Unlike last week’s Chibi Vampire, Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurouni Kenshin is squarely in the shōnen realm. It ran in Japan from 1994 to 1999, with the bound releases spanning 28 volumes. It was licensed in the US by Viz Media, which later re-released the series in a more affordable omnibus format. If you do decide to pick it up I would suggest grabbing the latter because it also includes an awesome side story that is not included in the original releases and it is really worth reading. The manga later spawned a 95 episode anime series, a serial novel, three anime films, to OVAs, three live-action films, and a mango reboot based on said live-action films.
This critically acclaimed series is set during the Meiji restoration period, a time of great change in Japan when the country moved from being an isolated feudal society to a more modern form. It is also time of great social unrest as there were still those who were not fully on board with these changes. Himura Kenshin is a former assassin who participated in the war that preceded Meiji and has now taken a vow to never kill again. Instead he travels the countryside with his reverse-blade sword offering aid and protection to those who truly needed, i.e. the people he fought for so they could have a future.
As the story opens he encounters Kaoru, a young woman who runs a swordsmanship school that has recently taken a hit to its reputation because of a killer running around claiming he was taught there and that he is Hitokiri Battosai, the name Kenshin was once known by. Kenshin helps Kaoru deal with the situation. To his surprise when she learns that he is the real Battosai, she offers to let him stay with her as his wandering self. Deciding he’s tired of traveling for a while, he accepts. After a while he meets several other people who become close friends and allies, able to accept both his past and present, but there are also those who are not ready to let Battosai retire in peace.
Though Rurouni Kenshin certainly has plenty of amazing action sequences, that are actually sometimes hard to follow in two-dimensional drawings. I can live with that though because its true strength really lies in the relationships between Kenshin and those he comes in contact with, allies and enemies alike. The cast of complex characters draws out a fascinating story.
Kenshin and Kauro’s tender, slowly developed romance is just so sweet! The nuanced way Kenshin relates to Sano, as the latter moves from being something of a junior fighter needing moral guidance to later being an equal and trusted friend. Kenshin’s subtle ways to teaching Yahiko without teaching him. Though my favorite is freenemy Saito Hajime, who often is seen by others as being cold and calculating, yet he clearly has a somewhat twisted sense of humor and is not so much evil as focused and determined with a very strict sense of justice.
The historical setting is also very well done, with Watsuki including extensive notes on his inspirations behind each character. While he clearly took some liberty with the setting and historical elements, especially the introduction of near sci-fi/fantasy-like elements, the still the overall feel and background of the story seem to be pretty accurate to that time frame.
I must also give Watsuki props for not doing the typical thing found in a lot of shonen series, namely the women are not all drawn with gravity defying boobs and ultra-slim bodies! In fact, they are all pretty realistically drawn. And while Kaoru may the damsel in distress in the opening, she is never relegated to the role of being a complete weakling. A competent fighter in her own right, she kicks some nice butt with her shinai, and maintaining a lovely balance of sweet young girl in love, fighter, and stern but loving teacher.
I’ve read Kenshin so many times I’ve seriously lost count, so I’ll say just go get it. It is one of my all time favorites and one I never get tired of recommending!
Rurouni Kenshin is available in print in 28 individual volumes or 9 VizBig omnibus editions. The individual volumes are also available in eBook format. Further, Viz licensed and releasing Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, the two-volume reboot in print and digital forms. Also, please note, the live action movie is supposed to be absolutely bananas, but it has NOT been released in US by its license holder (Warner Bros), so any listings you see on Amazon or eBay are most likely bootlegs.