Saturday, March 30, 2013

Finishing Anime - Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen

     For those needing some context, Rurouni Kenshin is a fairly popular shounen series from the mid-late 90's about a swordsman who has sworn to never kill again, after serving as an assassin in the Bakamatsu.

     Let's talk about it, shall we?

      Despite being shounen, this series is actually more for the mid- or quarter-life crisis crowd in a lot of ways. Its themes encompass the value of life, the futility (or hope) of fighting for your beliefs, whether or not you can make up for past mistakes, and how much you are ruled by your past. What makes it stand out in this regard, though, is its pure (but not cheap) positive take on all these things. All life (including your own) is precious. Your past doesn't rule your present. Hold true to your beliefs. You can accomplish your goals without sacrificing what's important to you, and you can atone for any sin. That is perhaps the theme with the greatest prevalence: atonement. Rurouni Kenshin is all about making up for what you've done, finding your way past those things to move on, and conquering your weaknesses. It's a series about rising out of sin and the trials that must be overcome to do so.

     One of the series I've been meaning to watch ever since I discovered its existence (which was almost immediately after I finished the TV series - that is, in the earliest stages of infancy of my anime fandom) is the prequel OVA series for Rurouni Kenshin, known as Tsuiokuhen. I'd actually made an attempt to watch this several years back and got an episode or two in, but one of the episodes was missing or the quality was horrendous (or some similar issue) so I never ventured on. I've finally rectified that error, and. . .well, let's just say that the themes of this series are a little different from those of the TV show.

     Tsuiokuhen isn't about atonement for sin - rather, it's a series all about falling into sin. I suppose that's actually fitting, in a way. It would make some sense that a prequel to such a story would be accompanied by precursor themes, as well. Still, to see the actuation of tragedy with such a sense of clarity and. . .grim determination is somewhat shocking. Allow me to explain myself.

     Even from the very first episode, a sense of Kenshin simply going through the motions is apparent. It feels as though there's no other choice for him but to do the things he does, and his choices feel "locked." The episode opens with the character closest in role to that of narrator remarking on the inevitable nature of the world's ways, and how no one could change them, no matter how strong. The main "sin" introduced in this episode, the one that precedes all the rest, is Kenshin's decision to join the rebellion against the Shogunate. He does so out of a wish to protect others, a pure desire for a high ideal, but it allows others to determine for him what is and is not justice and results in him becoming no more than a killing tool used by them. He wishes to change the world, but it's already been made apparent that no one can. Multiple people tell him this, but still he chooses it as though he can do nothing else. The idea that Kenshin's path is static is even confirmed by his master:

Seijuro on Kenshin leaving (citing his purity of will as the reason)

     I'm hesitant to describe this idea as "fate," since I feel it's more analogous to life. A person will make mistakes in life, because there are certain things they feel they must do. That's just a part of living. The next concepts that get thrown in are even more easily understood using this lens.

     The second episode explores two primary issues; trust, and a lack of acceptance. The trust part is easy enough to see. There is a traitor in the rebels midst, and suspicion is rampant. In addition, Kenshin meets Tomoe, a mysterious woman who could help him, but he refuses to open up to (and yes, I'm summarizing quite a bit). The lack of acceptance is a little less obvious, and certainly less focused on Kenshin. Still, the inability of different groups or people to see eye to eye is shown throughout. Katsura and Miyabe (two rebel leaders) have radically different ideas of how to fight their war. The rebels and the shogunate cannot come to a compromise, and so they fight. Kenshin is presented an alternative idea, that pursuing his own happiness as a human being, rather than fighting for his ideal of a better world, is better. In terms of both trust and acceptance, however, Kenshin continues to make the wrong choices (for his own situation, mind you - I'm not trying to validate the series' philosophy). Because he is so set in his own path, he is blind to other possibilities and neither trusts nor accepts other views.

Whilst Tomoe also has some trust issues, she is markedly different in her willingness to accept others.

     In the third episode, this approach becomes more overt than ever, with falsehood being the step in Kenshin's descent this time. He and Tomoe have to live together under the guise of husband and wife while a rebel purge is taking place. They live in the mountains, start farming, and live a "normal" life to avoid arousing suspicion. They forget who they are: Kenshin, an idealistic assassin, and Tomoe, plotting his death as revenge for the murder of her fiance. They find happiness together in their falsehood, deceiving themselves into complacency. That's the problem; they covered up and ignored the real issue (who they are) without ever resolving it.

