As a Tokyo-based writer, I will introduce you to various aspects of pop culture such as manga, anime, movies and music. I want to spread the joy of Japanese pop culture around the world.
Hi everyone, it’s Mokugyo here. Although I read various types of manga, I especially like reading manga magazines. One of my favorites is Shueisha’s Weekly Shounen Jump, which I’ve been reading since my childhood. It’s crunch time for the magazine, as a couple of popular manga have ended their serializations, such as Naruto in 2014, and Bleach and Nisekoi in 2016. Six new manga are starting their serializations in February and March 2017 in their places.
Weekly Shounen Jump was at a similar turning point in the middle of the 90’s as well. In this article, I’m going to write about a popular manga series of that time, Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X), whose live-action adaptation movies and musical are recent smash hits.
Rurouni Kenshin was created by Nobuhiro Watsuki and was serialized between 1994 and 1999 in Weekly Shounen Jump. The title has the subtitle Meiji Kenkaku Romantan which means ‘a swordsman’s romantic tale in the Meiji Period’ and connotes a significant meaning with it. I’ll explain some things about the Meiji Period later on in this article.
It’s a sword action manga that tells the story of a samurai named Kenshin Himura as he fights against injustice. Its anime adaptation also became popular in 1996 and was aired overseas under the English title Samurai X.
Promotional video of the live-action movie Rurouni Kenshin
It was adapted into two live-action movies which were released in 2012 and 2014. Live-action movies based on manga or anime often receive criticism. However, the live-action movie of Rurouni Kenshin earned excellent reviews. It’s the acting skill of Takeru Sato as Kenshin, and the directorial ability of Keishi Otomo that brought us this brilliant adaptation.
A digest video of the musical Rurouni Kenshin
Furthermore, its musical adaptation was on stage in 2016 by Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe which boasts a 100-year long history and has been highly popular among dedicated fans. As a matter of fact, Kenshin in the anime series was voiced by an actress from the Takarazuka Revue, Mayo Suzukaze.
Nobuhiro Watsuki, the original creator of the manga, was motivated by these adaptations and announced that he will publish a sequel manga with the subtitle ‘Hokkaido Arc’ in Jump Square, starting this Spring. I can’t wait to read the new arc.
Rurouni Kenshin is set in the Meiji Period of Japan, an era during which the age of samurai ended and the modernization of Japan rapidly progressed.
In the late Edo Period at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, fierce battles broke out nationwide between pro-imperial groups and the Tokugawa force. Consequently, Japan was moving into the modernization of its political and social structure. This period is known as Bakumatsu, literally meaning the end of the Shogunate, and is a popular subject for novels, movies, manga, and anime.
For instance, both Peace Maker Kurogane and Hakuouki revolve around the Shinsengumi, a samurai police force which was active during that period. Although boldly modified, Gintama is also set in the Bakumatsu period. In Rurouni Kenshin, a former Shinsengumi swordsman named Hajime Saito appears as well.
After numerous battles, the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end and the Meiji period started in 1868. It was a curiously strange period, where people walked amongst newly built western style buildings in western outfits instead of traditional kimono, and streets were lit by streetlights. Westernization rapidly spread, but there were some people who didn’t approve of the new era. Rurouni Kenshin story is exactly about that era.
During the Bakumatsu period, Kenshin killed many people as an assassin and was feared as the infamous ‘Hitokiri Battousai’- The Manslayer Battousai. The restoration had been completed and the early days of the Meiji period passed peacefully, and as such Kenshin decided not to kill anymore. He wore a sakabatou, a samurai sword which has a reverse blade, making it impossible to kill anyone with it. Although he fights off people who threaten peace, he never kills them. Rurouni Kenshin is a tale of Kenshin fighting against enemies who were stranded in the former era, as well as against his own past.
Rurouni Kenshin started its serialization in 1994, the so-called golden age of Weekly Shonen Jump. In that year, it sold a whopping 6.53 million copies.
In 1995, however, Dragon Ball, which was the most popular manga at the time, ended its serialization and the completion of another flagship manga, Slam Dunk, followed in 1996. The circulation figure decreased and was taken over by its rival magazine Weekly Shounen Magazine in 1997. During this difficult time, it was Rurouni Kenshin that kept Shonen Jump alive.
Before long, One Piece in 1997 helped the magazine regain its popularity, and in 1999 the revolutionary ninja manga Naruto joined Shonen Jump and made the magazine boost its sales even more. Both manga became popular even overseas and raised the circulation of the magazine. Finally, Shonen Jump won back the title of the best-selling weekly manga magazine in 2002 and has been holding it ever since.
Rurouni Kenshin is the work that held the reins during the transition period of Weekly Shonen Jump. The samurai story was set in the shifting time from the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji period, and in the real world, Weekly Shonen Jump was also experiencing its own turning point.
The manga volumes of Rurouni Kenshin always had a bonus page in them. During its serialization, Watsuki used the bonus page to tell fans anecdotes from making the manga and share models for his character designs. It was very rare for manga artists to reveal what was happening behind the scenes at the time, at least in Shonen Jump manga.
The bonus page became a standard in the manga volumes of Shonen Jump manga later on. For examples, One Piece has a Q&A section in its bonus page to answer questions from fans, and in Gintama’s bonus pages, its writer Sorachi unveils his thoughts with his handwriting.
Nobuhiro Watuki often mentions his mangaka mentor, Takeshi Ohata. In the 90s, although known to have splendid drawing skills, Obata hadn’t yet got the chance to produce a hit manga. Watsuki, who was once Obata’s assistant, produced a hit manga before him. Nevertheless, he always praised his mentor, and later Obata turned into a mega hit maker with Hikaru no Go, Death Note, Bakuman, and more.
Watsuki’s assistants became popular manga artists: Hiroyuki Takei of Shaman King, and Eiichiro Oda, the creator of the huge hit manga One Piece, worked as his assistants. It’s interesting that the manga artists who became a foundation for Shonen Jump’s popularity in the 2000s were somehow involved with Rurouni Kenshin.
Rurouni Kenshin is not only about the sword battle action scenes, but also the psychological description of Kenshin and his struggle with his own past. It’s also about a very important part of Japanese history and I hope many people will come to learn the work from its manga, anime or live-action movies!