「その男・雷十太」 (Sono Otoko Raijuuta)
“That Man – Raijuta”
Up until this point, I would say that the 1996 version of Rurouni Kenshin and the 2023 have been roughly similar in quality. There are differences, mainly that the new anime is much more faithful to the manga. But most of Furuhashi’s changes were fine, so on balance I wouldn’t declare a clear preference. But this was the first episode where I’d say the ’23 version flat-out thrashed the ’96. Bluntly, the old series pretty much botched the whole Raijuuta arc. This was a case where sticking close to the manga made all the difference in the world.
That would be Raijuuta Isurugi (Miyake Kenta), who represents yet another sort of foil for Kenshin. Much of the episode takes place at the Maekawa dojo, where Kaoru acts as an assistant trainer. The master (Terasoma Masaki) has been nagging Kaoru to bring the much-discussed ronin around for a visit – in truth because he plans to challenge him to a match. Kaoru finally drags Ken along by threatening him with shopping duties, but one Maekawa-san gets a good look at him he realizes that any challenge would be pointless. Instead, the two have a convivial chat about the state of the dojo and of kenjutsu in general – neither of which are very good in this new age.
Just as Maekawa-san is wistfully recalling the days when dojo challenges were a regular occurrence, one arrives in the form of Raijuuta. In tow he has his student Tsukayama Yutaro (Sanpei Yuuko), a sharp-tongued boy about Yahiko’s age, and the two of them immediately rub each other the wrong way. Raijuuta challenges the old master, and while disdainful of dueling with bokken, agrees to do so in a best of three match. Kaoru appoints herself the judge, but in truth her only role is trying to stop the match before Maekawa is injured more seriously than he already is by Raijuuta’s first blow.
Raijuuta came off as something of an absurd figure in the first anime, but here he’s quite formidable and menacing. Miyake is certainly peerless casting here – given that Ohtsuka Akio is apparently disqualified due to his appearance in the 1996 version, I can’t think of a better fit. Having made short work of Maekawa-san Raijuuta turns his sights to Kenshin, who his trained eye has already assessed as a much more serious threat. Kenshin is unwilling – “I don’t intend on raising my sword for a test of strength or to show off for others, that I don’t”. But when Raijuuta orders Yutaro to burn the dojo’s sign (which he’s within his rights to do, having defeated the master) Kenshin reluctantly agrees. But with bamboo swords only.
This duel is short and sweet, but it’s not really the point at this stage. Raijuuta is no mere bully or hoodlum, that’s clear. Once he sees his opponent is interested in nothing but saving the dojo with a draw, he proves his point and takes his leave. But as always, Kenshin is an irresistible magnet to the strong. He receives an invitation from his foe and is taken by carriage to a huge estate. owned by Yutaro’s father as it turns out. He’s taken on Raijuuta as a teacher for his son after Rajiuuta saved him from bandits, and Yutaro quickly grew to worship at his feet.
Raijuuta’s aim is nothing less than saving Japanese swordsmanship. The Meiji Restoration and Western weaponry started its decline, and in his eyes it’s “delicate” bamboo swordsmanship that will finish the job. Kenshin too laments the idea that kenjutsu is doomed (as per his conversation with Maekawa). But he has no interest in saving it as a celebration of murder and mayhem. Raijuuta intends to save swordsmanship by destroying all the weak schools diluting it, leaving in “pure” in the hands of his own Shinko-ryuu school. Kenshin unsurprisingly wants no part of this, and is therefore branded an enemy on the spot by Raijuuta.
Kenshin’s existence is (as I’ve said) full of contradictions. He’s a swordsman – he does love the art for its own sake. But he understands both that the old swordsmanship cannot be divorced from war and assassination, and that the sands of time cannot be reversed – kenjutsu as he learned it is doomed, no matter what Raijuuta may say. The looks on the faces of the others (especially Yahiko) as they eavesdropped on Kenshin refuting Raijuuta’s way of being and asserting his own is one of my favorite moments of this adaptation so far – a reminder of how formidable Kenshin’s power to move people through his example truly is. He may not be the hero we deserve, but he’s the one we need.