Friday, August 10, 2012

Rurouni Kenshin and Historical Redemption

At the end of this month, the long awaited live action Rurouni Kenshin movie will be hitting theaters in Japan. Never before have I seen such a large response from the anime and manga community over a live action adaption. Yet with Kenshin being such a beloved manga for the community and having hoards of fans not only in Japan but in America, it is unsurprising that this movie is getting people to sit up and take notice.

With the sheer amount of attention and anticipation this movie is receiving, it can only be concluded that this manga has keft a strong impression on the manga reading community. Since I actually hadn't read the manga before, it was pretty obvious that I wouldn't be able to jump into any type of discussion on it's merits and failings without actually reading it. At around 255 chapters, it was a lot of reading and I'll admit to gorging myself on it and then having to stop for a while to pick it up again.

Rurouni Kenshin has a reputation that precedes it and it is a well deserved one. Besides holding the normal ground work for the three Shounen Jump manga keywords; friendship, effort, victory, Kenshin also dips into the Japanese love for their own history, particularly it's Shinsengumi past. One thing that we have to look at is that is how Kenshin was already geared to be a standout. Taking a looking back at what manga titles were being serialized in Jump at that time, titles of other classics are easily spotted. Names such as Slam Dunk, Yu Yu Hakusho, Ninku, Jigoku Sensei Nube, and Captain Tsubasa were serialized for years in Jump, but not a single one of them is historical. Most magazines now a days keep a manga of each subgenre in their magazines so to appeal to a more diverse readership, but there were no historicals running in Jump at that time. Kenshin, with it's roots in the Bakumatsu and the rise of the Meiji Era, easily slipped into that much needed genre space within the magazine. Allowing it to stand out and get attention just for being the one main historical manga being serialized.

Already set up to stand out within the magazine, there was more that set Kenshin apart from the typical Jump manga. In an interview for the Kenshin Kaden, Watsuki, stated how he used to read shōjo manga when he was younger and that it influenced Rurouni Kenshin. He also stated how he wanted to make a story different by making Kenshins' character neither a good nor evil. Playing with the Japanese love for ambiguity in characters, though usually that ambiguity is reserved for enemies within Jump manga. This characterization is what really sets Kenshin apart from other shonen geared manga and other Jump manga. Kenshin as a character is much older than the typical Jump hero, he's 28 at the start of the manga, and is struggling with the guilt he possesses and the desire he has to atone.

There is nothing more appealing to audiences than a redemption story. Especially for us Americans, we are all suckers for the epiphany, therapy, struggle, and happy ending that we get out of redemption stories. Lifetime is full of movies about it and we all love to see a movie star fall from grace and then be reborn into something bigger and better, especially if there were drugs and addiction involved. We were all an the edge of our seats when Brittney Spears turned her life around from mess to class. Keeping this in mind, it's really unsurprising that Kenshin is so popular and has continued to appeal to readers of a new generation. Kenshin's constant struggle with his past and how he has sworn to never take another life are all things that we as readers want to see in characters. Coupling this redemption story and struggle to move forward with the Bakumatsu War and Japans own struggle to shed the past and move forward was brilliant on Watsukis' part. No other metaphor could have fit.

It was interesting how much Watsuki used real historical figures in the manga. Those little flashes of real historical content gave the manga a solid piece of foundation in my opinion. That constant fight between progress and tradition was very compelling in the beginning and I enjoyed seeing the different inserts of historical figures as the manga progressed. Of course, there could only be so many historical figures, but the fact that they were there grounded the plot and characters with a sense of reality. As a fantasy reader, I can suspend disbelief about a lot of things, but seeing those small seeds of some true historical connection made me appreciate the plot just a little more. It must be so difficult to create a historical manga. All the research on clothing, food, architecture, weapons, and social structure has to be put together accurately enough so that history buffs don't call you out. When you write fantasy you can create and change your world as you see fit, as long as the characters stay constant. Though Watsuki has admitted that he had many people complained about his characterization of certain historical figures in his manga, I was just fine them the way they are. As I said, I can suspend my disbelief when it comes to historicals. 

Utilizing the historical setting, the Meiji Era depictions in Kenshin really reminded me a lot of the steam punk movement; which isn't completely surprising since it coincided with the Victorian Era in England. Since Japan was opening and gorging itself on Western technology and modernity, it makes it the perfect setting for a slightly alternative steam punk look. I've discussed on a previous post how steam punk evokes a strong sense of nostalgia mixed with the added idea of "what if". I got that same sense of nostalgia from Kenshin and the mix of the modern and the old. The steamships and old train cars rolling along with rickshaws, carriages and travelers on foot. It all creates another layer on the already nostalgic expanding of the Japanese civil struggle between tradition and progress.

Kenshin as a character is one of the most unique in the Jump manga I've read. I was reminded a lot of Yoh from Shaman King when I was seeing how controlled Kenshin is characterized. Considering that Kenshin came out years before Shaman King did, I should say that Kenshin's character was an influence on Takei. Both of these characters are usually seen as calm and collected throughout the manga. Of course, Kenshin actually is much more expressive when compared to Yoh, but that controlled reaction that they both exhibit is one and the same for me. I find it very refreshing since out of the Jump manga that I've read, which I admit has not been many, the main heroes are all usually hyper active and get annoying pretty quickly.

Of course no manga is perfect. Honestly, I felt that the last arc went on for too long. Granted, it set the stage to showcase that Yahiko had grown and was an equal part of their overall strength, but I felt that it just kept going when it could have ended at least 10 chapters earlier. The intrigue and manuvering of Enishi was good and it added a great amount of tension, but the final "4 Gods"? Really? Completely unnecessary to the story and all it did was add weeks onto the production. I guess we got to see Saitou, Sano, Aoshi, and Yahiko kick butt one last time. That is only a small consolation to me. I would have rather it had been left out entirely. As complaints go its a small one, but I felt that those four chapters could have been left out of the story line. 

All that being said, it really is the characters that made the manga so timeless. Kenshin is unique in characterization, but he still follows the Jump hero code. Sano is the wildcard friend, Yahiko the apprentice, Aoshi and Saitou the tight lipped former enemies, Megumi the confident woman and Kaoru as the ancor of the whole group. Everybody has a favorite and everybody has a least favorite. Out of all the characters, Kaoru was really the most compelling in the group. The many sides and facets that Watsuki showed of her made her much more dynamic, unlike Sano who stayed pretty static through the manga for me. She changed and developed, though sometimes I have to think about how her change was really less wild and more mature and womanly. She turned into a patient lover waiting for her man to come back to her, but could still wield that bamboo sword with skill.

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