When does the line "separating the art from the artist" no longer apply? When the artist has crossed a line by committing crimes of great severity? The dilemma surrounding Rurouni Kenshin continues as the premiere of the series' reboot looms with Anime Expo right around the corner.
This series will premiere in July 2023.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Yeahhhhhhhhhhh, we're going to be talking about something pretty heavy today, folks. It's a sensitive, controversial topic, but also one I think is critical to have—especially with the return of this particular IP to the anime world.
It's so heavy, in fact, that I've taken the initiative to prepare some Cute Animal Facts to sprinkle throughout the column so we don't get too bummed out talking about it. Look forward to those!
For many reasons, it is the most high-profile case in the last decade of an anime/manga creator getting caught for terrible crimes—though, sadly, far from the last. And easily the most personal case for me because Rurouni Kenshin was the series that got me into manga and anime.
On the other hand, I am approaching this from a more academic standpoint since I am decidedly not a Rurouni Kenshin
fan. My primary reference points come from having played Sobakasu in BanG Dream!
and recognizing the guy from the "Futae no Kiwami" meme.
But people's nostalgia and the sheer brand recognition of Rurouni Kenshin
are likely why this new anime is being made. It is even getting a high-profile premiere at a big Western event like AX, despite Watsuki's crimes being pretty well-known at this point. And it raises that question, which will vary from person to person: How do you engage with a work of art when you know its creator has committed some real unrepentant evils?
It's certainly not a new question, and I was familiar with it even before this particular case. Like, I was young enough that, by the time I started reading, Orson Scott Card had already revealed himself to be a pile of toxic waste. But I knew many older queer people who loved Ender's Game and felt betrayed to discover that the creator wants them to die.
"Separating the art from the artist" is one of those issues anyone who enjoys art will stumble into sooner rather than later. Hell, just a few months after what went down with Watsuki, I had to go through the process of discovering that Recovery of an MMO Junkie
, one of my favorite new anime at the time, was directed by a Holocaust-denying Nazi sympathizer.
Hoooo, boy, I had forgotten about that one until you mentioned it. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. At the very least, Yaginuma's absence from the industry makes reckoning with his work a little less complicated. It turns out it's a little easier to "separate the art from the artist" when the artist isn't still out there, making the art and getting big bucks from overseas licensors.
Many people try to avoid actively funding a toxic creator. Just look at how many Dragon Quest
fans were celebrating the death of composer Koichi Sugiyama
, as it meant they could enjoy and support the series without worrying about any money going into his despicable pockets.
And, like, I get that being a fan of almost anything means you're probably contributing some amount of money to unscrupulous or unethical businesses. No ethical consumption, etc. But I feel like you have to draw a line when it comes to this stuff, and my line is the author saying this without a hint of remorse:
In his deposition, Watsuki stated that he "liked girls in late elementary school to around the second year of middle school."
It highlights the difference in degrees that varies from case to case. Nobuhiro Watsuki
didn't get 'canceled' for supporting horrific political points or having a noxiously awful attitude or behavior. He was convicted of committing a real, extremely indefensible crime!
I also bristle at attempts to ignore it or prevent folks from bringing it up. This was a real, actual crime he committed. He actively funded the propagation of child sex trafficking! We should talk about that! I understand that this is a thorny, heated topic that can upset people—even ANN's forums have taken an approach that effectively stomps out any discussion of the arrest when there's Rurouni Kenshin news—but that's because it's a big deal that shouldn't be swept under the rug because the industry's movers and shakers have decided Watsuki can make them money.
It's not something you can or should bury your head in the sand over, especially since awareness could at least prevent your heart from being broken later. I mentioned earlier that I don't have a connection to Rurouni Kenshin
, but I was a huge fan of the manga Please Tell Me! Galko-chan
. So when author Kenya Suzuki
for, basically, the same thing as Watsuki, it felt like a real betrayal. It wasn't solely about monetary support; it felt like I needed a cold shower after discovering that I had enjoyed and connected with a work created by someone who was "like that."
Dang, now I'm mad about Galko-chan all over again, and I understand why Kenshin fans are still going through it. Nick, where are those cute animal facts?!
Okay, Chris, did you know that when sea otters go to sleep, they hold hands so they won't float away from each other?
Anyway, yeah, somehow, "manga creators committing sex crimes" is going to be a running theme throughout this discussion. Yay.
Creators could just as easily ruin their careers by being caught with weed in Japan. At least, in that case, I'd be happy to still hold onto and enjoy their work if they were only committing "Cool Crimes."
Look, we could have a whole other conversation about how comparatively lesser offenses can get people blacklisted. Remember when Aya Hirano
was tossed out of voice acting for the "crime" of, uh, having a sex life?
It infuriatingly shines a light on the double standard. Hirano still struggles to get roles as consistently as she did back in the day and claims that she still receives death threats
over the issue.
Meanwhile, Watsuki got off with a comparative slap on the wrist for an actual crime, and his work is being prepped to be trotted out for a cheering crowd in LA next month.
It makes you wonder how much the profit motive from the powers-that-be is propping these things up. A juggernaut like Haruhi Suzumiya was allowed to decline in relevance, at least partially due to fan reaction to Hirano. But apparently, the old Samurai X is still lucrative enough that production committees and licensors are betting on audiences overlooking what Watsuki did.
It's also ingrained in the predominantly older male executive class holding the purse strings. Heck, Watsuki isn't even the first Shonen Jump
author to get this exact treatment
One of the "fun" details to come out in the wake of Watsuki's arrest was that the relatively lesser-known creator of Toriko had been convicted of soliciting underage girls for sex. Because he was relatively unknown in the West then, it skated under the radar for well over a decade—all the while making a long-running and successful new series in the same magazine.
