– Warning: This article contains mentions of disturbing content. Reader discretion is advised. –
Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story is a legendary manga created by Nobuhiro Watsuki (Real Name: Nobuhiro Nishiwaki) and originally published in Shо̄nen Jump from April 1994 to September 1999, running for 28 volumes. The series has sold over 72 million copies as of 2019, making it one of Shueisha's top ten best-selling manga of all time, and this manga series has spawned a 1995 anime series, an upcoming anime project, an animated film, several OVA episodes, several live-action films, light novels and video games. The series came in the tail end of what is considered the Golden Age of Shо̄nen Jump, and is a huge cultural phenomenon. Overall, Rurouni Kenshin is perhaps one of the most decorated manga in history, and its protagonist, Kenshin Himura has gone down as one of the most influential shōnen protagonists of his day, and the authors of various current big names have found tutelage under Watsuki, making him one of the shōnen demographic's most influential authors.
However, in November 2017, the discovery of child pornography DVDs at Watsuki's office in Tokyo led to the eventual raid of his home, which in turn led to the discovery of over a hundred such DVDs as well as the cessation of the serialization of Rurouni Kenshin: The Hokkaidō Arc in Shueisha's Jump SQ magazine as the investigation continued. Despite having such a heinous charge against him on record, Nobuhiro Watsuki has continued to enjoy success in the industry with the continuation of The Hokkaido Arc, and the upcoming anime reboot. Watsuki continues to be celebrated by his contemporaries to this day, but should we really be supporting Nobuhiro Watsuki and Rurouni Kenshin?
The Kenshin Effect
As mentioned before, Rurouni Kenshin is one of the most decorated manga titles in the history of Shо̄nen Jump, and Watsuki is one of the shо̄nen demographic's most influential authors. The number of mangaka who have been inspired by or worked with him is huge, and the list includes heavy-hitters like One Piece author Eiichiro Oda; Naruto author Masashi Kishimoto; Gintama author Hideaki Sorachi; Hiroyuki Takei (Shaman King); Black Cat and To Love Ru! author Kentaro Yabuki; Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun); Riichiro Inagaki (Eyeshield 21); Takeshi Obata of the Death Note, Bakuman and Hikaru no Go series; among others.
Some of these same names were among those who congratulated Watsuki for the series' 25th anniversary. Rurouni Kenshin has been credited with bringing more interest to historical stories in anime and manga, and the androgynous design of the titular character is seen as one of the major elements that made the series appeal to more feminine audiences as well, leading to an overall increase in feminine readership of media traditionally geared towards boys and young men.
The protagonist of Rurouni Kenshin is a man named Himura Kenshin, a former assassin known by the moniker "Hitokiri Battōsai" – Battōsai the Manslayer. After the conclusion of the Boshin War during the early stages of the Meiji Era (October 1868 – July 1912), Kenshin wanders the countryside with a reverse blade, offering protection to anyone who needs it in an attempt to attone for his heinous crimes during the war. In the eleventh year of the Meiji Era, 1878, Kenshin meets Kaoru Kamiya, who is in the middle of a fight with a murderer who claims to be Hitokiri Battōsai and kills people in the name of Kaoru's dojo, of which she is the teacher after the passing of her father.
After helping they defeat the imposter, Himura's identity as the real Battōsai becomes apparent to Kaoru, who offers him a place to stay at their dojo in return for his help, noting that he is not as bloodthirsty as the rumours would have one believe. Kenshin is introduced as a swordsman who does not kill, and the reverse-blade enables him to protect those around him without lethal force; however, this pacifism comes to be a great point of contention for the character as the Rurouni Kenshin narrative continues. Kenshin's brand of pacifism has come to be a standard for Shо̄nen Jump protagonists, and this benevolence is seen in various characters from Son Goku to Monkey D. Luffy to Naruto to Trigun's Vash The Stampede and Shaman King's Yо̄ Asakura.
On Tuesday, November 21, 2017, Nobuhiro Watsuki was referred to prosecutors after an investigation into purchases of child pornography led authorities to his office in Tokyo. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police later charged Watsuki with simple possession of child pornography videos since July 2015, as the raid of his office and home led to the confiscation of nearly one hundred DVDs of underage girls. Watsuki admitted to the charges and during his deposition, saying "I liked girls in the higher grades of elementary school to the second grade of junior high." The following is a direct quote from a translation of Japanese laws regarding the possession and provision of child pornograhy in the country, which has been illegal since the establishment of the Act on Regulation and Punishment of Acts Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Protection of Children in 1999; with the possession of child pornography in Japan being totally illegal as of 2015 – the very same year Watsuki's is thought to have come into possession of the DVDs in his collection.
Article 7(1) Any person who possesses Child Pornography for the purpose of satisfying one's sexual curiosity (limited to those who have come to possess it voluntarily, and are clearly deemed to as such.) is punished by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than 1, 000, 000 yen.
Watsuki was in violation of this particular article, having purchased the DVDs voluntarily and with full understanding of what he was doing, meaning that he should have been facing a punishment of at least one year in prison, and a fine of up to a million yen (7600 USD, Jan 2023); however, Watsuki was referred to the prosecutors was ordered to pay a fine of only 200 000 yen (1515 USD, Jan 2023), which he did in February 2018. With his admission to the possession and his interest in adolescent girls, and the huge stacks of evidence against him, Watsuki should have been put away for a long time and his reputation long since tarnished; however, this was not the case. The Hokkaido Arc of Rurouni Kenshin was briefly put on hiatus from December 2017 in light of the investigation, and the publisher, Shueisha, released a statement saying:
Receiving the media reports this time, we take this matter very seriously. The author is really reflecting upon himself.
However, not more than a few months later, the publisher decided to go on with the serialization in June 2018, with Shueisha citing a responsibility on the side of the author to "respond to the various voices [we've] received through his work". Effectively, Shueisha regarded the continuation of the Rurouni Kenshin series as a matter of duty for Watsuki, elaborating that he was in a period of reflection and penance for his actions – however, that also illustrates the limits of Shueisha's previous statement about how seriously it has taken Watsuki's actions.
Despite the law requiring perpetrators to serve time, pay a fine or both depending on how the case plays out, the case of Nobuhiro Watsuki in this regard was grossly mishandled by the persecutors; by Shueisha and the industry by extension. The fine that he paid for the crime of Simple Possession of Child Pornography was only a fifth of the maximum he could have paid; not to mention the fact that he didn't serve any jail time despite having been in possession of about a hundred DVDs for years prior to his arrest. The 200 000 yen fine was a mere slap on the wrist from a legislative standpoint, and the laws regarding this kind of crime in Japan aren't necessarily the most punitive against crimes of this nature. When Act-Age author Tatsuya Matsuki was arrested and found guilty of sexually assaulting two teenaged girls in June of 2020, his highly-promising series was removed from Weekly Shonen Jump following his arrest in August 2020. Shueisha consulted series illustrator Shirо̄ Usazaki regarding the future of the series, and it was decided that it be cancelled. This happened only two days after he was arrested, and Act-Age remains cancelled to this day.
Mutsuki received a suspended sentence of 18 months in prison for the crimes, which is insignificant when considering the gravity of such a crime. Usazaki, despite having had nothing to do with Matsuki's actions, continues to have her name invoked alongside the disgraced Act-Age – and Matsuki by extension. The treatment of Watsuki and his intellectual property is dizzying in its contrast from that of Matsuki and Act-Age, despite the two having perpetrated sexual crimes. Sexual crimes are known to be a huge problem in Japan, and the dismissal of Watsuki's case despite his admission, the mountain of evidence and his status as a respected artist and author has set a horrible precedent.
On Your Conscience
There are several cases of prominent individuals facing consequences far more severe for transgressions like infidelity or even promiscuity, so the reaction of the industry and the law to Watsuki's case is indicative of a deep, dark problem with how people view and understand the ramifications of crimes of this nature. If this were truly taken seriously, Watsuki would be in prison – not enjoying continued successes as a celebrated, revered and respected mangaka. The industry also has a duty to take this kind of thing seriously and create real consequences, especially since anime and manga are especially notorious for the overt sexualization of women, adolescent girls and sometimes even children. While Shueisha has opted to continue with the serialization of Rurouni Kenshin: Hokkaido Arc, much respect must be afforded to VIZ, who did not include the chapter in the English digital version of Weekly Shonen Jump, which released after the end of the brief hiatus. While the original Rurouni Kenshin and its sequel, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration can be found on VIZ's digital platform, the Hokkaido Arc remains removed from their catalogue.
We can't separate the art from the artist, and while some think it's true that the author has a duty to create the work that has become their magnum opus; it is also true that Nobuhiro Watsuki failed to perform the far more significant duty of being someone who isn't a heinous criminal. Supporting that is of course, a personal decision and down to each individual fan of anime and manga to make for themselves and people are within their right to keep supporting Watsuki; however, they also have the responsibility of knowing that they'd be doing so while somehow accepting the notion that they support a certified paedophile.
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