Saturday, June 14, 2014

Nitpickery: Rurouni Kenshin

Hey y'all.  So I was working some overnights in my bookstore to shift the shelves around, and we'd have lunch breaks (where I work we always call food breaks "lunch"), and we'd bought in some manga.  Now, I want to like Japanese comics, but the trouble is, many of them are just so dang weird and some outright demented.  That, and I'm not interested in looking at panty shots or girls with boobs too big to walk straight. Seriously, Japan, what's up with that?  Well, not that American comics are much better in that regard, but at least our superhero sluts are in proportion, and also of legal age.

Whatever, that's a debate I'll leave for another day.  I'll just say for now that the only manga I've really cared for to this point is Azumanga Daioh, Yotsuba to, Hollow Fields, and Sarasah.  Thing is, one of those is written by a European, two are by the same guy, and the last is Korean manhwa.  It's kinda hard to recommend a manga when that's my entire knowledge of the genre.  Well, I've seen the Lucky Star anime, but that was boring.

So anyway, during one of my lunch breaks, I picked up Fushigi Yuugi.  Well, too much rape, nudity, and mysticism meant that it was a no.  Seriously, Japan, nudity with school age girls?  Okay, fine, I'll stop blaming a whole country for one artist's perversion.  Moving on...

What did I try next?  Rurouni Kenshin, by Nobuhiro Watsuki!

This is the story of a wandering man, Himura Kenshin, seeking redemption for his past sins in bringing about the Meiji era in Japan.  He vows to protect the weak while never killing again.  He ends up staying with the female teacher Kamiya Kaoru, in her kenjutsu dojo, along with other characters that get picked up as Kenshin's good nature helps him befriend and rescue others from the depraved monsters and abandoned warriors of the previous era.

So how is this manga?  Well, it has several good points.  For one, there aren't boobs and a half in it.  Only one chick is immodest, and she's at least not top-heavy.  For two, this manga is vaguely based on reality, having characters based on and pulled from real Japanese history.  Granted, all the swordplay in this manga is more or less mystic fantasy, but where the author could pull from history, he did.  This particularly shows in the increasing use of guns and explosives as the story goes on.

Nitpickery is spoilers.

I want to say I like this manga.  In fact, up to the end of the Megumi storyline, it was great.  However, it has a number of problems with it that end up slowly sinking the plot, like a leak in a boat.

The first mistake isn't so bad.  That is, the word "rurouni" means "wanderer".  Kenshin spends basically the entire manga in Kaoru's dojo in Tokyo.  The wandering promised in the title was never delivered.  The thing about wandering is that you can encounter anything on your travels, and that would bring a lot of interesting settings.  However, because you don't have to have a wandering protagonist to have a good story, this isn't really a problem.  It's just something that's odd.

Another trouble is fading characters.  What I mean is, characters that start out strong, but then sort of fade towards the end.  This doesn't happen to all, or even most of the characters, but it does happen to the more important ones.  The orphan Yahiko, for example, has a really great backstory about being the son of a samurai family, but is forced to pickpocket to survive until Kenshin saves him and takes him to be Kaoru's student.  This is very interesting, and occasionally Yahiko uses his pickpocket skills for good, but he just ends up some idealistic kid who wants most of all to fight with swords.  His original bickering with Kaoru, which could have been a long plotline about him learning to be polite, ends up only being faintly acknowledged in the end.  He turns out to be who is probably the most boring character in the book.

Kaoru herself, who started out as a spicy character who was determined to make sure her father's fighting dojo remained in business, ends up fading almost as strongly as Yahiko.  Her attitude dulls, and she almost never actually picks up her sword, aside from the occasional training bit with her student.  It's kinda sad that the ten year old gets more fighting time than the person actually teaching him.

The trouble is, Nobuhiro doesn't seem to have really rich characters.  Sure, many of them are interesting, but they don't seem to have depth.  They have a few characteristics, and they have a backstory, but they don't feel like real people.  Every so often Nobuhiro has to have one of his characters do something typical of them, like having Yahiko fight with Kaoru, Kaoru to fail to cook something properly, or Kenshin to say "oro!" just to remind us that they're still the same people.

