Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan – Tsuioku-hen (Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal) – 7.5-8/10
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Despite Rurouni Kenshin being one of my introductory anime many years ago, I never got around to Samurai X. I didn’t watch it then because I was disturbed by its graphic violence, and later on when I became (regrettably) more jaded I never returned. Finding myself with some time, I decided to see what I missed out on years ago.
Samurai X reminded me how much I appreciated the candidness of Rurouni Kenshin’s message: violence is appalling, and inevitably begets more violence. Even if Kenshin is an admirable swordsman, it never loses sight of how terrible his path is. The fights are short and brutal where the goal is to murder the opponent and escape. Swords eviscerating torsos, piercing necks, and being driven like spikes through the throat and up out the skull are common moves. There is no honor, just blood in the dark.
Coupled with this is an acute appreciation of how idealism can go awry. Kenshin doesn’t descend into the chaos to become a hitman, to revel in killing. He does so because he feels deeply the suffering of the people. He himself was nearly slaughtered and was only saved by the grace of Seijiro Hiko; he wants to be that person to all of Japan now, protecting its people against the predations of the violent and powerful. It is only later when the fallout of his actions, the collateral suffering of the fallen, comes back to remind him of the true price. It is similar to a Greek tragedy, where the great character of a man is what precipitates his inevitable fate, with the greatest falling all the harder.
However, there is a refreshing optimism despite this. Kenshin’s story doesn’t end in irredeemable failure. The monumental suffering brought on by his mistakes is palpable; he is scarred both inside and out by his actions. But he doesn’t succumb to evil, his passage through darkness serving to guide him in the future.
Kenshin is also not the only good person in this world. The women who protect him are compassionate, willing to use their own bodies to guard the future of an unknown child. Seijiro Hiko is a thoughtful and principled master. He may not have the bleeding heart Kenshin does, but he is wise in his own way. Even Tomoe can be viewed in a positive light. Her appreciation for Kenshin’s inherent kindness overcomes her hatred, even if it is late.
This mixture of horror and hope is refreshing to me, as it is lacking in many anime. So often series seek to coddle their viewers, guarding them from unpleasantness. Even if the worst happens, it is mitigated, fixed in a final burst of magical goodness. Or, seeking to escape from this childlike safety, they plunge to the opposite extreme, sinking into faithless despondency. Kenshin’s story defies both of these extremes and offers more: a true story of redemption.
p.s. I tried to watch the Rurouni Kenshin anime after this out of nostalgia’s sake. I was…sorely disappointed one episode in. Better to leave that in the pleasant past.