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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.