Of course, Nobuhiro does have some good characters.  In particular, Sagara Sanosuke is pretty genius.  Sanosuke, when young was a part of Sekiho army, which was betrayed by those who brought about the Meiji era.  Sanosuke was too young at the time to have much involvement, so he lived, but forever hated people like Kenshin, who were associated with Meiji's current leaders.  Sanosuke, in the ten years of the Meiji era, became a street fighter who fought with anyone who challenged him and never paid his many bar tabs.  Of all the characters, Sanosuke is the most consistent, and his sudden change to Kenshin's friend and then progress towards being a better person don't stop him from being a hot headed, interesting dude.

Another good character is Saito Hajime, who is literally based on a real person.  While Saito is a pretty mysterious character, he has a rivalry with Kenshin, based on the fact that they were on opposite sides during the Bakumatsu war.  He starts off as a villain who intends to kill Kenshin, then turns reluctant ally because of his job as a member of the police.  However, the long alliance with Kenshin against enemies who truly are evil dulls Saito's desire to kill Kenshin, and he lets the grudge go.

Saito is amazing.  He has a great design, a cool-headed mindset, and actually kills people, unlike Kenshin with his no-kill vow.  Yes, that's a good thing about him, oddly enough.  His philosophy of Aku Soku Zan ("kill evil immediately") is friggin' amazing.  Sure, he's rarely the forefront of the plot, but as a mysterious side character, he's pretty great.

The third problem with this story is the incomprehensible repetitiveness of the plot.  What I mean is, each storyline begins with an insanely powerful person who relates in some way to Kensin's past as the Hitokiri Batousai (sword-drawing manslayer), and it's hammered into the reader's head how this new guy is the toughest thing ever.  And then Kenshin pulls a new sword move out of his butt and defeats them anyway.

For the first several stories, this wasn't the case.  Kenshin is allowed to be powerful, and he scares off a gangster pretending to be him at the beginning (the act that makes Kaoru trust him), then rescues Yahiko from a life of crime, and then encounters Sanosuke almost randomly, where the latter challenges him to the fight.  Sure, Sanosuke's introduction is a hint of what is to come with the antagonists seeking revenge, but it works here because it's obvious Sanosuke isn't a real warrior like the antagonists, but rather a passionate man who really isn't stronger than Kenshin.  His addition to the series gives Kenshin someone to react to.

Another good plot is when Kenshin rescues Megumi, the medically trained girl who is forced to make drugs for an industrialist.  It is, however, the point where things start to get wonky for the series.  It's where characters start getting introduced all willy-nilly.  This is the point where the more unique fighters become walking gimmicks -- one guy uses illusions to deceive his enemies, another lights a bag of oil in his mouth with his flint teeth -- and it's where the industrialists/non sword fighters become abusive wimps who can't do anything for themselves but tend to freak out and try to kill the fighters they themselves hired.

Megumi herself, however, starts out really good.  She's not entirely a morally good character, and yet she even threatens to kill herself rather than make drugs for her master anymore.  She had depth.  And then she turned into the generic doctor character who sometimes makes comments on liking Kenshin, and that Kaoru should take good care of him.  Meh.  I knew there was a problem when the author described her as "flirtatious", when even early on she only teased Kenshin mildly about liking him, and never teased anyone else.  Unless mocking Sanosuke counts.  Then again, the "flirtatious" comment was made in an english translation, so it's possible that wasn't what the author meant.

I think the storyline that impacted me the most in this story was the one that had the least impact on the overall plot of this manga.  It was the most emotional, and showed the real hero side of Kenshin.  A man named Raijuita is a sword fighting teacher to Yahiko's young rival, Yutaro.  Only it turns know what, I'm not going to spoil this one.  Sure, nitpickery is all about spoilers, but all I really want to say about this storyline is that it's really good, really emotional, and has consequences for the characters.  There's no need to ruin a perfectly good story.

That brings me to the fourth problem with Rurouni Kenshin.  Too many of the stories have no consequences for any of the characters.  This isn't a problem at first, as the early stories add characters to the roster and affect how Kenshin lives.  Later, however, starting into the Shishio storyline, nothing means anything.  Sure, they go to Kyoto and meet new people and whatever, but things start to get tedious.  New characters don't impact Kenshin's life in any meaningful way.  Fights that would be the fight of a lifetime for any normal person are done and done again.  Every new rival for Kenshin is a superhuman mofo who gets defeated after a long, drawn out fight while the fighters chat backstory and the watchers discuss sword strategy like they're watching a football game.