     All of these things lead to the last entry in the series and in Kenshin's fall: consequence. Tomoe dies, Kenshin realizes his mistakes, and he pushes forward with a new resolve. . .but not before going through pain, regret, and loss. He fights for his loved one, but fails to protect her. That, in a way, completes his failure, as that was his goal all along, ever since he first met his master.

     There's a very clear order to these things. A desire for good that is driven by naivety, coupled with blindness towards alternatives, leads Kenshin to terrible decisions and a life of murder. Not trusting others only makes it harder for him to escape this path. Then he deceives himself and never resolves these issues and thinks that he can simply escape them. All of this leads to betrayal and chaos (both emotional and mental). It's a very tragic series of faulty choices and mistakes that occur in a very logical order, leading to a sad but predictable end. Furthermore, the inevitability of this procession is hammered in from the very first episode. The execution of Kenshin's descent, as well as the actual plot accompanying it, makes the OVA series a worthy piece of art, to be sure. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little jilted by it in light of the original's themes.

     It wasn't until I watched episode 43 of the TV series afterwards that I gained a true appreciation for Tsuiokuhen. It was like seeing someone walk into and out of a dark place simultaneously. That episode contains a lot of the same ideas, scenes, and even lines as the OVAs, but the execution is totally different. In the prequel, everything associated with Kenshin's life and sword skills is cast negatively. He carelessly disregards his own value (and livelihood) and kills without reflection, both things that ultimately lead to a tragic ending. In the TV episode, however, the opposite is true. His disregard for his life is what leads to him realize its value even as he becomes stronger. His increase in skill doesn't signify falling deeper into the callousness of murder, but instead represents a new power to protect those he cares about, finally realizing the ideal Seijuro (his master) mentioned in the OVAs. When these two outcomes, a failure and a success, are viewed side by side, they create something only vaguely realized alongside atonement in the original: redemption.

     That's really where the true beauty of Tsuiokuhen lies. I could have written a normal review talking about the excellent music, the slick animation, or the exceptionally well executed plot and that would have been fine. Such a view, however, totally misses what truly makes this anime special. It's not that the original is better or vice versa, or even that they're both good standing on their own; it's that when put together, the two complete each other in a way not many series can. Tsuiokuhen gave me a new appreciation for what was already one of the most powerful franchises of my life, and for that, I am glad I chose to finish it.


  1. Rurouni Kenshin OVAS are really really good. You have a great post here :) Yes, the OVAs are grimmer but I think they're closer to the truth. I also love Seishouhen a lot, too. I know that even the creator disagreed with how it ended, but honestly it would really be a miracle, if a person who has a heart can rest his soul after he has killed so many. I'm really sorry, if I ruin the beautiful image :/

    I watched just the first eps of the series, because I wasn't much into samurai and blood stuff, so to make the experience shorter I went straight for the OVAs. So I can't talk about the comparison you made.

    1. Thank you! I haven't seen Seishouhen either (that attempt was curbed by horrendous sound quality - it is on my list, however), but I've heard good things about it as well. I do recall reading some less than thrilled opinions on the ending, though I never went farther to avoid spoilers. So don't worry, no images to ruin here. :)

      As for the original, I think that was probably wise. One of its greatest strengths was capturing the atmosphere and setting, and if you don't have interest in those, I can't imagine it being much more enjoyable than the next big shounen series. Don't get me wrong, I personally still love it to death, but it's sort of like Inuyasha in that it's not universally enjoyable (at least, not in every episode). I will go ahead and recommend most of the soundtrack, though. Fantastic stuff.

  2. Hey John,

    Can't comment in Safari for some reason. Could just be me, but Opera works. Not sure how long it's been going on; took me a while to think of trying a different browser. Still around; still reading; still enjoying.

    My comments, in brief: an excellent review. I now need to watch these.

    Being a storyteller--never mind that, actually; being a human being, I have a profound appreciation for stories of this type. One story I like has exactly two themes: no-one is incorruptible, and no-one is irredeemable. Those are all the themes it needs.

    The ideas of redemption, atonement, and salvation resonate with every human soul.* Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody wants to believe that their mistakes can be excused, expunged, or forgiven in some way. The drive to atone for one's past is as powerful a trope as the urge to escape it.

    The sense of inevitability you describe in the prequel intrigues me; I'm not sure what to make of it. I wonder, how much does the main series emphasize choice and the mutability of fate? The prequel and main series seem designed to contrast in many ways, but is the series about Kenshin breaking free from his preordained damnation, or is it about Kenshin's "purity of will" driving him to continue his path in exactly the same way--just the other direction?

    I could've written that more clearly, but then you would've had to wait a week to hear anything at all, so... I welcome requests for clarification on anything I expressed poorly.

    Keep up the good work!

    -Chris T

    *I'm making a gross generalization here. I'm pretty confident in it, but feel free to tear it up if you think otherwise. After all, "generalizations are always wrong."

    1. I've had a (relative) multitude of complaints concerning commenting on this site; I blame Blogger. Sorry to hear it's been giving you trouble as well, but it's as flattering as ever to know you still deem me worthy of your time.

      It's somewhat satisfying to hear you suggest the universal appeal of those themes, as I do endorse that suggestion and think it improves the series, but couldn't find any appropriate place to include it in the post.

      As for the mutability of fate (thank you for that, by the way - you have no idea how infuriated I was by my inability to conjure something synonymous to "inevitability."), that wasn't given any particular attention in the original, as I recall. I would say it fit more into Kenshin's atonement/redemption more than anything else. Several characters (mainly villains) make mention of how he can never fully conquer the manslayer inside, but I never really got a sense of that being strictly "true." Likewise, it didn't seem set in stone that he would conquer it, though that was one of his sub-arcs that was resolved in the Kyoto arc. So I guess my answer would be more the former (breaking free) than the latter.

      Thanks for reading (and letting me know there is, in fact, a reader)! Glad you found it enjoyable.

      P.S. I see what you did there. . .

  3. John,

    Thank you for your thoughtful, prompt, and courteous response. You've my thanks and sympathy in advance, should you choose also to peruse the lengthy ramble below.

    I've been thinking more about that sense of inevitability in the prologue.

    Doubt (of what should be done), dilemma (over what to do), and destiny (the end result of every choice) underlie the central conflicts of countless stories. It seems strange to me that a writer would discard (or at least irreversibly cheapen) their tension by making no bones about the character's choices and consequences from the start. This is especially surprising in a story about a protagonist who makes dark choices and walks a grim road; such stories often emphasize the many opportunities the protagonist had to escape his plight, rather than exhibit those occasions as proof that there could have been no other result.

    The message is that his terrible fate is inevitable, and he can't even struggle against it? How hideously depressing! That's the stuff of hopeless tales of winding, wailing narration about the futile plight of man. Why would anyone do such a thing? There must be a reason.

    "Well," I thought to myself, "why do those other stories emphasize the protagonist's opportunities to escape? It's to highlight the role of choice, ne? (And to kick the audience in the gut, but mostly the first thing.) I unkindly interpret the message of the prequel because it seems to me to be about a lack of choice--but that's not the way John characterized the story, the WHOLE story, of Kenshin.

    "What if the prequel was--shocking, I know--designed to be viewed by those who had already seen the main series?

    "If it relies on audience knowledge of Kenshin's future, then it's not actually a story on its own. It's just the first part of Kenshin's story: fall."

    This sounds obvious enough, but it sounds like the main series gives the audience a hero who has already crossed his turning point. The familiar character arc of creation, fall, redemption, and glory is aborted to redemption, albeit informing the audience of the fallen days prior.

    This isn't a bad thing, but redemption has no meaning without fall, and atonement has no worth in lack of sin. The prequel supplies this.

    Viewed with a focus on Kenshin's whole story, the prequel may not be the story of a man whose dark path is predetermined by his nature, but the story of one whose destiny -was- predetermined... until the moment he chose redemption.

    In that light, it becomes downright sensible that little attention is paid (in the original series) to the idea that Kenshin cannot "change his stars." He's already proved the opposite.

    -Chris T

    P.S. I generally assume that prequels are meant to be read or viewed after the primary work and treated as independent stories (though not as entirely separate stories, with the possible exception of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace). My supposition--that the stories aren't separate at all--goes against my sensibilities, but could explain why the prequel seems so depressing. To test this, I intend to snooker some friends of mine into watching the prequel series with me, then the main series, treating the prequel as a "season zero" installment.

    The effectiveness of such a transition depends on the dovetail, of course. I have not seen either series (I plan to be part of the experiment myself)--if you would be so gracious as to respond again, would you say that the main series begins in such a way that the transition I suggest would work, or, perhaps, would it be jarringly obvious that the two series were not designed to be viewed in that order?

    1. P.P.S. I re-read my last comment and realized that most of it duplicates (to my eyes) exactly what you said in your review. Pardon me for not adding much to the discussion--but if I didn't, at least I seem to have followed it to its destination?

      -Chris T

    2. Oh, you flatterer you.

      I actually came to a similar realization at the end of a few hundred word reply - I was merely using different words to say something largely identical to your own and to mine (or some fusion of the two). Culling my words to avoid that, then, there are two things I feel I should point out.

      The first is that the OVAs and the original are in no way incomplete without the other. While Kenshin's story serves as a wonderfully inter-weaved backing to the overall narrative, it is not the primary focus (though I'm not sure I'd call it secondary, either - something closer to a less explored but equally important component, if that makes any sense). In both series, the plot* is what gets the most attention devoted to it, and both entries see those off to their conclusions admirably, I felt.

      Kenshin's story also reaches stopping points by the end of either one as well, but arguably not full conclusions (which is in line with what you suggested). I'm almost tempted to describe the two as full separate character arcs that are highly related to each other; they elevate the other to greater heights of significance, but are not necessarily incomplete without each other. That said, it is worth noting that as I stated, I felt a little jilted by Tsuiokuhen's arc until I put it in the context of the original's themes, so while it is complete on a technical level (as Kenshin does find new resolve at the end), it is perhaps not truly concluded on its own.

      . . .Hope that made sense.

      The other (hopefully briefer) note is on the nature of the OVAs. I feel that Tsuiokuhen focused more on the outcomes of Kenshin's choices, more than the choices themselves. In a way, I'd almost say it took it a step farther than what you mentioned. It didn't bother making inferences about the character or kicking the audience in the gut (which is an analogy I enjoy so much I re-use it without quotes) and rather just went and took it for granted entirely.

      Aside from that, I'm highly intrigued by your suppositions in your last two statements (before the post scripts), though I believe I mostly understand them, if only from the context. I think I'll be doing some metaphorical chewing on those for a little while - you have my thanks.

      And, to reply to your second comment, I believe that is most definitely the case. As for contribution, if nothing else formulating a response helped me gain a better appreciation of the subject, so yours is a success in my mind.

      P.S. I'm very interested in how that experiment turns out. On one hand, I would advice you to watch them in the order that I did, because I was quite pleased with both series as a result. On the other, I'm fascinated by how the experience would change when the order switches.

      P.P.S. I'm also a little curious now about how much Seishouhen (the sequel OVAs) would throw off our discussion. . .I'll be certain to keep this discourse in mind when I finally watch it.

      P.P.P.S. One final word of warning - after the Kyoto arc in the original series, there are three arcs of TV original episodes. Their overall quality is up for debate (though the general consensus is that they're inferior), but they will certainly add little (and likely detract quite a bit) from the line of thought we have going here.

      *This reminds me of a discussion we had (I can't remember on which post) about the distinction between narrative and plot. I can't remember what our conclusion was (or if we reached a common one at all), but here I take it to mean events with a significance to the story's world and not necessarily with relevance to Kenshin's character arc.

    3. Thanks for replying! It made sense. Except for one part, sort of. You've expressed a different view than you did before:

      Post: "...feel a little jilted by it *in light of* the original's themes."
      Comment: " I stated, I felt a little jilted by Tsuiokuhen's arc *until I put it in the context of* the original's themes..."
      (emphasis added)

      If I understand you correctly, though, both are true; you felt jilted by the starkly different theme of the prequel because of the expectations you carried with you from the original, and you were relieved when you realized that both themes together form a third, stronger theme that crosses both series.

      If accurate, that's interesting. It suggests that without the original, you wouldn't have been disappointed by the prequel's different theme (though you may not have enjoyed it as much), but you also wouldn't have recognized the theme combination that made the whole story so worthwhile.

      I offer a different (but concurring) statement of the treatment of Kenshin's character. Kenshin's personal story is not told in its entirety, and Kenshin's personal conflict rarely drives the story. However, two parts of his personal story are told: one in the prequel, one in the original. These parts *are* complete--that is, we aren't kept from learning how Kenshin's life changes at the end of the prequel, and we aren't kept from learning where he's headed next at the end of the original. Ne?

      (Again, if I understood you, this is in complete agreement.)

      Thrilled I could contribute; you're most welcome. I reiterate my gratitude for your response! (Though, this does occur to me: while it's redundant at this point for either of us to continue to repeat our thanks for the other's attention due to thorough existing assurances of mutual respect, it seems unlikely that either of us will do so first, since when one of us does, the other feels obligated to return the gesture in order to ensure that the feelings are understood to be returned, as well.*)

      -Chris T

    4. Now, then...

      P.S. I acknowledge your advice, but you're clearly as curious as I am; I intend to follow through. I'll let you know how it goes when I can get hold of a copy of the series. (I forswore piracy some years ago, and only a few legitimate online havens exist for many series, though the list is always growing.) In particular, I perversely hope that the prequel series is confusing, unclear, or frustrating without the context of the original.

      As teller and audience, I believe that stories should be enjoyed as they were told; if the prequel can't be effectively enjoyed independent of the show it "follows," I would regard it as a demonstration that audiences shouldn't skip ahead. (When I eventually comment on your post on creator intent, it'll be megalithic...)

      While you state that the prequel is not incomplete in terms of character arcs or plot resolution, your experience with the original seems to have had an impact on your impression of the prequel; I'd like to try to get outside that.

      P.P.S. Sequel, eh? Your post on sequels wasn't what I expected--it highlighted relevant factors related to the sequel's entertainment value and appeal to audience, but it didn't emphasize what a sequel gives the creator's opportunity to do with story, character, and the metastory; actually, it seemed to read like a stylistic... er, I'm digressing, here; I should get around to writing my comment on that post on its own page, sorry--but it does provide a useful perspective to consider that.** A prequel is just a sequel located earlier in the story, I would say, and the "retroactive sequel" series we're discussing seems to have a specific goal in mind, which was to complement (but not complete) that which had been begun with the original. I'm quite curious what tack the actual sequel series will take.

      P.P.P.S. Ah... "Anime as TV." They'll be the last part I watch the way I'm currently planning it, so I'll stop to review before getting into it. Is there a particular episode number to look out for?

      P.P.P.P.S. I believe you mean this:
      I wouldn't describe it as you did, but I'll have to sort that out later. This comment was already long enough I had to cut it up, and the postscripts nearly outman the text...

      *Terrible syntax. Nobody should write anything that convoluted. My apologies.

      **That sentence was even worse than the last one.

    5. Well, one was about the discontent at a lack of similarity, the other about experiencing enjoyment after discovering the proper lens. . .but obfuscated horribly on my part, due to poor wording. In any event, I think we got there in the end (concerning the discussion as a whole, not merely that one note).

      P.S. I can only hope it is vile in how it leaves you stranded. I'll be eagerly awaiting the results. Also - I look forward to that discussion, though I fear I'll have re-evaluated both my exact opinions and my passion on the subject by then. If I recall correctly, though I still mostly agree with my thoughts from when I wrote it. We'll see when the time comes, I suppose.

      P.P.S. From my understanding of it, it will likely add on to Tsuiokuhen more than it will the original. Can't say for sure until I've seen it, though.

      P.P.P.S. I neglected to mention (due to forgetting) there are also some TV original episodes beforehand as well, though I personally enjoyed those quite a bit. Since they do virtually nothing to change Kenshin's character - in either positive or negative lights - they should do little to affect our working thesis. Just. . .skip the episode with the sumo wrestlers. That one was terrible. (As for the rest, I think it will be somewhat obvious, but from 63 onwards is all material not taken from the source).

      P.P.P.P.S. Embrace the post scripting, Chris!