I’ve been looking forward to this episode with a curious admixture of anticipation and trepidation. The former for all the usual reasons – this is one of the absolute tentpole moments of Rurouni Kenshin. It’s both great and absolutely essential, and as such an incredibly important ep for this adaptation. The latter because of the incessant drumbeat of whining from fanboys and fangirls of the 1996 anime, who – like some fans of Hunter X Hunter 1999 – seem to resent the possibility that two (three, really) excellent versions of the same story might exist.
Furuhashi Kazuhiro is a great director, no doubt about it. But it’s funny how his specter hangs over some of the most annoying elements of modern anime discussion. The reality is, you know, this whole Kenshin-Saitou re-introduction has already been done brilliantly on-screen by the first anime. It’s not a moment that needed to be remade in that sense, and as such the 2023 was always going to have a steep hill to climb with it. And pretty much the whole Kyoto Arc is going to be like that, because Furuhashi mostly aced that too. There are things I think the first series did better (like music for one), and there are things this one has improved on. But for me, the two of them both being excellent is not mutually exclusive.
For my money, I think Yamamoto Hideyo and his team pretty much aced this too – and they had to. I’ve still not sold on Hino Satoshi but Saitou Souma (who’s been excellent all along) carried this episode from a seiyuu perspective (and Takahashi Rie was great as well). The way he communicated the re-awakening of Hitoriki Battousai was really chilling. And what came across even better I think in this version is just how different this fight is for Kenshin than any of the others he’s faced (even Jin-e). There aren’t many left who know the Battousai – truly know him. And facing off against one of them is Kenshin’s worst nightmare.
Kenshin is a man of many contradictions, and Saitou zeroed in on one of them here. Even if you buy the idea that Ken has foresworn killing in favor of protecting those who “catch his eye” (interesting choice of words on his part), to Saitou that makes him a hypocrite. If Kenshin is as dedicated to protecting others as he claims, how can he endeavor to do so with anything less than his full strength? This was a theme that Seirei no Moribito brought to life brilliantly with Balsa and Chagum, and it defies easy judgments. As Saitou points out, Kenshin has already left Kaoru and Yahiko in danger many times. Including in this case, where while Kenshin was battling Saitou’s patsy, the latter could have killed the pair of them at his leisure.
Ultimately, the real battle here is not between the Battousai and the Shinsengumi captain, but between the Battousai and the Rurouni. That’s ultimately the reason Saitou is here in fact, though we don’t know that until the end of the episode. Saitou is not like any of the others. With his Gatotsu and iron will he’s Kenshin’s equal in battle, or at least the closest we’ve seen. He’s not someone Kenshin can protect his brood against with half measures. And he knows where all of Kenshin’s psychological bodies are buried – every button to push.
The fight itself was brought off beautifully here, and it had some pretty big shoes to fill. The choreography was lovely (from a kenjutsu standpoint Hirazuki and Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu are stylistic opposites and, as in boxing, styles makes matchups), but what comes across more than anything is the sheer brutality of it. This is the only way for Kenshin to survive this encounter, as painful as it is for Kaoru to watch – he has to become the savage beast he was, and facing this man reveals how close to the surface that beast lurks.
From the other’s perspective, both Saitou and Kenshin are men who have “rotted away” in the new era. Or so it seems, at least at first. But there is a certain purity in their showdown, as awful as it is. And that makes them forget – Saitou why he’s there at all, and Kenshin the resolution he’s made about who he is. When Kenshin gets serious, even seriously wounded he gets the better of Saitou. Once Saitou’s blade is snapped it seems to be over, but the Wolves of Mibu were not ones to back down in mortal battle. What your sword is gone, you use for fists. When you can’t stab, you break the neck. That’s what it means to be a manslayer facing your sworn enemy.
Karou’s voice can’t reach Kenshin here – a testament not to his feelings for her being weak, but to the power his history holds over him. The only voice that can, in fact, is that of Kawaji Toshiyoshi (Fukumatsu Shinya), the general who sent Saitou here. And even more so Ookubo Toshimichi (Matsuyama Takashi), the Satsuma samurai who was one of the pillars of the revolution and subsequent Meiji government. He’s the main reason this battle is taking place – though now that he’s let slip the dogs of war it remains to be seen whether even he can rein them in again.
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