↳ Episode 43: Between life and death & Episode 62: Kyoto, the engraved memory
"I have to live because they died for me.”
As incomplete and silly as the Rurouni Kenshin anime was, it still had its beautiful moments — most of which can be found in the Kyoto Arc. Notable parts include the FFF scene, the Kenshin vs. Saitou fight, the Kenshin vs. Chou fight, and the Kenshin vs. Soujiro fight. However, my favorite episodes will always be Episode 43 and Episode 62 because of the scenes above.
One of the things I love most about Kenshin is how he continues to live honorably despite everything he went through. He could have held a grudge, he could have killed himself, he could have put the blame on others. But he didn’t. He accepted what life gave him and did what he thought was the right thing to do. And his idealism makes you sympathize with him the most. It makes you want to live as honorably as you can. It makes you think that however messed up you are, you can still be a good person.
omg kids okay so we’re going to talk about the –dono thing
because the stars have aligned and it is time for me to rise from my slumber and vomit forth half-assed meta and beanplating. And this time I added pictures, some of which move, so maybe people will actually read it.
So. The –dono thing. I have read a lot - and I mean A LOT - of fanfic where Kenshin dropping the –dono is this big important step forward and takes their relationship to the next level because he’s finally stopped putting himself down and YAY except NO.
NO YOU ARE WRONG.
First, let’s address the whole thing whereby y’all seem to think that Kenshin is being too humble when he uses that suffix.
In order to do that, we gotta talk about the suffix itself. –dono is an archaic honorific, rarely used in modern Japanese. So, to a modern Japanese audience, Kenshin’s use of –dono is part of a whole array of linguistic signifiers (including ‘de gozaru,’ the infamous ‘sessha,’ and addressing Hiko as ‘shishou’) that make him read as quaintly old-fashioned and a bit peculiar, like a well-intentioned relic from another age.
Specifically, -dono was used by feudal lord to address one another, and served a very important purpose. You see, the only other honorific that indicates ‘very high status’ in the way that –dono does is –sama. The problem with –sama, however, is that it elevates the person being addressed while subordinating the person doing the addressing. It’s a gesture of respect from a social/hierarchal inferior to a social/hierarchal superior.
Which is a problem for our feudal lords, because they must address each other respectfully, but they don’t want yield ground by implying that they themselves are inferior. Hence, –dono. –dono indicates an honored peer addressing an honored peer: “I, an honored lord, speak to you, another honored lord” rather than “I, the inferior person, address you, the superior person.”
What this means is - and let me emphasize this - KENSHIN IS NOT PUTTING HIMSELF DOWN BY ADDRESSING KAORU AS –DONO.
That is not a thing that is happening.
He is indicating his utmost respect for her, but he’s doing it as a peer to a peer, not as a subordinate to a superior. It’s actually - given the intense sexism of Japanese society generally and in that time period specifically - incredibly sweet that he addresses women in such a respectful way. Please to remember that JAPANESE CULTURE DURING THE EARLY MEIJI IS NOT THE SAME AS MODERN ANGLOPHONE CULTURE. A linguistic habit that reads as unnecessarily self-deprecating to our modern, anglophone perspective does not necessarily carry the same connotation in fucking late eighteenth century Japan.
Let us now speak of the second prong of this one-two punch of inadequate research: the assumption that Kenshin addressing Kaoru with –dono when they are in public indicates a lack of intimacy, or somehow indicates that he still feels distance from her. This is, again, the result of applying modern standards to an historical setting.
Keep in mind that we don’t know what they call each other in their private, married lives post-series. He does address her with –dono in front of Yahiko in the last chapter, while she continues to call him Kenshin sans honorific of any kind. For all we know he does drop the –dono in private, and I rather like to think he does. However, it is perfectly reasonable for him to never drop it in public - even in the company of intimate friends - for the following reasons.
1. Japan is not a fan of the PDA. Weeaboos everywhere have correctly surmised that addressing someone without an honorific is an intimacy signifier, which is why it’s so insulting if done without permission and such a big deal when your sempai says to call them by their name.
2. Kenshin is a pretty shy guy, and has never been publicly demonstrative; every time he’s behaved in a way that indicates his feelings for Kaoru and sense of intimacy with her, they’ve been alone. It is completely realistic, given his personality and cultural context, to think that he would never stop addressing her respectfully in public, even after their marriage.
3. Because Japanese culture discourages PDAs, particularly in the time period which Rurouni Kenshin is set, his failure to drop the –dono after the wedding would not be a particularly strange thing. It was not, at that time, common for married couples to address each other by name in public; his use of an honorific would not be seen as indicating distance or lack of intimacy, by him, by Kaoru, or by curious onlookers.
Now, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be remarkable. It would be! Just not for those reasons. It would be remarkable because of genderfuckery.
(you knew that would come in sooner or later. don’t even lie.)
One of the traditional ways for a wife to refer to her husband is ‘danna,’ which translates basically as ‘master,’ in the sense of the person who owns me (as opposed to ‘shishou,’ which is what Kenshin addresses Hiko as, which is also translated ‘master’ but is actually an archaic way to address a teacher of the martial arts). This was a normal and even affectionate way for a wife to talk to her husband; in fact, with the exception of the use of ‘anata’ in the familiar/intimate sense, most of the ways for a wife to address her husband emphasize his mastery and ownership and power over her.
The ways for a husband to address his wife, on the other hand, are totally different; one common way is for him to address her as ‘omae’ (which is, depending on context, either an affectionate pronoun between equals or an insult; most often it’s seen as an insult. Contrast ‘anata,’ which is completely neutral) or as ‘okaasan’ - meaning ‘honored mother.’
Basically, the ways for a wife to address her husband at that point in time were extremely sexist, framing their relationship of one as possession-and-owner, while the ways for a husband to address his wife diminished her, condescended to her, and reduced her to her role as mother/wife, with no regard for her as an individual.
For Kenshin to continue to address Kaoru with a high honorific while she uses no honorific, just as they had before, is actually kind of fucking radical. If anything about how he addressed her would be remarked upon, that would be it – that he continues to address her with such absolute respect, even after he’s ‘won’ and taken ownership of her as her husband. And that she continues to address him familiarly and intimately - in a way that could even be read as a superior addressing an inferior, if you didn’t know that she has permission to use his name without honorifics - even after she married him and became ‘his.’
Don’t take that away from them, yo.
One last thing, and then I’m done. Keep in mind, before you get upset, if indeed you are upset, that AT NO POINT in the series does Kaoru express any dislike for the way that Kenshin addresses her, or any wish for him to address her differently. Her wistful desire for him to quit it with the –dono and the sessha is pure fanon and, to be utterly frank, a projection by modern readers of their own desires onto a completely different social and cultural context that cannot adequately sustain those desires. On account of how it is a different culture, with correspondingly different ideas of what a loving, intimate relationship looks like from the outside.
In many ways, it’s part of the same glorious clusterfuck that gives us Batoosai, He Who Romanticizes Sexual Assault: the constant insistence that Kenshin and Kaoru’s romance must conform to the ‘correct’ (heteronormative, dominator-culture, patriarchal) narrative, and that its failure to do so somehow lessens its power and makes their love less meaningful.
So, you know. There’s that.