The Sword That Cannot Kill

Rurouni Kenshin

Rurouni Kenshin Origins (2012)

content warning: child abuse and intimate partner violence

“According to most
definitions, I have never
been at war.

According to mine,
most of my life
spent there.”

—Solmaz Sharif

In a different life, I might have been raised by wolves, or by a wandering swordmaster, but in this life, I was raised by anime.

I’m telling this to Eleanor, my older sister by five years, who moved out of the house when I was 10 and doesn’t know much about my teenage and pre-teenage years. And we don’t start on this topic, but—like all good conversations—we meander from a forgotten origin point into a funny memory I suddenly recall. “Did you know, I used to wake up at 4 in the morning to watch anime!” I tell her, laughing. “All the best anime was on Adult Swim at 4 a.m. in the morning. And also, one of my friends burned all the episodes of Rurouni Kenshin onto, like, 10 CDs for me. I would sneak downstairs to the family computer every morning to watch Rurouni Kenshin on the lowest volume so that our mom wouldn’t hear me.”

She’s laughing too, but I’ve already sobered up. This memory is connected to another, more painful one. And I don’t know whether to tell her this or not, but I already made the decision several months ago to let Eleanor in more, to be more vulnerable to her, so—I take the risk.

Our mother isn’t a good person. She’s rude, mean, spiteful, and quick to anger, which she unfortunately chose to turn often on her children. Many of the ideals I hold today I didn’t learn from her. “You know, I would have turned out to be a completely different person if it weren’t for Rurouni Kenshin,” I continue. “I was 12 the last time I watched it, so I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but the memory I do have is very strong and very specific.”

What I remember is the lesson that revenge is destructive on the undertaker. One of the series’ most memorable villains, Shishio Makoto, was betrayed by the men he was fighting for. Left for dead and set on fire, he miraculously survived and swore vengeance on the new government, which had tried to sever ties with him by blotting out his existence. Burns covered his entire body, which in turn were covered by coils of bandages. He desired revenge so greatly that it corrupted his soul completely. An ugly man inside and out. An image so salient that, to this day, when I think about the question of justice, his is the first face to surface in my mind.

From that point forward, no matter how much hurt I suffered at the hands of another, I vowed to never let vengeance corrode my heart.

The live-action Rurouni Kenshin movies are a trilogy (soon to be quintilogy) adapted from a wildly popular manga of the same name. First published in the mid 1990s, Rurouni Kenshin was notable at the time for being radically different from the other action manga aimed at young boys—instead of an energetic and optimistic young hero, it chose to focus on a protagonist who had already experienced his glory days, and was instead seeking atonement for his past. Himura Kenshin was more than a war hero; he was an assassin during the turbulent Bakumatsu era of Japan, carrying out hits for the rebel Imperialists. He was so feared that he earned the nickname Battousai the Manslayer, and mysteriously disappeared at the end of the Boshin War. The actual bulk of the story takes place 10 years later, when Kenshin is just another wandering former samurai in the Meiji Era, a time of relative peace and, therefore, of no need for swords. But as the characters soon discover, the past isn’t so easily buried. What we have done, who we were—all like wolves who reside in the same room as us, waiting hungrily for the moment we let our guards slip. 

There’s a deliberate reason I haven’t seen the Rurouni Kenshin anime since I was 12 years old: I am a coward. I do not wish to open that time capsule, because I am afraid of the bleeding child I might find inside. Instead, I hit play on the 2012 live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin on my laptop, hoping that this inexact simulacrum of a fractured memory will keep the wolves at bay. 

“I had a dream…a dream of when we first met. Graves…I kept digging graves. Before me was a sea of bodies, and I just kept on digging graves.”  

— Himura Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

What sets the Rurouni Kenshin live action series apart from—and in my opinion, above—the anime is Satoh Takeru, who plays the titular protagonist. His acting is perfectly calibrated, abandoning the happy-go-lucky persona from the anime and instead opting for a quieter, more thoughtful Kenshin. You can tell what kind of life Kenshin has lived just from the way he carries himself. Satoh even nails Kenshin’s sword-fighting style, a choreographic feat and a stand-out feature of the movies. He enters his battles slightly hunched, like a perceptive but feral animal, using everything in the surrounding environment to his advantage in unpredictable but dead-accurate blows. It’s fittingly characteristic for an orphan that was found on a battlefield and raised as an assassin. 

