Give it Some Pop: The Music Of Rurouni Kenshin

Hey everyone, Drew here with a Free Talk segment at Akihabara Renditions; the free talk articles are going to be more traditional (text-image-video-based) blog articles that cover a wide range of topics that won’t make good podcast discussion or convention panel topics.

I recently went on a nostalgia bend and uncovered one of my old anime CDs – a Rurouni Kenshin Best Themes collection – and popped it in the car’s CD player. It reminded me of just how much I loved all of the theme songs throughout the run of the TV series and the contrast presented comparing the theme songs to the actual soundtrack of the show. Since I can talk just about anything Kenshin, I really wanted to examine these songs and their relation to a cartoon I love so much.

Based on Watsuki Nobuhiro’s 1994 manga of the same name, Rurouni Kenshin – Meiji Kenkaku Romantan – (Wandering Kenshin: A Meiji Swordsman Romance,るろうに剣心ー明治剣客浪漫譚) began broadcasting in 1996 on Fuji TV. The manga was one of Shonen JUMP’s powerhouse manga at the time, so some anime adaptation was very likely. It tells the story of Himura Kenshin, the reformed Himura Battousai, who after the wars the brought down the Tokugawa Shogunate, is looking for a peaceful life in the new Meiji Era. After a decade of wandering, he is taken in by Kamiya Kaoru, the young heiress to the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu tradition of sword fighting, which emphasizes on only disabling or disarming opponents. As the story goes on, Kenshin confronts people who are having a harder time to adapt to the new age as well as ghosts of his own past. While it has a lot of familiar shounen manga tropes, the series plays out a lot more like a historical fiction than a checklist of editorial & marketing interference. One thing that set the Kenshin TV anime apart was one of it’s main sponsors: Sony Pictures Entertainment, with its links to Sony Epic Records.

Anecdotally, anime in the mid-1990s had begun working more closely with established recording labels and brands, shifting away from unique songs written specifically for a show and instead capitalizing as a way to add to the marketing machine of both anime and music. This partnership always existed at some level but by this time, there was a shift towards a majority of anime themes were not unique to a series and relied upon an otherwise unrelated single. Not only could Kenshin benefit from a relationship of being paired with an aspiring hit single, having the record label as part of the production committee meant that there was a wider catalog to collaborate with. What the final product ended up being was a powerhouse line up of a variety of talent to suit most musical tastes.

To start us off on this musical journey, JUDY AND MARY’s single, Sobakasu (そばかす, “Freckles”), which served as the first opening theme.

The single was the first new single for their fourth album, 1997’s The Power Source. Sobakasu had plenty of exposure before its release as the TV series started airing about a month before the single went on sale. Both the single and the album debuted at number 1 that week on the Oricon charts. The dynamic, pop-punk sound works incredibly well for a shounen opener and the animation staff who put the opening together did a great job accentuating that. The song’s opening guitar riff and fall into female vocals can jar the listener into ‘What the hell is this?’ then immediately rocking out. Coupled with the animation, the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to the story of the opening sequence. JUDY AND MARY continued to produce albums and singles with commercial success but never produced another anime song when they disbanded in 2001.

The first ending theme is TACTICS by THE YELLOW MONKEY off of their fifth album, Four Seasons (1995).

Contrasted with the opening song, its a much slower, melodic pace of rock music that’s right at home in an early to mid-1990s alternative rock space. This pacing makes it a great ending theme to cool the audience down at the end of a program – something that I’ve appreciated as my viewing habits skewed more towards episodic than binge watching. While the song has a lot of strong points, especially in relation to the anime, it never lit any particular fire in me for the band. Like JUDY AND MARY, they released an album in 2001 but ended up disbanding after inactivity in 2004.

TACTICS was followed by a single from Suzukaze Mayo, Namida ga shitteiru (涙が知っている, “I know tears”).

