How Important is Period Costume Accuracy in Historical Anime?

by Mary Lee Sauder,

Most anime either take place in the contemporary real world or in a fantasy world that's pretty much divorced from reality, but sometimes a show comes along that dares to tackle a historical era – one with its own specific fashions and technological limitations. It seems obvious that the creators should aim to be as accurate as possible to prevent the viewers' suspension of disbelief from shattering (since live-action period pieces get blasted for lazy costuming all the time), but it's also true that anime is known for its off-the-wall stylization. Should we punish JoJo's Bizarre Adventure for not depicting Victorian England with the same heavily researched accuracy as Vinland Saga portrays the Viking era? Let's take a closer look at some historical anime to see how important period costume accuracy actually is.

Most Accurate – Vinland Saga, Dororo, and Woodpecker Detective's Office

We tend to find the most historical accuracy in dramatic anime that use their period setting almost as another character in the story. Vinland Saga is set in a very specific period of the Viking era (early 1000s AD, for the most part) and the ongoing conflicts between the Danes and their enemies play a pivotal part in the plot. Most characters are based on real people or folk heroes, so it's important that the clothing is as realistic as possible to match.

The men in Vinland Saga wear woolen kyrtill tunics with keyhole necklines (sometimes with traditional braided trim around the edges), cloaks fastened with penannular brooches (consisting of a large ring and pin), and simple booties. In battle, they wear iron spagenhelm helmets, padded leather armor or mail shirts, and carry round shields and period accurate weapons of all kinds. Women wear wrap-around coats trimmed with fur or simple dresses with aprons secured by decorative brooches. Some details are left out for ease of animation like detailed carvings on metal pieces, beaded jewelry connecting the brooches on women's clothing, and gussets underneath sleeves, but those are such minor nitpicks that they hardly matter. On the other hand, Askeladd's Roman breastplate would've been several hundred years out of date by that point, but since it's an important part of his character and looks like it's made of contemporary materials, it still fits in (same goes for Garm and Hild's oddly complex weapons in the manga).

Dororo has a similar zeal for late 1500s feudal Japan, portraying the war-torn nation in unflinchingly realistic clarity. It adds some elements of magical realism like the demons and Hyakkimaru's curse, but they're still deeply intertwined with the daimyo's greed and the peasants' struggle to survive. Most characters wear tattered kimonos with simple patterns, but the noble family has specific garments that reflect their station. Daigo wears a hitatare sugata kimono and an ori-eboshi cap, Nui no Kata wears a junihitoe kimono that would be typical for court women of the time, and Tahomaru wears a similar outfit to Daigo with a simple jinbaori sleeveless coat on top. Even the servants are dressed appropriately according to their roles!

The biggest departures from reality are probably the hairstyles and Hyakkimaru's prosthetics. Many men shaved parts of their heads and wore their hair in topknots, but since that looks very weird nowadays, this show opted for more typical anime hairstyles tied into ponytails as a nod to the period (almost every anime with samurai characters does this, though, so it's not unusual). Hyakkimaru's wooden prosthetic limbs with hidden blades and full range of motion are a little more of a stretch, but the construction looks rudimentary enough that it's just shy of believable.

Let's also briefly touch on Woodpecker Detective's Office, a spring 2020 anime starring fictionalized versions of famous tanka poet Takuboku Ishikawa and linguist Kyōsuke Kindaichi in the Meiji era (early 1910s, in this case) Japan. The show itself is flawed to high heaven, but the one thing that it absolutely nails (other than its absolute banger of a big band-inspired OP) is historical accuracy. Along with period-specific advertisement flyers and the prominent silhouette of the Asakusa Juunikai skyscraper in the background, the characters' clothing neatly represent the clash between old and new, East and West that was going on at the time. Ishikawa wears a kimono and Kindaichi wears a Western suit just like their real-life counterparts, and even small details like the Ainu prostitute's kanzashi hairpin having a wooden bear design is included to reflect the variety of cultures co-existing in 1910s Tokyo.

Without the commitment to period costume accuracy, anime that heavily incorporate historical settings into their storylines and themes would fall disappointingly flat.

Middle Ground – Demon Slayer and Fullmetal Alchemist

Speaking of early 1900s Japan, what about Demon Slayer? It takes place in the Taisho era (1912 – 1926), but mostly uses the setting as a way to illustrate differences between characters rather than integrating the politics and morals of the time into its story. Tanjiro grew up in a rural area and was trained by an old-school swordsman, so he has an earnest personality and is easily flustered by modern cities. He wears a traditional haori kimono jacket and hanafuda earrings that resemble the rising sun of Japan, along with the standard gakuran uniform of the Demon Slayer Corps.

