I revisited the Rurouni Kenshin TV series a few years ago, and found myself disappointing by the show. I had purchased the series volume by volume and had tremendous nostalgia for it, but now found that the show had aged badly. The animation didn’t hold up well and the tone was so dated. Perhaps this is why the “new” Kenshin project from a few years ago ended up being a reworking of the Kyoto arc, maybe developed as an update for a new generation.
Still, as attested by the recent live-action movies and the enduring popularity of the franchise (and the manga, especially, which feels dateless), there’s so much good stuff that can be culled from Kenshin. For all the problems I know see in it, the series does so much right; there’s so much worth emulating. The characters and plot are now classic, and the themes contain an almost universal quality, laying out ideas like grace, compassion, vengeance, humility, karma, and repentance.
We also get to see themes arise in the substance of the characters themselves, which can be seen in the juxtaposition between Himura Kenshin and Saito Hajime, warriors who were enemies during the rebellion, but find themselves allies during the Kyoto Arc. They have very different fighting styles and opposing personalites. And, most significant thematically, they stand for different things, at least during the postwar years: Kenshin is about peace, life, and reconciliation, while Saito’s focus continues to be on the Shinsengumi code, Aku Soku Zan (Swift Death to Evil).
The characters fall dramatically to their ends of the spectrum – Kenshin is so caught up in non-violence that he actually devalues his own life. I would argue this is the result of the repentance he tries to build through his double-edged sword, not simply because of a promise he made after his time with Tomoe, but because he can’t get rid of the blood on his hands. But he tries by saving others and keeping a commitment to shed no blood, almost in a death wish sort of manner. Strangely enough, that takes something away from his sacrifice, since he (at least earlier in the series) doesn’t seem to value his life as he should.
Saito drifts to the opposite end, judging others based on his view of right and wrong. His judgment is quick and severe. And though it can hardly be argued that the men he executes are in the right, it’s the hypocrisy and pride in Saito that should be questioned. How is it that this “wolf” decides who is to be judged when he, too, has done wrong? And is there no room for someone who has done wrong to be forgiven?
In fact, there is need for both grace and judgement. Look at these words penned about Brother Lawrence, the subject of The Practice of the Presence of God:
He declared that all the possible good works or self-abasing acts of contrition we could possibly do could not erase a single sin. In fact, God often chooses those who had been the greatest sinners to receive His greatest grace, because this can reveal His goodness more dramatically.
In between methods of Saito and Kenshin lies an important truth: we must be judged and we are also offered forgiveness. Aku Soku Zan should be upon us for our evil deeds, for all the sins we’ve committed in straying from God. But Christ tells us that there is forgiveness. There is life. And there’s reason for it beyond some commitment or seeking of repentance – the reason is that God is love. And He is the God even of those who have done grave sins, those whom Saito would cut down – they could be the ones to “receive His greatest grace” – but only when they realize the weight of their sin.
And so, though “balance” is a word I abhor when it comes to discussing Christianity, it seems to fit nicely here. We must be neither exclusively like the Battousai nor the Wolf of Mibu, but instead like both. For the message of grace is incomplete without either, and it’s power arrives when we understand and accept both.