Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rurouni Kenshin (1996 - 1998)


Himura Kenshin, formerly known for his brutal manslaying, has taken it upon himself to leave behind his violent ways, and now wanders Japan aiding those in need with his reverse blade sword. Haunted by his past, he meets local dojo master Kamiya Kaoru, and the two begin a deep friendship, and go on many harrowing journeys.

It's nearly impossible to review a series like Rurouni Kenshin by today's standards. It was a breakthrough in more ways than one, and laid the ground work for episodic samurai tales that would follow. Still, for a movie with as much dark and entrancing past, the series is a rather goofy and amusing affair.

Basically the series breaks down into three parts. There's the first 20 episodes or so, which are mostly episodic, and serve the purpose of introducing the key characters that will re-occur throughout the series. The second is what is commonly known as the Kyoto Arc, which is a single, near 40 episode, story that evolves and delves into the various established characters. Then there's the final 30 episodes which returns to the episode format, and is more of a "return home" series, and a cool down from the emotionally intense central arc.

It's hard to review these as a whole, but when stepping back the strengths and weakness of the entire story are rather well laid out throughout each. It's easy to say that the Kyoto Arc is the highlight. It's dark, action packed, and yet develops the characters, and exposes their various struggles, especially with their past. While on the other side of things, the first and last series are much more fun, and goofy, with some emotion, usually around side characters, introduced. Don't let that fool you though, some of the arcs will really hit you in the gut emotionally.

Compound that emotional impact with some absolutely beautiful imagery and animation, and it's no wonder the series gets so much love and respect. Personally, I was hooked from the get go. Watching all 95 episodes in about a week. The characters are fun, creative, and supplied with enough depth to make them interesting. Their relationship dynamics, and how that evolves, stands strong as a centerpoint to the series.

As for the downside of things, my complaints really lay in two parts. First, since our main character is such an incredibly powerful one, it's hard to take many of the challenges he faces seriously. And some attempts to make them more severe feel forced, and not all that effective. This is especially prevalent after the Kyoto Arc, and the raw intensity it presented. In some part this is due to the series heavy departure from the manga, avoiding Kenshin's personal, and painful, past and instead opting for a more episodic flair. Though this past is touched on in one of the OVAs (Trust and Betrayal).

The other is its approach to the romance. While the manga has no problem being a romance journey, the anime seems much less confident in the characters. Instead the series opts to dance around the issue. Throwing you reasons to believe it and reasons to doubt it, and while that works for some, after 95 episodes, just making up their minds would suffice... and, they never do. The final episode is the most painfully obvious testament to this. As it manages to offer nothing that episode 65, 30 prior offered in development.

But, the fact that you watch those 30 episodes is proof of just how well done the series is overall. These filler episodes, like any show, range from great to mediocre, but I found even the worst ones entertaining. If only they hadn't deviated so much from the anime, the final collection wouldn't feel so much like a stumble to the finish line. Then again, few shows know when to go out on top.

While Rurouni Kenshin is undoubtedly classic in the anime genre, and a truly enjoyable viewing experience, the strength of its middle section does highlight the weaknesses of the other two, as it drags out its finale with far too many filler episodes.

2 better thoughts:

Alex said...

Wow, I haven't watched this show for years but I remember really enjoying it. I never got around to finishing it though... maybe I'll sit down and watch all 95 (is it really that many?!) this summer.

I do remember being frustrated by the weaker filler episodes as compared to the darker, more character-driven ones, but I guess that happens with so many shows, anime or not.

Univarn said...

@Alex It's definitely a fun show, and yep that many.. and I watched them all.

Right now I'm going back and catching up on all the shows I missed in the 90's that came to the US during my heavy gaming phase, in which I watched no anime (and hardly any movies). So look for more of those :)

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