First things first – just what was that episode? It’s not part of the original manga, as readers will tell you. This side story comes from something called Restoration: Act 0. It’s a prequel story for the Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration manga that Watsuki Nobuhiro wrote as a tie-in for the first live-action film. It ran for about ten chapters and two volumes, and is generally considered by manga readers to be pretty good. And that’s about how I would describe this episode (which will get its payoff next week).
The next question one might ask is why the anime team decided to go in that direction here. I think the obvious answer is that they’re aiming to end this season on an obvious stopping point in the manga, and couldn’t make that happen without adapting something like this or inserting a couple of filler episodes. Since this reboot has religiously avoided filler (apart from a few well-crafted scenes here and there), this mini-arc was a logical alternative. I don’t anticipate we’re going to see “Restoration” as a whole adapted. It’s not necessary timewise for starters, and it contains some continuity changes that would be hard to explain.
As it stands, we get a stand-alone tale from Kenshin’s past that doesn’t require much in terms of setup or follow-up. It’s set in the context of the Kenshingumi asking him to tell a tale from his past that’s “unusual, fun, and involves beating a villain”. That leads him to Y0kohama and a run-in (literally) with a rickshaw driver named Dankichi (Maeno Tomoaki), in a hurry because he’s carrying a foreign doctor named Elder (Itou Kanae, giving us her best gaijin accent). Yokohama at this time was the epicentre of foreign settlement and modernization in Japan, complete with its own segregated foreign settlement (how the Japanese governments loved those).
Yokohama is indeed an interesting city, for much the reason touted here. It was much more open than Tokyo (“three generations in Edo and you’re an Edokko, three days in Yokohama and you’re a Hamako”). It was where foreign innovation including medicine) typically made its way into Meiji Japan. The secret that Elder-sensei is a woman is never much of a secret, but I don’t think it was really intended to be. And the story of a greedy doctor trying to prevent Elder from devaluing the commodity by working cheap (or free) is very much stock-and-trade RuroKen.
There are some fun moments here, like Ken’s reaction when Dankichi exclaims that he must be one of the Shinsengumi. And adding Miki Shinichirou as the foreign swordsman Espilar is obviously a good thing. I quite enjoyed the little history lessons too (Hepburn is the one who foisted his cursed Romanization standard on the country). Is this great? No, but it’s at least canon of a sort, and pretty entertaining. There’s nothing inherently wrong with filler, but for my taste a lot of the filler from the 1996 series was pretty sub-par. If the 2023 has to fill time, I’m happier if they do it this way, with Watsuki’s own material, even if it’s not absolutely essential.
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