The place: My living room, Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Japan.
The time: A random Wednesday in early 1996, shortly after Dragonball GT finished airing, so probably around 7:30PM.
What 13-year-old me saw: Some anime about a female swordsman with red hair and a cross-shaped scar, but when she hit a dude with her sword, the guy didn't get cut in half. It was like the sword was dull or something, but she just kept beating guys over the head with this sword-shaped aluminum bat, and was fighting some guy in white with a spear the size of a tree. I was sold.
I also had no idea what I was watching, as I could barely understand any Japanese at all and was only just starting to get the hang of reading the language, much less speaking or understanding it well enough to watch a prime-time mostly-aimed-at-kids TV anime. Yeah, I was watching Rurouni Kenshin, the beloved series about a former assassin (who is in fact a dude--that was quite a shock for me) who has sworn to redeem himself for his blood-stained past by never killing again, and only using his unique reverse-bladed sword to protect those who can't protect themselves.
Not many of you got your start with Rurouni Kenshin in the same way (and most of you probably rubbed your brain cells together hard enough to make a spark and realize that he was a man), but the series has a lot of qualities that make anime fans of all stripes look back on the series fondly, even if they usually don't care for Jump-style fighting anime.
The anime was based on Nobuhiro Watsuki's million-selling manga that ran in Weekly Shounen Jump alongside Dragonball, Slam Dunk, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and Rokudenashi Blues--an amazing line-up of titles. The darker, more serious story came out of Watsuki's desire to make a shounen series that was different from the lighter, more stereotypical series of the time, as leading man Himura Kenshin was a hardened killer pushing thirty, as opposed to the young men (or man-children like Dragonball's Son Goku) taking the lead in other major shounen manga.
In fact, those differences really helped the series gain ground among fans in Japan and in the US--back in ye olden dayes of anime fandomme when we had to order fansubbed VHS tapes from shady sources, I can remember people who couldn't care less about Dragonball or Yu Yu Hakusho eagerly devouring Rurouni Kenshin. While the series still had lengthy battle sequences, characters shouting out the names of their special moves, and half the stuff that every other fighting series had, it just felt... different. But how?
1. It was more clever than other action series available at the time. While Yu Yu Hakusho provided a blend of smart, tactical action where heroes had to think things through, there were plenty of times where Yusuke was just thrown at an enemy and tasked with beating on him until candy came out. Rurouni Kenshin, like Ashita no Joe and other "smart" action series, forced every character to have to become a tactical genius, always thinking on their feet and keeping the action fresh.
2. Its characters weren't just labels--they felt like people. Sure, Sano was The Big Guy, Kaoru was The Chick, and Yahiko was The Tagalong Kid, but they were more than that. Sano's initial bad-guy-ness was pretty well explained, as well as his inhuman toughness, love of fighting, freeloading nature and fierce loyalty. Kaoru is relegated to the sidelines precisely once--when she's kidnapped by a crazed assassin. Otherwise, she's in the thick of it knocking heads with the rest of the guys, and treads a fine line between being proud of her martial skill and embarassed at not being more feminine. Yahiko, someone who would otherwise be the main character of a Jump series, actually felt like a kid who got scared and said stupid things and acted bigger than he was--but the fact that he grew up, and learned to emulate his hero in all the ways that counted (like not being a tool or a bully), was what kept us watching. Also, I think I've doomed you all by linking to TVTropes. For those of you still with us...
3. It had a damn pretty art style. While I'm a huge fan of gekiga-style art in series like Fist of the motherf**king North Star, it's not the type to pull in a lot of female viewers. By contrast, Rurouni Kenshin's wispy, softer, more shoujo-feeling art appealed to both male and female fans of all age groups, mixing high-energy martial arts action with picturesque scenes of Kenshin and Kaoru surrounded by windblown sakura petals--or fireflies, in one of the series' most poignant scenes.
4. Its romance didn't feel tacked-on or forced. Yeah, the full title of the series is Rurouni Kenshin: Romantic Tales of the Meiji Era, but to me, that doesn't mean "romantic" in the sense of a moonlit stroll with some weird guy shadowing you and your date while playing the violin. No, it's more the "chivalry, honor, and swashbuckling adventure" kind of sense, but Rurouni Kenshin is a great romance all the same. Kenshin is just a bum who stumbles into Kaoru's life, and through the story they both end up becoming much more important to each other. It's gradual, and it never falls into that "will they or won't they" BS. You know they will, but it's so important to both characters that it's never, ever rushed, and it feels right that way.
A few other things I love about Rurouni Kenshin:
-Its late 1800s Meiji-era setting, and the fun way it's able to give a kinda-sorta history lesson in the middle of its story.
-Its villains, who range from Saturday Morning Silly to Hannibal Lecter.
And one thing that I absolutely hated about the series:
Oh my God, the filler. I'm usually pretty forgiving of filler. I understand why it exists, especially for anime adaptations of ongoing series. But a major story arc where Kenshin fights a Christian swordsman (!) who uses the same style as Kenshin and his master (!!) and proceeds to blind Kenshin (!!!) but Kenshin gets better (DWSOGJLKMURFEISHP) and wins is not the best foot to start off on with original content. However, for people unfamiliar with the manga, I hear different stories--some people were able to spot the filler, and for many it was just "when the anime went downhill."
It also marks a flat ending to an otherwise fantastic series. I'm gonna be covering the manga in a different column since that's a whole 'nother can of worms, along with the OAVs and the Rurouni Kenshin anime movie that shows the same flashback scene like forty times.
Despite laying low for quite some time, Rurouni Kenshin is back in a big way in 2012, with not only an upcoming anime OAV that retells the series' epic Kyoto Arc, but a live-action adaptation that honestly looks pretty darn good.
So that ends Natestalgia for this week--tune in next week when I talk about the greatest movie ever made:
Kung Pow! Enter the Fist. Actually no, I would never subject CRN readers to that no matter how much I love that movie, so here's a hint as to what I'll be going on and on about next week:
As for Rurouni Kenshin's anime, if you've seen it, when did you first check it out? What were your favorite and least-favorite parts of the series? Are you looking forward to the new OAV and movie? Let us know in the comments, along with what else you want to see us talk about here!