Lost in Translation: Revolutions and Revelations

Rurouni Kenshin has a very special place in my heart. It is the first anime I ever watched from beginning to end. The first anime I watched in Japanese. The first Japanese story that truly and wholly captured my heart. It would be no stretch of the imagination to say that I owe my current passion for translation and the Japanese language to the world of anime and manga that Rurouni Kenshin introduced me to.

So when I found out last year that a new Rurouni Kenshin one-shot was being written to commemorate the release of the second and third live action films, I jumped at the chance to translate it. This is that one-shot. It's taken me a bit of time to complete—it was released in Japan in tankobon format in November of last year, and I got my hands on it around the same time—but I really wanted to do this franchise justice. Also, college is hard.

While reading this one-shot, I actually learned quite a bit about both the Rurouni Kenshin canon and the historical setting in which it is based. I'll discuss my revelations on the former topic at the bottom of the post; they contain spoilers and I'd hate to ruin this story for you now.

But before you go, I'd like to (as I've done in my other blog posts) offer a little primer on the real world events that inspired this manga. Bridging the illusory divide between fiction and reality and laying bare the roots stories have in history makes them all the more poignant. At least, I think so.

The main Rurouni Kenshin manga takes place in the early years of Japan's Meiji period. For reference, the era of the Tokugawa shogunate is the Edo period, followed by the Meiji. Next come the Taisho and Showa periods (think World War I and II), followed by the currently ongoing Heisei period. This one-shot takes place six years before the beginning of the main manga, that is, the fifth year of Meiji.

The Meiji period was begun by an eponymous revolution or "restoration," as it is commonly known—the Meiji Restoration. It sought to remove power from the feudal lords of the Tokugawa period—shogun, daimyo, and samurai—and consolidate it in the hands of the emperor himself. In that sense, then, a restoration of Japan to imperial rule, if you will. The Meiji Restoration was also a very important first step in the modernization of Japan. Before the Meiji Restoration began, while most Japanese samurai battled sword-to-sword, the American Civil War, fought with guns and cannons, had already concluded.

Change rarely comes quietly. The end of the Tokugawa shogunate was not a pretty one, and the chaotic transition period between the shogunate and the relatively peaceful Meiji Imperial era is known in Japanese history as the Bakumatsu. The Bakumatsu is also the backdrop for Rurouni Kenshin; although the manga doesn't actually take place during it, the events of the Bakumatsu deeply affect all the characters in the story, particularly Kenshin himself.

The chaos of the Bakumatsu was primarily a struggle between two forces: the pro-Imperial Ishin Shishi (維新志士, Restoration patriots) and pro-shogunate forces like the Shinsengumi. The Ishin Shishi were composed mainly of samurai from the Satsuma and Choshu clans, as the alliance between these two clans was what built the foundation for the Meiji Restoration itself. The top brass of the Meiji government was pretty much all former Satsuma and Choshu leaders.

The Meiji government used whatever means it could to undermine the shogunate and gain power for itself. Often, its methods were less than honorable. In particular, it relied rather extensively on assassination to eliminate key figures of the opposition. The four most notorious assassins of the period were known as the Bakumatsu Shidai Hitokiri (幕末四大人斬, Four Great Manslayers of the Bakumatsu). One of them was a samurai named Kawakami Gensai. This is the character upon whom Himura Kenshin is based. Kenshin, disillusioned with the death and carnage he wrought in his days as an assassin, decides to never kill a person again, but still continues fighting for Japan's betterment. His foe, Shishio Makoto, is the assassin that was hired to take his place, a man who decides that the order and peace of the Meiji government is weakening Japan.

So in a larger sense, the struggle between Kenshin and Shishio is a struggle between modernity and antiquity, a battle between order and chaos, a clashing of change and constancy.

This one-shot, though, is not about Kenshin at all. It is about Shishio. 
 
(Spoilers start from here on out! Go read the one-shot now if you haven't already.)

One of the problems with Shishio being a villain in the main storyline is that he is necessarily required to be evil, to be a foil in as many possible ways to Kenshin as he can. This leaves little room for characterization, or at least less than if he weren't confined to any particular plot role. The fact, then, that this story allows him the freedom to leave that "villain" box means we get to see a different side of the guy.

And its this side that I quite like. Make no mistake, Shishio is cruel and shrewd and merciless, but this depiction of him shows that he's also got a roguish, sarcastic attitude, and that it's straight up cool.

The best thing is that this story isn't just some ultimately irrelevant side story or "filler"; it's clear that it's intended to be canon. Events that take place in the main storyline are explained here, like why Shishio kills Yumi during his final duel with Kenshin, or what his final attack looks like. Learning the background behind these events further enriched my understanding of the main series. Made the pieces of that story fit just a little bit closer, if you will.

