「壮烈の般若・創痍の式尉」 (Souretsu no Hannya・Sōi no Shikijōu)
“Savage Han’nya – Honorable Shikijou”
One thing that can be said about Rurouni Kenshin is that it gets increasingly unconventional as it progresses. Among shounen it’s certainly not a quality unique to this series (Hunter X Hunter shares it, among others), but it does tend to be the case more often with the greats of the genre. With that said, though, it’s also important to note that RuroKen does conventional unbelievably well. An episode like this seems to fly by in about six minutes operating in pure battle shounen mode. It’s almost as if Watsuki (and the others who follow the same track) had to prove himself this way before feeling at liberty (or even being given literal editorial liberty) to take the series down roads less traveled.
Loyalty is very much the theme of this battle (all the notable battles in RK have a thematic underpinning, without exception). And there can be no question that Aoshi’s subordinates in the Oniwabanshu feel it strongly. Hannya is no exception. He’s the first meaningful line of defense against Kenshin, though it’s pretty transparent that all these guys are as much a way to measure Kenshin’s strength as anything. Hannya in fact manages to land a couple of blows on Kenshin, which is a relative rarity, thanks to the Shinwan technique he calls a spell. It takes a couple of rounds for Kenshin to figure it out but once he does, the die is cast.
It’s no fiction that horizontal stripes make things look shorter and broader (ask any fashion designer), and it is enough to throw off Kenshin’s judgment for a few moments. Hannya is no slouch – he even manages to wing Kenshin in their final exchange – but ultimately he’s only a speed bump. The story he tells – backed up by the frightful condition of his face – makes it quite clear why he reveres Aoshi the way he does. But that reverence can’t cancel out the difference in strength (and ultimately, is rooted in shallow ground).
Next up is Shikijou (Inada Tetsu seems like a guy who was always fated to be in Rurouni Kenshin). He’s pretty clearly a natural foil for Sanosuke, and harbors no illusions that he’s the guy to take Kenshin out. Kenshin, carrying Yahiko like a loaf of bread, makes a break for the interior of the mansion and Shikijou makes no attempt to stop him. This is muscles vs. muscles from the head on down, but we know about the remarkably resilient nature of Sano’s body. Shikijou is another die-hard Aoshi loyalist who loves to talk about it, and he too had good reasons to feel the way he does.
This is really the key sequence of the episode – not the fight itself so much, but the conversation accompanying it. Sano plays the dumb guy role effortlessly but he understands the nature of the Kenshingumi to its core. He speaks of the “ring” which surrounds Kenshin – not because of how skilled a fighter he is, but because of the way he lives his life. Over and over we hear from the Oniwabanshu why they support Aoshi, but ultimately their support has shallow roots. Their ideal is fighting for its own sake; Kenshin is a man who never fights for himself. The Oniwabanshu always seek out a fight, while Kenshin always seeks to avoid it.
With Megumi contemplating Aoshi’s dagger and an unrepentant Kanryuu headed for the secret exit, Kenshin (and Yahiko) finally squares off against Aoshi face to face. Aoshi is here because he wants to be, Kenshin because he has to be. Which in the end gives the the stronger resolve? To fight for yourself or to fight for others – Aoshi and Kenshin have both made their choices, and now their beliefs are clashing as well as their blades.