Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
I recently watched the last installment of the Rurouni Kenshin franchise Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning. The story covered Kenshin Himura’s early life as an assassin when he was younger during Japan's Boshin War in 1868-69. It was extremely good, having a much darker tone than the other movies of the series where it's after the war and he is a pacifist. During this period, Kenshin was a killer. Right from the beginning, the show establishes just how violent and effective of a killer he was.
Having seen the anime and OVAs, I was surprised at how graphic his assassinations were. The beginning of the movie has him feigning capture only to brutally massacre all but one person in the building.
However, one of the biggest things that stood out to me was the portrayal of how he met his first wife, Tomoe. I was struck by the organic nature of this relationship that forms by tragedy. And yet, I felt personally that it was a much stronger relationship than his later wife, Kaoru, that takes chronologically years later in the previous movies.
This is something that I've actually wanted to write about for a while based on seeing the animated versions of the story in the OVA, Rurouni Kenshin:T rust and Betrayal, and the anime series. I just never really had the time or impetus to do so because it didn't seem that really important enough to me at the time.
However, having now watched the final movie, it has now come back to mind and has made it even more obvious to me why I think the Tomoe relationship was much better for Kenshin than Kaoru’s, and I want to explore my reasons why for this. This is going to be based mostly on the movie, but I will reference some information from the anime and OVA as well.
The Dual Nature of a Killer
To understand the nature of Kenshin Himura’s relationship with both women, it is important to understand the nature of Kenshin himself. He is an orphan who was taken as a slave and is rescued from a massacre by another ronin, Seijuro Hiko, who then proceeds to train him. The two later on have a falling out over the carnage of the war and whether they should get involved or not, and Kenshin leaves, thus becoming a veteran of the Boshin War. During this time, the Tokugawa Shogunate was at war with Meiji Restorationists, who wanted to bring the emperor back into power. Because of his high skill of swordsmanship, Kenshin became an assassin in Kyoto during this time and because of his swordsman style, natural aptitude with the sword, and his commitment to the cause, he was extremely good at it.
While not going into his days before joining the revolution, the movie does actually say that Kenshin killed over 100 people within the space of six months. It's an astonishing number that would make you think that he was slightly psychotic, which most people do, earning him the name Hitokiri Battousi. However, in the conversation with Tomoe later on, he says is not a reckless killer. He has a set of values and morals, and even a sense of remorse about what he does. He doesn't kill civilians, does not rape women, and will not kill someone who is not a threat to him unless they are the target of his assassination or draw a sword on him.
Yet having said that, he has on two occasions demonstrated a willingness to do so if he loses himself too much in a blood rage, which is how he kills Tomoe’s fiancé during one of his missions. He is the most feared killer and warrior in Kyoto, a legacy that follows him even after the war when the new government contracts him to kill another hitokiri assassin gone rogue named Shishio. The Shogunate hires other assassins and militia to find and kill him. This largely goes to no avail. Kenshin is just too good of a swordsman and too alert to be caught off guard by assassination attempts against him. So a new method is needed and one presents itself because Kenshin himself actually creates it.
As stated above, during an assassination, Kenshin kills a guard who refused to surrender or run away. The guard was actually begging for his life or at least desperate enough to want to survive because he kept crying about needing to stay alive for someone he loved. Being Hitokiri Battousai and lost in a zombie-like killing state, Kenshin did not listen and cold-bloodedly murdered him, but not before the guard left a scar on his cheek that never healed.
Sometime later, Kenshin encounters Tomoe in a bar when he saves her from ruffians who wanted to assault her. It shows that Kenshin does still have a sense of morality and some sense of goodness that the audience knows him for in the previous movies. And also shows how quick to violence he is as well. He threatens openly that he will kill these men if they continue. Off the job, Kenshin negotiates once and after that, it's your life. It’s the reason I believe why none of his compatriots tried to take Tomoe later on as well, knowing that she was “Kenshin’s woman”, or at the very least closely associated with him.
This also fits with the anime portrayal of Kenshin. He is not as naïve as he is in The Beginning, being very fatalistic about his prospects of coming out of the war alive and perfectly aware that he is just a tool. He talks very little about "the new age" and any hints of being remorseful or kind-hearted are deeply buried under a strong conviction that those he kills have it coming to them for the suffering they've caused.
