「蘇る狼」 (Yomigaeru Ookami)
“Resurrection of the Wolf”
In many ways, this is the moment when Rurouni Kenshin really begins, at least in terms of plot. There are certainly substantial elements to the Oniwabanshu Arc of long-lasting importance. But really, most of the first two cours is about establishing the broader themes of the story, and who the protagonists at its heart are. It’s all been building up to this, and it might even be argued that the rest of the series is one extended chain of events with its origins in this episode.
When the topic of re-casting RuroKen was raised, Saitou Hajime was certainly one of the most discussed characters. Suzuoki Hirotaka (who passed away in 2006) delivered a spellbinding performance in the 1996 anime that was always going to be hard to equal. If I’m honest Hino Satoshi would not have been my first choice for the role. It’s not that I dislike him as an actor, but he strikes me as being wrong for the role – just as Sugita Tomokazu did as Jin-e (ironic, given their connected nature in the plot). Hino is too bright, too light – I don’t think his voice carries the weight of Saitou’s past in it.
Be that as it may, he’s the Saitou we got so I’ll just say advantage ’96 on that one, and let’s move on. It would be an understatement to call Saitou Hajime – now calling himself Fujita – a crucial figure in Ruroui Kenshin. He represents a direct link to Kenshin’s history in a way no one else we’ve met does. Captain of the Shinsengumi‘s third unit and one of Kenshin’s arch nemeses, Saitou is one of the few survivors of that legendary outfit in the Meiji Era. And he’s someone not even Kenshin can look down on in a fight.
When Kenshin speaks almost fondly of Saitou and the Shinsengumi it’s clear he’s quite sincere, and it would be even if Kenshin weren’t so guileless. They each picked a side and gave everything of themselves for it, and Kenshin is in no position to revel in the success of the side he chose. The Shinsengumi were, in his words, the greatest band of swordsmen ever assembled. They were dedicated to a cause, and its defeat could not be laid at their doorstep. Kenshin respects them deeply – but that doesn’t make Saitou any less his enemy.
Just what Saitou’s true motives are isn’t yet clear. “Fujita” is an assistant police inspector. but Saitou shows up at the Kamiya dojo posing as a medicine seller. Only Sanosuke is home, and he immediately spots that Fujita isn’t what he claims to be. But Sano, for all his street-fighting prowess, is absolutely no match for Saitou. He unleashes his signature Hirazuki technique, Gatotsu. And it’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen from any other swordsman up to now. Sano is left run through with Saitou’s blade and Saidou is completely unscathed. He knows full well Kenshin won’t fail to recognise his calling card.
Why would a man like Saitou, one of the legendary Wolves of Mibu, take a side job as a hatchet man for the Meiji official Shibumi (Yuusen Isamu) – who was also holding Jin-e’s leash? And why does Shibumi or whoever’s giving him orders want Kenshin dead so badly when he was on their side and now lives peacefully as a rurouni? Those answers are for later, but it seems obvious that Saitou is the one pulling the strings here. He sends Shibumi’s strongman Akamatsu Arundo (Takeuchi Ryouta) to face Kenshin in his place, obviously having no uncertainty about the result. That Saitou is playing a long game here is obvious – the question is what the nature of that game is.
For Kenshin, this is one of those unsettling moments where he’s reminded that no matter who he may be now, the man he was is never far behind him. The degree to which this impending encounter raises the stakes is communicated very well (as it was in Furuhashi’s version) – this episode has a very different feeling to any that had come before. Really the only quibble I have it with the casting, but apart from that this was all on-point and the episode seemed to last about five minutes. This is only the beginning of a very big story, but it already suggests the tenor of what’s to come.