It says a lot about privilege when your career can survive that conviction and Build King
looking the way it did.
On a personal, petty note, this revelation stung much less, thanks to everything Shimabukuro's ever made sucking massive amounts of ass. Just look at that butt ugly art style. It's like somebody ran Dragon Ball
through an industrial washer.
But hey, that's only two creators in 20 years. Surely there aren't even more of these guys doing this kind of—
The case of Tatsuya Matsuki
is its own unique one in that it illustrates how other creators can get unfairly caught in the splash damage of their co-workers being awful. act-age
didn't have the historical clout of something like Kenshin
, so Shueisha
had no problem swiftly canceling the series. Except this left the artist for the series, Shiro Usazaki
, also on the outs, even though she hadn't done anything!
It's a raw deal, and I respect Usazaki for requesting the cancellation herself. act-age
was on track to be a successful new series in the biggest magazine in the industry, and Usazaki was barely in her 20s as it was taking off. Giving that up on principle is a hell of a stance, and while she hasn't returned to serialized manga yet, she has at least been getting regular work on one-shots and guest art projects.
It also helps to know that baby elephants suck on their own trunks like a binky!
Aw, that's so much better than all the other ways people have sucked that we've discussed thus far!
Creators and the publishers' true colors come out in these situations. Galko-chan was suspended by its publisher after Suzuki's arrest, and Seven Seas halted their release of the English volumes. Viz actually declined to re-up Kenshin in their English version of the Shonen Jump magazine in the wake of Watsuki's arrest. But that's the most effort anyone seemed to make regarding these things. Shimabukuro, of course, continues to get his series published, and Toriko even saw its crossover with One Piece and Dragon Ball air on Toonami earlier this year. And you can now easily search up Rurouni Kenshin through Viz's Shonen Jump app.
With the Viz app, I can, at least, take comfort that they stuck by their decision not to continue the Hokkaido sequel, even if its presence is strange when they totally wiped act-age
off the slate. But sometimes, with this stuff, you gotta take comfort in singular steps. Hey, major props to the team behind Mononoke
for sticking to their guns in the wake of Takahiro Sakurai
's bonkers scandal.
You know you've messed up when you get fired from an anime starring role because you did something the villains in the show would have done.
There's something to be said for the Mononoke crew making that effort at the same time WB and DC were staunchly refusing to cut Ezra Miller loose because they were so convinced people would turn out for them in The Flash. That didn't go well.
Look, man, it hasn't been long enough since the last Animal Fact. Don't remind me that it also sucks for my favorite superhero to be The Flash right now.
Fair, I can circle back to how it speaks to that double standard. The fact is, the likes of Shueisha
aren't keeping Kenshin
around for a shiny new anime because they earnestly believe in Watsuki as a high-profile creator whose abilities outstrip the need to recognize his crimes. It's because Rurouni Kenshin
still has a built-in fanbase attached to the story and characters. Even putting aside the jokes about Watsuki not being able to attend AX because the convention center is too close to a school, the real reason is that they're hoping to present this thing as a "franchise," uncoupled and distanced from any of those pesky people and what they put of themselves into their creations.
And to be clear, I get the impulse from fans to go along with that. Thinking about this stuff sucks, especially when it involves a piece of art that has dramatically affected you. I wouldn't be here, writing for this website, if I hadn't picked up a volume of Kenshin at my school's library back in the day. I would love nothing more than to live in a world where one of my favorite manga wasn't made by a seemingly unrepentant, offending pedophile. But I do, and pretending otherwise would just make me even more miserable.
Being aware of the experiences and mindsets of the creators behind your media can enrich engaging with it critically. It's one of my favorite elements of entertainment when I can get a sense of the person just from observing the work itself. But the flip side is sometimes you find out things you prefer to avoid. Sometimes, it's in a way that can be mitigated, like finding out that the writer
of Serial Experiments Lain
and the best Digimon
anime didn't go off the deep end until well after he had written those series, so it's more palatable to still regard them fondly.
If anything, Konaka's BS helped me stop mourning about never getting Despera
, so it wasn't all bad. It still sucks, though!
Yeah, I'm honestly still not sure how to interpret that one. If nothing else, it's a solid case study for why many creators choose to deactivate public-facing online profiles when they reach a certain level of popularity.
There will always be varying degrees of compartmentalization. I'm still here, engaging with a social media site owned by the universe's most malevolent idiot, after all. And while there are plenty of people happily making bad-faith excuses for watching the new Kenshin anime, no questions asked, I know there are others who are considering it critically. They're fans of the series trying to figure out if a whole new team of animators and actors bringing to life the characters and stories that influenced them can outweigh the negative association with Watsuki. I don't want to side-eye everyone too hard on stuff like this. I have occasionally tried to rationalize allowing myself to rewatch Galko-chan in its anime form.
I'm not going to try and tell people what to do with their time or money—I'm not their dad. All I can say is that as somebody who loved Rurouni Kenshin, I could never make peace with engaging with it again. Even decoupled from the issue of tacitly supporting Watsuki, I know I'd never be able to stop thinking about it. It would be on my mind every second I was watching the series. In a way, I suppose that makes the decision easy for me.
That is where I fall regarding these things, also. That's why, in my opinion, it's for the best that doing a column like this has been our way of tackling Rurouni Kenshin, instead of just watching the show and trying to push through to assess it on its own merits. Many saddening and angering points have been hit, but at least it's felt constructive. And hopefully, it's helped others out there think about these things.
And if it hasn't, at least know this:
Red squirrels have been known to adopt abandoned or orphaned babies from other litters!