Comics, Essays, Manga, Opinion

Rurouni Kenshin vs Inuyasha: How to Do a Love Triangle Right

Love triangles, a trope that appears in most media as a convenient plot device to create drama within a story, as a narrative device aren’t inherently bad. They’re like near any other narrative device. The effectiveness of the device can change depending on the creator and how the device is used. The love triangle as a plot device isn’t secular to Western media, but occurs in anime a lot as well.

Property of Viz Media & Rumiko Takahashi: Kikyo, Inuyasha, and Kagome in a overly dramatic promotional picture.

In Inuyasha, for example, one of the shows longest overarching plotlines was the seemingly never ending love triangle between Kagome, Inuyasha, and Kikyo. This love triangle was terribly done. Kagome was often pushed aside for Kikyo, and it made Inuyasha appear wishy-washy in regards to his developing romantic relationship with Kagome. Repeatedly, Inuyasha appears to “chose” Kikyo over Kagome, never fully acknowledging that Kikyo is her own person within the story and capable of making her own choices, especially when they both don’t agree with Inuyasha’s own perspective.

This love triangle didn’t do the characters any favors. Kikyo came off as cold, and her willingness to kill Kagome out of jealousy over her being the “alive girlfriend” made her seem petty. Kagome’s narrative was bogged down by this love triangle and never being validated by her own narrative that she was good enough. Inuyasha looked like a meat-headed jerk who couldn’t pick between his former undead girlfriend who stole the souls of young women and didn’t want anything to do with him and his new alive would-be girlfriend who supported her throughout the entire series.

It was awful, although I’ve been told it is less so in the manga, which brings me to an anime—specifically manga—love triangle that I believe emphasizes the best the device has to offer. The relationship between Kaoru, Kenshin, and Tomoe in Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurouni Kenshin.

The reason I bring up Inuyasha in direct comparison with Rurouni Kenshin is because they share some narrative similarities. Both Inuyasha and Rurouni Kenshin use a historical backdrop as their setting and play loosely within that historical playground. Both are filed under the subset of shounen stories and employ some typical shounen tropes such as over-the-top battles, large cast of various fighter types, and finally a love triangle. In both the love triangles of Inuyasha and Rurouni Kenshin, the male hero has experienced first love and tragic loss of that first love. For Inuyasha, it was Kikyo. For Kenshin, it was Tomoe.

Property of Nobuhiro Watsuki: Rurouni Kenshin volume 26 cover

In a manga-only arc of Rurouni Kenshin, readers learn the full details of Kenshin’s past as a government manslayer—in the anime you could make a drinking game out of how often someone calls Kenshin “Battousai the Manslayer.” He volunteered at thirteen, leaving his Master and guardian to join the Meiji government’s army. The government used his exceptional skills to kill their enemies and by fourteen, Kenshin had garnered a reputation as a feared manslayer along with severe depression and survivor’s guilt.

It’s here, at Kenshin’s lowest point in the war, where he meets Tomoe. The two don’t have any sort of conventional courtship. Similarly to Inuyasha and Kikyo’s romantic relationship, Kenshin and Tomoe’s is subtle and quiet. Tomoe and Kikyo are both outwardly reserved people whom don’t showcase much open emotion. They even both betrayal our male heroes; however, the way they’re both treated in the narrative greatly differs.

Tomoe was an active participate in her betrayal of Kenshin, wanting revenge on him for killing her former fiance. However, she ends up falling in love with him and attempts to save his life in the end. Tomoe’s fate is tragic, yet strangely peaceful. Kenshin accidentally murders her and while he cries, we see Tomoe smile for the first time since her appearance. She finds peace in her death, because she is able to be with the man she once loved and was able to save the man she now loves.

Kenshin and Tomoe’s story is not the manipulated tragic happenings that controlled Kikyo and Inuyasha in their own love story. Furthermore, after Kenshin learns of Tomoe’s betrayal, and her connection with a man he himself slew, he never blames her. He continues to mourn her, and her death remains a shackle on his heart even after the war ends.

Property of Nobuhiro Watsuki: Kaoru Kamiya in Rurouni Kenshin.