Sure, the Shishio plotline starts out great.  Shishio, an assassin who was on the same side as Kenshin during the Bakumatsu war that led to the Meiji era, decides he wants to take over Japan.  He assassinates a good politician (who is based on someone in real life) and gathers an army of men to destroy the Meiji era.  A sweet looking young man becomes his most dangerous killer.  Sanosuke gets some quick training from a former monk, but leaves before he can find out that the monk is one of Shishio's men.  Kenshin encounters a village where they're all being murdered and oppressed by Shishio's men.  This storyline is in fact mostly good, but signs of strain really begin to appear.

Still, I like how it ended.  Shishio, at one point in his past, was burnt alive, and is constantly wrapped in bandages.  Since Kenshin can't kill him (but really should), Shishio ends up dying from not being able to sweat -- since he can't regulate his temperature, he can't do anything strenuous for longer than fifteen minutes.  He takes too long, and despite sacrificing the aforementioned only boobalicious woman in the manga, he fails to win the fight and ends up setting his own blood on fire.  So not realistic, but very dramatic.

Shishio Makoto

And I like that there's a scene in hell (represented as a place that's nothing but bones), and Shishio, his hot chick, and his assistant all meet up to try to take over hell.  It's kind of adorable.  It's like a "happily ever after" for an evil mofo, but in a way that doesn't hurt the good guys.  Very original.

This is still where things get iffy.  Nobuhiro really should have inserted a filler or fluff story after the Shishio plotline, but he doesn't.  Kenshin's fights become all the same.  Another superhuman mofo appears, and gets defeated with some new fighting strategy or with talking.  Bigger superhuman, longer fight.

This is a personal problem, but I have to say that I think fight scenes are really boring.  Sure, some aren't, but that's because they're fights that tell stories, or because I'm watching them live.  If it's lines artfully scribbled on a page and I have no idea what's going on, I don't care.  I have to ask if other people find that entertaining.   If others find it fun, I'll give that a pass, but I ended up just skipping fight pages until talking started again.

But back to the no consequences thing.  This is the point where Sanosuke injured his right hand, but it never recovers fully.  Megumi constantly urges him to not use his hand so that it can set right, but he always does. And there's never any consequences.  Kenshin likewise pushes himself in fight after fight against superhuman mofo, and yet his health only comes up as an issue near the end, when he doesn't have any more serious fighting to do.

Also, note that none of Kenshin's friends die.  They all fight their own superhuman mofos, but never die or are seriously injured.  Yahiko the ten year old kid never receives any injuries that pain or scar him in later years. Policemen don't arrest anyone, criminals don't get frightened of them, and they don't acquire a reputation in Tokyo.  Meh.

I will say, Sanosuke had a great storyline later on where he visited his hometown again, and that was funny as mess because it actually recalled old villains and put Sanosuke in a situation that didn't involve the rest of the manga, aside from his personal ending.

Basically, I wish there was some variety.  Variety would have made it feel like I was in a different world, one with its own rules, history, and people to meet.  As it is, it's very cartoony.  A lot more cartoony than shonen manga usually is.  Though to be fair, maybe some people really like cartoony manga.  I can't object to it if it has an audience.

Speaking of cartoony, look at the cuteness!  By Felwyn.  Left to right: Kenshin, Misao, Sanosuke, Kaoru, Yohiko.

The fifth problem with Rurouni Kenshin is that it's just too darn easy for Kenshin to keep his vow. Characters that antagonized Kenshin get convinced, in one fight no less, that they don't want to be his enemy anymore.  That's awful convenient for a protagonist that doesn't kill people.  The ones that do want to kill him later, such as Saito, end up liking him as much as their personality allows.  A giant former samurai is convinced to let go of his grudge on Kenshin simply because someone told him samurai shouldn't be angry at each other.  Sanosuke goes from violently hating anyone associated with the Meiji leadership, and yet suddenly becomes Kenshin's best friend.

The worst example of this is Seto Sojiro, the sweet killer I mentioned before.  As a child, he lost his parents and was forced to live with cruel relatives.  When Shishio, recently escaped from being burnt alive, hides out in the family barn, Sojiro helps him.  Shishio gives him a sword, which Sojiro uses to kill his family.  Shishio accepts Sojiro as his protege, and trains him to kill, saying that the strongest survive in life.

Quite frankly, Sojiro is an amazing villain.  He has a sweet appearance, but kills well and without hesitation. And suddenly with one fight, he changes his mind, because "if the strong always win, then why is this protector of the weak victorious?"   Realistically, wouldn't he have claimed that Kenshin was making Japan weak by protecting the weak?  No, instead he acts as though Kenshin has made a logical argument with his sword, and then goes to wander and "find the truth" about whether Shishio or Kenshin is right.

