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Picture this: a feminine-looking, goofy swordsman who has vowed not to kill, but is secretly a lethal ex-assassin known as Hitokiri Battosai.

Yep, the title character of "Rurouni Kenshin" is a pretty unusual male lead for an action series. The first VIZBIG volume of Nobuhiro Watsuki's classic manga series -- containing the first three volumes of the manga) has some initial awkwardness as it introduces the main characters, but it's got plenty of action, plenty of delightfully wacky humor and a teeny hint of romance. Okay, more than a hint.

Searching for Hitokiri Battosai, a young dojo owner named Kaoru assaults a sword-carrying stranger... and promptly whips his butt. Turns out his sword blade is upside-down, and he insists that "this one is merely a rurouni... a traveling swordsman with no destination." Unfortunately someone using that name is disgracing Kaoru's dojo -- and they have their eyes on taking it over. It's only then that the mysterious Kenshin shows what he's really capable of.

Kaoru asks him to stay on, and it turns out to be a good thing -- the dojo becomes embroiled in the fate of a feisty young samurai boy, who's being used as a pickpocket for a gang of thugs, then with some cowardly ex-students. But the real dangers are when the town is visited by a deadly assassin who somehow paralyzes his victims, and takes Kaoru hostage to bring out Kenshin's full ferocity. And there's the Fight Merchant Zanza (real name: Sanosuke), a powerful young man seeking fights with strong opponents who is hired to fight Kenshin. But both have personal reasons to want to defeat Kenshin as well.

And Kenshin and Sanosuke end up in a particularly nasty situation when they rescue a young woman pursued by thugs... and it has something to do with a very potent, deadly kind of opium. To rescue her, they charge into the mansion of the wealthy Kanryu, who has hired some deadly bodyguards of his own -- the Oniwabanshu.

Nobuhiro Watsuki's "Rurouni Kenshin" has become a classic for its haunted pasts, explosive action and a wide array of antagonists -- some of whom don't stay that way, like Sanosuke. The first VIZBIG volume starts off fairly light-hearted by comparison, but gradually gains some darker shadings. Watsuki starts dipping into the darker side of life (such as Yahiko's miserable life and the) and the sociopolitical strife of the era (Sanosuke's tragic captain Sagara).

Obviously any series with a swordsman is going to have some action, and Watsuki delivers a whirlwind of sword blows and superhuman leaps, which can do anything from smashing an opponent's arm to slamming his head through the ceiling. But there's also plenty of comic relief in here, usually supplied by Kaoru's short fuse and Kenshin's space-cadet attitude ("... but now you've got nowhere to go!" "Hmm... so persistent... what can one do but surrender?")

Kenshin is a pretty likable if odd hero -- he's goofy, spacey, eager to please and polite to a fault, as well as being skinny and pretty-faced. But he gets creepy empty eyes when he starts fighting, and when Kaoru is threatened he becomes a deadly force to be reckoned with. Kaoru makes a good counterpart, being as blunt and strong-willed as Kenshin pretends not to be, while Yahiko is an unexpectedly likable younger sidekick. And Sanosuke makes a good later addition -- he's got a tragic past as part of the unjustly-maligned Sekihotai "false army," which still drives him on.

The VIZBIG edition is a pretty solid piece of work -- good binding, nice paper, some gorgeously vibrant color pages, and it contains the full content of the first three volumes (including the short story that the series was eventually based on). It's also larger, which makes it easier to read if someone were to find the usual pages too small.

The VIZBIG edition "Rurouni Kenshin Volume 1" is a solid start to an excellent series, as it introduces us to the legendary Battosai and his first round of adventures in late 19th-century Tokyo. Definitely a good read -- and it gets better.
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