Game of Swords: The Japanese Swordboy Phenomenon of Touken Ranbu (Part 1)

Written by Touken Ranbu saniwa/fan and Funimation Brand Manager, Jennifu

Touken what now? Our newest SimulDub title Touken Ranbu – Hanamaru may have a long, difficult title, but if you’re the type of anime fan who follows what’s big in Japan, then you’ve probably heard of the “swordboy-collecting” phenomenon on that took Japanese fandom by storm!

Even English-language sites like KotakuBuzzfeedRocketNews and more have covered the series’ impact, and how it’s dominated not only Japanese fan doujinshi markets and figure events, but also mainstream culture. Keep up with what’s hot in Japan and learn about one of the biggest game-anime franchises in recent years, then check out the first episode of the SimulDub!

Touken Ranbu Game Screen

What is Touken Ranbu?

Touken Ranbu is a web game about collecting historically famous (and real!) Japanese swords that have been anthropomorphized into cool, handsome or cute boys. Players take the role of the saniwa, or a mystical sage (sometimes depicted as a miko or onmyouji) who summons the “spirits” of swords to take human form and fight against evil forces looking to revise history. As you lead your swords to fight, you have the chance to discover or forge new, rare swords in a sort of gotta-catch-‘em-all frenzy that any player of Japanese gacha-based mobage (lottery-based mobile game) are familiar with.

The anthropomorphism aspect of turning things into people is reminiscent of shows like:

  • Hetalia – nations as cute boys/girls
  • Hyperdimension Neptunia – game consoles as cute girls
  • and most significantly, KanColle ~ Kantai Collection – Japanese battleships as cute girls

but the historical aspect capitalizes on popular samurai manga and anime like Rurouni Kenshin, as well as female-oriented or female-friendly ones like Sengoku Basara or Hakuoki.

Touken Ranbu Characters

So who’s this popular with?

Despite (actually, because of) featuring cool samurai guys with swords, Touken Ranbu’s primary audience is women, but male fans are still significant, as many began playing because of the cute-girl game KanColle from the same game distributor.

Even before Touken Ranbu, a trend of “katana joshi,” or female fans of swords and samurai media, existed, but this trend has since exploded because of the game. Books about the history of swords that were previously moderate sellers suddenly became sell-out hits. Young women began taking photos of themselves posing with and collecting swords. Fans even began demanding that local museums display the real swords their favorite characters were based on from their vaults, to take pilgrimage.

Sword making Ore

I went to a Touken Ranbu event last year in Japan where an actual sword society showed up with replicas of famous swords and educational materials on how they’re made. You could even touch the ores and materials used in forging weapons! It was really fascinating—and fun seeing fellow otaku geek out about a piece of Japanese culture and history.

On the anime fan side, in an unprecedented move, the franchise simultaneously announced not one but two completely different anime series: Touken Ranbu – Hanamaru by Doga Kobo from this season is the most-followed fall anime account on Japanese Twitter, and a second Touken Ranbu anime is coming in 2017 from Ufotable, a studio known for some of the slickest fantasy action animation in titles like Fate/Stay Night and Tales of Zestiria the X. You get your cute boy slice of life in the former and your intense sword action in the latter. There have also been both a stage play and a musical in Japan, again a rare move as usually a franchise with a live stage component will have one or the other.

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Of course doujinshi and fanworks abound, and merchandise floods stories like Animate in Japan’s female otaku district in Ikebukuro. Interestingly, although male anime figurines for female fans were previously something of a scarcity, they’ve exploded on the scene since then, with RocketNews reporting that the annual figurine convention Wonder Festival last year was completely dominated by hot male swordsmen.

In North America, there have been some pretty cool fan events too! Aside from cosplay at tons of conventions, fans held a Touken Ranbu-only event called Saniwa Summit in SoCal in April, and even a Touken Ranbu butler café earlier this month.

Okay, we get it, it’s a big deal. But what’s up with the sword boys?

Glad you asked! *time for my sword otaku mode* So why are swords rendered as boys so compelling? Japanese swords, particularly the ones that made it into this game, are of course often linked to times of conflict and violence in major formative eras in Japanese history, which means it’s a great time for very human stories.

Many of these swords were owned by famous figures, like Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga (who’s a major character in Drifters this season) in the Sengoku period, or timeless badass Okita Souji (who’s the basis for Seta Soujirou in Rurouni Kenshin) from the Shinsengumi in the Bakumatsu. The legends behind them and their histories, often dramatic, heroic, or tragic, just make for very good character writing. You’ve got swords who have been victorious in battle, and others that have seen hardship; swords attached to their famous masters and swords who hate their conquerors; swords used in revenge, swords used to fight for just causes, and even ones made for art. Some have even been featured in other anime, manga, or games!

Touken Ranbu Hanamaru Key Art

Come back next time for part 2 of this blog, where we’ll outline some of the most popular swords and what it is about them that makes this concept so popular with fans!

Watch the first episode of Touken Ranbu – Hanamaru tonight at 8:30pm CT at!