I hate how the disc labels were done - each disc has a title ("The Legendary Swordsman," "False Prophet," etc.), but no clear numbering stating the order in which the discs should be watched. While there is some tiny product numbering ("RKDVD-2002", "RKDVD-2003"), I would have preferred larger, clearer numbers along with the disc titles.
I can't remember if the exact year is given, but this series takes place sometime during the beginning of the Meiji era. During the Bakumatsu era (just prior to the Meiji era), Kenshin was "Battousai the Manslayer," a legendary Imperialist assassin. After the war, Kenshin becomes a wandering swordsman. Determined never to kill again, he wields a reverse-blade sword (a sword with the cutting edge on the wrong side).
Kenshin ends up living with Kaoru, an instructor in the Kamiya Kasshin style (she only uses a wooden sword, and her goal is to protect rather than to kill). The two of them are later joined by a boy named Yahiko, who becomes one of Kaoru's students, and Sanosuke, a (former) fighter-for-hire and a former member of the Sekihoutai, a group that was used and slaughtered by the Imperialists. Megumi, a doctor, also occasionally spends time with the group.
The beginning of this first season introduces the main characters and explains a bit about their pasts. Megumi's introduction to the series also includes Aoshi's first appearance and several battles with the rest of the Oniwaban group. Other episodes include: Yahiko protecting a pretty girl from a bunch of thugs who are trying to use her; a girl who has a circus/festival act as a human cannon ball; a person from Sanosuke's past; a Manslayer who tries to use Kaoru against Kenshin in order to force him to become Battousai the Manslayer again; an attempted train robbery; a greedy faith healer trying to destroy Megumi's credibility and get rich off the townspeople; Kenshin getting captured by a female pirate; and probably more I've already forgotten.
I loved the manga this anime was based on and was curious to see how I would like this story in anime form. I wish I were able to reread the manga while watching the anime (I only own one or two of the later volumes of the manga), because I suspect that this first season included quite a few stories, such as the one one with the cannon girl and the pirate girl whose episodes ended the season, that were never in the original series. Either that, or I just never noticed how lame some of the earlier Rurouni Kenshin chapters were.
I thought this season was at its best when it focused more on Kenshin or Sanosuke, particularly when they fought opponents who reminded them that their painful pasts were still a part of them. I also liked the episodes in which Kenshin and the others had to face opponents with crazy techniques for which supposedly logical explanations were given. The Oniwaban group contains several good examples of this sort of opponent, such as the guy who used optical illusions to make his arms appear shorter and the guy who breathed fire with the aid of a bag of oil in his belly. I enjoyed the episodes involving the Oniwaban group, the Manslayer who could freeze weaker opponents in place with his gaze, and the friend from Sanosuke's past. In general, I also liked the episodes in which each of the main characters were introduced.
I did not like a lot of the later episodes in this season as much. I've never been particularly interested in Yahiko, even though I know from reading the manga that he basically becomes Kaoru and Kenshin's successor. It seemed like far too many of the episodes focused on Yahiko or other young boys and girls – I found characters like Kenshin and Sanosuke, who were still trying to overcome their painful, bloody pasts, to be much more interesting overall.
The pirate story arc, which ended the season, was less than impressive. The focus seemed to be more on Shura, the pirate girl, than on Kenshin and the other main characters. Even if Kenshin had been more the focus of this story arc, all his opponents would have had going for them were guns and numbers. I would rather have watched Kenshin fight skilled opponents who forced him to think about the best way to fight.
This season was, for the most part, better during its first half. It's been a long time since I last read the manga, but the anime reminded me how likable the characters are. Like I said, I'm not as big of a fan of Yahiko, but he's not a bad kid. Kaoru gets used against Kenshin rather more often than I would like, but she's not completely helpless and even has at least one moment when she saves herself. While I like both Sanosuke and Kenshin, Kenshin is my favorite of the two. I love how, although he is quite capable of laying bloody waste to his opponents, he instead chooses a more difficult path.
