Rurouni Kenshin is without a doubt one of the most memorable and successful action titles of the 90’s. It combined a lot of elements that were quite popular and likable back then, creating an immerse fanbase who had it in their tops. Even I was quite fond of it. But as much as I liked it for what it offered, there is very little actual good story in it and it was left incomplete, and murdered by the F-ing DEEN’s Filler Killer TM.
The 90’s were a pure time. You could take any simple premise and make a huge success out of it as long as it had likable characters and nice pacing. A good story, or a not predictable/repetitive/original one, was not an issue back then. You could be watching a hundred Slayers or Sailor Moon episodes and you wouldn’t feel bored. That is why a series such as RuroKen was able to reach great heights, as it actually had far more than a simple story. It was the ongoing tale of a samurai, who after a very brutal past decides to never kill again but instead fight for peace alongside a group of normal people. Well … the normal part was a bit off and everybody was doing their best to make him kill again, so that internal struggle was quite interesting.
Everything in the setting smelled pure win, as it was a historical era where Japan was exiting a long period of conservatism and bloody civil strife, where new ideas and technologies were entering their society and rapidly changed their traditional ways of life. All the fighters of that era are now considered a thing of the past, many of which are not fond of this and do their best to maintain Japan as it was. The struggle of leaving the era of war behind for an era of western influence that was not positive all the time, created a huge emotional impact on the viewer. The best term to describe this is “elegiac”, the sadness which the passing of time has on people who grow old and see their traditions and pure child innocence fading away under the cruelty of change and uncertainty.
The overall story was also very good, being about a powerful swordsman who doesn’t want to kill anymore, settle down, have a normal life, yet at the same time being constantly thrown in the midst of remnants of his past, people who don’t like their way of life to change for something they see as frail and foreign. There were no real good or bad sides in here despite the fact that anyone Kenshin fought was presented as pure evil to the most part. In reality it was just a clash of civilizations and ideologies. You can’t really blame a man who trained all his life in the way of the sword to one day be told to throw away all his skills and start plowing the fields.
The general plot was also very good in terms of build up, as Kenshin was slowly facing more and more grim sides of his past coming back to haunt him, while at the same time protecting all those he loves around him. The story is without a doubt a solid 10 … if it was not so goddamn erratic, butchered, watered down and thrown away in the bin!
Although the manga version offers a complete story with a beginning, a middle and a powerful ending, the anime did the usual shit most series that want to drag things resort to. They called in the Filler Monster. Yup, fillers are abundant, to the point were the series was canceled because of poor ratings. So ok, the manga was still on-going at the time and they were making fillers until it was complete. Thank you very much, here are the results: You killed the show. Out of the 3 arcs the third is useless filler where nothing is going on, and on top of that it was animated by DEEN, by far the most despicable studio of all times. The other two have a rather high amount of stand alone short arcs between important events but they are still better because they were not animated by f-ing DEEN. Some were funny or semi-good in terms of action but overall they were without replay value. That alone takes out a lot of the charm of an otherwise good story. Especially the third arc is a bunch of BS, full of events that are out of context with the rest of the show.
Onwards with the cast. Kenshin is the epicenter of the story and truth be told, only he gets all the focus. If you follow his story, you really sympathize him for all the things he has done in the past, both good and bad, and how he tries to amend for the sins of all those he killed in the name of peace. A really great guy. So great, his style of “never kill” was copied later in other shows who wanted to profit from this, the most famous being Trigun’s Van. They still occasionally make characters with this feature today but it no longer has the same appeal. “Never kill” is after all a stupid way to follow if you expect to change the world. Heck, how shorter would each battle be if the all-powerful Kenshin was just going in for the kill? It would take away his charm for sure but come on, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some <s> necks </s> eggs. But anyways, the whole deal is taken very lightly and most of the time you get to see him doing silly stuff rather than looking grumpy. During peaceful times the guy acts like a clown! And damn, he really looks far younger than he really is.
All the rest of the characters feel more like supplementary to the main lead, as they are all there just to bring out different facets of his personality. Not a bad thing but they don’t seem to be able to stand on their own without Kenshin around. Kaoru, Yahiko, Sano, all have their different goals in life, as simple as they may be; but let’s be honest; they are just underlings to the lead. But heck, they are not cardboards as, let’s say, the Z Warriors were in Dragonball Z, where joining Goku is the same as throwing away your free will. The main antagonists and/or villains, Aoshi, Saito, Shishio, seem to have it better, as they are leaders of their respective teams and have portfolios of their own. All the supporting characters besides them are just… there. Some have personality but none does anything special. As for the filler villains, well, screw them, any attempt to develop those means nothing to the story and it happens in a rushed and uninteresting way. But heck, they are a colorful bunch who is overall treated with more respect than most casts. Many are memorable, likable, interesting. If only the story was complete, they would feel somewhat more complete (but not too much more).
Artwork and sound are good. Actually they are very good. Actually … they are great! Although there is a high amount of realism in terms of how people dressed or how buildings looked back then, Kenshin still wears pink. And a few other things here and there. Not anything major but it’s not historically accurate all the time. The battles are rather dull when it’s up against minor or filler villains and that makes a big chunk of episodes to have no replay value. As for the rest of the big ones … the magic of cinematics! They pulled out any trick of the book to make any slash or eye contact to create tension and excitement … even when it’s just a simple attack. Now that is what good action is all about! The actual choreography may be simple but the feeling it transmits with its use of music score, camera angles, split screen, shading, insane looks, etc, THIS IS ORGASMIC. Yeah, you get to enjoy every bit of it. This is the REAL samurai action. Most other shows make it look like they are having a picnic while fighting for the salvation of the world. The only downside I can find in it is that they … err … yell the names of their attacks. And some of those techniques are damn long. Which feels weird when Kenshin yells “Hiten Mitsurugi-ryū Amakakeru Ryū no Hirameki” for an attack that lasts a fraction of a second. But heck, times freezes all the time during attacks and as I said it builds proper tension, so I excuse it. Besides some sloppy looks here and there and the occasional frozen panels, it’s good stuff. And this applies only to the action scenes as the peaceful moments don’t pull the same powerful cinematics and thus the excitement is also a bit lower.
Sound is on an even better level as things sound good even in peaceful moments. The soundtracks are amazing pieces of work, silly pop songs included. I still listen to them from time to time. They really do fix your mood when you are down. Voice acting is also great, making all characters sound properly funny in comical moments and dead serious during grave moments.
Down to it, it really is a great show whose biggest error was bringing in the Filler Monster and switching the animation studio to f-ing DEEN. From the three parts, the third one has no value at all (because DEEN made it and because it has the most ridiculous storilines you can imagine). The first is semi-interesting to follow again in the heavy on action moments and the second is pure joy all the way. It can be extremely good if supposed you just skip all fillers and boring episodes.
The manga version
Don’t miss the Trust and Betrayal OVAs
Sword of the Stranger