Touken Ranbu and the Touken Joshi (Sword Girls) Phenomenon
In the Summer of 2017 scores of young women lined up at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno to view an exhibit on Japanese swords. Among these swords was the national treasure, Mikazuki Munechika (三日月宗近), one of the Tenka Goken (天下五剣) or “five swords under heaven.” There were so many visitors that the museum had to set a rule that each person had to line up to take just a single photo of the sword and go back to the end of the line if they wanted a second picture of the famous Munechika, and the line was so long that it extended into other exhibit rooms. One could hardly even see the sword for all the crowd. In 2018, roughly 60 to 70% of the visitors at another sword exhibit, Swords of Kyoto: Master Craftsmanship from an Elegant Culture, at the Kyoto National Museum were young women. But where did this sudden craze for swords, and this sword in particular, come from in an age where younger generations seem less and less interested in the traditional arts of Japan’s past?
As it turns out, an online video game by the name of Touken Ranbu (刀剣乱舞lit. Boisterous Dancing Swords) is the answer. Released in 2015, the online web browser game became an overnight sensation with a large fanbase over 1.5 million players in the same year. Touken Ranbu is a free to play online collectible card browser game set in the distant future, in which a group of evil time travelers, calling themselves the “retrograde army,” seek to alter the past. To stop them, a group of magicians bring famous historic samurai swords to life as people, depicted as attractive young anime men, and send them on missions to defeat the retrograde army and preserve the timeline. The popularity of the game ultimately spawned two anime series (called Katsugeki and Hanamaru,) several musicals and plays, and a live action film. In addition to anime series and a movie there is also merchandise, such as figurines or wall scrolls. Cosplaying (wearing a costume and dressing up as a character from the game) is also quite popular at anime and game conventions within Japan. At present, an English server for the game is in the works and one can pre-register for an account to play, so in the near future we can expect to see an international fanbase as well.
Mikazuki Munechika, as he appears in the game
Although Mikazuki Munechika is the fan favorite, there are several other reconizable names in the roster of anthropomorphized katana, wakizashi, tanto, or samurai swords in the Touken Ranbu universe. These include Tonbogiri (蜻蛉切), the Kogarasumaru (小烏丸), Hyuga Masamune (日向正宗), and Sanchomo (山鳥毛). Other anthropomorphized swords are simply named after famous swordsmiths, as in the case of Dotanuki Masakuni (同田貫正国).
Can you find a sword in your collection by a maker in the Touken Ranbu? Scour the games list of available characters to see if there are any familiar names, or even relationships between one’s real life collection and in-game characters (ex: if one has a Hizen Tadayoshi in one’s collection it might be possible find a character based on a Tadayoshi sword!)
The fandom around Touken Ranbu is not limited just to anime series, figurines depicting the characters, or other official merchandise. Touken Joshi, or “sword girls,” are also driving up demand for nihonto related reference books, such as the book “Meito Taizen” or the “Nihonto” series published by Takarajima. Unsurprisingly, these books’ target demographics were not originally young women but it has been a pleasant surprise for the publishers! Interestingly, the aforementioned Meito Taizen book was sold via a website that specializes in Anime merchandise called “Animate online Shop.” Meito Taizen is the first of hopefully many publications targeted at not just middle aged and older male collectors, but also young women. There are also reports of young women seeking careers as museum curators or even sword polishers. There has also been an uptick in young women joining nihonto related clubs and starting to seriously study and collect nihonto and related fittings.
With any luck this phenomenon will result in a continued genuine interest in collecting swords in the coming years!
A Young woman cosplaying as Mikazuki Munechika (wikimedia commons)
Another cosplayer, depicting Yamatonokami Yasusada (wikimedia commons)