I would probably advise newbies to Rurouni Kenshin to begin with the manga – my recollection of the manga is that it was better than what I've seen of the anime so far. If I didn't already own the other two seasons of this series, I'm not sure that this first season would have prompted me to buy them. However, I'm looking forward to seeing events I remember from the manga, and the teaser of the second season looks good. Here's hoping I have better things to say about this series after I watch the next couple of seasons.
I primarily watched this season with the English dub turned on. While I thought that the voice actors were better overall in the Japanese language track, there was one major thing I couldn't stand about it: Kenshin's voice actress. Kenshin's Japanese VA is a woman, and, when I tried the first few episodes in Japanese, I could not convince my brain that the voice I was hearing was actually a man in his late-20s (28, according to Wikipedia). As good as the other voice actors were, the English dub won out for me because Kenshin's English-language VA is a man. It's possible that Kenshin's Japanese VA got a little bit better, though, because I tried the final episode of the season with the Japanese language track turned on, and it seemed slightly easier to think of Kenshin's voice as male. I might try watching the second season primarily in Japanese with English subtitles.
From what I could tell, the English dub and the English subtitles did not always match very well. In one very noticeable instance, the English dub did not match what I was seeing on screen – in the final episode, Kenshin says a kimono that is clearly pink is crimson. The English subtitles say it's pink.
Another thing about the English dub that will cause purists pain – if you choose the English dub, the opening and closing songs for the episodes on all but the final two discs are redone in English. I always skipped them because I didn't like the songs in either English or Japanese, but I was still relieved when the final two discs just had the original Japanese songs.
There are textless openings and closings (I didn't watch them all, so I don't know if every opening and closing is included), a few character bios (again, I didn't note how many characters are included, although I think Aoshi's bio is included before he is fully introduced in the series), English dub outtakes, a few art galleries, trailers for other shows, and liner notes.
The liner notes were detailed and probably would have been very nice...but the font size was so small that the notes were almost unreadable. The same goes for the character bios. The most notable thing about the art galleries is that one of them features fanart, including fanart by Jen Wang (anyone remember her fabulous webcomic, “Strings of Fate”?). The outtakes mostly involved the English VAs stumbling over their lines and the Japanese words and names, although a few of them featured the VAs having a bit of fun.
I really need to rewatch the trailers on the first disc sometime – I'd be willing to bet that none of the lines spoken in the trailers were really from the shows. It's bizarre.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Trigun (anime TV series) - I have to admit, I've only seen a few episodes of this series. As far as I know, the main character is much like Kenshin - he acts goofy, but in reality he's a much better fighter than he seems. Like Kenshin, he doesn't want to hurt people. In some ways, this is a bit like Rurouni Kenshin with guns instead of swords. The beginning of the series was a bit too goofy for my tastes, but I think it gets more serious as it progresses.
- Peacemaker (anime TV series) - The anime is based on a manga series, but I haven't read that yet, for several reasons. The anime takes place during the Bakumatsu era and stars the Shinsengumi, who I think would have been Kenshin's enemies when he was Battousai. This is a good one for those interested in the history on which Rurouni Kenshin is based. A warning, though: if you disliked Yahiko, you might hate the main character of this series, who is another "young boy who wants to become a strong swordsman."
- Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo; Bleach (anime TV series) - Those who enjoyed the fight scenes in Rurouni Kenshin may like this series. The fight scenes in this action-filled anime are very intense and usually require characters to think about the best way to defeat their opponent's special skills. The series is set in modern-day Japan, but a good chunk of the series also takes place in the Soul Society, which has a more historical look to it. I have written about volumes 22 to 24 of the manga.
- Black Cat (manga) by Kentaro Yabuki; Black Cat (anime TV series) - This series also stars a character who was formerly an assassin and who made a vow never to kill again. Like Kenshin, Train, one of the main characters in this series, acts easy-going and a little goofy, but he's really a master as using his gun. I have written about volumes 14 and 15 of the manga.
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - I prefer this anime over the light novel on which it is based. Those who'd like another series starring a strong, principled main character who is determined to protect others in order to atone for something in her past might want to try this. It's a more realistically-done series than Rurouni Kenshin (meaning, there are no goofy moments or crazy opponents), and it takes a bit for the story to really get going. I have written about both the anime and the light novel on which it was based.