Pretty Boy Anime Touken Ranbu Takes Us Into Japan's Complex History

Amongst other bishounen titles released this winter like Sanrio Danshi, Idolish 7, and Gakuen Babysitters, Zoku Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru stands out as more than a carefree anime about beautiful sword-boys; it is an introduction to the complex history of Japan
Zoku Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru is the second season of the series Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru, based off the free-to-play collectible card browser video game developed by Nitroplus and DMM Games. In the game, players assume the role of Saniwa, a sage who travels into the past to defeat evil using anthropomorphized historical swords.
Zoku Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru is one of two anime adaptations, and it remains faithful to the game in what ways it can. The show takes place in the year 2205. The Saniwa is charged with protecting history from the historical retrograde army, and just like in the game, the Saniwa does this by imbuing life into the Touken Danshi, swordsmen who originally lived as historical swords.

While it is easy for viewers to get lost in the stunning animation and enjoy the simpler plot elements, Touken Ranbu is different from other bishounen series because it offers fans who want more than superficial elements a historical context to draw from. Each sword-warrior who enters the citadel where the Saniwa reside is a part of Japanese history.

Every character is based off of a real life blade that holds an important place in Japanese history, ranging from the Heian period—A.D. 754-1185 to the Meiji Restoration—A.D. 1868-1912.

For example, the main character of Zoku Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru is Kashuu Kiyomitsu. Historically, Kashuu was an uchigatana once held by Okita Souji, a member of the Shinsengumi who fought to protect the shogunate. All the history tied to Kashuu is represented in the show, particularly in the first season where viewers get a glimpse of the famous Ikedaya Incident from 1864 where the Shinsengumi fought against anti-shogunate rebels—a raid that historians believe delayed the eventual Meiji victory by almost two years.

Each episode introduces a new sword to the citadel. Most episodes are split between two fifteen-minute narrative arcs that often tie together by the end. Half of the episode is dedicated to presenting what life is like at the citadel for the Touken Danshi while the other tackles the more historical concepts of the show.

For example, in episode two “February - I Wish Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day, Too,” the first half of the episode is dedicated to introducing the new member of the Touken Danshi, Juzumaru Tsunetsugu, a tachi blade once owned by the Buddhist priest Nichiren. Juzumaru’s narrative arc focuses more on the comedic, slice-of-life style while introducing viewers to elements of Buddhism that coincide with Juzumaru Tsunetsugu’s historical context. 

The second half of the episode focuses more on Honebami Toushirou and his brethren. Before becoming a member of the Touken Danshi, Honebami was a wakizashi style blade that was historically damaged in the Great Fire of Meireki.

In the show, Honebami and his brothers have lost most of their memory due to the damage they experience in the Great Fire of Meireki. Heartbroken by this, Honebami travels back in time to stop them from burning in the fire, but ultimately his fellow Touken Danshi stop him from changing history. Both narrative arcs can be taken at face value and appreciated simply for entertainment purposes, but for viewers who want more than just a pretty face, the historical context is there.

The diversity in characters and character connections are often rooted in who the swords were before they arrived at the citadel.

One example is the Date-gumi, made up of the blades Shokudaikiri Mitsutada, Ookurikara, and Tsurumaru Kuninaga, all of whom belonged to Date Masamune, the famous One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu.

Tsurumaru and Shokudaikiri are already in the citadel at the start of the series, and the series does little to establish their connection to one another because it is tied to history. Once Ookurikara arrives at the citadel, the three easily reconnect because of their bond to their former master.

Without the history behind the swords, the connections each character has to one another would be unclear and have little to no significance. In the end, their historical roles are what bring them together, or some times in the case of swords with rival masters, tear them apart.

Touken Ranbu is a show with layers of history that make it enjoyable for more than just fans of the bishounen genre. Despite the complexity and range of history that Touken Ranbu tackles, the show does not let itself be weighed down by the history tied to each character. It is thoughtful in how it uses Japanese history to connect the characters to each other.

While the focus of the show is often geared more toward slice-of-life elements, it does not stray from who the characters are at heart, or where they come from. Whether viewers are looking for their new best boy—it’s Ookurikara, obviously—or looking for a fun, charismatic show with historical depth, there’s something for everyone in Zoku Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru.