When I was a child, I dreamed of having a scar on my face or maybe across my chest. It would be the mark of an adventurer, of someone cool and courageous. But the act of getting the scar? I wasn’t interested in that.
One day, though, it did happen. I took a tumble off my bike onto the asphalt, gashing my knee. That wound healed as a scar—one just a little smaller and less visible than those I’d imagined.
As I became older, though, I started thinking the opposite way, and acted to avoid getting scars. I was more careful when handling dangerous objects. I tended to wounds quickly. And I just generally avoided precarious activities. A vanity had taken over—I didn’t want to do damage to a face or body that, in my sight, was just barely okay to look at as it was!
Still, when I looked to the world of imagined warriors, fighters, and samurai, I would admire those blemished by battle. Most prominent among them for me was Kenshin Himura, whose courage and conviction were a goodness and heroism that I wish I could somehow emulate. His cross-shaped scar spoke to me of his character, of a man who would fight to save others but refused to kill them, involving himself in situations that required great sacrifice of himself.
Eventually, as I purchased the series, one month and DVD at a time, I made my way to Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen (Trust and Betrayal), OVAs providing context to the first two arcs of the series, which showed the young Kenshin before he became kind and loving, when he was a violent weapon unleashed onto the enemy. It was practically perfect, I thought, except for the very end (spoilers ahead)—a conclusion that confused me because it didn’t seem to ring true, because it somehow made all that was to come feel less heroic and less authentic.
During the final battle in the arc, Kenshin is badly injured and psychologically in a terrible state, too, after coming to understand that Tomoe, the woman he has fallen in love with, is a spy and betrayed him (though perhaps with good cause, as Kenshin also learns that among his assassinations was her former betrothed). On the verge of death, Kenshin is able to drive the killing blow instead—though as he opens his eyes, he sees that he is only able to do so because Tomoe has become between the two fighters and sacrificed herself, with Kenshin pushing his blade through her and into his enemy.
In her final moments, dying in Kenshin’s arms, Tomoe reaches upward and carves a wound into his cheek, crossing over one made earlier by her fiance, and scarring him for life, now physically in addition to emotionally. She had come to love Kenshin, and given her life for him, despite all the pain he caused her. She had given him life.
But with this gift, Kenshin does the unbelievable. While he does decide to become a wanderer and help others without killing, it won’t be until he has killed many, many others to complete his role in the revolution.
That’s right—he will change fully, but not immediately. There’s way more slaying yet to do.
At the time, and for many years afterwards, I thought it was a major flaw in the story. After what Tomoe did, how could Kenshin not abandon his life of brutality right then and there? How could he continue to do evil, by choice, even if it was meant for good?
I’ve now come around, and think that his decision is rather nuanced, understood better in the context of war, and most importantly, in being human. Just as no perfect person exists, no perfect fictional character does either. Kenshin does what he does because he thinks it’s right. He turns from being a blank slate of a Battousai to becoming one with more will and agency, who is now on the front lines battling because he feels it will eventually be better for the people of Japan and ultimately save lives.
And in all these decisions—leaving the Battousai role, continuing to fight, eventually becoming a wanderer—Kenshin carries with him the X-shaped scar.
To Kenshin, the scar don’t seem to represent a love that he didn’t deserve—at least not primarily. It is a reminder, instead, of what he must do to earn Tomoe’s love. And so, Kenshin’s life becomes about atonement from here on out, as he tries to make recompense for all the pain he’s inflicted, most of all on Tomoe, reminded of her by his daily reflection.
But can Kenshin ever do enough to atone? As a viewer, we might say “yes,” as he does plenty, saving so many innocents. But I contend that he ultimately cannot fully atone, for an “innocent” died in his place, and there’s nothing one can do to match such a sacrifice. As much good as Kenshin does, it never makes his life even; it never repays Tomoe for what she has done.
When I consider scars, I also think of another—this person not a fictional character, and not the one who must repay, but who was in Tomoe’s place, who was the sacrificial lamb and savior.
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is full of physical punishment that left his body torn and tattered. His back, head, hands, and feet were wounded terribly. And we know, from the post-resurrection accounts, that at the very least, he carried a few of these wounds with him even after receiving his heavenly body:
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.Luke 24:39-40
Christ was able to talk to his disciples and teach them after receiving his scars. As the divine and perfect son of God, he rose from the dead and continued to teach his disciples and help them understand what his death meant. Tomoe is human and could not do the same, could not communicate with Kenshin after receiving her own wound, that which would take her life.
Or could she? There’s perhaps a proper answer out there for why she carves a cut into Kenshin’s face as her last action, but I’ll offer this possibility. I think Tomoe was explaining to Kenshin that “You caused my death, but still I love you and will always be with you.”
An act of violence reflects the violence Kenshin inflicted in Tomoe’s life, first by slaying her fiance and then her, but the blood they both shed there recounts her love for him, and the scar that will form will be a reminder every day that she is with him, and he should be forever changed by that.
How very much like our own story that is. The Romans and Jesus’ own people (and one of his own disciples) were responsible for his death, but the Bible makes it clear there’s more to it than that—humankind’s need for a savior after causing our own deaths through sin are what led Christ to the cross. We all together, and each individually, are responsible for Christ’s death.
But after his death, he, too, imparts something to us. He changes our hearts, transforms us, and leaves an enduring reminder by remaking us, causing us to be reborn, and marking us with his seal, the Holy Spirit.
We are “scarred” forever by the loving God, changed from the moment we accept his grace.
It’s also worth noting that Christ was in his new body when he appeared to the disciples. And that new body included his piercings. His perfection included these “imperfections.” His own “cross-shaped scars” were scars caused by the cross, and they remained a part of him.
And so, as a reborn child of God, I can return to the thought pattern I had as a child, too. I can think of a scar once again not as a blemish that makes me unattractive, but as something good, something cool and courageous. Not as something ugly, but something beautiful.
The beauty of grace.
The beauty of scars.
Featured illustration by Grandia元 (reprinted w/permission)