Rurouni Kenshin: Shin Kyoto-hen – Part I

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“Cage of Flames”

Where in the world do I begin…

I have a lot of stuff I’m carrying with me going into Shin Kyoto-hen.  I’ve written on the subject before, but I’m a huge Rurouni Kenshin fan.  It may have been the first anime that I fully embraced as an adult, and it was certainly the first manga.  I unreservedly love that manga, and I’ve long believed that in dramatic terms, Kenshin Himura may be the closest thing to a perfect main character in manga.  The pathos with him is so thick you can cut it with a knife.  Watsuki Nobuhiro crafted an amazing premise, cut from the pages of the Meiji Restoration, and laced it with poetry of the soul and a stellar cast of supporting characters.

That very special manga has had its ups and downs when it comes to adaptation.  There were three TV seasons, the first two of which – animated by the now largely-derelict Studio Gallop – had some filler, but were by far the most loyal interpretation of the manga.  And in the second season, devoted entirely to the manga’s Kyoto Arc, they achieved near-perfection.  The third season (and a movie) shifted to DEEN and veered away from the manga’s superb final arc to a string of mediocre anime-original material.  This was followed by two OVAs – Tsuioku-hen and Seishou-hen.  Both were visually quite beautiful, but partial (Tsuioku-hen) to complete (Seishou-hen) bastardizations of the manga – not just original plots, but a tone and style that completely contradicted Watsuki Nobuhiro’s intentions.  He disowned these OVAs and I can’t blame him, though Tsuioku-hen has merits on the level of good fanfiction – Seishou-hen is simply an abomination.

And that was that, seemingly.  Nothing happened for over a decade, as RK fans bemoaned the fact that the legendary “Jinchu Arc” would never be animated.  When the manga’s 15th anniversary rolled around and there were signs of life in the still popular franchise – including a live-action adaptation – hope began to stir.  And when an announcement of a “new anime project” was printed last year, hope flared like a solar storm.  And then, the announcement came – rather than a TV series adapting the Jinchu Arc, we’d be getting two OVAs from DEEN – a re-telling of the Kyoto Arc, only this time from the POV of side character Misao.  The director would again be Furuhashi Kazuhiro, who directed both the faithful TV and the wildly unfaithful OVAs.  And they’d be written by Okada Mari, the ecchi-fanatic misandrist and Jekyll/Hyde “It Girl” of anime screenwriters.  Well, this pretty much sums up my reaction.

When I started blogging anime, this was a post I dreamed of writing one day.  After our long wait, the first post about a new Rurouni Kenshin anime should have been a celebration – an exhalation of relief and an exultation of joy.  When I first saw the details of the announcement, my initial thought was “Why?”  Why do we need to take the one part of the manga that was adapted to near-perfection and re-tell it – and from the POV of the closest thing to a moe character in the series?  Why not adapt a beautiful, timeless manga story that’s never been adapted?  Why hire a writer who’s capable of brilliance when under tight control or doing faithful adaptations, but should never be allowed anywhere near anything original besides realistic slice-of-life and romance?  Why?

I often wonder why studios are so anxious to mess with manga that are so successful in their own right.  I also enjoy Negima, and while it’s nowhere near as great as RK it’s a very good manga, and suffers from the same continual indignities.  Studios have persistently tried to do anything but adapt it faithfully – and by far the most successful anime adaptations have been the ones that did hew close to the source material.  This whole project seemed misguided and unnecessary to me, so I won’t claim I went into this viewing with an open mind or a lot of hope.  Nonetheless, this is RK and the first new anime in over a decade, and it demands attention.  So with that overly long preamble that I hope you’ll forgive me for out of the way, I’ll talk about Shin Kyoto-hen.

In short – at least it wasn’t awful, and I was truly worried it would be.  As I reflect on “Cage of Flames” I’m really wondering who the target audience is, those who’ve never seen Rurouni Kenshin or those who love it.  It seems to be in a purgatorial middle ground to me – there’s not enough exposition for new viewers to really understand what’s happening – or at least, to understand why they should care.  The Kyoto Arc is so powerful because of what came before it, and the rushed and perfunctory nature of the narrative robs what should be powerful moments of most of their emotional punch.  Then again, I can’t imagine true fans of the manga and anime will appreciate the tonal changes, the plot changes and the rushed nature of the storytelling.  It all comes back to “why” – why did someone think this OVA was necessary, and that it would appeal to either group of fans?