[Author’s Note: You can thank the same Sony Music for blocking streaming access of Suzukaze’s performance of this song to the US]

If you’re thinking that the singer’s name sounds familiar in the context of Rurouni Kenshin, it’s because she played the title role of Himura Kenshin! But, before you cry afoul of letting the lead actress shoe-horn her pet project in, it needs to be noted that she is also an accomplished singer, having performed in several Takarazuka Review shows, including Rose Of VersaillesNamida ga shitteiru is a purely contemporary, typical, JPOP song. Namida is a curious beast though – maybe it’s intention is to break Suzukaze out of the musical theater schtick and start a wider musical career but that didn’t seem to happen for another twenty years; she released a pair of albums in 2016, neither seem to feature this single. She continues to act, mostly in TV Dramas, but has come back to do voice work in anime for Yuki no Jouou (2005) and Chuvarie – Le Chevalier D’Eon – in 2006.

Moving from a unique entry, we move to a song that can also be described as uniquely KenshinHEART OF SWORD ~ Yoakemae ~ (HEART OF SWORD ~夜明け前~, “HEART OF SWORD ~Before the Dawn”) by TM Revolution.

The single was released in November of 1996 and would appear later on Revolution’s album restoration LEVEL -> 3 in early 1997. It debuted at number 6 on the Oricon charts, probably thanks to it’s weekly broadcast on Rurouni Kenshin. The intention of using this single was a direct-tie in specifically for the anime; however, it became a foundation of TM Revolution’s mainstream success. Unlike previous ending themes TACTICS and Namida ga shitteiruHEART OF SWORD is a hard pounding, energetic trip that, to me, juices the viewer up again. It also doesn’t hurt that this ending theme is featured prominently during the Kyoto Arc of the story, which most fans universally agree is the best arc of the TV series. It really helps keep one active when trying to get through as many Kenshin tapes as you can. TM Revolution saw a lot of commercial success during the late 1990s and future singles of his have been used in anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny.

After a string of different closing themes, Kenshin changed it’s closing and opening themes with the move onto a new story arc, known within the fan circles as Kyoto-hen or The Kyoto Arc. The new opening theme is a bouncy, delightful song by Kawamoto Makoto called 1/2 (pronounced as nibun no ichi).

This single is off of her first, eponymous album released in 1997. It keeps a fast pace, despite that folk inspired guitar riff at the beginning. As one gets involved in the story of the series, this theme helps get the viewer situated for a marathon, letting them cool down a bit before getting right back into the story. The sound itself is rather unique. It’s a big, instrumental sound, with a squeaky voice one might expect from an idol troupe, and doesn’t play much to any specific genre.

The first closing theme of this story arc can be described as forgettable, if not for who sings it; off of their fourth album, True (1996) is the song The Fourth Avenue Cafe by L’Arc~en~Ciel.

To be honest, this is probably one of my favorite ending songs used in Rurouni Kenshin, hands down. It was the song that actually got me interested in L’Arc. It’s a solid, mid-90s rock piece that moves towards a pop-punk line for a little bit of edge. How could I consider this a forgettable entry? Because it was only on air for four episodes. In 1997, after the themes had been updated, L’Arc drummer sakura was arrested on a charge of heroin possession, so playing it safe, the ending theme was pulled (the series went back to using TM Revolution’s HEART OF SWORD for the next 7 episodes). However, things ultimately went alright for L’Arc: after sakura’s conviction, he was removed from the band and they were brought back into good graces: their single Niji was used for the Rurouni Kenshin theatrical film Ishin Shishi e no Requiem in December, 1997. Other singles, such as Driver’s High and Ready Steady Go were used for other anime (Great Teacher Onizuka and Fullmetal Alchemist, respectively).

After Fourth Avenue Cafe and the return to HEART OF SWORD, the next ending theme is another bouncy pop song, It’s Gonna Rain by Bonnie Pink!

Bonnie Pink’s single It’s Gonna Rain came off her second album Heaven’s Kitchen released in May of 1997. The song peaked on the Oricon charts at the weekly #40 spot, which, I think really describes this song overall. It fits right at home on a Top 40 Pop station. There’s a big sound and a lot of harmonious melodies to it, it’s fun to listen to and bob your head but I don’t know that it hits a chord deeper than that. It is competent and enjoyable but otherwise unremarkable.

