Over the last two weeks, I’ve had three dreams about Rurouni Kenshin. In one of them, I was Kenshin, dressed to the nines in my favorite samurai’s garb doing something I don’t remember…but looking great while doing it. Kenshin seems to be on my mind these days more than I thought, so I figured it would be a good idea (and beneficial to my mental health) if I talked about him.
Kenshin is my hero. He is the first person I remember wanting to be when I grew up. For the anime uninitiated, Kenshin is the protagonist of Rurouni Kenshin, an extremely popular manga/anime that ran from 1994-1999. Taking up a sword at a young age and fighting during the Bakumatsu, young Kenshin became a legendary assassin known as “Hitokiri Battosai the Man Slayer,” killing in cold blood in order to bring a new age to Japan.
Eleven years after the violent revolution, there is a man who travels Japan defending innocent people in the countryside. But he is a strange samurai— a wanderer with a dull blade that cannot kill. That man is an adult Kenshin, travelling as a rurouni who helps the innocent.
I was way too young when I started watching Rurouni Kenshin. The series is rated T+ (17 and up) for gore, profanity, and nudity. When I first watched it, I was nine— a very, very impressionable nine. But the T-rated stuff didn't leave an impression on me. What made me want to stay up till 11 p.m. (late for me in 2003) was Kenshin himself. There was something special about him that forced me to stay awake and see his story.
As you can probably tell by now, there are plenty of things I can say about Rurouni Kenshin. It is my favorite manga of all time, with an engaging story and a cast of diverse characters. It's an awesome piece of historical fiction that introduced me to one of my favorite times in history. But for now, I’m going to limit my gushing to the man, the myth, the legend. What do I love about Himura Kenshin? How, as a nine-year-old, was I inspired by a twenty-eight-year-old ex-assassin?
As a child, I was pulled in by Kenshin’s gentle nature. He is extremely powerful and feared by the masses, but still humble and kind. He travels so he does not burden anyone; he fights so people will not suffer and die. Kenshin is a good man and third grade me wanted to have his compassion, optimism, and sense of justice. This red-headed, doe-eyed guy was the perfect human being; I thought I would be lucky if I could be like him, even if only a little bit.
As an adult, I can see that Kenshin is not perfect. He mercilessly killed people and has no regard for his own safety. He makes reckless decisions that purposely put him in jeopardy, upsetting those who care about him. It took me a while to realize this, but my favorite character of all time has no self-esteem or self- worth at all.
Kenshin hates himself.
His altruism is an outcome of his desperation to repent for his crimes, a layer of his character I did not see in my childhood. What he did to survive the war, how he killed without a second thought, he regrets all of it and thinks death would be too loose of a punishment.
In my opinion, if you step back and think about it, it's easy to forgive Kenshin. He was fifteen. He was a traumatized orphan that carried the weight of an entire cause on his shoulders and killed people in order to survive when he was fifteen. How can you judge a kid on what adults and dire circumstances influenced him to do? But he can't write off his past, so he travels and saves, trying to make a difference in any way he can.
Rurouni Kenshin is not a war story. Sure, it's framed as one and gives you the adrenaline rush that any action-packed manga would, but that's not what Kenshin's life is anymore. At the end of the day, Rurouni Kenshin is about a damaged man’s journey towards self-forgiveness and redemption, his quest to liking himself again.
I won’t dive into every aspect of the manga because spoilers (Read. This. Please.). But I did reread the final story arc of Rurouni Kenshin the week before I graduated from college and, almost 15 years later, was still deeply moved. Kenshin’s message is more than “do your best and never give up. “ It’s “you can always change. For the better. Just never give up on yourself because there is a way you can help the world, even if you need help yourself.”
I still aspire to be Kenshin. As I grow nearer to him in age (which is crazy), I can understand his troubles and his faults without bias. Life is hard, but life is also great if you make it so. He taught me that. And, even in my “old age,” I still hold the same sentiment I did when I was nine: I will be lucky if I can be like Himura Kenshin— the rurouni, not the battosai.
I’ll be lucky I can be like him, even if only a little bit.