Shin Kyoto-hen is also somewhere in a middle ground between the TV series and manga and the earlier OVAs in terms of style and content.  Visually, the look is closer to the manga than those OVAs were – but the characters are soft and somewhat homogenized.  The BGM from the TV is present, but it’s been modified to a somewhat more somber OVA style.  The bones of the Kyoto Arc are still present but as with those earlier OVAs, there’s no trace of shounen left in Shin Kyoto-hen.  Watsuki-sensei’s manga was serious, but also funny and full of martial spirit and passion for justice.  Again the same mistake has been repeated here – this is mostly joyless material, focused on long sorrowful glances and hopelessness and – forgive me for using the term – “emo” character reactions.  It’s as if DEEN felt that the manga wasn’t “serious” enough, and chose to focus only on the pain and the sorrow as if that would give it gravity.  Well, Watsuki’s writing has gravity – it has more gravity than just about any shounen manga ever written – and it doesn’t need to be “tweaked”.  It’s the way Watsuki balanced the more traditional shounen elements with the pathos of Kenshin’s back-story and the weighty events taking place that made his work exceptional.  Take away any of it, and you lose all of it. 

What you’re left with is a fairly entertaining story that leaves hardened Kenshin fans craving the missing depth, and (I suspect) new fans wondering what the fuss is about.  Sanosuke is almost entirely absent, though he at least looks close to his original form.  Kaoru is a bit player, pretty much limited to the mooncalf side of her personality, the pure maiden pining for her man – the spunk and spitfire is all gone.  Yahiko’s personality seems more or less intact, though he too is barely present – but he looks strange, his spiky hair missing and his defiant expression gone.  There’s plenty of Shishio, but he’s been given far too much dialogue – as if the role of exposition was given to him for some odd reason.  Ikeda Masanori is wonderful in the role in the original, but he sounds off reading Okada’s leaden explanations for his behavior – this is not a man of words, but of action.  When Shishio speaks, it should carry a ton of weight – turning him into a chatterbox lessens the menace of the character, something Okada clearly doesn’t understand.

I won’t go into detail on the substantive changes Okada made in order to twist the story to fit Misao as the main character – if you’re new you won’t care anyway – but there are quite a few of them, and some (like one involving Usui) seem completely unnecessary – and remarkably, they leave you with less of a sense of Misao as a character.  Okada couldn’t resist throwing in a completely unnecessary (and unpleasant to watch) sex scene between Shishio and Yumi.  An unavoidable change is in the role of Kenshin’s enemy turned reluctant ally Saito Hajime, necessitated by the passing of Suzuoki Hirotaka.  He’s been replaced by Narita Ken, and I’m happy to say DEEN scored with this one – Narita-san was a very good replacement, capturing the feel of Suzuoki’s brilliant performance better than I thought anyone could.

Nothing can completely erase the sheer joy I get in hearing Suzukaze Mayo as Kenshin once again (and all the original seiyuu, although age has clearly changed the nature of their performances in many cases – though not Suzukaze-san’s).  I wish Kenshin looked more like his old self, but sadly his features are the most impacted by the soft and indistinct nature of the character designs.  I also loved hearing the familiar strains of Asakura Noriyuki’s BGM again, and the full-length version of “Nanairo no kaze” that serves as the ED is quite beautiful.  As for the animation, it’s fair – there aren’t a lot of action sequences, but they lack the fluidity and grace of the Gallop efforts from the Kyoto Arc, or the sheer balletic quality of the original OVAs.  They’re not obviously cheap, but they’re obviously not lavish.

I suppose in the end the question must be, “Should I watch it?”  That’s a difficult one to answer.  I think for a Rurouni Kenshin fan, it’s an affirmative – as this is the first new RK in 11 years (and I don’t even really consider Seisho-hen as RK) you have to watch it and take small pleasure in the mere fact that it exists.  For a new fan, though, I wouldn’t want this to be their first exposure to the material.  Ideally, read the manga.  Or watch the first two series of the anime, which are the only faithful and indispensable adaptations in existence.  This OVA is not a good representation of the Kyoto Arc, which is arguably the best extended stretch of shounen manga ever written and some of the best anime every produced.  Don’t watch this is and think this is the real Rurouni Kenshin, because it isn’t.  It’s a pale imitation – closer to the original in terms of content than the old OVAs were, but still a mere shadow of the source material.

For all that, I hope it does well for the very simple reason that the only chance we have of seeing the Jinchu Arc animated at last is if these OVAs and the upcoming live-action film prove a big financial success.  That situation shouldn’t be the case, but it obviously is – so I hope this OVA finds its audience somewhere, and that the live-action is a good effort at telling Watsuki’s story.  Watsuki himself is also briefly re-starting the manga in Shounen Jump this summer – though I found his original ending (Yahiko no Sakabatou) quite moving and satisfying, I’ll be reading this with interest although I’ve no idea why it’s being done.

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  1. H

    I started reading the manga recently, I'm in the beginnings of the Kyoto arc I think, and so far it feels like a really shonen series so how they managed to remove that feeling from the story baffles me. Think I'll stay away from this OVA for now and just continue on with the manga….

  2. A

    Ahhh … NOW I understand your reaction to my asking: "RK?" a little better!

    I will definitely try to give the manga another attempt. Hopefully it will resonate with me as well as it did with you. "Every frog praises their own swamp" of course, but no reason why amphibians from diff parts of the planet can't appreciate the same things, eh?

    Oh … wait … we both live in Cali. Forgot about that! 😀

    – Flower

  3. Finish the manga, then watch this – that's my advice. Even better – watch the first two seasons of the TV in between.

  4. A

    Tsuioku-hen (aka 1st OVA) was the best of them all Kenshin related, Guardian Enzo!! What's the matter with you!! ha ha ha seriously though, I like the 1st OVA over everything. Great soundtrack, gloomy overall tone, seriousness of the mood, actual blood and killing instead of unrealistic fight and minimum killing… you name it, it had everything. While the original manga was good, the 1st OVA was the masterpiece. Judging by other comments, I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Anyway the subsequent OVAs including this one are abomination.

  5. You're certainly entitled to that opinion, and that first OVA is popular. I just happen to prefer RK the way Watsuki wrote it, with a balance of light and dark and not an obsession with everything depressing and fatalistic. RK is a story of redemption, ultimately – and the original OVAs (Tsuioku-hen included) abandoned that part of the story in favor of the "gloomy" tone that appealed to you.

  6. A

    While I agree with Enzo that RK without the balance of action and comedy isn't really RK, the Tsukioku-hen arc in the manga was extremely serious and if memory serves correct, was void of humour as well. Both the manga and the OVA didn't have the undertones which made up the previous arcs of RK so I felt the OVA did the backstory of Battousai some justice. Also, the OVA could easily be watched as a standalone to newcomers without having any prior knowledge of the story.

  7. There was no Tsuioku-hen arc in the manga. Some of the characters are present in different forms in different storylines, but the OVA is almost completely original.

    Yes, it can certainly be watched by someone with no prior knowledge of the manga. I think that was very much the idea.

  8. K

    I honestly don't think I can watch this. I have the manga and I would rather read that again then watch them mess with Kenshin again.

    The only thing I like about any of the OVA's was Tsuioku-hen. I actually don't think that one is a bastardization of the manga. I know it's not a perfect adaption of the flash back scenes in the manga but at least it's something & I think the tone of the OVA works for me because Kenshin's past was dark.

    What bothers me about the other OVA is in the present Kenshin's life is not supposed to be dark. He found peace, and love, and friendship. We can see how Tomoe changed Kenshin for the better and how he was able to open his heart to Kaoru.

  9. A

    I thought the trust and betrayal was a very solid OVA. The art threw me off at first but I came to like it even more then the TV show. I havent read the manga but I love watching how Kenshin got that scar on his face. But this OVA just sucks for me and just dont know why they would redo a arc that was done perfect the first tome.

  10. A

    Why did they have to take away Saito's one glory during Kyoto arc? It's so unnecessary change.