This is where the second part of the triangle comes in: Kaoru. By the time Kaoru mets Kenshin, he is twenty-eight years old and wandering the Japanese countryside under an oath to never kill again. Much of Rurouni Kenshin centers around the themes of redemption and Kenshin’s oath. The story repeatedly challenges his views, and Kaoru is a personification of them. Old enough to remember only small aspects of the prior war, but young enough to have fully experienced their aftermath and all its political fallouts, Kaoru fiercely believes in her family’s way of teaching swordsmanship, the belief that swords should give life and be used to protect others.

Instantly, after Tomoe’s initial introduction, readers can draw parallels to the foiled characterization of Kaoru and Tomoe. Similarly to Kagome and Kikyo, these foiled aspects of their characters are easily identifiable. Kaoru is loud, brash, a young woman who is very open with her feelings and opinions, and both practices and teaches swordsmanship. Tomoe, by contrast, was quiet, graceful, and thought of as traditionally beautiful. The two women could easily be pigeonholed into “The Kick-butt Action Girl” and “The Perfect Wife,” but luckily aren’t.

Tomoe is quiet, and she knows it, even struggles with it a bit. During their short-lived marriage (yes, Kenshin got married to Tomoe when he was fifteen), when village children come to play with Kenshin they often call her “scary.” Tomoe apologizes to Kenshin who explains to her that she’s fine the way she is. This is when Tomoe begins to reciprocate Kenshin’s feelings for her. Then we see other moments where Tomoe displays compassion and kindness in her own subtle ways.

She and Kaoru have this in common. Kaoru is the center of the Rurouni Kenshin story. She acts as the glue that keeps everyone in the story together. Her kindness and acceptance of others for all their faults and tragic pasts draw the main cast together to heal and form a sense of family. Kaoru’s compassion is what allowed Yahiko to learn swordsmanship and grow from a bitter orphaned child into a young man with strong morals and sense of justice. Kaoru’s compassion allowed Sanosuke to heal from his own experiences in the war and create for himself a new family. Her sister-like relationship with Megumi is one of both teasing rivalry and deep seated respect.

When Kenshin reveals his marriage to the group, it is Kaoru who speaks up and urges him to finish his tale. There is concern from the group towards her, everyone knowing she’s in love with Kenshin, but she proves that she is above being jealous. Megumi specifically points this out, challenging Kaoru’s apparent easy acceptance that Kenshin once loved and was married to another woman before her.

Kaoru, however, is quick to shut that line of thinking down. She openly admits to respecting Tomoe a great deal. Kaoru views Tomoe’s circumstances as the tragedy of war that they were. And when Megumi asks if Kaoru could die for Kenshin like Tomoe was willing to, Kaoru says she wouldn’t, because her dying would only hurt Kenshin.

Property of Nobuhiro Watsuki: Tomoe’s Death

This is where the triangle excels. The story doesn’t pit Kaoru and Tomoe against one another in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t emphasize Tomoe’s more traditional traits above Kaoru’s less traditional ones as something good or bad. Tomoe is her own character, as is Kaoru. They aren’t positioned in such a way that competition is meant to be perceived.

Megumi points this out by saying Kaoru hasn’t taken into account that her circumstances are greatly different from Tomoe’s. This, however, is a good thing, because Kaoru is Kaoru and Tomoe is Tomoe.

Near the end of the last arc, Enshi, Tomoe’s brother who witnessed her death, kidnaps Kaoru after faking her death. Upon awakening, Kaoru attempts to escape and is attacked by him. Enshi is unable to kill her because of the trauma of seeing his sister murdered as a child. The story explains it as Enshi being unable to kill any young woman who is of similar age to his sister at the time of her death.

The story frames this, and Kaoru later confirms, as Tomoe protecting Kaoru. Her spirit watches over Kenshin, Kaoru, and Enshi protecting them in various ways and allowing them to heal. By the end of the story we see that Kaoru garners strength from Tomoe who in return protects Kaoru.

Kagome and Kikyo’s relationship is vastly different in the Inuyasha anime (I have yet to read the manga), which is filled with strife, jealousy, and attempted murder on more than one occasion. The narrative of Inuyasha pits Kagome and Kikyo against each other in various ways. From Kikyo being a better priestess than Kagome, to Inuyasha’s back-and-forth affections, Inuyasha himself makes various passing comments comparing Kagome to Kikyo early on in the anime series.