The Beginning's adaptation has him rather talking about establishing the new era, talking almost as he would in later years as a pacifist. He is still violent, but his ideals and inner conflict are much more on his sleeve than his OVA and anime counterpart.
After the war, as a ronin, he is kind, of a gentle nature, and even somewhat of a country bumpkin that is still naïve, yet is still a very angry and violent man when pushed. His hitokiri-state.
Both the movies and anime establish that most of the time, Kenshin’s swordsmanship is able to keep him from slipping into these berserk rages because he is so good that he can defeat most people without having to go that far. Only when he encounters enemies who are equal to or even superior to him, or worse, encounters someone who does something extremely evil, does Kenshin become more prone to losing himself.
"A Hitokiri (人斬ひときり?, literally person-slasher) is a swordsman sent out by an important or powerful figure for the express purpose of assassinating others."
— Definition as described in Kenshin.random.com
The Beginning still maintains that sense of violence about him, but they portray it more along a sliding scale. And it does not really begin to twist Kenshin’s soul until halfway through the film when his faction is raided by Shogunate loyalists in Kyoto. During a fight with one of them who obstructs his way, the assassin is evenly matched until his enemy begins to succumb to his tuberculosis. Then however, when he was about to show mercy and continue on to the raid, he is blocked again by more loyalists.
Immediately one of them, his future nemesis, Saito Hajime, recognizes the threat that he presents and tells the others to stay away because Kenshin will kill them regardless of how many they are. He insists on taking him on by himself. Kenshin’s allies appear and tell him that their leader has escaped and that he has been ordered to escape as well.
This is where Kenshin starts to slip into his blood rage, not reacting immediately to the order to retreat but instead hesitates for a long while. His blood is running, his temper is hot, and his hitokiri senses heightened. Eventually, he starts to force himself to leave until Saito taunts him, calling him a coward.
Kenshin slowly turns around where he's ready to go at him and it takes everything his allies can do short of physically restraining him to get him to back down. A key moment in this is when he's turning back for the second time and you catch a glimpse of his eyes: they are crazed, wild, and wide-eyed as if the madness is about to overtake him. He is really beginning to lose himself. Sometime later that same night, Kenshin is asleep and trying to recover, but Tomoe comes in and interrupts him. The assassin nearly kills her despite not a few days ago swearing that he would never do so.
This is the nature of Kenshin Himura during his time. Kind and quiet, but also showing increasingly hyper-violent tendencies. So much so that even though he isn't a psychotic killer now, it's not too hard to see that he will become one at some point later on.
It's at this point that I feel I should briefly mention the nature of the two women in Kenshin's life. Tomoe, as I said before, was the fiancé of a bodyguard that Kenshin slew. She is so grief-stricken by this that she signs up in the plot to try to find and kill him.
However, upon finding the assassin and slowly getting to know him, Tomoe begins to fall in love with him because she sees that he is not the cold-blooded killer that everyone thinks he was, at least not after she's gotten to know him. For certain, Battousi is a killer because she has watched him kill.
Still, Kenshin does not display any of the malice and callousness for life that other killers during that period typically do. So she starts to question him about why he is doing these killings. Kenshin is already growing uncomfortable with the killings as it is. That Tomoe is now beginning to make him think deeper on his resolve threatens his faction's goals.
The widow is warned by Kenshin's leaders to not disrupt his focus, yet she continues her subversions, and after the Kyoto raid, they are made to live together as husband and wife while in hiding. During this time, Tomoe comes into a personal conflict of her own because of her growing guilt that she is betraying her dead fiancé. And yet she still finds herself falling in love with his killer.
Eventually, she leaves after finding out that her own allies are about to move on Kenshin to kill him. She leaves a diary with her final notes on her motivations and what has changed. She tries to prevent the assassination of Kenshin but initially fails, with Kenshin killing three assassins trying to find her.
He is weakened and injured by those confrontations, though, so that by the time he meets the leader, he is in no state to fight and win. And he would have died, had Tomoe not intervened at the last minute and taken the blow from Kenshin that killed both the leader and herself. And this is what leads to Kenshin's vow to not kill anymore.
