Studio: First 66 episodes: Studio Gallop (Yu-Gi-Oh, Eyeshield 21)
Remaining episodes: Studio DEEN (Vampire Knight, Ranma 1/2)
With SPE Visual Works
Manga author: Nobuhiro Watsuki
Genre: Adventure, Samurai, Shōnen
First complete run: 1996-1998
Regular episodes: 95
Rurouni Kenshin is undoubtedly one of the staples of 1990s anime. The franchise has been extremely successful in both Japan and in the US. And with good reason; it's a colorful, charming piece of animated historical fiction. But, despite its appeal, the anime was very so-so for me. It tells the story of a samurai named Kenshin, who wanders Japan during the early Meiji period, as samurai and the nation's feudal culture were dying out in favor of firearms and a culture bent on Westernization. It's roughly the same time period as the movie The Last Samurai. Years before the anime begins, during the Bakumatsu War, Kenshin was known as one of the legendary "manslayers" of the Battōsai. Imagine if the anime's 95 episodes followed Kenshin while he was one of the most feared assassins in Japan. But by the time the show begins, Kenshin has sworn never to kill again, and wanders Japan helping people in order to atone for his wartime sins. There's still plenty of fighting in the anime, especially since samurai from his past frequently haunt Kenshin and his new beau Kaoru, it's just not what it could be.
Even if his guilty conscience puts a serious damper on the action in the anime, Kenshin's character has really impressive emotional depth. He is constantly wracked with grief over his actions as a manslayer. At times he is sorely depressed and wishes to be killed in order to release him from his conscience. At others, Kenshin's regrets manifest as iron determination not to let another life be harmed by anyone. All in all, like a good shōnen, the anime effectively handles his flexible personality while producing some meaningful moral inquiries. The show's score and visuals, like Kenshin's character, are impressively beautiful and serene at times but capable of accommodating some intense action at others.
But this anime just didn't do it for me. The 95 episodes felt impossibly long. When the action in an arc is at its height, the show flies by. But much of its excessive length is occupied by downtime in which Kenshin's romance with Kaoru lugubriously blossoms, sedating the viewer into a deep, deep, boredom-induced coma. Kenshin's character is cute but really predictable. His emotions are complex but his pledge to save lives is very straightforward and he always acts on it. He delivers simple lines in an accent so annoying you'll miss Yoda, and completes his samurai maneuvers with an animation scheme that whites out his best moves with camera flashes. What at times feels like such a cool idea for an anime will put you to sleep at others. If the show was half as long, Rurouni Kenshin would merit a significantly higher score. But as is, the anime is simply too lengthy to accommodate its repetitive, predictable turns of fate.
An aside: a spinoff OVA series called Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal serves as a prequel to the anime by telling the story of Kenshin's life as the Battōsai. Those who wanted more action out of the show should definitely check it out.