「御頭・四之森蒼紫」 (O-kashira・Shinomori Aoshi)
“Okashira – Aoshi Shinomori”
I have a lot of thoughts after that tremendous episode of Rurouni Kenshin. I’m not going to knock the 1996 series (which I love and always will, the first two seasons anyway). This was the point, in fact, when I really started to appreciate just how great RuroKen was. I’ll just say this version knocked it out of the park, and it needed to. This is such a key moment, the first real exemplar of the sort of material that would carry the series through glorious triumph after glorious triumph. In some ways the style of the fights in RK makes them easier to adapt than in modern shounen battle series, but also harder – there’s no margin for error.
We arrive now at the danger point where I risk turning into the guy droning on about how much better shit was back in my day. But I gotta go with the truth as I see it here. When you compare a fight like this against the overwrought, ponderous headline moments in the truly massive WSJ battle shounen of today (I don’t think I need to name names), it’s a stark contrast. There’s an elegance and simplicity to what Watsuki does (as there was with Togashi, deceptively so). “More” doesn’t mean “better”. Just piling on more Byzantine rules and abilities and layering in flashy animation later is no substitute for real substance. And Rurouni Kenshin has that in droves.
The only one of the modern kaiju that really understands this, I think, is Boku no Hero Academia. Horikoshi gets it – he understands the power of pathos. He still pushes too hard sometimes, but the guiding principle is there. But what Watsuki does is exemplify the old LiA truism, simple yet profound is the most powerful dramatic combination in fiction. Everything about this battle is straightforward and easy to understand, both the stakes behind it and the actual combat. There’s no unnecessary padding at all, and the work is so much better for that.
I think, probably, it would be asking a lot for there to be a real person who could do everything Kenshin (and Aoshi too for that matter) does. But it’s still a very straightforward battle, where we know what each guy is up to and why. The fight itself is almost balletic (I shudder to think of all the CGI and pancake makeup Ufotable would have slathered on it), Aoshi’s kodachi (bigger than a wakizashi, smaller than a katana) and kenpo against Kenshin’s sakabatou and brain. Aoshi’s style is a fascinating one, basically using the small and light kodachi for defense to set up his kenpo attacks.
We often see a pattern when Kenshin is fighting someone really strong, where he bides his time and even suffers damage while he assesses what the enemy is really up to. This as much as his (admittedly Godlike) swordsmanship is the heart of his peerless strength. It seems to lead to overconfidence in the opponent too (which Aoshi is certainly prone to anyway). Kenshin uses his hands to shorten his blade and slip inside the blind spot his enemy’s style relies on, and he uses his wits to spot the flaw in Aoshi’s kenbu (sword dance). He certainly takes some blows in the process, but these are all part of his calculus.
Throughout the fight Kenshin and Aoshi speak in quite measure tones, wary but respectful of the other. These are not berserkers but calm, analytical masters of their craft whose ideals happen to be mismatched. Aoshi’s reasoning is not unsound. He watched the shogun abandon his army and go to Edo to surrender (in the process saving Japan from a much more massive bloodbath). For Aoshi, the worst thing is never knowing what would have happened if the Oniwabanshu had been allowed to take the field (he seems to bear no ideological loyalty to the shogunate cause itself). This drives his desire to prove the worth of the group now, and his refusal to accept a comfortable life for himself under the new regime is rooted in his loyalty to the remaining subordinates he refuses to betray.
There’s a wonderful interaction between Yahiko and Kenshin here, when Kenshin appears to have been seriously wounded by Aoshi’s first sword dance attack (thwarted by Kenshin’s scabbard). Yahiko once again displays his limitless if reckless courage (even Aoshi acknowledges him), and Kenshin praises Yahiko’s defiant “soulful words” when he thought he was facing Aoshi alone. The bond between these two is one of the quiet diamonds of Rurouni Kenshin, rarely the focus of attention but always a part of the fabric of the story.
The other masterful element here – as is so often the case with Ruroken – is the way Watsuki shows the symmetry between the history and the moment. These were the dying days of the samurai era, the passing of men like Kenshin and Aoshi from the front pages of history. Kanryuu and his gatling gun are the future, Kenshin and Aoshi the past. I can’t but think of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” as I watch these two rage against the dying of the light. There are many battles in Rurouni Kenshin, but in the struggle between the past and the future the eventual outcome is always certain.