Rurouni Kenshin is considered by many to be an epic story, due in part to the fact that it has its roots in real Japanese history. Author Watsuki Nobuhiro may have taken creative license with some of his characters, but to many Japanese viewers they were seeing history that could be likened to Americans watching a story of the events of 1776.
The Ikeda-ya Inn
The first OVA (Tsuiokuhen) and television series are based on during and shortly after the fall of the Tokugawa government in Japan. The shogun government (often referred to as the Bakufu) had been in power for over two hundred and fifty years. As time passed, the government became increasingly corrupt as the economy faltered. When limited trade was opened to the West, resentment against the foreign presence began to agitate the Japanese people even more. This is where the story of the real Hitokiri, and the fictional Himura Kenshin, takes place.
The rebellion is often referred to as the Bakumatsu no Doran. The warring factions were the Bakufu (who had recruited the Shinsengumi and wanted to retain their power as the ruling government), and the Ishin Shishi (who wanted to abolish the system and restore the emperor to power). On June 5, 1864, the Shinsengumi halted an attempt by extremists who were planning on burning Kyoto and assassinate key members of the Bakufu in the chaos. This event, which took place at the Ikeda-ya Inn, is the setting of the story in Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen.
The Hitokiri vs. the Shinsengumi
The character of Himura Kenshin was based on a real person named Kawakami Gensai. A royalist who began working for the Ishin Shishi in 1863, the Hitokiri was an assassin who fought for the restoration of the emperor. However, in 1871, the government that he fought to establish had him put to death for supposedly planning a rebellion against them.
In 1868, the Tokugawa era ended with the Meiji Restoration. Emperor Meiji was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, which became the new capital; his imperial power was restored. The actual political power was transferred into the hands of a small group of nobles and former samurai. Ten years after the Meiji Restoration is when the story of Rurouni Kenshin begins.
The following list contains a few actual people who also make an appearance in Rurouni Kenshin:
Katsura Kogoro: one of the leaders of the Ishin Shishi, he escaped from the battle of Ikeda-ya Inn and later, with the help of Takasugi Shinsaku, united the factions among the revolutionists.
Saitoh Hajime and his counterpart
Okubo Toshimichi: Okubo was a politician who strove to make Japan a powerful, centralized country by suppressing the feudal system. He was assassinated in 1878 by an unhappy samurai.
Okita Souji: The first-division captain of the Shinsengumi. Okita was known for his incredible skill with the sword even though he was barely an adult. Okita perished of tuberculosis some time after the skirmish at Ikeda-ya.
Sagara Souzou: Born Koshima Shirou, Sagara was the leader of the Sekihoutai, an army of peasants and farmers who supported the Ishin Shishi. Once the Sekihoutai were of no more use to the Ishin Shishi, they announced the troupe to be ‘false armies’ in October 1868 and attacked them. The Sekihoutai were finally defeated in Shitasuwa, and Sagara was decapitated at the age of thirty.
Saitoh Hajime: Third-division captain of the Shinsengumi. In 1877, the tenth year of Meiji, he joined the police troop to fight in the Seinan War under the name of Fujita Gorou.
Although such a detailed knowledge of Japanese history is not necessary to enjoy or even understand Rurouni Kenshin, an idea of the background behind the story adds extra meaning to an already remarkable tale.