  11. K

    Typo on protagonist name is unforgivable, Enzo. -_-

  12. You're gonna have to help me here, cause I'm not seeing it…

  13. L

    I saw this on… (a certain streaming site…) and decided against watching this before I could finish the series. I put Rurouni Kenshin on hold after I stopped watching it on Toonami (or was it Adult Swim) years ago, and never got back to finish it. Hell, I've probably forgotten everything including names and plot.

    Anyway, I've never read the manga, nor do I have time right now, so maybe I'll watch this before starting the series over from scratch (yay 94 episodes!).

    Kenshin aside, (and this may be a bit late) I really do like how you've implemented a "Read More >>" button to skip the top banner and title. I don't think RC has that, since I end up having to scroll past the images first.

  14. Thanks, anything to make Blogspot feel a little faster.

    I really wish, as a RK fan, that you wouldn't watch this before watching the series or reading the manga. Honestly, you can skip S3 altogether if time is an issue – so it's really only 62 episodes!

  15. m

    I just couldn't help feeling disappointed while I was watching this.

  16. d

    Why adapt yet change the story of a manga?
    Cause it is called adapting. And they want to show that they can do Magic by twisting someone else's ideas. Most fail horribly though.

  17. V

    "For all that, I hope it does well for the very simple reason that the only chance we have of seeing the Jinchu Arc animated at last is if these OVAs and the upcoming live-action film prove a big financial success."

    I don't know, man. That's what my initial positive outlook on this OVA was, but after seeing the way it was directed and how they once again went for the needlessly overdramatic and joyless tone of Seisouhen, complete with similarly baffling changes and additions to a fantastic source material, I don't know if I want to see Jinchu animated by these guys anymore. Obviously, if they did, it's likely that it would be nowhere near as rushed as this poor man's version of Kyoto, but the poor adapting of the plot, characters and tone would probably still be there. So, in a way, and as much as it pains me to say it, maybe Jinchu is better off not being animated after all. It's too good an arc to waste on a staff of hacks, that's for sure. If only some competent studio would swoop in and rescue the rights to animating this franchise which deserves so much better from the hands of DEEN.

  18. S

    Wait wait, you actually prefer an ok manga arc with a fairly dull female character (Watsuki admitted in the tankobon that he had no idea what to do with Tomoe and ended up creating a Rei clone) to what is considered one of the best anime of all times?

    Sure Tsuioku-hen is not a faithful adaptation – damn, it is my textbook example of how to greatly improve over the source material! Making Tomoe into a nuanced, dramatic character? Check. Giving the fights a more realistic tone in line with a period piece? Check. Making sure that Kenshin knows what is going on BEFORE he goes rescueing Tomoe? Check. Giving some actual meaning to the second scar? Check. Every single change is for the best.

    You are correct that in general drama does not need to go hand-in-hand with a "gloomy" tone, but the reminiscence is not simply drama – it is a tragedy. You know, the fall of a great man brought about by his own flaws? That's Tsuioku-hen, or at least how it would be perceived by western audience. There is no space for lightweight feelings in tragedy.

    P.S.: Just to avoid any bias accusation, I first read the whole manga, then watched the first two seasons of the anime and the OAVs. Yes, Seishou-hen is pretty poor. Also, I am not usually so critical and opinions are opinions, but come on… the majority of anime fans clearly feels otherwise.

  19. The "majority" of anime fans who love the first OVA – which I freely admit is very well-received – have never read the manga. It's perfectly fine for you to have that opinion, but I don't think you should take cover in couching it as the POV of the manga readers. I'd probably have liked it better myself if I didn't know how unfaithful it was.

    Again, "OK" is your opinion – I think that arc is a classic, and very nearly the equal of the Kyoto arc. I think a survey of any site where readers of the RK manga share their views would reflect almost universal love for the Jinchu. There's a reason why seeing it animated has been a veritable crusade for almost 15 years.

  20. A

    Post#1: Before I start, mind you that I'm speaking as a major Rurouni Kenshin fan meaning I favored both the manga and anime and have collected much of the merchandise (all the mangas, including the extra ones like Yahiko no Sakabatou, all the DVDs of the series and OVAs, including the Director's Cut versions, various plushies, etc.) for years to come even 'til this day. I literally cried when I found out it was cancelled on Toonami leading me to collect all the DVDs just to see the end of the series. No lie! (Although I was quite young at the time and just discovering anime mind you).

