Rurouni Kenshin was one of those staples of being a young western anime fan in the early 2000s. I doubt I’m the only one who remembers the rush of getting home from school, grabbing a quick snack, and plopping down on the couch to catch it on Toonami. Friends would doodle the characters in their notebooks, and everyone and their brother suddenly had an interest in kendo lessons.
You’ve probably heard of Rurouni Kenshin, even if you’re new to the anime scene. I find myself incredibly jealous of people about to jump into the series for the first time because I wish I could go back and experience it again blind. Today, it’s much more accessible than ever, with episodes available for streaming, new movies, manga at your digital fingertips, and more.
The popularity of the pacifist swordsman doesn’t end at manga and anime either, with multiple live-action movies, video games, OVA releases, stage shows, multiple soundtracks…the list goes on and on.
For those who think they caught all of it back in 2004 on Cartoon Network, think again–Toonami ended it 33 episodes early, and what did air was incredibly edited. Rurouni Kenshin wasn’t short on violence, foul language, and tobacco use, but that wasn’t exactly suitable for an American kid’s network.
Both the Rurouni Kenshin anime and manga series rank highly, with the manga series named one of the best-selling of all time and the anime ranking in the top 100 most-watch series in Japan. Its unique blend of samurai action, heavy drama and slapstick comedy means that there is something for everyone.
Or, if you were a fan of the series back in the day, consider seeing this article a sign to begin a rewatch or a reread. It’s probably about that time.
The Story of a Wandering Samurai Refusing to Kill His Foes
While Rurouni Kenshin looks from the outside to be a typical action-packed samurai story, it has one large twist. Taking place in the Meiji era of Japan, it focuses on the story of Kenshin Himura, known in the recent wartime as an incredibly ruthless warrior and manslayer. As the war has ended and times are largely peaceful, Kenshin wanders the countryside, looking to protect and save those in need.
He does still carry a sword, but not the one he used to murder countless people. This sword is reverse bladed, meaning it does a terrible job of killing anyone. More than anything, Kenshin wishes to atone for the countless lives he took during the Bakumatsu period.
As he arrives in Tokyo in 1878, he meets Kaoru Kamiya, the head of a martial arts dojo. Though she realizes soon enough who he is–the infamous assassin–she sees that he has changed, and offers him a place to rest on his travels. During their time together, Kenshin meets a slew of new people, making close friends and just as many enemies, some from his past.
The series follows Kenshin’s attempts to repent for what he has done, with other characters helping him along the way while dealing with their own demons. While certain characters want revenge, the emphasis of Rurouni Kenshin is to seek to fight against those urges and to display your own power through forgiveness and honor instead of more and more bloodshed.
Rurouni Kenshin’s Memorable Cast of Main Characters
While there are dozens upon dozens of characters in Rurouni Kenshin, it’s most vital to know the recurring good guys you’ll spend time with during the series.
- Kenshin Himura – The main protagonist of the series, Kenshin is the famous killer of the Meiji Revolution who has spent the last decade traveling Japan to repent for his sins. He is rather short and thin, with a feminine build–not exactly what you’d expect from someone capable of murdering hundreds. Kenshin speaks in a peaceful tone and is always polite, no matter who he is speaking to. He will do anything in his power to keep those he cares about from harm, and will sometimes play dumb to avoid violence. When faced with a difficult foe, however, he will sometimes revert to his previous manslayer persona, becoming cold, distant, and ruthless once again.
- Kaoru Kamiya – The owner and instructor of a dojo in Tokyo, Kaoru allows Kenshin to live on the premises after he saves her life. Over time, they become close, with Kaoru becoming the largest motivating factor in Kenshin’s quest for redemption. Stubborn with a violent temper, she always speaks up for herself and is proud to be independent. When not training, she does have a feminine side, often wearing fine clothing. While shy when it comes to matters of love, she does eventually admit to having feelings for Kenshin.
- Yahiko Myoujin – An orphan after his parents fell on hard times during the Meiji era, Yahiko spent time as a pickpocket to pay off their debt. Kenshin frees him from his life of crime and brings him to live at the Kamiya dojo, where he learns honor by studying the way of the sword. At the beginning of the series, Yahiko is rude and violent, taught nothing but hard lessons on the streets of Tokyo. Over time, he becomes more level-headed, much in part to Kenshin and Kaoru’s teachings.
- Sanosuke Sagara – Spending much of his time as a fighter for hire, Sanosuke is a former member of a disgraced army out for revenge against those who murdered his comrades. After coming to the Kamiya dojo, he ends his days as a fighting merchant and becomes one of Kenshin’s most trusted friends. Sanosuke values honesty, and has a fiery temperament, with a smart mouth and a love of brawling. He’s also a mooch and is constantly running up tabs on booze and food that he’ll likely never payback.
- Megumi Takani – Acting as the doctor for those at the Kamiya dojo, Megumi comes from a family of physicians. After her father’s death and the disappearance of her mother and brothers, she studied medicine on her own and was pulled into a drug-making ring until her escape. Aided by Kenshin, she remains in Tokyo and helps Kenshin and the others to repay them. Megumi is considered gorgeous and tends to be flirty around men she likes.
