Meet the Real-Life Samurai That Inspired Anime Characters!

  • Samurai are icons that often pop up when we talk about Japan. In films they’re depicted as those noble warriors who faithfully serve their lords using their strict fighting discipline and mastery in the art of kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship).

    But, with a unique variety of depictions they have enjoyed in movies, drama series, and anime, the reality of their existence seems to have been peppered with the impossible and supernatural. Like our modern-day warriors they are normal humans who get hurt. They’re not invincible and certainly don’t use supernatural shenanigans to win their fight.

    However, there were samurais who did stand out from the rest. They were called ‘Hitokiri’, a term that literally translates to ‘man slayer’ or ‘man cutter’. They’re the elite warriors of their time.

    Let’s get to know 3 legendary hitokiri from the Bakumatsu period (1853 to 1869), who also became the inspiration for our favorite samurai anime characters!

    Starting the list with….

    1. Kawakami Gensai (河上彦斎)

    If you’re a solid fan of the Samurai X anime and the Rurouni Kenshin movie trilogy, you might be curious if character ‘Hitokiri Battousai’ was real. After all, wasn’t his story wrapped in some historical context?

    Kenshin Himura is a fictional character, and there was certainly no red-head in the past with a visible X-mark on his cheek who wandered and later on had himself adopted by a dojo. However, Kenshin’s character is said to be based on Kawakami Gensai’s identity.

    Gensai, while highly regarded as someone who kills his targets in broad daylight, didn’t really have many official records to prove his successful assassinations. In fact, his only recorded kill was that of prominent politician and scholar Sakuma Shozan. However, it is said several other killings can be attributed to him.

    His name surfaced even more during some prominent battles he fought with other samurais. One of these is the infamous battle against the Choshu Expedition in 1864, that eventually let to the revolution happening and the samurai ‘caste’ slowly dying out.

    2. Okada Izo (岡田以蔵)

    Gintama’s Nizo Okuda’s character and Samurai X’s Udo Jin-e are said to be based on Okada Izo.

    He was one of the most active Kyoto assassins working for Takechi Hanpeita, a loyal supporter of the Sonno Joi movement (who were in favor of the Meiji Restauration, and against the established order). Not much is known about his official activities with the movement, but he did work with other notable warriors such as our next hitokiri, Tanaka Shinbei.

    3. Tanaka Shinbei (田中新兵衛)

    There wasn’t any specific characters patterned after Shinbei, but he deserves a mention because it was during his time, along with other elite assassins under Takechi Hanpeita.

    He was said to be involved in the assassination of one of the Edo Council elders, Ii Naosuke, which then sparked extreme lawlessness in Kyoto. In order to curb the violence, the Shinsengumi was formed.

    Our pop culture has glorified some popular samurais by creating movies and anime series inspired on their life. Though it is partly historical and more based on fiction, it is great to know that the noble blade-wielding warriors’ legacy has continued all the way up till now through various depictions.

    Do you know any real-life samurais not listed here who made name during their era? Share them on the forum or in the comments!

    Reference:Kawakami Gensai
    Reference:Kirino Toshiaki

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