Fiction and Personal Growth, Part 2

Onwards to part 2! Now, the text after the cut continues directly from the end of part 1, so I’d recommend re-reading it first.

Oh, and in addition to the previous spoiler warnings, I’m adding another one concerning an important character in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, Inspector Javert.
Now, since we’re talking about audience expectations the above is only true on a meta-textual level, of course: audience expectations, story roles, the needs of the plot, none of those can (theoretically) affect a character on an intra-textual level. That is, we, the readers, know Kid Loki couldn’t have permanently become a hero because the story (supposedly) needs Loki as the bad guy (although the fact that Gillen managed to create doubt is what makes Kid Loki’s inescapable damnation so emotional – we were really rooting for the little guy, after all), but it’s not as if Thor could just say “Loki, the movie just came out with you as the villain, just get on with it and turn evil again, alright?”.

So, speaking purely on an intra-textual level, can people – or rather, fictional characters – change? Not just in terms of personality, but also their roles in the plot? Well, obviously!… …but only when that’s taken into account by the writer. That’s the nature of the beast, really; I’m sure we’ve all heard of writers saying how a character (or even a story) absolutely refused to follow along his plot and challenged him to let them grow, but they’re not a real person – the only way that can happen is if the writer lets them.
For instance, Terry Pratchett has said that, when he first started writing Guards! Guards!, he intended for Carrot to be the viewpoint character and for Sam Vimes’ sole purpose to be introducing Carrot (and by extension, the reader) to the city of Ankh-Morpork. But then something happened: he was having much more fun with Vimes than with Carrot, and so – as anyone who’s read Guards! Guards! and other Discworld novels starring the City Watch can tell you – Vimes became the protagonist of the City Watch subseries, with Carrot acting as a support character (although he’s the deuteragonist in Men at Arms, and he’s more important to the plot than Vimes).

So that’s a meta-textual change that was carried over to the intra-textual level: Vimes wasn’t the drunken, washed-up, “I’m too old for this shit” copper from his first appearance anymore, and Carrot (who was basically an extended parody of the “rightful-king-raised-as-a-commoner-who-becomes-the-hero’s-people” trope) got some much-needed depth added to him. Sadly (showing that even good writers can have missteps), nearly all of it happened offscreen in between Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms, and not all of it in a way that can be explained by the passage of time in-universe (it’s very hard to reconcile Vimes in the first City Watch book, who wouldn’t fight only two palace guards even if he had narrative causality on his side, with the ultra-capable Vimes of Night Watch who basically fought the police force’s internal corruption single-handedly). This was also the last change both characters underwent; from that point foward, both of them fulfilled the same role in every City Watch book, which culminated in Snuff, the latest (and, sadly, the weakest) novel in that subseries, which has been very criticized – and I believe that the root of its problems is that Pterry was unwilling to break the formula he had established in previous novels like Jingo and The Last Elephant.

But I digress. Let’s go back to talking about characters changing on the intra-textual level. One of the first examples that jumped to my mind when thinking about this was Inspector Javert, from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Javert is fanatically devoted to the concept of Justice, which he equates to Law; acting in a lawful manner is just, acting in an unlawful manner is unjust, period. And to his credit, he’s entirely willing to sacrifice his career and good standing for those ideals, as the novel shows. However, at the end of the book he is confronted with the fact that Jean Valjean, who up until that point he had been doggedly pursuing, is not the evil man he thought he was, in spite of being a criminal. So now Javert is conflicted: letting Jean Valjean go would be just, but would also be unlawful; capturing him again would be lawful, but would also be unjust. Faced with those choices – either one of which would force him to change as a person –, he chose to kill himself rather than accept change. (The poor guy shouldn’t have used Windows 95 as his operating system.)

All joking aside, I find it interesting that Javert’s character arc is about refusing to change. He’s not the only example in fiction – there are various moments in the “Dune” series, particularly in the second book, The Messiah of Dune, with similar considerations about how some people would choose to die over becoming someone they’re not –, but now let’s talk about a character whose arc is about changing: Kenshin Himura, the protagonist of Rurouni Kenshin (rurouni is a made-up word derived from ronin, which was a wandering samurai who had no lord to serve, so the series’ name can be loosely translated as “Kenshin the Wanderer”, but it was brought over to the West as Samurai X*, because of the X-shaped scar on Kenshin’s cheek). Kenshin successfully changes from who he was, not in terms of personality – he does go through some character development, but he’s basically the same person throughout the series, only he’s a happier one at the end –, but in that he manages to cast off his previous identity, the role to which others kept forcing him to cling.

