Hiten Encyclopedia: Character Anaylsis: Kamiya Kaoru
Hi, everyone! So as everyone in the RK fandom may or may not have seen, there has been a huge 6-minute sneakpeak/trailer for the latest Rurouni Kenshin film: Rurouni Kenshin Kyoto Taika Hen as we inch closer to the release with every passing moment. If, by chance, you haven’t seen it, here is a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emy8JkKV6LQ. Be sure to watch out for Densetsu no Saigo Hen (The Legend’s End) to conclude the Kyoto arc! SPOILERS for those who haven’t seen Kyoto Taika Hen or read Jinchuu from the manga!
Anyway, I’m going to preface that I decided to start this project due to all of the negative attention I see some of the characters get and usually the opinions and justifications for said opinions tend to be superficial at best. I want to dive deep into the characters themselves the same way I have into their fighting techniques, so if you can bear with me through this tremendous post, I would be very glad. Without anymore distractions, here is the very first Hiten Character Analysis: Kamiya Kaoru
Kamiya Kaoru, frequently called Kaoru-dono by Kenshin and Jo-chan by Sanosuke, is the headstrong, sweet, beautiful, and passionate Assistant-Instructor of Kamiya Kasshin-ryu, a family-owned style of sword techniques (Kenjutsu) that emphasizes on principles such as “Katsujin-ken” which is the “Life-preserving sword” as opposed to “Satsujin-Kin” or “The Killing Sword”.
Now, this character is one that has divided the fan base for a long time, especially since the reveal of Tomoe’s character in the manga. Some people love her and praise her gung-ho, no-nonsense attitude and others have dismissed and even berated her (and Watsuki by proxy) as a sexist, poorly written female character who is given very little to do and is often eclipsed by the more powerful members of Kenshin-gumi. Even Yahiko gets more time to shine that Kaoru does. Some of these individuals even go as far as to hate her primarily due to the false juxtaposition to Tomoe’s character who was introduced as Kenshin’s first love interest 10 years prior to the beginning of the story.
The truth of the matter is Kaoru’s character goes beyond the superficial; she’s more than just her character and the situations which she is put in or the events that happen to and around her character. She is the backbone of RK as a whole. She is the sticky glue that holds the broken family known as Kenshin-gumi together. But more importantly, she is the center of the entire story and probably more important than Kenshin himself.
Birth of an Era
Hitokiri Battousai slashed his way into a new era as he toppled the Tokugawa Shogunate and brought in an era free from Samurai, where man can chose its own destiny. 11 years later, the hitokiri-turned-rurouni wanders place to place to see how much the times have changed, even in as small a time as a decade. Via his wanderings, he finally saw how different the world he changed is. The live action movie cleverly indicates this via the use of color palettes. The flashback scenes in Kyoto are a cold-blue coloration where the colors are desaturated. Sakura petals fall down on the scene like rose petals and during certain parts, they are a monochromatic grey color and everything feels cold and eerie.
The Meiji Era was the era that Kenshin helped create was a time for modernity, growth, prosperity, and economics. The color palettes are a lovely brown hue with warmly lit colors, and often sunny backdrops with beautiful vivid colors in the background. Swords were banned, sword smiths lost their jobs and began forging household items and utensils, and kenjutsu was dying as it was deemed a relic of a shameful and brutal era. In this new era, swordsmen were useless. They no longer held the power and didn’t know how to do anything else. Kaoru’s father was also a vestige of this era but saw something beautiful in his meditations on the sword and passed those teachings unto his daughter who was born in the waning years of the Bakufu and was raised in the Meiji Era. These principles are what make Kaoru so central to the story.
From Kenjutsu to Kendo
Realistically speaking, Kaoru’s strength doesn’t really compare to the stature and incredible skills displayed by Kenshin-gumi and the enemies they face. I have seen complaints that this is sexist on the writer’s part as she is a female character and given nothing to do. This was kicked up, considerably I’m sure, with the first film giving her nothing to do but get kidnapped in order to annoy the male protagonist. I remember having old arguments when the new Taika Hen/Densetsu no Trailers showed her apprehended by Shishio as Kenshin screamed helplessly on the rengoku before she is violently kicked off by Houji. Our very own Kateviardo expressed discontent with her possibly getting kidnapped because Kaoru should be a stronger character as one of the only female leads in the series. But she is far more central than what meets the eye and she plays a role larger than arguably even Kenshin himself did.
