Living Swords and Pretty Boys: What Is Touken Ranbu?

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Tōken Ranbu first caught my attention in the last few days of 2014 as an obvious response to the popularity of DMM's other title, Kantai Collection. The trend of turning inanimate objects into attractive characters was just hitting its peak, and the latest game seemed like the first major push to attract female players. The result was a major hit, as its release was well-timed with another popular fad catching attention: rekijō or female history buffs. The particular fandom was known for its deep wallets and Tōken Ranbu would introduce a new wave of merchandise focused squarely at them.

The game, like Kantai Collection, isn't available in English yet although it recently expanded out into China. The language barrier and the inherently deep Japanese culture ties hasn't kept English speaking audiences away from discovering the game. This year's Sakura-Con panel had a sizable, excited audience ready to learn about the game's roots, its success, and the upcoming anime series Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu. Nitroplus head Takashiki Kosaka (also known as Digitarō) and producer Koh Kitaoka were on hand to discuss the many aspects of the successful franchise. They enhanced the presentation with Japanese replica swords on which the characters in the game are based.

Takashiki Kosaka: Many of you are already familiar with the game, but I'll go ahead and explain it. Do you know Japanese swords? These are real Japanese swords here on display. They're very sharp, very cool. These swords transform into Tōken Danshi, however this is not an old, historical samurai drama. This story actually takes place in 2,205 AD. Do you know the company DMM.com? This was a co-creation of DMM and Nitroplus. If you've heard of Kantai Collection, DMM also made that game.

It's been two years since we launched the browser game and one year since the smart phone version launched. Currently, 4.5 million people have downloaded and are playing this game. I'm really sorry that you can't play it in the U.S.! Actually, the game started in China in February. We at Nitroplus are in charge of the story, the setting, and the character design.

In the year 2,205 there's a very low population and the world is in crisis. There's this belief that Japanese swords contain spirits or gods inside of them. They decide to revive these spirits and turn them into warriors that can battle. Two factions arise. One faction thinks the only way to survive is to use a time machine and change history but the other faction thinks it's better if we don't change history and cherish it as it is. The burning samurai want to change history while the Tōken Danshi do not.


Swords on display at the panel

We have different characters based on Japanese swords: tanto, a Japanese short sword, the most popular Japanese sword, the Uchigatana, and a tachi, a Japanese long sword. A sword with a downward facing blade is a tachi, but for a uchigatana the blade is facing up on a display rack. Sharpening and taking care of swords is an important job. A tachi was originally designed to be holstered horizontally while riding a horse so it would be easy to wield. Uchigatana, on the other hand, is designed to be taken out and used immediately. The tanto is designed for personal defense because it is shorter and easier to carry. Each of these swords have their own benefits and uses.


Characters Horikawa Kunihiro & Izuminokami Kanesada

First let's talk about Kanesada used by Hijikata Toshizō of the Shinsengumi. He had a uchigatana known as “Izuminokami Kanesada”. There's also a wakazashi known as Horikawa Kunihiro. The legend is that Hijikata was a very attractive samurai at the time. He's an ikemen, right? We were tasked with putting the information and soul of the historical figure into the character design. That's why we made this character look so cool. You'll notice the pattern he's wearing, a kind of zigzag pattern, which is a symbol of the Shinsengumi.


Hijikata Toshizō

I was not all that familiar with information with Japanese swords but it's a very deep world. Up until I worked on Tōken Ranbu, I only knew of Gyoemon's Zantetsuken from Lupin the 3rd. It's not a real sword, by the way.

I've heard in Japan there are maybe two million Japanese swords. Historically there was a time when every Japanese family had a sword. But we won't go too far into that. Japanese swords started to be produced a little over 1,000 years ago. The number of people who knew how to make these swords were maybe 25,000 over time. In modern times, there's maybe less than 300 who know how to make these swords now. It's doubtful that all of them can make a living making these swords. Professionally there might be 100.

The remaining swords are becoming rusty and aren't being well maintained, so I wanted my work to promote maintaining these swords and this way of life. We're doing collaborations with museums and temples in order to preserve these swords. Over the first year of Tōken Ranbu, we had two of these collaborations. In the second year we had 14 collaborations. Until then, most people who loved Japanese swords tended to be older or elderly people. Thanks to Tōken Ranbu, we're happy to see so many younger people, especially women, have taken a strong interest and are visiting these temples and museums. These women are being called “Tōken Jōshi” in Japan.

There was a terrible earthquake that damaged the Aso Shrine. The character Hotarumaru, Tōken Ranbu Online, Nitroplus and DMM supported the reconstruction with the character. Damage was in excess of US$10 million. We created merchandise to raise money and managed to raise quite a bit towards the restoration. The sword Hotarumaru actually disappeared around 70 years ago and no one knows where it is. It's 1.3 meters long. There is the Hotarumaru restoration project in order to create a new replica of the missing sword. Around June it should be complete and there should be news on Twitter and other places about the new Hotarumaru.


An artist's impression of the reconstruction

There's another restoration project we're contributing to. This is the Mikazuki Munechika project. He's an iconic character in the game. It is currently on display in the Tokyo Museum. It is very old and was made about 1,000 years ago. When a Japanese sword is used, the blade is chipped. In order to correct the sword they have to polish and sharpen it. This means the blades get smaller and thinner. An actual Japanese sword that has just been forged is actually wider and very impressive. The project is to imagine and replicate what this sword was like when it was first forged. The original was put on display in Ikebukuro. The real thing is supposed to be done this summer so watch for that.


Mikazuki Munechika

Konnosuke is the guide character of Token Ranbu Online has become very popular outside the game. He came 2nd in Japan's yearly Yuru-chara Grand Prix. A 1.5 meter tall Konnosuke has been visiting regions of Japan for various collaborations. He was so popular that he appeared in a TV show, the Konnosuke TV show. Each episode is only three minutes long but there are 12 episodes. You should be able to find them.

Tōken Ranbu has expanded into anime, musicals, and stage plays. We're currently doing a stage play and a musical simultaneously.

We're currently doing two anime, Tōken Ranbu: Hanamaru and Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu. It's very unusual to have two anime about a single work going simultaneously. When you create an anime based on a game, the players have their own ideas about the characters and plot. When you first see it, it might not match their imaginations at first. So we thought if we just created one, people would either love it or hate. So we created two for people to watch and pick their favorite. This is a challenging situation where we have two anime that are becoming sort of rivals to one another. We worked with two different production companies, Dogo Kobo. It was so popular it was decided it'd get a second season.

Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu will be broadcast in July and is by ufotable.

The team is working really hard on Katsugeki. We're really emphasizing action. It is a serious anime but there's still fun and humor in it. I hope you think about which you like best, but please also like them both.

What is the truth behind the Time Warp force?
It's still a secret! I leave it to your imagination. We will let you know...someday!

What do you think of the American reception of a game that is so steeped in Japanese culture and isn't available in English?
It's becoming very popular in China, but I was very unsure of how it would be received here. But coming to this panel and seeing all your amazing costumes, I'm very happy. When Katsugeki begins broadcasting, I really think it'll get a lot of attention and its popularity will explode.

Will you implement a marriage system like Kan Colle? I'd like to marry my favorite characters.
We'll put some serious thought into that. Good luck!

What was it like to be asked to use your characters for a stage play? Have you ever gone to one of the performances?
That was actually our dream from the beginning at Nitroplus. We were actually really happy, since that was a goal from the beginning, to have a mixed media project that included plays and musicals. I'd like to continue to release a lot of surprises for you guys.

Which character was each of your favorite to create and design?
I can't choose just one. I have fond memories of each of them. One of the very first ones we did was Otegine. That was a spear. Personally, there's a character called Muramasa, an effeminate character that I have lot of memories of.

How do you plan to expand this game further in the future? More characters?
How many would you like? Maybe 100? We will create a lot of new characters. We have to study each character carefully but I hope to create in this world for a long time.

What did you learn the most from creating this game?
There's so many things that I've learned about history, about Japanese swords. When I was in elementary, like all Japanese children I studied history. I wasn't thinking of the feelings or the motives of those figures but I really think about that now.

Why isn't Hajime Saito's sword within the Tōken Ranbu game?
We'd really like to add that sword but each sword requires a lot of study.


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