Equally interesting to me were some of the attack and character names that I never knew before, as they are unfortunately never properly explained in most translations. So, as I've done in the past, I want to share some of that interesting-ness with you.

First, we have names. As my fellow translator DzyDzyDino has explained in a previous blog post, translating Japanese names almost always boils down to a trade-off between meaning and pronunciation. In English, in order to change meaning,  most of the time we have to change the pronunciation. English is written with the Latin alphabet, a phonetic script, meaning that the way we write a word is inextricably linked to the way it must be pronounced. Japanese names, however, are written in kanji, an ideographic script. This means that, in Japanese, meaning and pronunciation can be manipulated essentially independent of each other. For example, my (non-Japanese) name can either be written with kanji that mean "two-flavor sake" or "benevolent charming pearl"—two very different meanings, but the exact same pronunciation. Couple this with the fact that Japanese sounds nothing like English, and 99% of the time, it's impossible to communicate both the meaning and reading of a name with a single, name-like word. Given this impasse, most translations often just completely ignore any meaning the kanji of a name have and simply write it phonetically in English, which, although not incorrect, belies the often deep relationship a character's persona has with the meaning implied in his or her name's kanji.

Hanahomura and Hanabi's names are written thus: 華焰 (Hanahomura) and 華火 (Hanabi). The word hanabi when written with different kanji () means firework; yet, interestingly enough, in this case, these two words are actually not that far off. Both literally mean "flower fire," it's just that the name Hanabi uses a different kanji for flower. On top of this, the kanji read "homura" in Hanahomura's name is a word all its own; it means "flames" or "blaze." A grown-up fire, if you will. So, when the little flower fire Hanabi grows up, she may become like Hanahomura, a flower blaze. 

Moving on to the epithets of the Juppongatana, sadly most of them are pretty straight forward, but Anji's actually has an interesting back story. I've translated what he is called, Myouou (明王) as The Radiant King not because that is just one way to read the kanji, but because the Buddhist concept that the term myouou refers to is actually translated that way in Buddhist texts. The term myouou refers to the vidyaraja, the third, wrathful, type of Buddhist deity, after Buddhas and bodhisattvas. One commonly named vidyaraja in Japanese fiction is Fudou Myouou.

The name of Shishio's final attack also has roots in mythology. The word Kagutsuchi (火産霊神) in Japanese, which literally means fire-birthing spirit god, is actually the name of the Shinto god of fire. He is one of the sons of Izanami and Izanagi. According to Shinto texts, his birth comes at the end of the creation of the world and signifies the beginning of death. A rather fitting name for a final attack, isn't it?

Even Sameo and his little army have a bit of a quirk to their names. Sameo's first name is written 鮫男, and it literally means "shark man." His army's name is the Wadatsumi Kouheidan, written thus: 引原海鮫兵団. Wadatsumi is an actual Japanese name, but when written differently (海神) refers to a type of sea demon (also often called an umibozu). The "kou" in "kouhei" is the same kanji that is in Sameo's first name; shark.

On a cultural note, the fact that this story takes place pretty much entirely in a brothel colors its language, revealing some interesting facts about feudal-era Japanese brothel culture. In particular, there are quite a few terms used exclusively in the context of prostitution that are in this story, and not all of them were as translatable as I'd have liked, so I want to share here what I wasn't able to in the main body of the translation.

To begin with, there are a lot of specific terms for prostitutes themselves. Although the term geisha is often used in Western culture to refer to Japanese prostitutes in general, this is actually incorrect. The general term is yuujo, (遊女) or "play girl." The term used most often in this work, though, is the more "dignified" oiran (花魁), which is probably closer to "courtesan." By the way, the first kanji in that word means flower (Hanahomura and Hanabi's names weren't picked at random). Very highly sought-after prostitutes, those of a rank higher than any of the other girls working at their brothel, are called chuusan (昼三), a word I've left as is in the translation. Newly-minted prostitutes that have just begun working were apparently called shinzou (新造), which I have translated as "newbie." This is what Hanabi is. Very young girls like Akari and Kagari that live and "work" (in a non-sexual way, I hope) in a brothel as aids to the older prostitutes are called kamuro (禿). Being that English doesn't really have a term for this kind of occupation, I've left this too as it is in the translation.

The red-light district also has many names; pleasure quarter (歓楽街), play district (遊郭), etc., but the term most often used in the one-shot is actually the name of a real, historical and modern red-light district in the city of Tokyo—Yoshiwara. Additionally, the life of prostitution itself is actually sometimes referred to as "a world of suffering," or kugai (苦界).

That brings this rambling novel of a post to an end. If you've made it all the way here, I thank you for your attention. I thank you for taking time out of your day to read my translations. And I thank you for supporting all of us here at MangaStream.

As always, feel free to ask any questions about the one-shot itself or the translations in the comments below; I'll try my best to answer them.

Until next time,

voxanimus

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