From period samurai shows to magical combat fantasy, Japanese swords are hyper-prominent in anime, and the upcoming theatrical runs of the swordplay-packed Rurouni Kenshin live-action movies are a perfect excuse to talk about the coolness of Japanese swords!
Learn about the basics of Japanese swords and their historical basis as seen in the Rurouni Kenshin movies, based on the manga and anime of the same name, which take a fictional but decently researched and realistic* approach on the subject, for shounen manga.
(And if you’re really into sword combat, these movies have excellent action choreography from one of the biggest action directors in Asian martial arts cinema—get your advance tickets today and see it for yourself! The first movie, Rurouni Kenshin: Origins, hits theaters August 8, 9 and 10!)
The hero of Rurouni Kenshin, Kenshin Himura, wields a very iconic sword immediately familiar to anyone who’s read the original series. His sword is a sakabato, or a “reverse-blade”—meaning that the outer cutting edge is dull, and the inner edge is sharp, contrary to the normal construction of a Japanese sword.
(If you think about a “double-edged sword” being dangerous because there is also a cutting edge that faces you, a “reverse-blade” is even more dangerous and impractical because only the cutting edge faces you. This impracticality makes it a “pacifist sword” and also explains why Kenshin is such a badass, giving himself a huge handicap.)
Combat sakabato never existed (according to any known records), but actually at least one reverse-blade has been found in Japan, although it is a kogatana (small katana) rather than a full-length one.
As we know, Kenshin’s blade is a katana Japanese sword, but although people often use katana and “Japanese sword” interchangeably, they aren’t the same. The katana is actually a more modern style that was popularized around the 15th century.
Prior to the katana, longer, heavier, curved blades called tachi were the weapon of choice. As long-ranged, robust weapons, these were effective for fighting on horseback across open fields.
As cities became more prominent and horseback plains combat less relevant, the katana became more popular, as a lighter, shorter sword, worn cutting-edge up (as opposed to down on the tachi), meaning samurai could potentially slice an enemy upon drawing the sword, and generally wield with more agility.
Most importantly, katana could be used in fights in the cities, with narrow streets, or even indoors, where long tachi were at risk of getting caught in the low ceiling rafters.
In the Rurouni Kenshin series and movies, Sanosuke Sagara wields a huge, old and rusted zanbato, or horse-cutting sword. This type of sword is from that older era of horseback warfare.
Actually, a horse-cutting sword is not meant to be swung wildly with one arm—a wielder would hold the sword with both hands while perched on a horse, and taken down enemy riders. This just shows Sano’s monstrous strength and wild personality.
Another result of the development of the katana is the custom of samurai wearing two swords—a katana sword and a wakizashi, or a short sword. Katana were used more for combat and wakizashi for more personal use.
If a samurai was invited to a castle, for example, he was expected to leave his katana at the door, so as to not threaten the lord, but he could keep his wakizashi in self defense.
Aoshi Shinomori, who appears in the second Rurouni Kenshin movie and gets some cool action scenes in the third, wields double kodachi, which are somewhat shorter swords similar to wakizashi.
The reason he has to use short swords is that double-wielding long swords is impractical—there’s too much risk of cutting your own arms. (Sorry, Roronoa Zoro.)
Are you a big fan of Japanese swords? What types do like, and what are your favorite famous swords from anime, manga, or Japanese movies? Let us know in the comments!
Be sure to buy your advance tickets to Rurouni Kenshin: Origins today—this limited theatrical run is only in theaters for 3 days! https://www.funimationfilms.com/movie/rurouni-kenshin/*except, sadly, there are no historical Japanese swords that spurt flames when you swing them 🙁