After attending Kurosaki Kaoru’s Otakon panel on her husband, Rurouni Kenshin author Watsuki Nobuhiro, I felt compelled to read more of his stuff, though perhaps unexpectedly I gravitated towards Busou Renkin, a manga that I had no idea about beyond having some girl with a scar on her face. Now, after having read all of Busou Renkin, I find it to be a rather interesting work in that its strengths and weaknesses like distinctly along the lines between what is “conventional” in shounen fighting manga and what is not.
In the end-of-volume notes in Busou Renkin, Watsuki writes about how this title is his attempt to make a straightforward shounen fighting manga along the veins of Dragonball and its ilk, but even if he had never said anything this would have been completely obvious. Busou Renkin has a typical high school guy protagonist Kazuki who encounters a mysterious power which gives him a cool weapon to fight villainous creatures and evil organizations with the help of a girl who is more experienced than he is but has less overall potential. It’s about as established a structure for a manga as it gets, but what’s especially fascinating is that Watsuki pretty much fails to execute that basic premise well, and we’re left with a kind of hodge podge of shounen-esque elements which either do not have enough oomph to wow aesthetically (like in the weapons for instance), straightforward payoffs which aren’t really satisfying, and just a lack of connective tissue to hold it all together. I think it’s often easy to characterize the shounen fighting manga as simpler or even easier and therefore less worthy of merit, something that should be child’s play for the creator of Rurouni Kenshin, but Watsuki’s mixed success with Busou Renkin reminds me of something said in Bakuman, which is that because it’s the most reliably successful formula, it also gets the most scrutiny.
Just as the series doesn’t quite deliver within the established structure it purposely stepped into, however, it also impresses when it comes to elements of itself which are not conventional shounen. A lot of it is in the small gags, but the main example is the female character referred to above, Tokiko. Her relationship with Kazuki is the absolute highlight of the series, and seeing them grow closer while giving each other strength makes the whole thing just so much more enjoyable than if it were solely about the fight against increasingly powerful enemies. It’s not even that Tokiko is a strong female character (which she is, and which I’ll get to in a bit), but that there’s an active interaction between equals when you see her and Kazuki together. It’s kind of telling that the final chapter (albeit a final chapter which technically followed the intended final chapter which then followed the original end of the manga which got canceled, it’s confusing I know) is about advancing the romance between Kazuki and Tokiko, and about Tokiko’s past and personality.
When I look at Tokiko, particularly in regards to that last chapter, she gives me the impression of being a kind of proto-Mikasa from Attack on Titan. They share a similar kind of intensity and desire to proect, and neither are slouches when it comes to being able to fight. Both are less squeamish than their male counterparts about a number of things, and both are willing to resort to extreme violence to get the job done. Tokiko can be so vicious that she’s eviscerated someone from inside out, and her catch phrase is actually, “I’ll splatter your guts!” like she’s somehow distantly related to the guy from the Doom comic. It’s maybe no surprise that she ended up being the most iconic and memorable part of Busou Renkin, not just for myself but seemingly everyone else.
As a shounen fight manga, you’re probably better off reading Akamatsu Ken’s UQ Holder, which seems to be doing most of what Busou Renkin tried to do but better and more consistently. However, judged on its less upfront merits, Busou Renkin is really strong, and if you’re a fan of Mikasa from Attack on Titan I think the character of Tokiko will hold immense appeal.