* (The Western title is actually one of RK’s fandom peeves; the complaint is that Kenshin wasn’t actually a samurai – he was a swordsman, but he was born a commoner, and Tokugawa-era Japan had a very stratified class system which allowed for little to no social mobility –, so the title is inaccurate.)
Let me talk a little about the manga itself before delving into the story. It was written from 1994 to 1995 by Nobuhiro Watsuki, and the Brazilian translation, at least, also has his author’s notes concerning some of the comic’s themes and various issues he went through when writing it. (Sidenote: this is actually a nice thing about working with modern fiction from an academic point of view, having a direct line to authorial intent. On the downside, it often leads people to forget that authorial intent isn’t the sole possible reading of a work and can even obfuscate its issues – see John Green’s defense of how he’s not the one saying those awful things, it’s his characters! Anyway, I believe Farla suggested Act write a post regarding the conflict between an author’s intent and what’s actually written in the text, so let’s pester her until she does!) It also had an anime series and an OVA which was an adaptation of a mini-story arc from the manga; unfortunately, the anime had lots of filler (even more than usual, to the point it killed ratings before the manga’s final story arc – the most important one – could be animated), and the OVA cut out a lot of Tomoe’s character (in the manga, that story arc is as much about her as it is about Kenshin; not so in the OVA). I do recommend watching the latter – the animation is really well-done –, but preferably only after reading the manga.
Now, on to the story! And remember: SPOILERS.

In 19th-century Japan, during the Bakumatsu (loosely translated as “The Fall of the Shogunate”) period, a subversive faction called the Ishin-shishi (“Paladins of the Restoration”; they can also be called monarchists – their goal was, ostensibly, to bring down the shogunate in order to restore true power to the emperor) fought to gain political control over Japan. The main weapon in their arsenal is the assassination of important political personages in the Tokugawa government, but later things escalated to all-out civil war. The Paladins won, and thus they instituted a new period in Japan’s history, the Meiji (“Enlightened Rule”) era, which forced Japanese society to abandon feudalism as its political and economic model. (This is all a VERY simplified view of things, of course.)

One of the swordsmen fighting on the monarchists’ side during all this was the legendary Hitokiri Battousai. (Hitokiri is alternately translated as “manslayer” or, in a more literal fashion, “cutter of men”, and hitokiri did exist in real life – one of them served as inspiration for Kenshin –; battousai, if I’m not mistaken, is a made-up word which the author presents as meaning “master of the quick-draw”. For simplicity’s sake, though, I’m just going to call him Battousai – non-italicized and everything –, like the English-speaking fandom does.) After killing a great many people, carving his place in History as one of the strongest swordsmen in all of Japan and helping the monarchists achieve a decisive victory over the loyalist faction, he abruptly disappeared and no one heard from him again.

Enter Kenshin Himura, the swordsman formerly known as Battousai. It’s been ten years since he fought for the Ishin-shishi; since that time, he swore a vow of non-killing and is now wandering aimlessly around Japan, helping others in whatever way he can while trying to atone for killing people. Purely by chance, he runs into Kaoru Kamiya, heir and (currently) sole practitioner of the Kamiya Kasshin style (a style of swordsmanship which preaches that the sword is meant to protect life, not take it; a philosophy known in real life as katsujinken, “the sword of life”), while she’s pursuing the infamous Battousai (actually an impersonator, of course, who took the name and used it to ruin the reputation of Kaoru’s school). He is then invited to stay with her as a guest for as long as he wishes, and the rest is History – suffice to say that, at the end of the manga, they’re married and already have a son.

The series can be roughly divided into four main “sagas” (similar as to how Dragon Ball Z had the Saiyan Saga, the Namek Saga, and so on and so forth):

