing them to crash. Yukiko is separated from everyone and finds herself alone with the arashitora, whom she names Buruu, and they begin to form a tenuous relationship.

There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. Kristoff’s writing style is rich and descriptive, and he is masterful at producing suspense. The action he writes is so easy to visualize, it many times feels like you are watching an anime. The best descriptive moment in the book is, in my opinion, when an individual gets shot: Kristoff describes it so vividly and accurately it’s chill-inducing. There are a lot of great moments besides that, but that particular bit was so memorable. The plot twists are also great. I also loved the mythology—I’m not versed enough in Japanese mythology to know whether or not Kristoff is simply borrowing mythology or has invented his own, but I like it a lot. The arashitora is a cool spin on the griffin—it is half tiger, rather than lion, and it has the ability to send massive claps of thunder from its wings. And, I admit, I was a sucker for the chainswords.

I also liked the fact that, despite the fact that the story is essentially a man-is-destroying-the-earth story, Kristoff was quite creative in how he portrayed it. While it becomes obvious that the blood lotus is a metaphor for fossil fuels, and the idea that wars are being fought over fossil fuels, and so on, it is still creative. I loved it, actually. It’s one of the few pollution-apocalypse stories that I really enjoyed. It feels less like the message is being shoved down your throat and more like it’s simply part of a fully realized fantasy world. This is one great thing about fantasy: it allows you to explore real-world issues in a nonthreatening way, and Kristoff did an excellent job with it.

One thing I did not like about this story, though, is that Shima is essentially Japan. It’s not a fantasy world that resembles Japan—it’s just straight-up Japan with a different name. While I get that the idea was for this to be Japanese steampunk, there could have been a few more differences. They use Japanese for everything, and even call the gangsters “Yakuza.” Hence, it feels like the author is shouting, “This is totally not Japan, you guys, except that it is.” It still made for an enjoyable story, and I realize the story would not have worked if it was actually Japan, being as the other fantasy elements would not have fit in. Nevertheless, I felt like it was a little too much. It’s one thing to model a fantasy culture on an existing one, another thing to simply lift the culture entirely.

In a similar vein, it would seem that Kristoff did not do quite enough research on Japanese stuff—at least in one case. First off, chi is a Chinese concept, not a Japanese one. Second, I’m not that versed in Japanese, but I have a textbook of basic Japanese on my bookshelf and I have done my fair share of perusing on Wikipedia. I know enough to understand how honorific suffixes work—and that they are just that: suffixes. Kristoff uses the suffix “-sama” (basically equivalent to ‘master’ or simply an address to someone significantly higher in rank) as an address—for example, “Thank you, Sama.” This is blatantly incorrect and made a lot of reviewers on Amazon mad. This is another issue with completely lifting another culture—you have to get it exactly right or you’re in trouble.

All in all, I recommend this book. However, as a caveat to those who might be researching this book to see if it is appropriate for their teen, be aware that two teen characters do have sex with each other. It is glossed over with a cutaway, basically a sort of “They were kissing passionately, and then afterward…” thing. This is at least tasteful, but some parents may still object to their teens reading this. Also be aware that there is a fair amount of language: D, G-D, F, etc.  There is also a lot of violence—enough that the book might earn an R-rating if an exactly faithful movie was made of it. In some ways, it reminded me of the gore you see in martial arts movies and anime—extremely exaggerated bloodshed.

Stormdancer is an exciting story with lots of fun plot twists and great characters. Its foibles are, in my opinion, far outweighed by its good moments, making it worth reading. People who like lots of action and excitement will love this book.

Have you read Stormdancer? What are your thoughts on it?

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