Text: Jedd Jong Images: © Nobuhiro Watsuki/SHUEISHA, Rurouni Kenshin Committee

A lone hero steps into a town, trying to escape his tortured past as he finds new purpose defending the defenceless. It’s an archetype with enduring mystique and appeal, appearing in Samurai stories and Westerns alike, as well as other genres. The Rurouni Kenshin franchise’s titular hero, loosely based on the historical figure Kawakami Gensai, is one of the premier examples of this character type.

The manga Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story (subtitled Wandering Samurai in some English versions), written and illustrated by Nobuhiro Watsuki, ran from 1994 to 1999 and was serialised in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine. Watsuki continued the original run with the Restoration, Master of the Flame, and The Hokkaido Arc storylines. This successful title spawned an anime series that ran from 1996 to 1998, three original video animations (OVAs), five live-action movies, and multiple video games. Now, the manga has inspired a new anime adaptation, which, like the previous series, is simply titled Rurouni Kenshin.

The story takes place in the late 19th century, as the Bakumatsu Period gives way to the Meiji Restoration era and Japan is undergoing modernisation. A lone wanderer named Kenshin Himura (Soma Saito) meets Kaoru Kamiya (Rie Takahashi), the owner of a struggling local dojo in Tokyo. A menacing, musclebound figure claiming to be Hitokiri Battousai, a highly skilled assassin who disappeared at a crucial moment in the war, is on a murderous rampage, terrorising the townsfolk. It turns out that he is an impostor, and Kenshin is the true Battousai, deciding to leave his violent warrior identity behind. Kenshin and Kaoru are joined by street urchin Myōjin Yahiko (Makoto Koichi), fighter-for-hire Sagara Sanosuke (Taku Yashiro), and physician Takani Megumi (Saori Ōnishi). Kenshin reinvents himself as a man of peace, but he must call on his deadly skills as he is haunted by spectres of his past.

This new take on Rurouni Kenshin, often shortened to RuroKen, is a revised adaptation of the manga, not a sequel to the previous anime series. But it is made by people with an abiding love for both. Director Hideyo Yamamoto read the manga and watched the original anime growing up and has an affinity for the OVAs that expanded on the story.

Similarly, lead voice actor Saito is a dyed-in-the-wool Rurouni Kenshin fan. “I watched the Kenshin anime series and read the original manga when I was in elementary school, and even as a child, I admired the way Kenshin, Sanosuke, and the other characters fought their way to the top in the great battles,” he tells Animage.

Kaoru has always been an important part of Kenshin’s story, and while the franchise is mostly known for its action, romance still plays a big part in its appeal. “Kaoru is a woman who is full of joy, anger, sorrow, and emotion,” voice actress Takahashi says. “But on the other hand, she is also a master of Kamiya Kasshin-ryu (the kenjutsu fighting style developed by Kaoru’s late father) and has the determination to carry her own weight. She has both the coolness and the girlishness appropriate for her age.”

This series aims to be faithful to the manga while also updating the style slightly to suit modern sensibilities. For example, the characters’ expressions are generally less cartoony, and there’s less overt slapstick than in the original anime, while the action scenes are more dynamic and intense, and Kenshin’s swordsmanship is more pronounced. While some fans feel the emotional beats in the original anime are more effective than those in this remake, many have also acknowledged that there seems to be less filler material in this adaptation, which sticks closely to the manga storylines.

There is no denying that Rurouni Kenshin has an outsized impact on popular culture and that the tale of Kenshin continues to resonate. A second season, subtitled Tokyo Disturbance, is due to premiere in October 2024. While the original anime series remains a classic, this adaptation is the one that will likely resonate more with the younger generation and is a success in its own right.

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Rurouni Kenshin

Upon the arrival of the new era the Battosai disappeared from the public eye, leaving behind just his legend.

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