The Tokyo Saga: This part is more of a series of episodes that take place in chronological order and starring the same characters, but are otherwise unconnected with each other. It’s important mostly because the main cast is formed (Kenshin and Kaoru are joined by Yahiko Myoujin, a kid from a family of former samurai who’s been forced to work for the yakuza as a pickpocket and is taken in by Kaoru as her disciple; Sanosuke Sagara, a peasant who used to be a soldier of the Sekihoutai – an army of volunteers, composed mostly of commoners, who fought for the monarchists, but was then betrayed and executed by them – as a kid and now lives as a street fighter-for-hire; and Megumi Takani, a doctor who lost her family during the Bakumatsu and was then forced to work for a drug lord by making opium) and the main themes of the series are established: redemption and change. I’ll talk more about Kenshin later, but let’s see the others: Yahiko wants to improve his lot and grow strong and proud like his deceased father, a true samurai; Sanosuke starts to grow beyond the anger and resentment at the unjust death of his mentor, feelings which were holding him back from fulfilling his potential; and Megumi, too, wants to atone for all the people who died because of the opium she was forced to produce and puts her medical skills to good use.
(Unfortunately, Kaoru is a much misused character. She has no story arc for herself; all of her development, in terms of story role and personality, is linked to Kenshin in some way. Even Megumi, after the arc that introduces her, is really more of a secondary character than part of the main cast. To Watsuki’s credit, he listened to his fans’ complaints and did better with his next main female character, Buso Renkin’s Tokiko Tsumura. Not perfectly, mind you; once she and the protagonist become a couple – possibly even before –, she’s reduced to a satellite character. At least she stays relevant to the plot.)
The Kyoto Saga: For many, this is when the series really got good, which is funny, because this saga was a direct result of Watsuki’s editor asking him to do a big, epic story in order to attract more readers. Instead of various different episodes, there’s a single story arc about Makoto Shishio – Kenshin’s replacement as the new hitokiri for the monarchists, only he was too ambitious and so the new Meiji government tried to kill him – gathering a secret force to take over Japan, and Kenshin being employed by the government to stop him. Despite the increased focus on action, the series’ themes of redemption and changes are still important; ironically, the antagonists actually undergo more character development than the main cast.

(Sidenote: Watsuki is very good at designing new antagonists, but they usually tend to be quite two-dimensional, since he mainly uses them as single-chapter villains. The Kyoto Saga is when he managed to create several good, three-dimensional villainous characters, not the least of which is Shishio himself.)

The Revenge Saga: The final story arc, the only one that wasn’t adapted for the anime, and the most dramatically important of all. While I personally enjoy the Kyoto arc more, this one is the culmination of Kenshin’s character arc, and indeed, of the series as a whole. Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t have been the last saga; Watsuki apparently planned on doing another one, set in the island of Hokkaido, which would have drawn a lot of inspiration from spaghetti westerns and would have also featured some of the antagonists from the Kyoto Saga on their own roads to redemption. Frankly, I think it’s good the manga ended when it did; while I have no doubt the planned Hokkaido Saga would have been very fun, I think it wouldn’t have been as strong of a conclusion as the Revenge Saga.
So, since this is the most relevant story arc for this topic of fiction and personal growth, I will discuss it in a more detailed manner than the others. Once again: SPOILERS!

Kenshin was actually born Shinta, a simple peasant. His parents died when he was still a kid, and so he was sold into slavery. Then the slavers were attacked by brigands; Shinta was the only one who survived, thanks to the timely intervention of Seijuro Hiko, master swordsman of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. At first, Hiko only tells the boy to go to a nearby village and hope someone adopts him, but when he sees that the kid dug graves for everyone – even the brigands –, he takes him as his apprentice and gives him a new name, Kenshin.

Years later, right as the political turmoil between monarchists and loyalists is starting to erupt into all-out confrontation, Kenshin (who is only 14 years old) argues vehemently with his master that, since Hiten Mitsurugi is so much stronger than any other style, they have a moral responsibility to use it to change the world; Hiko, on the contrary, states that exactly because they’re such superb swordsmen, they must not pick sides and must, instead, focus simply on protecting the people. (By the time the audience sees Kenshin’s past, Hiko’s point has been proven several times: for all the good the Meiji era brought, such as abolishing the caste system, the truth is that the Meiji government is filled with politicians who abuse their power just as much as the old Tokugawa government did. There’s a novel by Italian writer Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il gattopardoThe Leopard, in English –, about a noble Sicilian family adapting to the political, social and economic upheavals caused by the unification of Italy which wonderfully shows how, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, as Pete Townshend put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.) They fight, and then they part on bad terms, and Kenshin joins the monarchists. When Kogorou Katsura, one of the monarchist leaders, asks him if he could kill for them, he replies without hesitating that he could, if those deaths served the higher purpose of bringing a new order.

Fast-forward a few years later. Kenshin is now 18 years old, and all the killing he’s done has started to destabilize him psychologically. Purely by chance, he meets a lady of high birth but poor means, Tomoe Yukishiro, who witnesses one of his assassinations; instead of killing her, as he technically should have, he brings her to the inn that serves as the monarchists’ refuge in the city of Kyoto. She stays there, working for the innkeeper, and soon she becomes a calming influence on him – the “sheath to his sword”, as Katsura puts it –, to the point that, when the monarchists are forced to temporarily scatter to the four winds and hide, Katsura asks her to remain near Kenshin. They’re supposed to pose as husband and wife as their cover identities, but Kenshin has fallen in love with her and asks her to be his wife for real.