It may be an unfair comparison, given that Kikyo is undead in Inuyasha while Tomoe is dead by the time Kaoru and Kenshin meet, though her spirit and presence in the story is no less weighted and important. What makes the love triangle in Rurouni Kenshin compelling is how it subverts the competition trope that exists within the story device to begin with. Tomoe and Kaoru are never in competition with each other and not just because Tomoe is deceased.

The story emphasizes both their strengths and flaws as individual characters. With thoughts and feelings outside of their relationship with Kenshin. They exist on their own and aren’t in competition with each other on any narrative level. Kenshin doesn’t compare them, except to acknowledge they were both his most person and carry the weight of their deaths—in Kaoru’s case fake death—on his shoulders. Kenshin shows nothing but respect and love towards both women throughout the course of the story.

Kenshin, Kaoru, and their son Kenji.

In the end, Kenshin and Kaoru get married and end up having a child. Their friends go their own ways and find their individual happiness as well. Enshi’s fate is left up to the reader, but there’s a possibility of him finding his own redemption under Tomoe’s spiritual support and continued compassion. Overall, it’s a satisfying ending that gives everyone hope for the future without feeling shoe-horned or forced.

The love triangle that exists in Rurouni Kenshin isn’t used to draw out drama or keep readers on the edge of who Kenshin will chose, because in the end, the story isn’t about that. Kaoru and Tomoe weren’t objects for Kenshin to win or control. It’s a contrast to how Inuyasha saw his relationship with Kikyo who, after she’s resurrected, swears to her he’ll defeat Naraku and get revenge for her even though that’s not what she desires. Kikyo has no interest in Inuyasha seeking vengeance on her behalf. She’d rather kill Naraku herself, but then, Inuyasha had no interest in respecting her wishes but rather was focused on his own selfish desires.

It was reasons such as that for why the love triangle between Kikyo, Inuyasha, and Kagome was so frustrating to watch in the anime. And why the love triangle between Kaoru, Kenshin, and Tomoe is so refreshing. One pits the female characters against each other for a male character that disrespects both of them at various times during the course of the story. The other gives both female characters their own individual outlooks on life and respects their place in the story. Neither is in competition for the other, and our hero doesn’t place one above the other in any way throughout the story. There’s mutual respect on all sides.

So in the end, the reader can walk away happy that Tomoe, Kenshin, and Kaoru all find peace in their lives. While a similar ending happens in Inuyasha, with The Final Act, and I was happy with that ending, I can’t ever enjoy the love triangle that existed in the show. It was messy and damaging towards all three characters involved. Rurouni Kenshin took the typical love triangle trope and revised it to where all three characters were respected to a high degree. Out of the two, Rurouni Kenshin definitely wins out.

  1. Margaret Barajas

    April 18, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Inuyasha was all sorts sloppy about the various relationships going on. There was also a love triangle between Inuyasha, Kagome and Koga. Miroku and Sango at times felt forced. Both Kagome and Sango really deserved better, which kind of brings me to a recent love triangle that ended kind of surprisingly, at least to me. What did you think of love triangle in the Legend of Korra?

    1. Desiree Rodriguez

      April 18, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Koga was hardly a romantic rival which was actually a bit frustrating. Inu-yasha’s other love interest, Kikyo, was at least given real character development and an arc. There was real tension that Inu-yasha may choose her. With Koga, it was never a question that Kagome wouldn’t chose him. But I already wrote an entire essay on how Kagome’s story in the anime was done poorly.

      The triangle between Korra/Mako/Asami? The first two seasons I felt it was awful. I felt it made Mako look horrible since he was so willing to cheat on Asami and then go back to her as soon as Korra had dumped him. Then didn’t even have the decency to tell Asami he cheated on her, or tell Korra he was sort of with Asami again in s2. The triangle did no favors for his character which was actually pretty decent when the show focused less on romance and more on the platonic relationships. Korra ended up seeming desperate and selfish since she was so willing to hurt Asami intentionally or not. And the whole story just sidelined Asami’s character a lot. No one came out looking good.

      I did like how it was inverted in the last season with Korra/Asami ending up together.

  2. Nathan

    April 18, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    I imagine Watsuki would get a kick out of this take. I remember reading in te back matter of one of the volumes that one of his great regrets with the series is not doing right by Tomoe in his eyes.

