Kenshin

Written and Drawn by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Published in English by Viz Comics

Like “Lone Wolf and Cub,” “Rurouni Kenshin” is a manga about a wandering swordsman, but tonally, the two could not be farther apart.  Set in Tokyo in the 1870’s, this is the story of Kenshin Himura, a former assassin and swordsman during the Bakumatsu period of civil wars who has vowed to never kill again, but cannot give up his sword.
One of the reasons I find this comic so interesting is that it is set in set in a dynamic and chaotic historical period that I knew very little about going in.  This story is set in a Tokyo that had been Edo not very long before, still healing from the open wounds of a civli war that toppled the established social order.  It’s a fascinating setting, as full of contradictions as the characters themselves.
Through a series of events, Kenshin settles as a guest of Kaoru Kamiya, a young woman running her deceased father’s kendo school, but lacking students.  From there, he meets a series of people, each of whom has been affected by the new era in a different way.  He meets Yahiko, a young orphan whose parents were Samurai, struggling to maintain what he things honor means in a modern world, and Sanosuke, a fighter whose mentor was betrayed and killed by the Revolutionary Army Kenshin supported.  He also meets Jin-E, a swordsman like himself who, unable to put down his weapon, turned into an assassin.
“Rurouni Kenshin” fascinates me because it is so full of contradictions, and those paradoxes are built right into the characters and setting.  It is most unlike “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and other Samurai stories in that rather than praising duty over life, it is a story of a swordsman struggling to put his past behind him.  Kenshin carries a “sakabato,” a katana with the edge of the blade reversed.  This allows him to fight with his sword without killing.  These are stories not about “Life in Death,” but life beyond it, and the struggle to atone for the lives already taken.
This comic originally ran in “Shonen Jump” magazine in Japan alongside boys’ adventure stories like “Dragon Ball” and “One Piece.”  It shares some of those series’ more kid-friendly aesthetic, both in the tone of the writing and the art.  Watsuki also is heavily influenced by American super-hero comics, particularly Jim Lee’s X-Men.  The result is that Kenshin’s skills often appear more like super powers than swordsmanship techniques.  This distracts from some of the more serious themes of the comic, but still allows for some entertaining and fascinating stories from a historical period many western readers know little about.
“Rurouni Kenshin” volume one is available through Amazon, or your local comics or book store.

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