by Nobuhiro Watsuki; adaptation by Gerard Jones
published by Viz; $7.95 US
Subtitled “Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story”, this is a fighting manga set during the 1860s (the Meiji Era). It’s against the law to carry a sword, but the title character, a former assassin who’s become a wanderer, carries a reversed blade that can’t hurt anyone. He encounters Kaoru, a woman trying to maintain the reputation of her dead father’s fighting school in the face of a murderer damaging their name. After he helps her keep ownership of the school, he stays to protect its few inhabitants.
Kenshin is short, with red hair and a cross-shaped scar on his cheek. For a mysterious warrior, he isn’t very threatening. Often, he resembles a cute girl instead of a deadly fighter, especially when he grins. That’s not the only way in which comedy keeps the story from being too grim or heavy. An orphaned former pickpocket, Yahiko, later joins the school. His anger hasn’t yet been channeled effectively. He’s always eager to be further along than he is, and his bulldog-like determination provides humor as well.
This manga explores friendship and duty by contrasting sword-wielding heirs of tradition with newly modernized villains. The thematic conflict is between the historical samurai with their traditions of honor and the more modern time of law imposed from above. Money and weapons are what matters to the villains, not pride or nobility.
For American readers, the historical setting adds to the exotic air, making the idea of sacrificing one’s life for duty more plausible. Additionally, chapters are punctuated with text pieces explaining the author’s intent and background for some of the characters. There’s also a glossary at the end to aid the reader in understanding more of the historical context.