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.
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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.