Unfortunately, what Kenshin didn’t know is that it wasn’t pure chance that he met Tomoe. In truth, she had been deliberately planted there by his enemies in order to create a trap for Battousai; she did it because he had killed her fiancé. What she didn’t expect is that she came to know Kenshin and see the man he actually was, not the monster she imagined him to be (it’s possible she even fell in love with him, too; it’s open to interpretation). She tried to help him, but was instead imprisoned and used to lure him. To shorten the story, during the battle with the last of her captors, Kenshin – who at this point had been rendered nearly blind and deaf by his enemies and was also heavily wounded – accidentally killed her when she defended him from his enemy’s attack. This incident left him with his X-shaped scar and the firm conviction that no cause was worth a person’s life; he would still fight for the monarchists, but once they had finally installed a new government, he would just wander aimlessly, helping only the people within his reach.

(That, by the way, is the mini-arc I mentioned earlier, the one that served as the basis for the Tsuiokuhen OVA.)

Let’s return to the present. Shishio has been defeated, Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship is slowly moving forward, now’s the time for the happily ever after, right? Wrong! Enishi Yukishiro, Tomoe’s younger brother who had seen her killed by Kenshin, returns from his self-imposed exile to China. Not only is he now a powerful crime lord, he’s also become a powerful fighter just so he could personally destroy Battousai.

(Danger, Will Robinson, danger! Here be SPOILERS!)

Notice I mentioned destroy, not kill. Killing Kenshin would be too quick, too merciful; instead, Enishi kills Kaoru; Kenshin, having failed to protect yet another woman he loved, is psychologically destroyed, and the whole group falls apart.

The end.

…Ok, I’m lying, it’s not the end. To be fair, Watsuki did consider going through with it for real, but he couldn’t; he really wanted Kenshin to have a happy ending, and he couldn’t see him being truly happy without Kaoru by his side. So here’s what actually happened: one of Enishi’s allies actually crafted a flesh doll in Kaoru’s perfect likeness, and that was the “corpse” left behind by the psychopathic villain; the real Kaoru was held hostage in a secret location. Kenshin, after a lot of soul-searching, finally breaks out of his angst when people call to him for help. He finds the answer he’s been searching for all those years – how can he atone for all the deaths he caused? –, goes to Enishi’s secret hideout, beats him up and releases Kaoru. Five years later, he and Kaoru are married and have a kid, and all their friends are at peace or, in Yahiko’s case, on the road to becoming heroes themselves.

And now they finally live happily ever after.

There’s actually a whole lot I could talk about this series – for all that Watsuki mentions how hard he tried to follow the established conventions of boys’ manga, he still managed to tell a very good story full of layers and deeper themes –, but I’ll stick to the theme of “changes” for now. Basically, at the core of the story, is Kenshin’s struggle to break free of his past as Battousai and be just Kenshin, a wanderer. The first, and most obvious, obstacle he faces are the people who, for one reason or another, don’t want to let him change: some, like Jin-E, Aoshi, Saitou and Shishio want to prove themselves as the strongest of all and want to face Kenshin’s “true identity” as a warrior and a killer, not as this “weak” wanderer concerned with the lives of his opponents; others, like Enishi and his companions, refuse to accept that Kenshin can just change and be released from all the pain he caused, all the blood he shed, without punishment.

What I really like about this manga is that, in theory, Watsuki could have just stopped there, with Kenshin only facing external obstacles on the road to atonement. Instead, his most important fights are against himself. Change – real change – isn’t easy or comfortable, especially for something like killing people.

Here are the main issues Kenshin has to confront before finally changing:

1) First, he had to realize that killing is wrong, regardless of the cause. It’s not just that he realizes that the Meiji government isn’t all that different from the Tokugawa shogunate; rather, he realizes that even if it had been the perfect regime he had hoped it would be, it would still have been wrong to kill people because of it – each and everyone one of them had their own hopes for the future, their own dreams and goals, and nothing gave him the right to decide his own were more important than their lives.

2) Then, he realizes that throwing his life away won’t actually make amends for what he did. Up until the point Kenshin finally concludes his training with Hiko – indeed, all the way up to his final battle with Enishi –, the reader can see that Kenshin is all-too-ready to injure himself, or put himself at risk, to protect people, especially his loved ones. It’s only with Hiko’s help that he starts acknowledging that if all life is precious, then his life is precious, too!

3) So, does that mean he’s in the clear for all the lives he took? Not at all; while atonement is possible, he’ll still carry the burden of having killed people. But instead of selfishly wallowing in guilt over those lives, he’ll channel those feelings in a more constructive manner to help those around him and, hopefully, make up for the good the dead could have done. By the end of the manga, his scar has finally started to heal, but he admits it will probably never fully heal – which is fine with him; the point wasn’t in discarding the Battousai identity, but in building the Kenshin Himura one.

Drat, this is running even longer than the first part. I’ll finish it up in the next one. Until then!

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