Never, ever did I imagine that one day I’d be blogging new Rurouni Kenshin manga.
It would be hard to overstate how important Watsuki Nobuhiro’s manga is to a certain stripe of fans, of a certain generation. RK was the first manga I finished, the first manga I loved, and one of the first anime I loved, too. I’ve talked extensively on this site about the new OVAs, and my mixed feelings about those – and about the disappointment die-hard RK fans feel at never seeing the last “Jinchu” Arc of the manga animated.
Be that as it may – this is different. First and foremost, the only thing that matters is this – the “Kinema Ban” manga is written and drawn by Watsuki-sensei. That alone makes it of a different order of magnitude in importance than the OVAs, new or old. It may not be “Jinshu” but it is Watsuki – and that’s enough to get me excited. The fact is, I don’t really know what to expect from this new series. It’s the year of Kenshin, in many ways – in addition to the OVAs and this new serialization, we have the live-action movie that the new manga is tied into. How closely Kinema Ban will track with the plot of the film I don’t know, nor do I know for how long it will run. I expect it to be fairly short, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
The the main event, the manga itself. My initial reaction is this: I love these characters so much more when Watsuki-sama is drawing them. Forget the bastardizations DEEN came up with for the Samurai X and Shin-Kyoto Hen OVAs – this is what Kenshin, Kaoru and Yahiko look like. Watsuki is barely forty and has never stopped drawing manga, so it’s no surprise that his skills should be as sharp as ever – but he hasn’t spent much time with this cast in 13 years, so there was always a hint of anxiety until we saw the finished product. Thankfully, he hasn’t lost a step – his characters are as we remember them with only small fine-tuning, and he still draws sword combat better than any mangaka I know. In this sense, Rurouni Kenshin is definitely back.
As to story, there’s the hard bit – because whether this tracks the movie exactly or only approximates it, it’s still a reboot (the very term Shounen Jump is using) of the plot. You have to allow the possibility of an alternate timeline, one where Kenshin is grabbed by Yahiko to take part in a sham “Sword Arts” tournament when the boy assumes he’s the fake Battousai lined up to fight none other thank Kaoru. Why? Because Kanryuu Takeda is trying to take over her dojo, and has forced her to win 10 matches in order to keep it. Yahiko, meanwhile, appears to be working for Takeda as a sort of runner, but is in fact effectively a hostage to keep Kaoru from crossing Takeda, who beats up Yahiko every time something goes wrong.
What we have, then, feels almost like a hybrid of Kaoru and Megumi’s intro stories. It’s an interesting turn, taken, I suspect, because of the necessity of getting the introductory phase of the story over much, much faster. When it’s all said and done, though, we still have Kenshin, newly arrived in Tokyo and determined never to kill, helping and befriending Kaoru and Yahiko. We still have a passel of enemies with scores to settle about to come after him – though it looks like it will be a mix of manga and original ones. In short, the overall dynamic of the story seems as if it will be about the same – which is more than I can say for Shin-Kyoto Hen. Yes, the Takeda story moves very quickly and lacks the subtlety of RK at its best, but I think that’s a concession to scheduling reality and the need to get into the main story quickly.
It would be foolish to try and predict exactly where Kinema Ban will take its story, or just how good it will be. But I can say, after 45 pages, that it feels like Rurouni Kenshin. Ultimately Watsuki’s presence – or absence – from the pilot’s seat outweighs all other variables put together. The art looks great, the pace is snappy, and the interaction among the leads feels spot-on. It’s RuroKen – and that, as a deeply passionate and loyal fan, is all I can possibly ask for.