A mysterious stranger has just wandered into Meiji-era Tokyo. He carries a katana in public, which is against the law, but seems reluctant to use it even when attacked. But when left with no other option, Kenshin is a formidable opponent, which is unsurprising once it’s revealed that he is actually Hitokiri Battosai, the deadly samurai whose blade helped usher in the Meiji era – and who had disappeared into legend … until now.
Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration plunges readers into the action early. There’s a brief battle-filled prologue followed by a story that sees Kenshin meeting and helping people who are being oppressed by a nasty arms dealer. After revealing his identity, Kenshin dodges some assassins and makes some friends. Then we shift gears to another story, set in the town of Yokohama, where Kenshin protects a doctor who treats the poor.
Being unfamiliar with the Rurouni Kenshin canon (other than the most basic “wandering swordsman” premise), I admit that parts of this volume puzzle me. Japanese terms are frequently used and rarely translated. The many fight scenes can be difficult to parse. This latter could be seen as a good reflection of Kenshin’s legendary speed and battle style, which leave opponents stunned and confused, but it sometimes left me confused, too.
Still, the personality of Kenshin ties together the various stories nicely. He is a bit of an oddball. His habit of referring to himself as “this one” makes him sound formal, perhaps old-fashioned or a little out of touch. He uses his trademark phrase oro, or sometimes ororo, constantly and it is never defined or explained (a quick search tells me that this exclamation is well-known to Rurouni Kenshin fans, but newcomers like myself may take awhile to figure out that it’s just a thing he says). But this only adds to Kenshin’s weird-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization. He’s obviously done violence in the past, but now is determined not to hurt anyone unnecessarily. All this, plus a hint of mystery (Where did that scar come from? Why does Kenshin seem to lose control of himself when he draws his sword?), makes for a compelling protagonist.
Confusing fight scenes aside, the art is clear and straightforward. Characters are easily identified and expressive, sometimes taking on a silly or simplified appearance at humorous moments. Keep an eye on the outfits, they can tell you a lot about the characters who wear them. In this era of growing Western influence, business suits appear beside traditional Japanese garments. One fighter emblazons his coat with a character that represents his frustration with the new rules of the Meiji era and the author notes that another fighter’s clothes were designed to make him a visual foil for Kenshin.
It should be obvious, given the plot, that there’s a lot of violence in this volume. While Kenshin uses a nonlethal sword now, that’s not the case in flashbacks and we do see a few blood-spraying-everywhere battles from his pre-Meiji era days. Still, there’s nothing particularly grotesque and fans of battle-oriented shonen will have seen it all before.
An extensive author’s note at the end of the volume offers some interesting explanation as to why the creator returned to writing Rurouni Kenshin (because of the release of a live-action movie) and the various things he hoped to accomplish with the new series. Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration is a reboot, not a prequel or continuation of Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story. No characters from the original other than Kenshin himself appear. The author hopes that Restoration will answer at least one question left unresolved by the original series, appeal to established fans, and be accessible to new readers. It’s a lot to accomplish. If the first volume doesn’t succeed with flying colors in all categories, it’s still a good read and will likely be of great interest to fans of the previous Rurouni Kenshin manga.