- Aoshi Shinomori – A skilled swordsman and the leader of the Oniwabanshu, the defenders of Edo Castle, Aoshi is highly respected by his comrades. Stern and strict, he is obsessed with defeating Kenshin in battle, so that he may earn the title of being the strongest warrior. While he seems cold and emotionless, he cares deeply for those who fight by his side and will defend their honor to the death. He later becomes friends with Kenshin and fights by his side when needed.
- Hajime Saito – A former captain of the Shinsengumi, Hajime now works as an agent for the Meiji Government Department of Internal Affairs. He sees himself as Kenshin’s rival, as they fought on opposite sides during the wartime period ten years ago. He admits that he enjoys killing, and can be arrogant, though he only wishes to slay those who are evil to create a world of peace and order.
The Manga is a Top Seller, with over 72 Million Copies Sold
The original Rurouni Kenshin manga premiered in 1994, in the pages of the famous Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. While this publication needs no introduction, I will mention that it is the best selling manga magazine in Japan, period. The home of Dragon Ball, One Piece, and My Hero Academia, it has sold over 7.5 billion copies since its first release in 1968.
The manga ran until 1999, with 255 chapters being published overall. These were collected into 28 volumes, and these have been licensed in North America by Viz Media.
Rurouni Kenshin was created by Watsuki Nobuhiro, who has acted as a mentor to other extremely popular manga artists, including Eiichiro Oda, the creator of One Piece. He also mentored Hiroyuki Takei, the creator of one of my favorite series, Shaman King.
Watsuki based many characters in the series on real people, including Kenshin himself, who was inspired by Gensai Kawakami, a man falsely accused of a crime during the revolution and executed. While some characters in the series share the same name as historical figures, such as Hajime Saitou and Souji Okita, Watsuki also claims that Sanosuke and Aoshi were also loosely based on actual Shinsengumi members.
During his high school years, Watsuki received an honorable mention in the Tezuka Awards for a one-shot comic he created titled, Teacher Pon. This was his entry into the manga world and the beginning of his extremely successful career.
In 2017, a Manga Continuation Began–The Hokkaido Arc
In November 2016, a side story titled Rurouni Kenshin: The Ex-Con Ashitaro was published in Weekly Shonen Jump. As it turns out, Watsuki’s wife, Kaworu Kurosaki, was a story consultant for the brief manga. To fans elation, it was announced in December 2016 that this was a prologue to a brand new arc in the Rurouni Kenshin story, titled Rurouni Kenshin: The Hokkaido Arc.
The Hokkaido Arc began in summer 2017, and after a brief hiatus, returned to serialization in July 2018. Only the first part of The Hokkaido Arc was published in the US. So far, three volumes have been compiled and released in Japan.
Himura Kenshin, now married to Kaoru and with a son named Kenji, continues his quest to save those in need. However, after seeing a very recent photo of Kaoru’s father in Hokkaido, everything changes. After all, he was thought to be long dead.
Along with some new and old friends, the family ventures to the far north to find Kaoru’s father, getting involved with a mysterious and dangerous group called the Kenkaku Heiki along the way.
The Rurouni Kenshin Anime Series was a Hit Worldwide
In 1996, Fuji TV in Japan began airing the Rurouni Kenshin anime series. While it stayed true to the manga series up to a certain point, it eventually diverts into completely original content, which made some fans less than happy, though some enjoyed being surprised.
Overall, the series has 95 episodes. The first 66 episodes were animated by Studio Gallop, famous for such series as Touch, Kodomo no Omocha, and, post-Rurouni Kenshin, the Yu-Gi-Oh series.
After episode 66, the animation was handed over to Studio Deen. Anime fans are likely familiar with their humongous backlog of work, from classic hits Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½ to more recent series, like KonoSuba and Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto.
In the US, most of us remember Rurouni Kenshin airing on Toonami between 2003 and 2004. Sadly, unless you were one of those who bought the DVD collection back then, you likely didn’t get the final third of the series, as it was deemed too inappropriate for American TV, despite any edits that were made.
Did you Know About the Live-Action Movie Trilogy?
Originally announced in 2011, the first of three live-action Rurouni Kenshin films was released in August 2012. Produced by Warner Bros. and with a star-studded cast, it was met with favorable reviews, with critics praising the action scenes and the faithfulness to the feeling of the original content.
Humorously, the creator of the manga series Nobuhiro Watsuki commented that certain lines in the film were better than the ones he wrote for the manga.
In August 2013, the magazine Jump SQ announced that a two-part sequel was being produced, and would be released in 2014. The two movies, Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends adapted the Kyoto Arc of the manga and hit theaters that summer.
In 2019, we received news that yet another two movies were in the works, due to premiere in theater in summer 2020. Called the final live-action films, the first will explain the cross-shaped scar on Kenshin’s cheek, while the second will pit him against the most terrifying antagonist in the series, Enishi.
Where to Watch the Rurouni Kenshin Anime and Live-Action Movie and Read the Manga
The live-action film trilogy is, thankfully, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.
The manga series, released by Viz Media, is available for purchase digitally, or from your favorite bookseller.