When I began watching Rurouni Kenshin I felt a prequel showing the creation and life of the “Manslayer”, its central character (a retired, remorseful assassin who has laid down arms but cannot escape the past he created) would be superfluous; it seemed as a series to be showing a very “Ryosuke Takahashi” tale of someone with a past they were unprepared to share being reminded of it and trying to deal with it in ways which did not get in the way of their new life – even if they had to give up on that second chance for the greater good (Chirico Cuvie in Armored Trooper VOTOMS being the obvious parallel here but this is a theme that even turns up, in more optimistic terms, in Guy in King of Braves Gaogaigar – prepared to take up the mantle of hero which he believes has irreversibly dehumanised him unto death). Nevertheless, I was strongly recommended Tsuioku-hen, the prequel OVA, as one of the best pieces of animation the recommender had seen and I was richly rewarded by how in its first episode it set up something that far exceeded the usual sort of supersoldier backstory or “dark past seeking redemption” tale.
Episode 1, The Man of the Slashing Sword, explains who Kenshin Himura is, and shows his “dark past” in a way which does not lavish in darkness or make him, necessarily, a lovable badass. Obviously it is very early days here, dealing with the man’s childhood and adolescence, but the “past” it is setting up as something that TV-series-era Kenshin is trying to escape is crucially one misinterpreted by everyone in that later period. The legendary “Manslayer”, killer without equal, central figure of a bloody revolution, scarred antihero – no. Instead the legend begins with a broken and manipulated child who filters his worldview through what he has experienced – described even by the mentor who saves his life as naïve and simple-minded. What drives him to kill and become the best killer is the fact he was unable to protect wrongdoers from murder at the hands of something worse; his mentor asks if he was trying to protect his family, but he replies that they were his kidnappers. This could easily be overly grimdark melodrama, but somehow it is not, perhaps because of the 30+ episodes of easygoing, selfless to a fault Kenshin I have already watched in the significantly funnier (when appropriate) series. His not quite self-destructive, but certainly extreme, humanity and selflessness come from having seen people die horribly – they were not good people, but he still felt something when they died because they had nevertheless been good enough people.
There is a useful digression here about this archetype of self-destructively selfless heroes in anime and Japanese games; it is an extremely difficult archetype to write plainly without becoming insufferable, which very much tainted my appreciation of Fate/Stay Night because when you get a distinctly more mundane boy (albeit still a wizard) telling his supersoldier ally to stand back because he’s got this it seems frustrating. In comparison, another approach is the strange writing of Rean Schwarzer in Trails of Cold Steel; he is a somewhat more Kenshin-like figure who spends all of the first game rejecting his own superpowers and opportunities to forge his own identity in favour of helping others amiably, and then in the second this is turned against him and he ends up an agent of the government because all he can apparently do is follow orders filtered through a simple sense of justice. This is both a good cipher for a video game hero in a game with optional romances and character arcs, and hugely frustrating in a piece of media where the player is privy to the bigger picture because the hero chooses to be heroically oblivious as long as he’s adhering to his own morals – and in Cold Steel 2 there is significant equivocation and dubious interpretations of political neutrality needed to make his viewpoint tenable, apparently setting up to an inevitable reversal in the third game.
So the young Kenshin – and the OVA makes it clear early on Kenshin is a pseudonym given by his wandering swordsman mentor – is trained to fight before he is trained to kill. He is taught the Mitsurugi style, central to the whole work of fiction, as a “protective” school of swordsmanship, a form of idealised chivalry really – the only time one should fight is to save lives. But this is filtered through a childhood memory of weakness, of not being able to protect, and so as Kenshin learns of the crises facing his country and the injustice many suffer under, he wants to use this; this is, of course, the classic martial arts setup. The student does not fully understand the lesson and runs away from the master, believing their martial arts are sufficient to do the right thing. But at this stage in the Kenshin story killing is still something that matters, it has moral weight (as it is, of course, building to the story of a Kenshin who does not want to kill any more and trains himself to fight without killing). The story of the student rejecting the master is told in snippets between the story of the creation of the Manslayer myth; the terrifying assassin who kills and kills and feels nothing. That nothingness is what matters; the Manslayer is not a wisecracking antihero, or a valiant theatrical hero, he is someone who kills and he reminds everyone he meets who assumes more of him that that is the case. When asked to be an aide he declines, saying all he can and should do is kill.
Thus the scenes of assassination are methodical, unexciting and furtive – a man in the shadows striking down his target and all witnesses no matter how they plead for their lives. They take place at night, are over quickly and methodically, and there is little buildup or fighting – this is not the work of a superhero. Only one even gets any kind of emotionality surrounding his death – the victim talking about his imminent marriage moments before he is struck down sees a vision of her as he dies, and it is this which sets the whole tragic arc that seems inevitable going. There are scenes in the daylight, even some showing the injustice that Kenshin wants to fight to end – the Shinsengumi walking about, the people intimidated by them. There is a war going on – but it seems to be being fought by people who aren’t Kenshin and all he is doing is killing on behalf of someone who wants to lay down their own arms. There is a sort of poetic cycle to this; come the television series, it is Kenshin who wants to lay down his arms (or at least stop shedding so much blood), and yet he was only put on this path by two men who feel themselves past war – one ill and one no longer wanting to fight. And, as they talk, they give a good summation of what the arc of this story is – he is the consummate assassin, terrifyingly skilled, and apparently not appalled by what he does. “His body has grown, but his mind is the same as it ever was” – he was driven to the sword by what he saw as a child and has clung onto that mindset, that the sword must do good. “He doesn’t display the stain of his actions on his conscience” – and yet, that conscience must, in time “surface, and then devour him.”
Were the young Kenshin’s exploits portrayed more heroically, it would be a weaker story and the prequel would retroactively weaken his portrayal in the series itself. Were he always a hero of justice, even when he was the Manslayer, there would be no interesting arc. It would be a retired superhero story, not a redemption or reconciliation story. Instead, he is being portrayed as a violent cipher, someone who filters his morality through past traumas and thus mutates murder into something chivalrous, a necessary evil. Necessary enough, but it is important to note here he becomes a hitman not a soldier. Someone who murders in the shadows for the “greater good” through the lens of those giving orders is not the same as someone who publicly takes up arms under a cause and banner to protect those in need of protection. And the episode ends with perhaps the most “exciting” fight – a rival hitman puts Kenshin in a much tougher position than his other victims – and yet this ends with a reminder we should not be enjoying his exploits. He kills the man brutally and sprays the fiancee of the first victim he is shown killing with the blood. This is the first witness to any of his actions.
“You caused the rain to bleed.”
This was not even a hit, it was self-defence – and yet it was, to an innocent bystander, no less terrifying and traumatic. Tsuioku-hen episode 1, with this final scene, confirms its quality and makes the story of the decline of Kenshin Himura compelling.