Maybe I’m projecting here, but I think what Satoh gets right in particular is what it looks like to have been through something so traumatic that it has carved you hollow. Chronic pangs of emptiness is a symptom of PTSD. And children who have survived abusive and unstable households, research says, have the same mental state as veterans who have experienced active warfare. Kenshin, it’s unfortunate to say, has been both. 

Maybe it’s also why, despite having never gone to war, I identify so much with Kenshin, and have long identified with heroes of action anime. I bet many do for the same reason I have—it’s a power fantasy. So much of our lives are plagued with problems that are vague, intangible, and indefinite. If your problems could instead be named and solidified and taken out with a swing of a sword, wouldn’t that be preferable? 

In a similar vein, after I finally left my abusive ex, I went through a bit of a fitness binge. I was fortunate enough to work from home in a pre-COVID era, so four times a week I would take an extra long lunch break to attend barre classes downtown. Tracking the growing curves along my body, I reveled in feeling stronger, fitter, more able to crush the challenging workouts. I even entertained the idea of becoming a long-distance cyclist for a while.

The more physical strength I acquired, the more I mistook it for power. I was living out a delayed childhood fantasy, the one where I finally built up the courage to run away from home, to stand up for myself, to harden my body against my mother’s blows. As if all of the taunting, murky shadows in my brain could be coagulated into the shape of a villain, and I, like many of my favorite anime heroes, could take them out with a couple of well-placed punches. Look at me go! At this rate, who needs therapy!

But real life, of course, doesn’t work like anime. So even after I filled myself up on newfound musculature, the emptiness inside yawned a deeper cavern. As Kenshin tells one of his defeated foes, if one or two battles could determine a person’s strength, the world would be a much simpler place. When he delivers this line, his eyes say it all: he carries this truth with his whole body.

Satoh’s depiction of Kenshin is painfully familiar to me. It is akin to looking in a mirror. 

“That sword’s edge that points at you, it will make you suffer.” 

— Saitō Hajime, Rurouni Kenshin: Origins

Himura Kenshin’s trademark weapon is a sakabatou—a reverse-blade katana, a sword with the cutting edge on the wrong side, and one that only exists in the world of Rurouni Kenshin. As many of Kenshin’s friends and foes would go on to point out throughout the movies, it’s a ridiculous sword. Its purpose, however, is more symbolic than it is practical. After his guilt compels him to abandon his post as the Imperialists’ primary assassin, Kenshin carries it as his oath to never kill again.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

The drawbacks of such a weapon are quickly demonstrated by Saitō Hajime, an old enemy of Kenshin’s who now works for the new government. When Kenshin is called to help the police track down an opium dealer, he refuses, wanting nothing more to do with the government that had once used him as a means to justify the ends. Saito, a simple man who uses violence as a tool for justice, can’t understand this line of reasoning and provokes Kenshin into a fight: How will you protect anyone, much less yourself, with a weapon like that?

To prove his point, he bears down on Kenshin’s sword with his own, forcing a block into a self-inflicted wound. The reverse-blade digs into Kenshin’s shoulder, and it’s only by the grace of Saito’s superior officer that the fight ends there without any further injuries.  

Saito, though, shouldn’t be surprised. This has always been Kenshin’s modus operandi, even as an assassin. As a child of war, he believed whole-heartedly in the Imperialists’ promise to bring about an era of peace, even if it took sacrificing his own soul to do it. He’s a person who will protect others, at the cost of his own body.

 

The things we do, the lengths we will go in order to protect our loved ones.

At the drive-in movie last night, my friends Allison and Henrietta end up telling me how guilty they felt for having “failed” me in my last relationship. How they should have recognized the ugly, too-large bruise on my thigh, how it was so purple it was turning yellow in spots. How they should have known, when I laughed it off as clumsiness, exactly what truths I was obscuring. Allison is a survivor, too, and she recounts her own experience with keeping secrets. “My dad already didn’t like my ex, so I didn’t want to tell him about the abuse,” she tells me. “I didn’t want to hurt my dad, I didn’t want him to feel like he failed in protecting me.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “I know the feeling.” Like how it took me two years to tell my sister about what my ex did to me. Even longer to admit to her what my mom did to me.

Because I didn’t blame Eleanor for what happened to me, you know? So how could I have lived with myself if she blamed herself?

Himura Kenshin: Is this revenge for what the government did?

Shishio Makoto: I don’t care about revenge now. Far from it. I’m grateful. My injuries taught me a lot. Trust, and you’ll be betrayed. Drop your guard, and you’ll die. Kill first, before they kill you. The strong survive and the weak die. Reality, plain and simple. I will make this country strong. That is the justice I will bring. 

