Life lessons I picked up from Rurouni Kenshin
I watched lots of anime as a kid. As a matter of fact, Japanese Animation, known in short as Anime, is pretty much a staple of the average metropolitan Southeast Asian child who watches TV on a regular basis. (The Western equivalent of which, I believe to be Cartoon Network). If you were to ask me which anime takes the prize as the GREATEST anime in the world, you might be surprised to hear my answer. It's not Pokémon, it's not Dragonball, it's not Bleach. Alright, I'll give you a hint: Samurai with red hair in a pink dress. Reverse-bladed sword. BLUE EYES! CROSS-SHAPED SCAR! Sound familiar? Know what I'm talking about already? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you guessed it; In my humble opinion, the greatest anime ever created in history is nothing other than Rurouni Kenshin, known as Samurai X in the West.
In case you've been living in a cave, Rurouni Kenshin (lit. Kenshin the Wandering Samurai) is set in the late 19th century Japan, (in the progressive Meiji Era) and is a story about a young man named Kenshin Himura, a former assassin who has made a vow never to kill again, and fulfills this vow by wielding his Sakabatou (reverse-bladed sword, e.g. on a normal Samurai Sword, the blade is at the bottom edge of the sword, but on a Sakabatou, the blade is at the top edge, making it useless as a killing weapon) whenever innocent people are being oppressed. While normally a nice, geeky and affable gent, Kenshin also possesses a darker side: his alter ego known as Battousai the Manslayer, his persona from the days of the Meiji Revolution, in which he served as the most feared political assassin of his time. Whenever he gets angry, he reverts back to his old persona which gives him superhuman powers parallel to Goku's Super Saiyan Mode in Dragonball Z. (and makes him 50 times more violent too!) Think of Kenshin Himura/Hitokiri Battousai = Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. Yep, that sorta thing. Anyway, why do I love Rurouni Kenshin so much? Well, I suppose part of the reason I love it so much is due to my fascination with history, and my love for historical drama, especially those that can humanize otherwise blank figures that appear on a historical textbook. But i think the reason why so many anime people are crazy about RK is the same reason so many ladies are crazy about The Ellen Degeneres Show. We see Kenshin the samurai as sort of a friend figure; they've humanized him so well that sometimes you forget he's just a cartoon! i'm serious! The same way many women watch Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey because they see them as sort of a "friend" figure; someone to look up to and admire, so to speak. Know what i mean?
Anyway, I have to say that in these 22 years I've existed on this place we call Earth, I consider myself privileged to have been granted a holistic education, which encompasses not only academics, but also a great deal of humanities (the study of humanity). Rurouni Kenshin has taught me a lot of things, and has given me a great deal of perspective about life in general. Among the things I've learnt from just watching it include:
1. Don't judge a book by its cover
What do Master Miyagi, Ip Man, and Kenshin Himura all have in common? Yes; granted, they're all martial arts masters, but there is one more thing that the three of these individuals share. Yep, they're all not what they appear to be! If you met any of these guys on the street, you would probably have no idea that they were Martial Art masters, and you'd probably think that they were just nice, friendly Average Joes. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that looks can be deceiving. Have you ever passed up the opportunity of befriending someone just because they wore different clothes from you, or they talked in a different accent from yours, or perhaps they were covered up in tattoos? Although I won't argue against the notion that we humans are to a greater or lesser extent, visual creatures, we are many a time wrong in our assessments about people based purely on the power of visuals. As aforementioned, that lanky, mild-mannered man you just met could be a secret martial arts master. But if he didn't announce it to you (as most masters won't), how would you know unless you got to know him better? Likewise, how would you know what a person is truly like, until you get to know them better, as opposed to jumping to conclusions based purely on visual aesthetics?
2. Before you judge someone, try to understand their circumstances
There's a profound quote from one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest novels The Great Gatsby, which goes as "if you're thinking of criticizing someone, remember that not everyone in the world has had the opportunities you've had". When we tie this quote in with Rurouni Kenshin, we might use the character Yahiko Myoujin as an example. Yahiko is a 10 year-old boy who was rescued by Kenshin from a life of crime, being forced by the Yakuza to steal for a living. Kenshin's first meeting with Yahiko is not a friendly one, to say the least. Not only does Yahiko pick his pocket; he also vehemently insults Kenshin's lady Kaoru (who ironically becomes Yahiko's sword instructor later on!) after he gets caught. Rather than get angry, Kenshin gives Yahiko his wallet, releases him, and tells him to "keep up that fine pride that he has". Eventually, we learn that Yahiko was actually being duped by the Japanese Mafia into thinking that he still owed them money, when he had actually paid up every last cent, hence the reason why he was still out picking pockets. So next time you meet say a really rude person, try to understand their circumstances. Maybe they've been having a bad day, maybe they've just quarrelled with their spouse, or maybe they've even broken up. So don't condemn someone until you understand what they're going through.