Laaaaame.  Sojiro was practically raised by Shishio, and there's no reason for him to abandon his master or his master's philosophies just because he got beaten in one sword fight.   Nobuhiro spends so much time building up Sojiro's villainy, but then dissolves it too quickly.

That's most of the villains.  The rest of the people he fights end up killing themselves, on purpose or by accident.  Kenshin is so easily allowed to not break his vow that it really ends up being cheap.  It even feels like a relief when Saito kills some of the baddies so that you know they won't come back anymore.

You can be anti-capital punishment all you want, but apparently Meiji Japan doesn't believe in lifetime imprisonment (or else it just never appears as an option in the manga).  So many guys are out there, killing and pillaging, and it's simply too ridiculous to believe that all of them will accept their beating from Kenshin and never hurt anyone ever again.  Criminals don't work that way, particularly if they're not injured or don't have a reason to want to return to a peaceful life.

Sure, it's nice for Nobuhiro to go on about not killing, particularly considering modern culture, but he doesn't make a convincing enough argument about why killing is wrong.  He doesn't say that killing leads to more killing, or that the world gets along better morally and economically when people drop their grudges. Nobuhiro just goes on about fighting as a form of self defense -- which works a lot better when Saito kills a guy.  I mean, seriously, Kenshin fights all manner of insane, violent, oppressive mofos, people who are really beyond redemption.  If you're going to say not to kill them, then you need a viable substitute for dealing with these guys.


The sixth problem, kind of a nitpick, is that backstory is given too easily.  Sure, I want to know where all the characters come from, but it's sort of annoying that they characters chat in the middle of a fight about where the baddie originates, particularly since all the baddies end up being people from Kenshin's past springing up from the grass for no reason besides the plot wants it to happen.  While this isn't a huge problem, it does make reading the manga really tedious, particularly at the end.  A slow reveal of backstory through Kenshin or another character discovering it has a lot more tension.

I mention all these problems, but that's not to say that there's nothing good about the series.  I love the first half of it, and there was a lot of potential for this story to be great and more interesting than it turned out to be.  Despite its flaws, I still highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to get a better understanding of Japanese culture and find a few things you can look up on the internet to find out more about Japanese history.  Cool stuff.

However, on a storytelling level, Nobuhiro had several options he could have taken to make the story itself more compelling:

- Have Kenshin wander more.

By exposing Kenshin to new environments, Kenshin could have met new people and had new adventures.  Actually, wandering could have served as sort of a prologue to the story.  Kenshin almost zero wandering in this manga, despite being a rurouni.  He could have wandered at the beginning, meeting characters who would become important later and then meet up with Kaoru.  That way, the reader would get to see rather than just be told that Kenshin's past is something he "can't escape".

- Give Kaoru more students, and more plot.

Okay, so Kenshin is supposed to have stopped wandering because he likes Kaoru, right?  So it needs to be established why Kaoru is so special, particularly when Kenshin's last relationship ended horribly.  A possible explanation for Kenshin trusting Kaoru to this degree is that as a sword-fighting teacher, she's stronger than Tomoe, Kenshin's first love, and is less likely to make stupid fighting mistakes (I won't spoil Tomoe's plotline, but I'll just say she made a very dumb choice). So we need to see Kaoru fight, rather than just be the victim of the latest scheme of the next superhuman baddie.

Kaoru, first of all, should gain more students.  Her school's reputation was damaged by gangsters in the first issue, but over time shouldn't that reputation disappear, particularly when the best swordfighter they've ever known stays at her dojo?  She should gain more students, and whether they become important characters or not, it gives Kaoru something to do besides cook poorly and stare at Kenshin with "Disney eyes"(tm), in the hopes he survives whatever he's fighting.  Besides, Sanosuke is elevated as a character by having plotlines that don't involve Kenshin, and as a bigger character than Sanosuke, Kaoru should really have a plotline or two of her own.

- Focus on different characters more.

This goes along with what I said above, but it isn't technically necessary so long as the major characters get more time.  It really depends on how long Nobuhiro intended to make this manga.  Given that the manga ended only a little bit after explaining how Kenshin got over his past, perhaps Nobuhiro intended it only to last a little while.  But if he wanted Kenshin to be a much more long lived character, one who would be the bread and butter of the author, he could have given plotlines to more obscure characters or even villains. This would give more emphasis to the world of Rurouni Kenshin, and make Meiji Japan as the manga shows it feel like a much bigger place.