What does this have to do with her fighting style and her role in the story though? This: Jin-e didn’t kidnap Kaoru; he kidnapped The Future. All of the opponents they face are from the old world that Kenshin assisted in burning to the ground. Udoh Jin-e, Shishio Makoto, and Yukishiro Enishi each were people born in the old era, each rejects to the world Kenshin created.
Unlike these men, Kaoru never went to war. She was never a hitokiri. She never killed anyone. She’s just a lonely kendo teacher who carries on her family name and style with pride. She’s naive and acts childish because she IS a child of the new era. The new era, like her, is still in it’s inception, It’s not that old, the era of violence is still fresh in memory of most of the people alive, and therefore the new era hasn’t had the chance to cement itself in time. She never saw the kind war, brutality, or depravity that the others faced. She never sold or manufactured narcotics, saw her idol beheaded and displayed in public, or killed more people than you could honestly care to count. She wasn’t born in an era where she either fought and died on the battlefield, sold your body for money, or risk poverty and starvation. She wasn’t betrayed by a government she fought for as they brutally tried to excise her from existence because she knew too many secrets. She never became a monstrosity born of the hellfires of vengeance and lived her life singularly trying to avenge her sister who was brutally butchered. And THAT is what makes her so special.
Kaoru is beautifully ordinary and that makes her easily overlooked. We’re more interested in the characters that have seen and done some shit because it’s part of the fantasy. It’s escapism at best. No one wants a story of a kendo teacher just trying to make money and live an ordinary quiet life. What we forget, though, is that the world she lives in doesn’t NEED that kind of sword. It doesn’t need a killer, a murderer, a manslayer. The sword in this era could be a tool to inspire people. It could be a tool to gain a sort of spiritual or mental capacity to develop an appreciation of life and it’s preservation, discipline, inner stillness, and strengthening of the body, mind, and heart. Anyone who practices kendo can tell you these are some of the numerous benefits one can derive from Kendo. But Kendo didn’t exist in the previous era. The Sword was a weapon and Kenjutsu was a method of killing. But Kaoru’s truth was one that Kenshin desperately wanted to believe in. He wanted to see a world so peaceful that one can take a weapon like a sword and turn it into something with positive benefits; this dream was so beautiful to him that he murdered people for a chance at creating it.
She is the embodiment of all the silly ideas that Kenshin simultaneously scoffed at and deeply believed in. Something about her was so pure and so convincing that she actually began changing Kenshin. In the live action film, this was done by Kenshin being surprised when he first encountered Kaoru in her dojo and she explained her swordsmanship philosophy and he looked surprise and happy. This returned again when she gave Kenshin his signature kimono. The kimono symbolized his new life and reinvigorated hope that maybe he did make a difference. He then smiles ever so gently at the sign above the alcove in the dojo that says “The Sword that Revitalizes”.
The Era of Kindness
Much of the importance of Kaoru’s character is narratively diminished because we are disconnected from the character by a 140 year or so time gap. The information is presented the way it would be if we were living in the 1860s, but let’s stop and consider this a moment. Let’s consider her little family in a modern context.
Megumi is a DRUG MANUFACTURER for the Japanese equivalent of a Mexican Cartel. You know those stories you hear on the news of victims mangled and gored to send messages to other gangs in the area? That was Kanryu. She served drugs so destructive they are a reason why Hong Kong was a friggin’ British Colony. This cartel was so brutal that if someone betrayed or crossed them, they would hire an assassin to find them and execute them in such a way that their corpses are hardly recognizable and to top it off, they leave little messages on the bodies in way a cartel might and the fruits of Megumi’s labor were used to buy weapons, police officers, and politicians.
Then, she had to realize that her drug was enslaving the minds of countless men and women until they OD’d. They would neglect their lives, families, work, everything to satiate the habit that her drug formed and she did this so she could secure a decent freaking life and survive. Would you allow someone like this to live with you? Someone who is the rough female equivalent of Walter White?
Sanosuke was a underground fighter and a mercenary. Horrible and evil men would hire him to use violence to subjugate or terrify enemies or rivals. Sano would provide this service and charge them a rate that depended PURELY on how much he enjoys beating these men within an inch of their lives because it vents his frustration at being betrayed in the past and watching his hero’s head get served on a plank of wood in public. To make it worse, he’s rude, occasionally sexist, obnoxious, a free loader, and he doesn’t pay for his food. Would you befriend someone like this and even feed them? Would you allow him to live with you if something happened to his residence?
