I've been waiting ages for the next volume of Rurouni Kenshin, so I was really hoping it was going to be worth the wait. Thankfully it is.
The mysterious 'Jinchū' of Yukishiro Enishi drawing ever nearer, Kenshin continues to explain the dark events of his past that have helped to set up the current crisis. Trust and betrayal leads to a fateful battle that cements Kenshin's vow never to kill once the revolution is completed. We get to see how Kenshin lost his wife Tomoe, and how he made an eternal enemy of the unhinged Enishi. However, back in the present the stage is set for the final stage of Jinchū. Enishi and his men arm themselves and begin their advance on the Kamiya Dojo whilst Kenshin and Sano plan their defence. Meanwhile old allies are drawn into the conflict, whether to aid their friends or to fight on their own terms. However, with grudges that time has failed to dull and powerful weapons facing them, can Kenshin & co really come through things unscathed?
Fans of ADV's Samurai X releases may find some of the above familiar. This is because Kenshin's flashback to his time with Tomoe forms the basis for the Samurai X trilogy of Trust, Betrayal and Reflection. Those who have watched those films will find the manga just as gripping, and those who haven't seen the films will no doubt be desperate to after reading this volume! The story of Kenshin's past is brilliantly done, balancing emotion with action and
drama with tragedy. Not only does it succeed in adding some depth to the already great character of Kenshin, it also serves to flesh out the world of the Bakumatsu to those who are not familiar with it. The chaos is brilliantly depicted, as is the horror, and it is interesting to see a glimpse of characters like Shishio and Saito in the past. What makes it brilliant though is that time is taken after the flashback for the characters to discuss it and come to terms with it, and also for Kenshin to draw closer to Kaoru.
About a third of this manga volume focuses on the story of Kenshin's past before things move back to the series' usual time period to cover the build up to the battle with Enishi. For a large part there is a feeling of the calm before the storm with much of the remainder of the book focusing on preparation for the battle, before things really get going in the last third. In a way this volume is more challenging than many of the others as it changes pace and focus more often. It starts near the end of the emotionally charged story of Kenshin's past, before changing pace to the tense build up to the battle with Enishi, and then finally leaping into the action as Kujiranami, Inui and Otowa take on Kenshin and Sano at the Kamiya Dojo. There's a lot to take in as numerous plot strands are set up and a several characters
are re-introduced, and this combined with some training scenes means that the middle of the volume hits a bit of a lull, especially when compared to the high stakes opening and ending. However, it does give time to expand Yahiko's character and show some more of Kaoru's skills, which I particularly liked as Kaoru generally gets less chance to shine than the other characters.
When all's said and done vol 21 of Rurouni Kenshin is a bit of a linking volume between the flashbacks of vol 20 and the coming battles in vol 22. It contains enough of each to stay interesting and not get bogged down in build up, but it does end just as things are really getting good. There are plenty of good points, the flashback is quite well handled and the battle against Kujiranami is great, but there are some drawbacks too - most notably the ludicrousness of some of the villains (a man with a cannon for a hand, and one that's a blatant rip-off of Venom from Spiderman for example). However, Rurouni Kenshin's never really been one for realism, instead it has focused on being entertaining and once again it succeeds admirably. Obviously if you've bought the previous 20 volumes you're going to buy this, but if you've yet to check out Rurouni Kenshin pick up volume one and get into one of the most entertaining action manga available in the UK.
There are plenty of extras on show here. As usual we have the story recap and character list at the start and a glossary of Japanese terms at the end, plus the obligatory next volume preview and adverts. However, there are also pages describing how Watsuki came up with the design of Tomoe and Bakumatsu Choshū heroes Katsura Kogoro and Takasugi Shinsaku, as well as a roundup of what happened to these famous revolutionaries in real life. There's also a timeline of some of the major events of the revolution and a 'free talk' page where Watsuki discusses action figures and computer games. Good stuff.