Samurai in media dates back long before the motion picture camera was ever invented. In fact, they’ve been portrayed in plays for the five or six centuries as a part of entertainment. But since the dawn of cinema, the stories of the samurai have been exposed to international audiences. If anyone created and popularized contemporary samurai storytelling, it is certainly without a doubt, Akira Kurosawa with his classic films, most notably The Seven Samurai. Since then, samurai in many mediums have taken many forms and anime has notably taken its own creative interpretation of their cultural knights in more ways than 1. So, what exactly goes into a Samurai anime?
Of course, the samurai largely existed between the 15th to almost the end of the 19th century. If anything, they were the ruling class and ran the show under the Shogun and/or Daimyo warlords. Some were fighting for the honor of the peasants like The Seven Samurai, and there are others that fought for power and glory. Though there are some Samurai anime that do take place in a modern day, the majority of them just take place when the actual samurai existed.
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: January 7, 2019 - Ongoing
One notable anime that portrays the time of the samurai is the both the original and remake to Osamu Tezuka’s notable classic, Dororo. However, this anime tends to portray the samurai as villains through the eyes of the titular Dororo since his family was oppressed by them. Not only that, you see how Daigo Kagemitsu, the main villain, is a Daimyo drive mad hungry by power, and is not afraid to exploit the innocent in order to further his own agenda. While Hyakkimaru, the main hero, isn’t exactly a trained samurai, he is more than formidable with a sword (or two) and tends to follow the code of the bushido more than his counterparts.
If there’s an actual Japanese term in relation to samurai films in Japan as it emphasizes on sword fighting, then that word is “chanbara.” Beyond Kurosawa’s films, if there’s one samurai film series that embodies the action oriented spirit of chanbara, it is certainly the Zatoichi films with their intense choreography. Naturally, if Samurai is to be portrayed in anime, then Samurai anime needs the chanbara element in order to further qualify as one.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 26, 2010 – December 11, 2010
One anime that takes the chanbara to a level of creativity only found in anime is in Katanagatari. With the plot directed towards finding 12 lost swords, then expect a lot of sword fighting. However, what also makes this anime distinct is how Shichika Yasuri, the main character, refrains from fighting with a sword, the anime is full of crazy action sequences that has the same intensity as you’d see in an actual film. Not only is the fighting extreme in relation to its gimmick, a lot of technique and psychology is put into motion to give the fights more substance for audiences to enjoy as see the spirit of the samurai on screen.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: October 7, 2016 – December 23, 2016
While we intend to get into Samurai anime that go outside the norm, Drifters expresses the legacy of chanbara through Shimazu Toyasu, Oda Nobunaga, and Nasu no Yoichi, the main trio. Despite teaming up and doing battle against other non-Japanese historical figures in a world of fantasy and magic, Drifters still finds a way to keep it samurai oriented with its action sequences. Through Oda Nobunaga, you get his strategic mind of using the natural skills of the locals and the environment to their advantage. However, the heart of the samurai spirit is, of course, Shimazu, who prefers to fight with his katana. The way he fights, he strikes first, strikes hard, and without mercy (he won’t sweep your legs, he’ll cut them off!). If the real Toyasu was anything like his anime counterpart, then he was Cobra Kai before Cobra Kai was a thing. Through Toyasu’s fights, you see what chanbara is like in anime form, it’s balls to the walls, and carnage and guts.
Bushido, or “The Way of the Warrior,” is more or less the moral code of the samurai. Despite Dororo negatively portraying samurai, there are some Samurai media that portrays them as honorable despite being stubborn. This notion goes back to the 47 Ronin story when 47 Ronin, or masterless samurai, rebelled against a Daimyo for executing their master. Though they know what they did was wrong, they owned up to their actions and were willing to pay the price out of loyalty to their master. Speaking of loyalty, it is one of the nine codes of Bushido.
Yoroiden Samurai Troopers (Ronin Warriors)
- Episodes: 39
- Aired: April 30, 1988 – March 4, 1989
For many Gen-X North American fans, their first exposure to the nine codes of the Bushido was through the Ronin Warriors, or Yoroiden Samurai Troopers in Japan. The five leads and their four evil counterparts each represented a code of the Bushido. Ryo represented humanity, or jin (仁); Shu represented justice/gi （義）; Shin represented trust/shin （信）; Touma represented wisdom/chi（智）; and Seiji represented grace/rei （礼）. However, the four warlords of Arago represented virtues that could easily be corrupted or were more open to interpretation. Shutendoji represented loyalty/chu （忠）; Anubis represented piety/kou （孝）; Rajra represented patience/nin （忍）; and Nahza represented obedience/tei （悌）. While the leading five heroes have virtues that are simply black and white, the remaining 4 villains represented more of a shade of gray that could be used for good or evil, and these characters can teach all audiences these universal values.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: June 12, 2004 – December 25, 2004
Like the original Kurosawa film that was also re-imagined as The Magnificent Seven, Samurai 7 takes the original source material and takes it to the next level for all audiences. While the titular seven are motivated by payment, the fact that they go out of their way to protect an innocent village being looted and plundered represents how honorable the samurai have been portrayed in history and popular culture. It also deals with the notion of killing and that it doesn’t come easy the first time around, and while it may come naturally after a while, the series does show that you can still be uncomfortable with it despite coming down to becoming an it’s either-you-or-me situation, but you’ve got to do it. While there is some tension in the group and their motivations, in the end, a true warrior has to fight for what’s right and this is what Samurai 7 and its original source material represents.
Of course, not all Samurai anime are obligated to be like Kurosawa films. In the world of anime, you are allowed to be as creative as your imagination allows you to and not all samurai media has to follow the rules of actual cinema or history books (since when is a historical or biopic accurate to the real thing?). Some go the direction of comedy and dial up to 11 while still finding a way to staying true its foundation.
- Episodes: 373
- Aired: April 6, 2006 – October 8, 2018
Gintama is one notable example of the Samurai genre taking the imagination to a different level. The series still takes place in the Edo period but the Earth is being invaded by aliens, and the Shogun surrenders Japan’s sovereignty to the alien force. As a result, aliens have banned the samurai and swords. However, the ban was proven to be as effective as Chicago’s gun control policies and it hasn’t stopped Gintoki, our main character from having to stop evil. Considering the nature of this series, not only does it use the Samurai back drop and aliens as a distinguishing use of comedy, it is intentionally used as a critique of class warfare. Through the alien’s control, the series presents audience both a modern and an older look of how class structure worked during the Samurai era, and how to promote equality for everyone.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: May 20, 2004 – March 19, 2005
Samurai Champloo is also another distinguishing take on the genre. While it does take place during its respective era during the nineteenth century, it uses a lot of modern influences in its atmosphere by including hip hop, baseball, and graffiti art. Considering it was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the creator of Cowboy Bebop, it feels only natural that he uses a lot of Western references despite being Japanese in nature. Not only does it use hip hop, it uses a lot of funk to give the series its “beat” of excitement, danger, and unpredictability.
Naturally, some of you are wondering about the forefather to the modern Shounen Samurai title, Rurouni Kenshin. Other that this, we refrained from mentioning it due to the previous allegations against Nobuhiro Watsuki for possessing child pornography. Since Honey’s Anime does not condone such actions, we wished to refrain from using it as an example of a Samurai anime and hope you can understand and join us in condemning it. Other than that, as we just shared, samurai media can come in many forms and anime is the best way to express that creativity. Some are faithful to the times, some make them into an alternate universe, and some exist in present times. Either way, they have to not only have sword fighting, but show the code of the Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior.