By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop March 29, 2013 at 7:00PM
Although American kids have a reputation for being uninterested in history and geography, tens of thousands of follow the adventures of a samurai warrior-turned-pacifist as he travels from Tokyo to Kyoto in 19th century Japan.
Nobuhiro Watsuki's compelling manga Rurouni Kenshin ("Kenshin the Wanderer") began as the brief tale "Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story" in the boy's magazine Weekly Shonen Jump Special in 1992. Watsuki rewrote the story two years later, and the expanded serial ran through 1999. The saga has been adapted to a 95-episode animated television series, a theatrical feature, a direct-to-video prequel, a live action film, and most recently, Rurouni Kenshin: The New Kyoto Arc, a two-disc set that retells one of the main segments of the story.
The Meiji Restoration of 1868 remade Japanese society, ending the crumbling regime of the Tokugawa Shoguns and restoring real power to the Emperor. Feudalism rapidly gave way to modernism. During the attendant civil wars, Kenshin Himura was the deadly Imperialist assassin Hitokiri Battosai ("Battosai the Man-Slayer"). Although he remains the greatest swordsman in Japan, Kenshin took an oath never to kill again. He fights with a sakabato, a reverse-blade sword: the inner edge is sharpened, rather than the outer one. He can injure his enemies or knock them senseless, but he can’t inflict fatal wounds.
Unlike the muscle-bound brawlers in Dragon Ball, Kenshin is short and skinny, with a long red ponytail. Watsuki partially modeled him on the assassin Kawakami Gensai, a man of small stature. Despite his unmatched swordsmanship, Kenshin has a warm-hearted klutziness that endears him to audiences. Richard Hayworth, who supplies the character's voice in the English dub of the TV series, comments, "That's the most difficult part about playing Kenshin: One second, he's a deadly assassin: the next second, he's one of the Three Stooges."
The “Tokyo" arc, which makes up the first 27 episodes of the broadcast series, brings Kenshin to the city, where he befriends three misfits. Kaoru Kamiya inherited an impoverished dojo after her father was killed. Thugs forced Yahiko Myojin to become a pickpocket when he was orphaned. Sanosuke Sagara saw his comrades betrayed during the turmoil surrounding the Restoration. This outré trio aids Kenshin in his fights--when they aren't squabbling or stuffing themselves.
The tone of the narrative darkens in the "Legend of Kyoto" arc that begins with Episode #28. Makoto Shishio succeeded Kenshin as Japan's deadliest assassin. Shishio survived a botched execution by government agents and an attempt to incinerate his body that left him hideously scarred. Shishio believes the new government's faltering first steps toward modernization have betrayed centuries of warrior tradition. He has assembled a private army to overthrow the government and make himself ruler of Japan. Only Kenshin can defeat Shishio.