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Like all traumas, the past returns to haunt Kenshin again, and again, and again.

In the manga, throughout the anime series, across various stage shows, light novels, video games, and now in the cinematic adaptations, Kenshin meets his enemies in seemingly eternal and cyclical battle. The villains that appear in this massive franchise are always specters from the Boshin War a decade earlier, holding grudges that should have long expired. After defeating a copycat Battousai in the first movie, Kenshin learns in Kyoto Inferno that Shishio Makoto, the man who replaced him as the Imperialists’ assassin, is embarking on a violent takeover of Japan. And of course, Kenshin is the only one who can stop Shishio, his shadow self.

This is the juncture at which I meet my past self, all lineages finding their origin point. I’m now around the same age that Kenshin is, and I, too, have cut down my own share of demons in a bid to find clarity. It’s serendipitous that I’m revisiting these childhood influences now, both in my personal life and in the world at large. The tragedies of 2020 have prompted me (and many other Americans) to re-evaluate the moral values we had been led to believe, especially when concerning the police. What is justice in a society that allows its supposed justice-seekers to continue killing innocent Black men and women without compunction? How should we react when a government betrays its own people? As if arriving to weigh in, the destroyer himself steps out from the nebulous recesses of my mind and onto the silver screen. Shishio Makoto, the man I was so afraid to become. 

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

I’m surprised, then, when I find that he’s significantly different from what I remember. The villain I recalled was a monster singularly hellbent on revenge, a body in exchange for a body and then some. Instead, this version of Shishio states plainly that vengeance is not his goal. He’s more interested in exercising his worldview onto Japan: that the strong will preside over the weak. And because he has survived the worst of unimaginable horrors, it makes him strong. He thinks himself the only capable leader who can lead Japan towards true strength.

It’s jarring to have such a core part of what I remember about the anime challenged, and whether I had overemphasized the theme of revenge in my memories is something I might never know. At the same time, as an adult, I find this narrative track much more satisfying. The Legend Ends, the last installment of the current trilogy, eschews the villain’s motivations to focus on Kenshin’s transformative journey. While he’s emerged victorious against every opponent until now, he’s no match for Shishio, or even his unyielding lackeys. To defeat Shishio, Kenshin asks his former swordmaster, Hiko Seijūrō, the same man who had picked him up off the battlefield and taught him how to fight, to teach him the final, secret technique of their sword-fighting style. Seijūrō agrees, but on one condition: that Kenshin figure out himself the key to learning the technique. Otherwise, he’ll die on the training ground, before he even reaches Shishio.

What follows is a beautiful sequence between master and student about how to heal from the past traumas. Seijūrō tests Kenshin by engaging him in a series of duels and ruthlessly outclasses his former disciple. It’s not just because of a difference in skill—clearly, something is also missing within Kenshin. During a quiet evening respite, between cups of sake, Seijūrō reveals that he was shocked to hear about the brutality of the Battousai, and found it hard to believe that it was the same boy he once knew. Kenshin then alludes to the parts of himself he betrayed when he took up the blade as an assassin. “I started drinking sake when I got the scar on my face,” he says. “But no matter how much I drank, there was only the taste of blood in my mouth.” The guilt from his decisions empties him so completely that he declares he’ll learn the technique to defeat Shishio, even if it means sacrificing his own life in the process. 

This angers Seijūrō, though Kenshin can’t quite figure out yet why. Seijūrō ups the stakes to their last training duel the next day: it’s life or death. When Seijūrō goes in for the killing blow, Kenshin throws away his willingness to die and delivers a powerful strike that temporarily stuns his master. His desire to live, to walk off the battlefield unharmed, gives him the power to fight Seijūrō—and ultimately, Shishio—on equal terms. Without it, his mission would only be suicide. The chronic emptiness from PTSD can rob us from our sense of self-worth, to the point where we sometimes think others deserve to live more than we do. Kenshin can’t be so willing to discard his life. If he values all human life, then he also must value his own. 

The movie underlines this message by subsequently throwing Kenshin into a fight with Shinomori Aoshi, who also fought in the Boshin War and is consumed by the desire to defeat Kenshin in battle in order to claim the title of “the strongest of the era.” And he’ll willingly abandon his loved ones to do it, or even cut them down if they try to stop him.

Aoshi is a perfect foil for Kenshin—almost too perfect. He carries two swords, more than twice Kenshin’s zero killing power. And he, too, is filled with indescribable pain, shame, and guilt from 10 years prior. But he won’t win against Kenshin. Of course he won’t. He doesn’t care about his own life, much less anyone else’s. Revenge has completely corroded his heart.