3. Never force your beliefs on anyone. Others have as much right to their opinions as you do to yours.
I think most hardcore Rurouni Kenshin fans enjoy going through the final confrontation between the hero Kenshin, and the arch-villain Makoto Shishio. It wouldn't be farfetched to say that the FINAL CONFRONTATION between Kenshin and Shishio is to us, what Jesus's walk up Calvary is to Christians. We even remember the trademark Social Darwinist line that Shishio is so fond of: ala "Those who are strong survive, those who are weak perish". Therein lies the sharp conflict of opinion between the two men. Kenshin believes that everyone in the world should have the right to be happy, and to be treated humanely and fairly. On the other hand, Shishio subscribes to the Survival of the Fittest theory, and believes that in nature, only the strong deserve to be treated humanely and fairly, and that the weak have a natural role to serve as "food for the strong" (think of his ideal world as something of a contemporary Indian caste system). In fact, according to Shishio, he is "only preserving the natural order of things", so to speak. The battle between Kenshin and Shishio should not be viewed as a battle between good verses evil; it is not quite as clear-cut as that. Rather, it should be seen as an extreme clash between two opposing ideals from opposing ends of humanity. (SPOILER) Upon having defeated Shishio, Yahiko asks Kenshin "We won; so we must have been right, right?", to which Kenshin replies "If you truly believe that, then you are no different from Shishio". The point that he was trying to make was that you may have very strong opinions, but it helps to know that someone else with a differing viewpoint may also have equally strong opinions. It is arrogant and patronizing to assume that your opinion is more valid, and more "true" than the opinion of someone who has received less formal education than you, or who sees things differently from you, etc. Although Shishio may be considered the "bad guy", so to speak, it doesn't make him any less sincere in expressing his opinions. While Kenshin may be convinced of the truth of his ideals, Shishio is also equally convinced that his beliefs are true. A lot of the time, Liberals, conservatives, Theists, Deists and Atheists alike are all convinced of the "correctness" of their beliefs. But to condemn someone with a differing viewpoint as "bad"/"incorrect"/etc while placing an imaginary Halo of "righterousness" on yourself by virtue of your politics/religious standing/etc (e.g. 'I'm a left-winger, so I'm more moral than those racist/bigoted/homophobic right-wingers") is nothing short of hypocrisy. And NO, just because you possess a high-end university degree certainly does NOT make your beliefs any more valid than the gardener's who didn't have the luxury of finishing secondary school.
The strong have a responsibility towards the weak
You don't have to be an Otaku (anime fan) to find Kenshin endearing. He's friendly, thoughtful and polite, while at the same time, brave and strong when the situation demands it. In other words, he's a great guy. He goes around befriending the friendless, protecting the weak and helping those who can't help themselves. He isn't afraid of speaking up for the down-trodden and the oppressed, and fighting their battles for them, if need be. And when innocents are being oppressed, he may even revert back to his terrifying old persona, Battousai the Manslayer. Thus, he isn't exactly a pretentious "nice guy" (a doormat who will do anything to get laid by women, but won't stand up for you if he hasn't got anything to gain), nor is he a brute. He's a decent, clean-living, self-respecting man, and he understands that with great power comes great responsibility. He understands that the ultimate purpose of martial arts is not to control and suppress people, but to make the world a better place. In episode 3, he gets into a tussle with a group of sword-wielding policemen, who are harassing and threatening innocent townspeople. Of course, he wins the fight, but the main point of that episode I think is that martial arts is like a knife; if it falls into the right hands (e.g. people like Kenshin), it can be used for the good of humanity, but if it falls into the wrong hands (like the police swordsmen), it will be used as a weapon to oppress humanity. If I may be so bold as to plagiarize (with referencing) a snippet from a fellow blogger: (also check out the video below, it's really cool!)
He (Kenshin) is Hitokiri Battosai: the Manslayer. And as you can imagine, he slaughtered men to usher in the Meiji Period. And this say something about Kenshin's character in the new Age of Law. The new period prides itelf in banning swords, and it seems at every term the police are set on taking his sword away. But it is not Kenshin who abuses his sword; it is the men who legally own a sword, men like the Police Sword Corps. In fact, the first three volumes of Rurouni Kenshin is about a samurai who knows when to use a sword fighting men who do not know when to use a sword. That is the difference, I think, between banning swords and banning men with bad ideas about swords. The Meiji Authority is wrong for thinking that less swords equals more peace; the new government should hire officers with a philosophy more like Kenshin's. Now the chief of police sees that character is vital after watching the wandering samurai defeat the corrupted Police Sword Corp. "I won't pursue this", he says. "After that hoax I thought that Hitokiri Battosai was a dangerous figure. But now . . . now I know the truth is different." If Kenshin is good, why take his sword? (that says something about gun control today, but that's a different story)
Of course; in this day and age, you certainly don't have to be a Super Samurai swordmaster like Kenshin in order to fulfill your responsibility towards society. Even if it's buying a homeless guy a burger, or feeding that stray dog that dropped by your house, or standing up for an oppressed minority, there are so many ways you can be a moral, upright person, a modern-day samurai, if you will.