Rurouni Kenshin: Wandering Samurai

Rurouni Kenshin has become a fan favorite in a very short period of time. Driven by fansubs--virtually every major fansub group had some episodes of this show over the last two years--the popularity of Rurouni Kenshin is pretty astounding. Recently, both the OVA and TV series were picked up for distribution in the US. The OVA series has been relabeled Samurai X in hopes of picking up more potential customers, but that acts as a prequel to the TV series. The series is being released regularly on DVD, with each disc containing four episodes. I'm not sure this was the perfect marketing strategy, though...the fan base that already exists will surely scarf up this disc quickly, but from just the beginning of the show, I cannot tell what all the fuss is about. It's a good, goofy show, but I can't imagine how it has become so famous in such a short time unless it picks up from here.

Rurouni Kenshin follows the exploits of Kenshin, a friendly yet mysterious young man who stumbles into the path of Kaoru, a young woman who is trying desperately to keep her father's dojo from closing down. Seems that an old dishonored student is going throughout the countryside killing people indiscriminately and informing the survivors that he works on behalf of the school. Kenshin intervenes, and we find out that he may be the legendary Battousai the Manslayer. He seems peaceful enough and is determined not to kill--enough so that his sword has a reverse blade--but it's clear he's an excellent fighter and will stop at nothing to make sure justice is carried out. As the first few episodes progress, we learn a bit more about who Kenshin is and why he only fights to protect the innocent.

Kenshin has a unique tone and pace that sets it apart from a lot of other series, and the wacky combination of comedy, drama, and action may be what has sent this show's profile skyrocketing. The typical episode opens with a humorous situation, one where the character's eyes go completely wild and Kenshin responds in shock...and make no doubt about it, some of these are very funny. But then we find out the enemy of the episode, and from there it becomes a bit more rote. The first three episodes had virtually the same plot going on...somebody got in trouble with the bad guys. Bad guys plan to kill good guys. At the last minute, Kenshin steps in and kicks tail. By the third episode, this had gotten predictable and repetitious. Thankfully, the fourth episode changed tone a bit with the appearance of Zenza, an honorable warrior-for-hire who nevertheless feels the compunction to protect the innocent. His entrance left the fourth episode a cliffhanger, and ultimately this was the first point I was at all impressed with the series. I will say that I was completely surprised at the amount of comedy in the show, and perhaps my viewpoint was skewed somewhat because I was expecting more action. However, now that I have reasonable expectations, the rest of the show may be better.

Getting to the technical side of things: the animation itself is nothing particularly special, well done enough for television but not jaw-dropping. The music is...hmm...interesting. It goes back and forth from more traditionally styled tunes played on a recorder/flute to rock and roll, and the op/ed themes are essentially JPop. (The ending theme appears to be in English, since I couldn't access anything else on the DVD. It's actually quite good, but whether or not it fits the show is up for debate.) The music isn't bad, but thematically it's all over the place, much like the rest of the show. The character designs themselves are good, though not particularly unique, and will remind you of many other recent shows you may have seen.

From my introduction to Rurouni Kenshin, I can't say that I was as impressed as I expected to be, though I can't say that I was disappointed either. Ultimately, your expectations of this title will likely help determine what you think of it. Is it entertaining? Most definitely. Is it repetitious in its themes and a bit predictable? You betcha. It's always easier to discover a series you like that nobody knows about, rather than dealing with a show that's good but has been promoted a lot in the anime community. The first four episodes don't live up to the hype, but the openings of few series do...and the show does continue for another 92 episodes, so there is plenty of room to grow. Here's hoping it does...also, it appears that the previously mentioned Samurai X OVA series covers the more action-oriented side of Kenshin's story. Perhaps that's what I was expecting, so I'll check it out when it becomes available.

Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 1 -- mild language, violence -- B+