“Aoshi, the amount of pain you’ve carried from the past that has kept you going until now—I will never be able to understand [what you went through]. But, by forsaking those who care about you, that sword of yours lacks something very important. You won’t defeat me.” 

— Himura Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

You could say that I had my own Aoshi. Except in this life, he was my abuser.

The thing that most people don’t understand about abuse is that it has a lineage. Like a river, you can trace it back to a source. It is a simmering, slow-curdling of the veins that, if left unchecked, will poison every body of water around it. A year after I left my ex, my therapist told me that sometimes DV victims choose the circumstances of their own abuse, in order to break the tension and “reset” the cycle. Every time except the last time, I provoked him first. In all my uneven furies, my unresolved miseries, I had promised myself to make myself hurt. It was twisted, of course. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and fashioned the incipient beating as punishment for my wrongful behavior. But—I—couldn’t—help—it. Every time the all-encompassing rage inside me reared its ugly head, my mind went blank, and my body reacted. Fight or flight instinct, I’d later learn in domestic violence group therapy. And I always ended up choosing fight.

He always told me, if you hit me, I’m going to defend myself—and he always delivered what he promised, and then some, and then some. Once, in an attempt to stop the vicious cycle, I’d broken down crying and told him my mother used to beat me with the wooden hangers, I was always at the whim of her anger, I don’t think I know how to disentangle anger from violence because this is the only kind of anger I’ve ever been taught. On the bathroom floor, he’d knelt next to me and put his hand on my trembling shoulder. I know how that feels, he said, to my surprise. My father used to beat me. My step-father used his belt on me.

This was the first and only time he’d opened up to me like this. Of course, with or without cause, I blamed myself first: why couldn’t I have said no to myself more? Controlled my self-destructive vice and taken responsibility for my anger? I knew the way he reacted had been his only childhood defense. I couldn’t help but imagine a little boy telling the man towering over him the same thing: if you hit me, I’m going to defend myself. 

That was the difference between us: I had learned to absorb every hit inflicted in my body until I crumbled into a smaller self. He had learned to hit back.

How do I move on from here? How do I face my sins, and all of the pain that carried those sins to term? How do I survive without drowning in it, how do I aim my sword without pointing the blade towards my own heart? 

 

“Do you finally understand? You were a manslayer and you took countless lives. As a result, the guilt is too heavy, and you do not value your own life. What you learned just now is that when the choice was either life or death, the most important thing is the will to live. The ones you love…if you sacrifice yourself to save them, there will still be sadness in their hearts. They will be unable to have true happiness. This life of yours…is also the life of a human. Only when you realize the value of life, will you be able to open the path of the secret [to the final technique]. This life…you are not just surviving for yourself. 

Promise me, Kenshin. Do not throw away your life.”

— Hiko Seijūrō, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

If Rurouni Kenshin could be said to have a central thesis, it is this: healing is necessary to justice. And if justice is not derived from healing, it may not even be justice at all.

This isn’t a new concept, of course, but it’s one that’s been reignited by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, with growing calls for restorative models of justice and prison and police abolition. What happens when police officers, whom society often uphold as arbiters of justice, don’t act in just ways at all? What if we moved away from retributive justice, which focuses on punishment and carceral systems to keep populations in a state of fear, and instead focused on how to heal the root causes of our society’s problems? What would our communities look like if we led with kindness? With the inherent value of all human lives?

Abolition is an idea that’s found a lot of a push-back, especially by those who criticize it for being too idealistic to ever work. But we forget that nothing, not even concepts, are ever permanent. Justice is such a central component of our societies that we often mistake it for being fixed, when in fact, the philosophies of justice are as multitudinous as the men who dreamt them up. The question What is justice? may be as old as time itself. In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates famously prods Euthyphro, on his way to a trial, to answer this query. But as both discover, Euthyphro’s long-held beliefs about justice are rife with inconsistencies and contradictions. The more Euthyphro tries to justify his definition, the more his words fall apart. The dialogue only ends when Euthyphro, enraged at Socrates’ challenges, storms away, all questions left unresolved.

In the sixth month of the 20th year of the second millennium, millions of people rose up around the world to ask, what is justice? 

I’m no philosopher, only a dilettante, so I can’t speak on the definitions of justice. But I do know that I can start within myself. Like Kenshin, I vow no vengeance. The cycle of violence may have begun far before my time, but it ends with me. In me, all rivers find terminus. I love Rurouni Kenshin’s idea of restorative justice, because it suggests that the healing I do for myself can also maybe heal the world around me. If violence begets violence, a truth I know to be true with my whole body, then it follows that a good deed can engender further goodness. Radiating ever more kindness outwards.

