The sakabato, one of the most famous swords of the anime/manga world, is now part of the real world.
The most iconic sword in the Rurouni Kenshin anime/manga series is the titular protagonist’s sakabato, a reverse-edged katana with its cutting surface on the inside of the curve. This allows redemption-seeking swordsman Himura Kenshin to regularly engage in intense katana clashes and come out victorious without ever killing his opponent, thus keeping his personal vow to never again take the life of another.
However, during the periods of history when people felt the need to carry katana, actual Japan was too dangerous to burden yourself with that sort of combat handicap, and the sakabato is a weapon that was made up specifically to fit the plot and characters of Rurouni Kenshin. But there’s now a genuine real-world sakabato, and we recently got to see it for ourselves.
The Meijimura complex in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, is a facility consisting of relocated buildings from the Meiji era (1868-1912), the same swath of time in which Rurouni Kenshin takes place. Between now and December 15, the Meijimura museum is currently hosting a special Rurouni Kenshin exhibition, and the centerpiece is the Sakabato Shinuchi (“Shinuchi” meaning “Truly Forged”).
The Sakabato Shinuchi is the first official real-world version of Kenshin’s blade, and it has an enormous sense of presence. One thing you’ll notice right away is that the hamon, distinctive tempering lines that appear along the cutting edge, are on the inner curve, providing immediate visual proof that this is an actual reverse-edged sword.
Before we get further into discussing the sword, though, let’s take a moment to meet the swordsmith. Kanekuni Ogawa has won multiple special awards from the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords for his craftsmanship in the organization’s Modern Swordsmith Exhibition contests, and his skills are such that he himself has been officially deemed an important intangible cultural property by the city of Seki, Japan’s most prestigious producer of swords and cutlery.
With those credentials, you might think that making a real-life sakabato would be an easy task, but that’s not the case. For one thing, since the sword exists as a mere 2-D illustration in the Rurouni Kenshin anime/manga, its appearance fluctuates depending on the scene, distorting to give the necessary visual impressions of weight, sharpness, and speed. Because of that, Ogawa’s first step was to look through the source material in order to come up with the curvature that would best embody a real-world version of Kenshin’s sword.
It’s not just the curve of the sword that’s inconsistent in the source material, either. The appearance of the hamon varies by scene as well, so once again Ogawa needed to come up with a single design that would encompass all of the illustrated atmospheres. He eventually settled on a gunome pattern, irregularly undulating waves, but with gentle transitions, like a metaphor for the turbulent internal struggles that Kenshin faces while holding on to his core kindness and humanity.
The Sakabato Shinuchi has a large quantity of nie, crystals that form as part of the quenching process and give the blade a bright sheen and impart a moistened metal visual effect.
But while the illustrated vagaries above left Ogawa with some extra design work to do, he says the most difficult part of making the sword stemmed from something that was present in the manga/anime artwork. Because katana are sharpened on only one side, they have a distinct ridgeline, called a shinogi, that runs along the flat side of the blade. In most katana this tapers off somewhere before the tip, but Kenshin’s sakabato has an unorthodox shinogi that continues straight ahead to the final point of the metal.
Replicating this was tricky, but not beyond Ogawa’s capabilities, and the result is a tip that catches the light in extremely captivating ways.
Japanese swords are displayed without handles, so as to let viewers admire the mark of the swordsmith that’s placed at the base of the metal. The Sakabato Shinuchi, however, bears not only the mark of Ogawa…
…but also the death poem of Arai Shakku, the in-manga swordsmith who forged Kenshin’s blade within the story.
In our talk, Ogawa mentioned several other challenges making the sword presented, saying that the most difficult job went to the sword’s sharpener, who had to hone a cutting edge that’s completely opposite from those traditional techniques they were developed for.
With so much effort involved, we were thinking that perhaps Ogawa agreed to forge the real-world sakabato as a labor of love saluting his personal favorite anime/manga, but he surprised us by saying that prior to taking on the contract to make the Sakabato Shinuchi, he’d never read nor watched Rurouni Kenshin.
“I agreed to make the sword because they asked me to, and once I’d agreed, I couldn’t say that I couldn’t or wouldn’t just because it was difficult,” he explains, matter-of-factly, showing that in addition to making samurai weaponry, he also has a samurai-level sense of pride and devotion.