Or he could, y'know, just characters more interesting things to do during Kenshin's plotlines.

- Give Kenshin a conflict unrelated to his past.

The problem with troubled characters is that it's very easy for them to become whiny emo kids.  That's why the author has to put them in situations where they can deal with other issues besides their own, or else end whatever troubles they have so that the character can move on.  Kenshin, particularly after the death of Shishio, just goes on and on about his struggles to redeem his killer's past.  He can't accept the arrival of the Meiji era as evidence that his work led to good, and old enemies desiring revenge keep popping up, so the narrative becomes very, very repetitive, particularly during fight scenes.

Repetitive works in techno, not in literature.  And it doesn't always work in techno.

So basically, there needed to be some mini stories, like of Kenshin buying some rice but having some trouble in town to deal with.  The kind of trouble that doesn't involve fighting with swords.  Or maybe helping Kaoru with students.  Or more of that gambling with Sanosuke stuff.  Just anything where we get to see Kenshin's non-warrior side.  Or maybe catch him off guard and get him into a fistfight instead of a swordfight.

- Have Kenshin break his vow or think that he does.

I'm suspicious Nobuhiro wanted to create a hero who doesn't need to use killing to bring about justice, so this one is optional.  Still, it's a potential way to bring about interesting storylines and mature Kenshin's outlook as a person.  And get rid of those annoying baddies who just plain should be killed.

- Either have Kenshin's health be a serious issue or ignored entirely.

The trouble with Kenshin becoming too weak to fight anymore is that it becomes an issue right when Kenshin is done fighting almost everyone who needed to fight him.  The only one left is Saito, but who by that time has given up on fighting Kenshin.  So it's never a problem.

Thing is, the health problems brought up could have been hugely interesting.  There's apparently a way to injure someone so that they can't hold a sword anymore, so that's a direction that the writer could have gone. Or maybe Kenshin has to force himself to fight though he can't anymore, so he has to use his intelligence to win instead.

The other option is to never have Kenshin's injuries heal and never be mentioned again.  Sure, it's not the best option, given that this is supposed to be somewhat historical as a manga, but people have liked basically invincible good guys before.  Like Batman or Superman.  Sure, you can call Superman a cheap hero all you want, but that doesn't stop the fact he's been around for decades and isn't showing any sign of disappearing. There's no reason Kenshin couldn't do something like that.  I'm sure it's happened before in manga.

In any case, either route would have been fine.  One makes the health issues more interesting, and the other forces the plot to choose alternate directions for interest.  Both are better than mentioning injuries and disability when neither have a chance to impact anything dramatic.

- Involve Kenshin in politics.

So it's stated here and there throughout the manga that people who were once hitokiri (manslayers) like Kenshin have risen into political positions.  Clearly Kenshin doesn't want that for himself, but that doesn't mean he should ignore his potential in that area.  It could be an interesting way to go for him to either have to involve himself in politics or want to so that he can help one of his friends.  Or if he chooses to use political influence rather than fight someone.  Say there's this really bad mofo who deserves to be killed, so Kenshin has to just avoid him entirely to keep his vow.  That would have been a lot of fun too.

The basic problem with Rurouni Kenshin, as you may gather from all the ways that I think could have improved it, is that I don't feel it was expanded enough.  Not necessarily from a length standpoint, but from a character standpoint.  The only main character that gets enough expansion as a person is Sanosuke, and he's the only one I care to know more about.  Besides Yutaro, Yahiko's barely there rival.  Yutaro was amazing, for the few pages he showed up.  Saito is of course great, for his few appearances.

All the rest of the characters?  I didn't really care.  Kaoru was nice, but never got any attention.  Yahiko was really annoying, and never did anything more than whine about how he needed to get stronger.  There are some girls at a restaurant in town, but they're generic side characters.  There's this really annoying ninja girl who was literally added to the plot a brief time when Kaoru wasn't available specifically to be "the female hero".  She has not the slightest bit of depth.

I could go on.  Point is, even Kenshin himself was never built on after the beginning of the manga, making all his later stories just repeats of everything he did before -- fighting some superhuman mofo that wants to turn him back into "hitokiri battousai" so that he'll be the fighter again.  Over and over again.

In other words, if you're after lots of action and fighting, well here you go.  Rurouni Kenshin is definitely worth reading.  Especially if you don't nitpick.

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