After It’s Gonna Rain was used for 16 episodes (a good run of as many weeks of play), a new ending theme was used. This theme is, I think, one of the much more iconic themes of the series amongst fans. This is 1997’s 1/3  no Junjouna Kanjou (1/3の純情な感情, “1/3 of pure emotion”) from visual-kei rock band SIAM SHADE off of their fourth album, cleverly named SIAM SHADE IV.

Like HEART OF SWORD and Fourth Avenue Cafe, this is a harder hitting, high energy piece. While it starts with a simple riff and a quick two lines of lyrics, once the percussion hits, the song never loses steam. This ending is used during climactic portion of the Kyoto-hen story and the following story arc, Shimabara-hen, and I feel using this song enhances the ability to binge this episodes by not allowing the viewer to hit a slow stride where you want to tune out. This one is a personal favorite of mine, leading me to import a copy of SIAM SHADE IV and a PV (promotional video, music video) collection tape and get into SIAM SHADE as one of my favorite bands. The single of 1/3 peaked at #3 and was the band’s most successful hit at the time. SIAM SHADE disbanded in 2002 to pursue solo projects; member Endo Kazuma teamed with Taiwanese pop singer Vivian Hsu in 2003 for a single called Moment which was used for the anime Mobile Suit Gundam SEED.

With the close of the third story arc, Shimabara-hen, the production then decided to move away from 1/2 and select a new opening theme. As Kenshin fans know, the TV series fell into that long-running shonen trap that the series was quickly outpacing the manga, so it was decided to created original stories for the TV series to run until the manga was sufficiently ahead of it: in fan parlance, the dreaded “filler”. Kenshin’s filler is split between stand-alone episodes and a couple of short story arcs (Shimabara-hen, Yuutaro-hen, Fusui-hen) but during this period, the ratings dropped sharply and the TV series was canceled abruptly in 11 episodes. Which means that we’re on our last opening and ending used for the end of TV broadcast and the wrap-up episode.

The third opening theme of the series is Kimi ni fureru dake de (君に触れるだけで, “Just Touching You” ) from the band Curio off of their first album HYBRID (1997).

Curio’s single is a true-to-style pop rock piece that starts strong but while it slows its pace, it stays upbeat and engaging. The single was released in May, 1998, a couple weeks after appearing on Kenshin and peaked at number 14 on Oricon sales charts. It was later released on their second album, Sweet & Bitter, in July 1998, which peaked at #7. Like nearing Kenshin‘s broadcast end, Curio disbanded in 2003; however re-united and began working together again in 2012. Almost eerily similar to breaking up after the Kenshin OAVs were completed in 2003 and picked up again in the 2010s in with the release of Shin Kyoto-hen OAVs.

The final ending theme to the series is Dame! (ダメ!, “Stop!”) by Izumi You (pronounced Yo-h) off of her sixth album AGAINST.

[Author’s Note: Much like Suzukaze Mayo’s Namida ga shitteiru, Warner Music seems to be keeping this song out of Western hands.]

Izumi’s single used for Kenshin is quite a change from her previous work: she not only is working with Warner Music Asia (Japan) but she’s using her given name, rather than her performance name Be-B she released her other albums under (for Teichiku Entertainment). Style-wise, I can’t say if it differs much from her previous work. The piece is a little disjointed: it tries for a hard rock edge but Izumi’s singing style doesn’t quite follow through. It tries for something between girl power of the Spice Girls and kick-ass of Souxsie Sioux and falls short of being a member of the Banshees. Looking on the Internet, both the single and album have fallen by the wayside, much as Kenshin quickly fell by the wayside of television viewership. I can’t say I personally disagree.

Rourouni Kenshin was a power-house of 1990s shonen manga and anime. The production staff’s vision to enlist a record label as a sponsor helped eliminate the ‘necessary evil’ of opening and ending themes lead to some memorable hits and maybe a few duds. But as the use of popular music seemed to increase drastically during and immediately after this period, Kenshin is a notable catalyst for this becoming much more widespread in Japanese animated programming.


2 thoughts on “Give it Some Pop: The Music Of Rurouni Kenshin

    • Definitely still a team – the best team in anime podcasting! Just trying to improve the portfolio.

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