Yahiko is a pickpocket, a thief and a scoundrel who works for the mafia, an organized crime syndicate. He will rob you blind before you even have time to notice. He wouldn’t blink about it either. It meant his survival. He had no future. He would continue working an imaginary debt and sink further into destitute until he was inevitable, caught or killed. Could you adopt this child? One who is more trouble than they’re worth and will rob you blind if he has the chance?
And finally, Kenshin is an ex-assassin/mass murderer turned soldier. His brutality was so notorious that it became legendary and the body count he left behind was so large that he lost track somewhere in the lower three digit numbers. He is mentally unstable and trouble follows him like a housebroken puppy. Everyone wants his head and the longer he stays with someone, the more danger they will be put in. If pushed far enough to protect you, he will kill again. He’s shaky at best and what’s worse, he murdered his ex-wife. Could you love someone like this? Could you be with them? Could you forgive them, if Kenshin was a real person?
Kaoru did. She gave all of these people a home and she, along with Kenshin, slowly rebuilt them. She offered them a place where they can come and laugh, have some semblance of normalcy and be in a place where they won’t be judged for their past actions. They can go out for beef pot at a nice restaurant, paid for by Kaoru; her only thanks is the smiles of her friends and that’s enough for her. These are the principles her swordsmanship preserves and she lives these truths outside of the dojo. They touched lives. She is able to do all of these things and endure hell for these broken friends and all of this because of Kenshin’s new era. He was looking for a place to belong and he found it. Kaoru is more than just a silly little girl; she’s the embodiment of everything Kenshin fought for. She became the new era he wanted so badly to create, and like happiness itself, she’s small and she’s fragile. She is not on the same caliber as the manslayers that preceded her. She is not strong enough to take on an entire syndicate and not because Nobuhiro was sexist but because she is a NORMAL person, living in what could be loosely seen as the real world.
In the world Kaoru would ordinarily live in, there is no giant monster like Fuji or burnt men waging an army like Shishio. In her world, normal people can’t destroy an entire cartel who wield the post powerful weaponry of their time with a freaking Sakabatou. She CAN’T do these things because if she does, she will become like Kenshin: mystified and idealized. We all wish we could be like Kenshin but often forget that ordinarily little Kaoru is the goal even Kenshin aspires to. She is the embodiment of his beliefs that everyone is equal and that there’s always a second chance for people willing to repent.
Kaoru gave them all a future. She played a part in rebuilding these broken, awful people and through her example made them beautiful and whole again. Megumi went from being the drug cook for a cartel to a doctor who saves lives. Families can remain together because of her, where her past self made drugs to tear them apart. She wages war with death everyday as she treats her patients in order to keep them healthy. Sanosuke left to see the world and live life to its absolute fullest, wandering place to place as Kenshin did, free and unencumbered by violence or being the pawn of evil men. Yahiko went from being a pickpocket to an honorable swordsman and the successor of the man who saved Japan. He carries the legend and the Sakabatou at his side as he stands between the weak and the strong who wish to prey on them, just as his teacher and her lover did. He has a future now. He can be happy with Tsubame and have the strength to protect her and those around him while advocating non-violence and passing on the life-giving principles of Kamiya-Kasshin Ryu.
Kaoru is so much more than a damsel in distress. She’s the rock that keeps all of RK together. Enishi “killing” her showed how they all fell apart and should us how beautiful and rare she was and why it crushed Kenshin that he couldn’t protect her. It wasn’t JUST because he loved her: it was because she was the thing he spent his life searching for, fighting for, killing for, and he failed to protect this precious flower of the new era. He allowed the horror of the world to swallow her and it was HIS fault.
That’s also what makes his redemption so much more powerful. He will continue carrying her legacy and kindness with him and change others the way she changed him. Their love was rooted in acceptance and tolerance. In forgiveness and trust. Kaoru IS the new era and she is the true heart of Rurouni Kenshin. So remember, next time someone insults Kaoru, you should remember that maybe we should be more like her and that we too should become students of Kamiya-Kasshin, even if we never hold a sword or fight epic battles. The world might be a better place if we all did.