Prior to watching Rurouni Kenshin I was unaware that Ryosuke Takahashi, a producer of science-fiction anime I greatly respect, had worked on it. And yet, as I watch it, I can certainly see how his experience in working within a very different genre pays off and elevates Kenshin above what I initially expected. Kenshin is ultimately a fantastical period drama, set in an interesting and real period of history and adding supernatural elements to it. Yet on a fundamental level its setup is not significantly unlike Takahashi’s science-fiction works; it is a series, behind its visual comedy and comfortable, sometimes moralistic early episodes, about a confused post-war world and someone who is no less of a supersoldier and outsider than Eiji from Layzner or Chirico from VOTOMS.
Much is made in Kenshin about how its protagonist is seeking to escape his past as a great warrior – Kenshin Himura the Manslayer wants to lay down his sword and live among people sworn to pacifism and protecting the weak without killing. The chief moral conflicts come from the apparent impossibility of resolving armed conflict without killing – the moral high ground is shown to be desirable to right-thinking people, yet unpopular with the wider world. Pacifist protagonists who use godlike skill of arms to win “bloodlessly” are commonplace in mecha anime, and are depicted with varying levels of success. There is a constant risk of inherent sanctimony to the idea that a hero can rise above lesser people who have to kill and simply end wars with a single non-lethal strike. Messianic figures in this vein are walking a fine line between relatable principles (if war is necessary, it should be fought as cleanly as possible and brought to the swiftest end possible) and becoming a mere spectacle. I commonly return to Gundam AGE as an incredibly poor example of this kind of “fighting in the name of pacifism”, because once it establishes Kio’s nonlethal methods as the “right” ones there is very little tension between the ease of holding a viewpoint and the difficulty of enacting it. The greater the power gap between the pacifist and the warmongers the less difficult being principled seems – fine in theory, but generally poor for dramatic tension which is the root of enjoyable television.
He may not be a Takahashi character but Kenshin reminds me, in many ways, of Loran Cehak from the later series Turn-A Gundam. Turn-A is, I feel, one of a small number of Gundam series that really shows the way in which killing can become the path of least resistance to ideological change, and how if one wants to pursue an alternative one must work for it, because the enemy will not accommodate it. There are similar themes of displacement and the soldier within unfamiliar surroundings explored, although pursuing the comparisons beyond thematic resemblance does not hold much weight (Kenshin is very much about trying to fit in in a post-war world, while Turn-A is about trying to end a needless war). The important comparison is how both series show the oxymoron of pacifist fighting as something difficult, something relying on voluntarily handicapping yourself. Kenshin fights with his trademark reverse-blade sword, something that appears harmless but has the potential to kill if used with exceptional skill. He is constantly reinventing the skills that made him a legenday super-soldier for pacifist ends – and this is what makes the series so Takahashi. Eiji, the hero of Blue Comet SPT Layzner, is superficially a typical mecha anime hero – alien prince with a dark secret and powerful prototype mech which could allow him to fight for Earth’s sake. But Layzner portrays him as a pacifist, because his “dark secret” is that the war he is positioned to win with his powerful robot should not be happening. The first Layzner OVA – a recap of the series’ first arc – plays with this idea by showing that as someone abandoning his people, the Gradosians, to try and make peace the act of fighting to defend his new allies divides his loyalties.
From the other angle, Kenshin is a series about post-war reconstruction. It is set during a fantasy take on the Meiji restoration, and uses remnants of various factions and the unwillingness of society to accept new rule as enemies and conflicts. This, too, is a theme found across Takahashi’s science-fiction; Fang of the Sun Dougram is a story of insurgency and the difficulty of holding on to empires, while the aesthetics, and indeed some of the plot beats, of Armoured Trooper VOTOMS are redolent of post-WW2 Japan. Takahashi’s anime are elevated, I feel, by this drawing on the past (and indeed on historical fiction); for another example, the Cold War setting of Layzner works well as a political backdrop for a story of paranoia and mysterious alien allies. So, too, the Meiji-set Kenshin explores how for some peace is a chance to rebuild while for others it is subjugation – there is the tension between helping maintain order and becoming a tool of the new regime, the differences of opinion in how strictly the new regime should be enforced etcetera. Thus again the theme of alienation; much as Eiji needs to, with the help of idealistic youths who should have been symbols of peace and hope, convince mankind to set aside national differences to face a greater threat, Kenshin tries to remain true to his own morals and help even-handedly. He fought in the wars of the past and now wants to lay down arms, now only fighting on personal moral grounds.
All told, Rurouni Kenshin is elevated far above much within its genre and I feel while it is not always directly comparable with Takahashi’s other works, the elements of them which elevate them above – in ambition, if not always in execution – their own genre shine through in it. One can see thematic lines between, say, VOTOMS, Layzner and Kenshin – the displaced superhero, the difficulty of walking a pacifist path. Similarly the historical literacy of Takahashi’s military science-fiction shines through in how the series makes use of its Meiji-era setting. But it is its own thing as well; it is much more human and funny for one. It puts a serious, troubled hero in a lighthearted setting and offers a character forced to work for pacifism and nonviolence without sanctimony.