I had actually attempted to watch this a while back. I got through the first story arc, but the 10 year old CD-Rs with the second and third arcs had died so I had been trying to piece together the missing parts to finish the show. This time, rather than resume where I left off, I’d go in chronological order and watch the prequel first, then finish the series, and then watch the epilogue OVA.
So, first the prequel. The best way to sum up my thoughts on the prequel is despite all the goofiness in the series, the FUTAE NO KIWAMI AAAA videos, and the tangential related goofiness in Busou Renkin (which is just author association, but still), I was still able to take it seriously. At no point did I yell out say, “SECRET SWORD 2!” or “FULLCHIN!” while Kenshin is going around slicing people in half. The prequel is so relentlessly grim and joyless (IN THE MEIJI ERA, THERE IS ONLY WAR) that it stands on the razor’s edge between seriousness and camp (which, after all, can be described as “failed seriousness”). Even the scenes when Kenshin and Tomoe say that they are now finally truly happy, it doesn’t even really sound like it’s actually true. But despite having the deck completely stacked against it, the prequel just nails everything completely. It’s probably the second best OVA I’ve ever seen, although because it is so intensely grim that I can’t necessarily say that it’s one of my favorites. (I’m sure you can figure out what I consider the best.)
Next, the series. The series is basically exactly what I want a shounen action series to be. It’s got a large cast, but not awkwardly so to the point where characters just vanish for volumes at a time. It knows when to be goofy and funny, and also doesn’t have stupid shit like poop and fart jokes. And finally, it has interesting fights that aren’t concluded with either deus ex machina or any other kind of outcome that could only have been pulled out of the author’s ass. I was quite glad that there was nothing the time when Naruto won a fight by farting in Kiba’s face.
This was one of the only times when I actually listened to the English dub. This was just for episodes 57 and 58. Those two, if you didn’t figure it out already, are when Kenshin and the gang fight Makoto Shishio. Suffice to say, we were cracking up the entire time and saying all the lines along with everyone. Also, before that episode every time I heard those little musical cues that play during the fight I would laugh despite myself. It could be a totally serious scene, but those would just kill it for me. I’ll excuse the failed seriousness in those situations though because it’s really not the series’ fault, combined with the fact that series does both serious and light interchangeably.
That said, not every fight totally worked for me. I will concede though that this is mostly just out of the cliches and conventions of the genre. The damage the characters take in the fights, for example gets kind of ridiculous, but I guess that’s no different from how everyone in anime and manga spray firehoses of blood everywhere when they die or get hurt. Similarly, anything with Yahiko usually made me roll my eyes because he’s a 10 year old kid that just randomly started studying kendo. But you know, target audience and all.
And while we’re on the topic, I remember reading one of those author’s notes pages at the end of a volume of Busou Renkin where Watsuki talks about trying to make an actual strong female character with Tokiko. That idea hung around in the back of my head while watching Kenshin because I started to realize how lame of a character Kaoru is. She is supposed to be this kendo master, but she almost never fights. Even Yahiko, who is like 10 years old fights more. What she DOES end up doing instead is crying, being needy, getting kidnapped, and longing for Kenshin. In other words, she’s basically just there as a kind of storytelling tool whose entire character is basically defined by Kenshin. But I guess that having girls doing a lot of fighting still isn’t really that common in most of these kinds of series.
Finally, the epilogue OVA. This one sucked on a fundamental level. The tone here was roughly similar to the prequel OVA. The easy explanation is the simple “THAT’S NOT HOW THE MANGA ENDS!!11one” or a random quote from Watsuki that shounen manga are about smiles and happy endings. The more detailed explanation is that the remembering of the series doesn’t at all correspond with how I’m “remembering” the series. While that dark tone worked when the topic was Kenshin’s past, reminiscing about the series doesn’t exactly elicit the same somber tone. I think about the generally light tone with only sporadic edgy segments, like Kenshin’s past or Saitou killing people. Yet the only things that Kaoru seems to remember are Kenshin leaving her and other bad things. Even marrying Kenshin or having a baby don’t appear to be recalled with any particular joy.
Oh, and unlike the prequel, sometimes the seriousness in the epilogue did fail. There’s the scene toward the end when Sano (whose scruffiness makes him look like he just came off of a week long bender, rather than making him look older or tougher) comes across (the dying) Kenshin, and the way he holds him makes it look like they’re going to kiss. Oh, and the “explanation” that the intense physical toll of his swordsmanship style is why Kenshin is dying in his early 40s is kind of ridiculous seeing how his master, who has trained way more in it than Kenshin has, is like 60 and still looks like he’s in his 20s, is a giant plot hole. But whatevs, I just pretend that that epilogue didn’t happen since you know, not in the manga!
(Also, isn’t the best way to describe this show as “historical samurai vs. Marvel comics characters”?)
Would I watch it even if I weren’t forced? Well yeah hurr durr