    Anyway enough of my rant… To be honest, I think the original OVAs (Tsuioku-hen and Seishou-hen) were much better than this insult of what they claimed to be an OVA (IMO). Also those insulting Seishou-hen need to give the OVA a break. Yes I agree the plot had a couple of discrepancies from the original manga and anime, and yes it decided to take that gloomy, serious route that many people hate, but I expected as much after watching the Tsuioku-hen OVA (which I think is a classic) even though it was meant to be dark since it's covering Kenshin's past. On that note, I would NEVER say Seishou-hen was as bad as or worse than this Kyoto arc OVA no matter who was behind the creation of two OVAs. The one thing about Seishou-hen is at least it gave me some sort of closure of the series by telling more to the story of what happened after Kenshin and Kaoru finally got married (I’m putting what happened in the manga extras on the back burner for now because I do agree that I enjoyed that ending much more than what was displayed in Seishou-hen) and I'm rarely into a lot of romance genres. But RK pulled me in by displaying a sense of romance of what I call 'true love'. It might not have ended the way I wanted it to and left out a few details here and there that I wish they included, which probably left a lot of RK fans peeved afterwards including myself, but I got past it and was able to watch it several times with no problem. Maybe it's just me who thinks this way, but I thought it ended fair. It showed not every relationship is as glamorous and 'perfect' as it seems to be on the outside in the end. I do, however, wish Kenshin, Kaoru, and Kenji lived in a bit of happier setting in the end, than what was displayed in the Seishou-hen OVA, but I'm over all that now and moving on.

  21. A

    Post#2: Now as for this Kyoto arc OVA, all I can say is I felt uneasy for an entire day after watching this. So much was left out and so many epic battles, scenes, and characters from the original Kyoto arc were either missing, poorly cut, or altered. I'm not going to even point out which battles pissed me off the most, but I'm sure every RK fan knows which ones I'm talking about. Also I'm not sure if any other RK fan picked up on it, but Kenshin's character seemed a bit off than what I was used to for some reason. As for that sex scene… I'll just say that I enjoyed Kenshin and Kaoru's sex scene in Seishou-hen (which was more subtle and conservative in my opinion) one-thousand times more than Shishio and Yumi's (I'm just not even gonna go there…). I could barely tolerate watching the rest of the OVA after that and I'm 23. The only positives I can say about this remake are the music scores left me feeling nostalgic and Hiko’s ‘moment’ with the logs. Purely epic! Overall, like everyone else I wish the Jinchuu arc would have been animated for the 15th Anniversary, but if the same people who created this abomination are going to create it I’m glad it was never made. The last thing I’d ever want to see is RK butchered from the original storyline of the manga or anime, excluding the first two OVAs. On that note, I look forward to seeing the live-action film of this series. However, it better not disappoint me as much as this re-make of the Kyoto arc.

    Also just as an extra note, the RK OVAs I were first ones I was introduced to before I saw many OVAs of various other animes. So in my mind I thought they were suppose deter from the storyline a bit and have a different style of artwork. Sorry for the long post I just needed to vent all my thoughts on this topic somewhere amongst other RK fans. ^_^;

  22. E

    I only started reading Rurouni Kenshin sometime in the past 6 months (I know, shame on me) and have slowly but surely been making my way through the manga. I just recently marathoned the majority of the Kyoto arc, with only a bit left to go now, and with the story so fresh in my mind, all I could say while watching this is `why?`. I absolutely love the impact everything in the manga has, and while I`ve been complaining about how darned long the arc is (every time I think I`m about to hit the end, I find out there`s three more volumes worth!), I found myself tearing at my face at how this was done. The pacing was absolutely horrid, and I can`t see any fan, old or new, really understanding the point of anything that happened in this OVA. Don`t get me started on the action scenes either; an entire volume`s worth of a fight was reduced to a mere 2 minutes, most of which was someone talking. Nice, DEEN. Nice.

    As horrid as it was, I do still intend to watch the second one (and hopefully by the time it comes out I`ll have finished reading the entire manga) but trust me when I say I`ll be running straight to the original TV series to cleanse my eyes afterwards.

  23. You're preaching to the choir here, Elliot. It's a shame.

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