    1. Nathan

      April 18, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      By which I mean, seeing others view what he viewed as his failing with a much less harsh view, not that he’d be amused.

      1. Desiree Rodriguez

        April 19, 2016 at 1:36 pm

        Just an assumption on my part and from personal perspective, but I think writers are generally more harsh on their own work then their audiences or fanbase. Not all the time of course, but in many cases we can be. I think he he did a great job with Tomoe, but as her creator, I’m sure there were many more stories he wanted to tell with her. Or development he wanted to work into the story about her that he wasn’t able to. Since he’s the creator, there’s probably a lot he wanted to do but couldn’t due to various circumstances. Which I’m sure would lead to some regrets here and there. As a fan, I’m just grateful for what we did get, and I can only judge based upon that. I just wish we had an adaption of this arc (anime or otherwise), because for me, it’s the best of the series.

  3. J

    April 19, 2016 at 10:35 am

    There are so many grammatical errors and typos in this piece that it’s hard to read. This should have been looked over before publication, because it’s not ready, and if this is the standard, it’s embarrassing.

    1. Claire Napier

      April 19, 2016 at 11:42 am

      Thank you for your feedback!

  4. vero

    May 31, 2016 at 8:47 am

    lol i’m surprised inuyasha fans haven’t flooded this. anyway yeah, rurouni kenshin is much better than inuyasha but that’s no surprise. and the inuyasha manga isn’t really better lol. people who say that are inukag shippers who are pressed over the few scenes that the anime took out and that they actually fleshed out kikyo and inuyasha’s past in the anime.

    1. sweet61

      June 4, 2016 at 8:38 am

      That’s it though. Inukik was hilarious bs both in the anime and the manga. It was such bs that the anime had to hurriedly pull some crap out of its butt to make them look good. It’s certainly 10 times worse in the manga becuase you have this nonity of a character Kikyou who did nothing through out the series being suddenly forced on you as the true heroine great selfless mother thereza of the Series. So yes as a Kagome fan to see her being sidelined for a lazily written authors fav like Kikyou WAS extremely irritating.

  5. Ajarah

    July 10, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Though you had the storyline right, I disagree with you on this. You can’t really put Inuyasha and Ruroni Kenshin in the same category, and this is coming from a person who has read the mangas and watched the anime’s and OVAs of both of them. You can’t really consider the relationship between Kenshin, Tomoe, and Kaoru as a love triangle. His relationship with Tomoe and his relationship with Kaoru never coexisted, so to compare it with Inuyasha isn’t a fare comparison. The term “love triangle” is genraly used when there are three people currently linked between romantic feelings for one or more people within that triangle. Since Tomoe was dead there was no love trianlge between the three of them. I would have said that there was a love triangle between Kenshin, Kaoru, and Megumi before I would have even thought about mentioning Tomoe, Kenshin, and Kaoru. Also, Inuyasha had it hard. He loved Kikyo, and she thought he killed her, even though it was really Naraku disguised as him. Inuyasha’s love for Kikyo steamed from the fact that she loved him even though he was a mix bread. Though he fell for Kagome, it was hard for him to let go of Kikyo since she was still a present day figure in his life. If Kikyo was never resurrected by Naraku, I’m sure Inuyasha and Kenshin would have had the same outcome.

  6. Ajarah

    July 10, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Nevertheless, I’m more of a fan on Ruronu Kenshin. Ruronu Kenshin is by far the superior story. I love every single character and their development. There was a time when I hated Aoshi for killing his former teacher like that, but other than that I truley loved everything about it. I loved Kenshin since I was like 9 years old and here I am now 24 years old and still loving it. The only thing is I don’t read it’s manga or watch it’s anime anymore. However, I have recently seen the live action trilagy. Which was superbly done.

  7. Ajarah

    July 10, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Okay, lol I just read the rest of the post. You did mention the fact that Tomoe was dead whereas Kikyo was not, so this was a good piece. It’s still an unfare conparasion.

  8. Andy

    September 10, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    I stopped reading this article about half way through; addressing what goes on with Kenshin and Kaoru in the Jinchuu arc as a “love triangle” is completely incorrect. How can this be when Tomoe is dead? All three parties must be active for there to be such a triangle. This is a common fallacy among people who have read Rurouni Kenshin or have seen the Trust and Betrayal OVA (better than the manga), coupled with its sequel – Reflections.

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