Right now Netflix is showing most of my favorite anime. Subbed, no less. As I have gotten older, my interest in anime has waned, but a few of my favorites are still classics that bear watching again and again. Among those is Rurouni Kenshin.
This tale of a wandering swordsman in the early Meiji period first aired on television in Japan nearly twenty years ago. It combines serious historical fiction with light humor and martial arts action. I could probably skip the light humor, but this is just a feature of the genre. In fact, the TV series without the light humor would be very, very dark. After the TV series was finished, an OVA [original video animation] telling Kenshin's backstory as an assassin during the Meiji Restoration was very much like this, somber and serious.
As I write, my wife is watching the series on Netflix. I have been listening to the series, and partly because I know the story so well, and partly because I still retain some capacity to understand spoken Japanese after ten years with no practice, I am struck by the theme of men who are lost in the new world of the Meiji era. Many of the characters we meet are men who feel their masculinity has been taken away in the new world created by the destruction of the Tokugawa Shogunate. They are looking for male friendship and validation in a world that has been turned upside down by rapid social change. This fits many of the female characters as well, who have often lost fathers and brothers in the wars that preceded the restoration of the Emperor.
Yet, for all that, this anime series seems equally popular with men and women. This is unusual, since after all, two of the most popular genres, 少年 [shōnen] and 少女[shōjo] simply mean "boys" and "girls". Japanese popular entertainment is quite segregated.
The author, Nobuhiro Watsuki, mentioned in interviews that he was influenced by reading shōjo manga as a young boy, and perhaps because of this, Kenshin is a man very much in touch with his feminine side. Kenshin is slight, and fine featured, and the Japanese voice actor is a woman making her voice unnaturally deep. Yet, men respect him because he was a powerful killer, and respect him even more when he renounces killing and lives his life in service to others.
This theme of lost masculinity restored by feminine gentleness has resonated in both Japan and the United States, among both men and women. I do not find it surprising when a very masculine or very feminine anime finds a matching audience in the United States, but I think this one is special, because it crosses that line in both cultures.