“When you slay a man, a grudge emerges. That grudge causes another man to kill. To cut that vicious cycle—that is the purpose of this sword that cannot kill.”

— Himura Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: Origins

At the end of our phone call, Eleanor is quiet. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. I’m always afraid of these moments, equally because I still find it difficult to be vulnerable, laid bare on the table, and because I wish I could protect her from this moment, just like she wishes she could have protected me as a child. 

After a pause, she says, “You know, I can forgive our mother for what she did to me. It sucked, but I could manage. But I can never forgive her for what she did to you.”

I want the neverending pain to, if not cease, then abate. I want my life to have been worth it. I know this won’t take away her anger, I tell Eleanor, but all that I suffered was so long ago that it doesn’t really affect me anymore. More than 10 years ago, longer than it look Kenshin to wander about Japan and then return to defeat the ghosts from his past. And I’d cried so much in therapy that—to quote Miss Ariana Grande—I have no tears left to cry. “That’s why I told you about Rurouni Kenshin. Because, despite everything, I would never do anything that would hurt our mom. I would never do to her what she did to me.”

Whenever I talk about my trauma these days, I always end up recounting it with a laugh. I think it’s a nervous reaction, the type of laugh that comes out unbidden in an awkward social situation. But the laugh is empty. I use a lot of bold words to reassure people that I’ll be fine. On my best days, I believe myself. 

Am I telling the truth? Will I always be certain that the reverse-blade won’t find its teeth in me, won’t make me its sheath?

At the climax of The Legend Ends, when all hope seems lost, when it seems that even Kenshin at his full power cannot take down Shishio Makoto—somehow, in the nick of time (because the Rurouni Kenshin movies seem to operate on the logic of perfect coincidences), Saitō Hajime’s sword comes shooting through the smoke, to assist his longtime frenemy. Sagara Sanosuke, Kenshin’s friend, and fresh from another fight, appears from the rubble to lend his fists. Even Aoshi, a very rapidly reformed man, shows up to fight at the 11th hour. 

All four men, united in a vision of Kenshin’s justice, make a formidable sight indeed.

Actually, I had forgotten—the origin point of my conversation with Eleanor starts much earlier than I had previously thought. Sometimes when you are drowning in the depths of your own ocean, you can’t see the rescue boats just above on the water’s surface, throwing out light to find you. 

After I graduated from college, I returned home for a short amount of time. One day, as my sister was driving me from some outing, she revealed that she knew that something was happening to me at home, though she wasn’t quite sure what. “I asked the school psychologist for advice,” she said. “I told them how I’d seen our mom treat you, and they gave me some suggestions. Then I called our mom to tell her what the psychologist said, but you know how she is, she didn’t listen to me. And there was only so much I could do for you, that far away from home.” 

It would be years before I built up the courage to tell Eleanor what really happened. But from that point forward, I carried this salve with me: My sister tried to protect me. I wasn’t alone.

What justice looks like, I’m still trying to figure out. My sun sign is Libra, supposedly I’m imbued with it. My sister tells me over the phone, you remind me of our grandfather, he was always trying to do the right thing. To protect others. You just have to remember to protect yourself as well.

Because humans love a good story, we’re always trying to find the origin points—our backstories, if you will. Rurouni Kenshin: Origins begins its story at the end of another. We open in the midst of a clash, at the decisive Battle of Toba-Fushimi between the shogunate loyalists and the rebel Imperialists, the latter of which will go on to inherit the country. The manslayer known only as Battousai stands center in the fray, cutting down any who dare oppose him, and wave after wave rush at him in attempt to take him down.

Saito Hajime is slicing through the battlefield from the other end, searching for the Battousai himself. But just as he spots Battousai in a clearing of fallen enemies, a whistle rips through the air. The Imperialists have won! The cheers erupt from all around, and men drop their swords, either in defeat or victory. An unreadable expression passes over Battousai’s face. Perhaps relief, but also grief. But Saito is undeterred. He’s itching for a fight, probably. “Even if this world is about to change, we live by the sword, and die by the sword,” he announces, to provoke the manslayer. “There is no other path for us.”

No one speaks for a tense moment. Then Kenshin gives him a haunted and tired look, stakes his sword in the ground, and slowly turns from the battlefield, as if to say, Watch me. 

He walks away from the battle. He doesn’t return.