Looking back at a classic
As a small town kid in the early 2000s, anime sprung into my life like the tendrils of an alien culture reaching into my mundane reality, promising a pastel-soaked world where hyper-competent kids could save the day from scheming Big Bads. From the histrionic card-flinging of Yu-Gi-Oh! to the lazy adventuring of Pokémon, shonen anime—action-oriented fare targeted at teenage boys—tore a swath through my fellow freaks and outcasts with an almost eerie precision, giving us a sort of shared sin. If we couldn’t hold court with the Cool Kids, at least we could be loners together, in this tiny way.
Near the tail end of elementary school, I made a concerted effort to immerse myself in the lingua franca of my fellow geeks, Dragon Ball Z. From a distance, I was never that drawn to its mix of hypermasculine scream-battles and technicolor energy blasts, but I was sick of sitting in a room by myself, so I took the plunge. I stomached just enough to sidle my way into a small group of my peers, where we would discuss how Goku would save the day this week, or whether or not there was a such thing as Super Saiyan 5.
Though I lacked the vocabulary for it, the brazen artificiality of DBZ’s theatrics struck me as hollow entertainment even then. No matter how many hits Goku takes, no matter how many of his friends succumb to their wounds, he rises with messianic might to vanquish his foes with yet another secret technique he pulls from his sleeve at the last possible second. Like Superman, while he has some physical weaknesses, he has no discernable flaws as a character, no sharp edges to wrap an arc or hook around. Not even death can put a damper on his bland nice-guy shtick. His enemies are megalomaniacal monsters whose plans never evolve beyond grand visions of razed planets and enslaved masses.
As my friends outgrew DBZ’s brand of superpowered heroics at the outset of middle school, the popularity of all anime waned among my friend group, replaced by the usual spate of adolescent pursuits that a goody-two shoes like me would never dare to try. Still, I kept watching those Toonami blocks, hoping to find an alternative that truly stirred me. It eventually came in the form of Rurouni Kenshin, a period drama about a wandering ronin trying to atone for his murky past as an assassin for hire. I didn’t realize at the time, but I recognize now that Kenshin worked so well for me because it deftly countered the excess of shows like DBZ almost point-by-point, in turn making hay of the shonen genre’s usual weaknesses.
While I’m tempted to call Kenshin a “deconstruction” of shonen’s assumptions and tropes, I’d like to distance myself from that particular framing. For one, the very concept has become such a critical buzzword that it’s stripped of almost all its meaning, shattering on contact like a tool that’s been used one too many times. For another, Kenshin’s critique of the shonen genre is nothing so barbed as a Madoka or an Evangelion—it’s more of a refinement than an outright reinvention.
The first season of the show follows a very typical shonen pattern, as we watch Kenshin defend his adopted home of the Kamiya dojo from a variety of interlopers and bullies. As with DBZ, the cast of supporting characters including love interest Kaoru Kamiya mostly serve as either simple plot-bait, comic relief, or a collective proxy for the audience to admire the protagonist’s superhuman abilities. However, once figures from Kenshin’s past start to emerge one by one, the show’s more measured approach begins to reveal itself.
In episode 7, a fellow hitokiri (man-slayer) named Jinei kidnaps Kaoru and forces Kenshin to duel him in a nearby shrine, with the express goal of bringing the peace-loving ronin’s more violent side back to the fore. Though Kenshin manages to defeat him, it’s only a plaintive cry from Kaoru that stops him from killing Jinei outright, shocking him out of his man-slayer persona.
From then on, the show rarely relies on high-intensity sword-swinging alone to build the tension—after all, the outcome of a baddie-of-the-week’s clash with Kenshin is all but assured. Rather, it’s the protagonist’s own internal conflict against his past self that drives Rurouni Kenshin’s core drama, especially in its much-lauded Kyoto Arc. You know that Kenshin will win the battle, but what does that matter if he loses his humanity in the process?
In many shonen programs, as with a lot of media aimed at young people, there’s an almost-Manichean worldview, where those who aren’t allied with the—often-comically young—main character are considered avatars of unbridled evil. Rurouni Kenshin has its fair share of merciless killers, sure, but several of its most memorable characters fall on the gray side of the spectrum, both fighting with Kenshin and against him, depending on the situation.
My personal favorite is Aoshi Shinomori, a former commander of a covert unit who turns to mercenary work to try to feed his men, only to watch all of them die one by one at the hands of his rich employer after Kenshin defeats them all. Traumatized by their deaths, Aoshi blames the former man-slayer for their deaths, and joins forces with the charismatic but nihilistic Makoto Shishio to get his revenge. While Shishio is certainly a “bad guy” in every sense, Aoshi’s actions display a twisted sort of logic that makes him difficult to root against, one of the marks of a great character.
But more than anything else, it’s Rurouni Kenshin’s sense of wounded history that most strikes me today as counter to the greater shonen aesthetic. The show’s creator Nobuhiro Watsuki based many members of its cast of larger-than-life characters on real-world figures from the Meiji era, and their portrayals are laden with a tone of shared suffering, of a country still recovering from the flames of war.
Though Kenshin may disagree with unapologetic villains like Shishio, the antagonists are never depicted as anything worse than misguided boy soldiers, leveraged as tools by nobles and imperialists who cast them aside like broken toys when they had no more use for them. Though their goals hurt many people, you ultimately understand why they wish to do that evil, and that makes all the difference when compared to the maniacal laughter of a tyrant like Frieza.
At the close of the show’s second season, Kenshin falls into the usual shonen trap, piling episodes and episodes onto a story that has largely been told. Since the airing of the classic anime, constant reboots have worn down the series’ charms, and it remains undoubtedly tainted by creator Watsuki’s arrest for possession of child pornography in 2017. But for eleven-year-old me, Rurouni Kenshin was the first intimation that anime could be something more than a saturday-morning showdown between two martial arts superheroes. Today’s most popular shonen programs reflect many of Kenshin’s most influential artistic choices—especially Deku’s underdog shtick on My Hero Academia—and I think the genre is better for it.