Kaoru by contrast is in many ways the opposite of Tomoe. This might be because they lived in separate eras, with Kaoru being an adult during the post-war period and Tomoe an adult during the war. She is independent, running a sword school that her family owns, while Tomoe was dependent on being married. Kaoru is also a pacifist, believing that to defend oneself one should not have to resort to killing someone. Something that lines up with Kenshin’s post-war values.
She tends to foster Kenshin’s pacifist side, even after seeing him in his hitokiri-state when she is kidnapped. Kaoru encourages Kenshin to reject the nature of his past-self when it appears and this usually helps him to not revert back. Her views and morals of Kenshin and life, in general, are very black and white. And as Kenshin himself says in the anime series, “What Miss Kaoru says is sweet and innocent talk, that only those whose hands have never been stained with the blood of men can believe.”
All of a Person
The reason why I believe that Kenshin’s relationship with Tomoe was better than Kaoru’s has to do with acceptance.
Kaoru did not accept Kenshin in the sense of ignoring who he was and in part still is, during the war. She could not accept Hitokiri Battousi: the antithesis to her own ideology. The anime actually does a better job of portraying just how ignorant she is to how deeply angry Kenshin actually is. That she wants him to lead a peaceful life and not jump at every situation that requires assistance. Both the anime and the movie show that Kaoru feels a sense of hopelessness when Kenshin feels the need to defend others, thus exposing himself to potentially back-sliding.
She is told later on that that is Kenshin's nature to help others and that is not going to change. It is in fact that nature that provoked Kenshin to leave his master and join the war in the first place when he was younger. It is part of who he is. So Kaoru has to make the decision to choose to be in that aspect of Kenshin's life while at the same time still encouraging a pacifist point of view.
Tomoe on the other hand is not as naïve. She is about the same age as Kaoru when she meets Kenshin in their teens. She lived during a time of war and personal loss. The nuances of the morality this creates were not unfamiliar to her. Tomoe is an angry woman who, while hating the violence of her time, was also out for revenge. She struggles with her own inner demons like the assassin.
Though she questions Kenshin’s resolve to assassinate targets, Tomoe also believes that there are some moments where killing is necessary, as demonstrated when she herself tries to kill her leader to protect Kenshin, and just the fact that she agreed to join the plot to kill him in the first place.
Tomoe is figuratively and literally bathed in the blood of Kenshin’s life as the Battousi and accepts it. Yet she also tries to encourage Kenshin from that lifestyle and to think for himself rather than be led on by others. She foresees him becoming the man that Kaoru admires years later. In this way, Tomoe fully understands Kenshin both as a killer and as a pacifist because her personality and Kenshin's were very similar.
She does try to change him but does not hide from the reality of his dual nature. Both people being products of the times they live in.
Victory Through Sacrifice
It can be also argued that Tomoe actually succeeded in killing her fiancé's killer. By causing Kenshin to think for himself and later sacrificing herself to save his life, Tomoe ensures that Kenshin will reject his hitokiri nature. Though she accepts that it will not be immediate because the war is still ongoing, she also foresees that just like the post-Shogunate-era, that it is coming and that as the movie says, “He will save more lives than he's taken.”
To be fair to Kaoru, she is seeing the fruits of that seeding years later. She is living during a peaceful time rather than wartime. Nor has she experienced the loss of losing someone as Tomoe had. And while being more independent than Tomoe, still chooses to believe that some situations shouldn’t require the death of another person. Even when in circumstances to the contrary.
This is displayed in the very first movie of the franchise where her kidnapper, who has now been defeated by Kenshin after he goes hitokiri-mode, looks like he is about to continue the fight still, but instead takes his own life. Meaning that someone had to die one way or the other. While Kaoru’s values are admirable and arguably better than Tomoe’s, at the same time they prevent her from accepting all of Kenshin’s personality and history.
So it is for this reason that I believe that Tomoe better understood Kenshin as a full person than Kaoru did. She's lived with the full measure of both sides of him. And though Kaoru would have never gotten together with Kenshin had Tomoe not challenged him and died years earlier, at the same time she more than anyone else understood what drives Kenshin's choices as an assassin and as a ronin.
© 2021 Jamal Smith