This anime's version of a gakuran resembles the Western-style school uniforms that became popular in the Meiji era and are still worn today, but the pants are wider so that they resemble hakama when worn with the haori, kyahan leg wraps, and zori shoes. It's a nod to what would've been popular at the time and helps the Demon Slayer Corps look more like a unified army, while still resembling old-fashioned samurai robes to provide a stark contrast against main antagonist Muzan Kibutsuji's sharp Western suits. The only thing that kind of ruins this is some of the Hashira's get-ups – particularly Mitsuri's. When the entire point of using the Taisho era as a setting is to show traditional Japanese heroism clashing against a foreign-looking psychopath, an outfit with a deep plunge neckline and a miniskirt is perhaps not the most appropriate design choice tone-wise. She's certainly cute and the anime takes plenty of historical liberties as it is, but it's noticeably modern when almost nothing else is.

Fullmetal Alchemist strikes a good middle ground with historical accuracy as well, portraying the country of Amestris as a fantasy alternate universe counterpart to 1910s Germany/Prussia. The technology is accurate with the exception of automail prosthetics (which Hyakkimaru would probably be jealous of), Major Armstrong looks like a proper old-timey pugilist, and the military uniforms are closely based on those that the Prussian army used in WWI, but then there are anachronisms like Winry's modern miniskirts and pretty much everyone's hairstyles. Fullmetal Alchemist gets away with this because it's not actually set in a real historical period, and it lessens the contrast by not including zippers or heavily patterned fabrics on the more modern clothes. Sometimes it decides to sneak in a background extra wearing a period accurate Edwardian gown, though, so who knows how this society's fashion works?

It's perfectly acceptable to switch up some aspects of real-world history while keeping others accurate, especially when the details of the time period aren't that essential to the plot, but it's a delicate balance – one severely out of place outfit can yank the viewer right out of the story.

Most Stylized – JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Appare Ranman

Now we're going to the complete opposite of the spectrum with shows that technically take place in times long past, but use their own aesthetic styles to transform reality into fabulous worlds that could only exist in the realm of anime. Usually these shows will use a historical era as a jumping-off point and don't claim to be accurate in the slightest, but they will include nods to real life just to establish a time and place. They can also pick and choose societal mores of the time for story reasons, such as Jonathan Joestar's determination to be a gentleman or Appare's desire to invent new machinery instead of taking over his family's traditional business.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is one of the most distinctly stylized anime ever made, and three of its eight parts take place in historical time periods. Part 1, Phantom Blood, is set in 1880s Victorian England and tries... a little bit... to be accurate. The male characters' suits and hats have similar silhouettes to real life Victorian clothing (although the shirt collars and coat hems are modernized), Erina's wedding dress looks about right, and contemporary events like Jack the Ripper's rampage are incorporated into the plot, but that's about it. Speedwagon has blades hidden in his bowler hat like he's Oddjob, everyone has hilarious '80s hair, and Jonathan spends the finale in a Kenshiro-esque muscle crop top with studded fingerless gloves and an adorably tiny backpack.

It just gets more ridiculous from there (not that that's a bad thing). Part 2, Battle Tendency, takes place in the 1930s and features such gems as Caesar's kaleidoscope Chippendale suit and Lisa Lisa's '80s maxi dress, and Part 7 just goes completely off the rails. Steel Ball Run is ostensibly set in the 1890s Old West, but our heroes are clad in runway-ready avant garde ensembles complete with star-spangled fabrics, floating arm straps, and matching lipstick. The JoJo franchise thrives on excess and uses '80s fashion magazines as costume/pose inspirations, so it's futile to criticize its historical accuracy. Just hop in and enjoy the ride!

Appare Ranman, a spring 2020 anime that recently got revived after the COVID-19 shutdown, is also a rollercoaster ride of insane costume choices. After all, it's partially inspired by both Steel Ball Run and that old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races, so why wouldn't it be? Except for Isshiki (Appare's samurai chaperone who wears a traditional kimono because he's devoted to the old ways), everyone wears highly stylized versions of 1890s period clothing. Appare wears skinny overalls with a colorful open kimono and kumadori makeup typical of a kabuki performer, Al Lyon and Sofia Taylor wear shortened and modernized versions of Victorian children's clothing, Xia Lian and Hototo wear street fashion takes on their traditional cultural garb, and TJ is... a pirate? With gravity-defying dyed dreadlocks and a noose around his neck? I'm honestly still not sure what his deal is. But it's a show about people of all walks of life coming together to compete in a race across America with homemade cars that are just as colorful and unique as they are, so this off-the-wall aesthetic works perfectly.

As long as they don't claim to be historically accurate and the departures from reality are done as part of a consistent and consciously chosen style, these types of historical anime are allowed to be as wild and crazy as they want.

Final Thoughts

The importance of period costume accuracy in historical anime completely depends on how central the chosen time period is to the anime's story and themes. On one end, we have serious sagas that use real life people and/or events to tell a story that directly ties in with that era's societal troubles, and on the other we have stylized fantasy romps that use history as inspiration for never-before-seen worlds. Which one do you prefer? Where do you think other historical anime like Gintama or Samurai Champloo fit on the spectrum? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!

discuss this in the forum (23 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives