Manga is more than just a variation of comics – it’s a learning experience! A great example of this is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic Rurouni Kenshin. The title character is an Issin Shishi veteran of the Meiji restoration, one who lived as a killer, an elite fighter sent to eliminate the most dangerous opponents of the revolution. What’s so interesting about this story is that it doesn’t take place during the Bakamatsu, but rather afterwards.
All soldiers need somewhere to go when the war is over but people rarely plan that far ahead. The Bakamatsu was no exception. So when the long days of fighting are over Kenshin is left with nowhere to go and no idea how he goes from a hardened killer to the citizen of a peaceful country. Like many long veteran soldiers, Kenshin finds he loathes fighting and sets out to live in peace. He exchanges his katana for a sakabato and vows to never kill again.
Unfortunately, back in the day Kenshin had quite the reputation and a decade after disappearing into the mists of history Kenshin finds that someone has stolen his name and is using his old reputation for their own ends. Living in peace is not enough to satisfy, it seems. Kenshin must ultimately seek redemption for his misdeeds. He will find it only in humility, service towards others and diligently performing housework for women who will never learn to do it on their own. Everything from the way he lives to the way he speaks, referring to himself in a diminuitive fashion and addressing most other people with the highly respectful “dono“, point to the change in Kenshin.
Rurouni Kenshin is a shonen manga to the core – it has lots of action, lots of humor and an emphasis on making the community you live in a better place. Every time Kenshin swings his blunted blade he does so in the hopes that the ideals he fought for during the Bakumatsu will be upheld in the new era but, unlike many works about the past, Watsuki makes no attempts to sugarcoat the reality of the Meiji era. Yes, there were patriots out there on both sides of the conflict. But by and large most people were seeking their own gain.
As a weekly comic that ran for five years, Kenshin had a lot of time to look at the various forms that took. Disreputable merchants looking to buy power over people, disreputable teachers looking to play the wealthy and well intentioned for their own ends, well intentioned men branded criminals so others wouldn’t take the heat, virtuous men who turn to violence and crime in the search for petty revenge. All these and more are things that Watsuki and Kenshin stare down through the pages of their manga. Each one is overcome by relying on three simple rules:
- Serve humbly.
- Fight for the oppressed.
- Teach others to do the same.
Rurouni Kenshin is a great yarn about a country, an era and the people that made it. It’s not going to give you anything like a comprehensive idea of what the time was like but it will give you a starting place. None of the historical events mentioned in it are made up, although much of the story taking place around those historical facts is pure fantasy. But there’s still one thing beyond sketchy that Kenshin teaches.
Heroes, it seems, look the same no matter what the culture or the era.