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.