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A real-life analysis of the Rurouni Kenshin sword techniques (6/4/01)

Undoubtedly, the growing popularity of Rurouni Kenshin has inspired many anime couch potatoes to take up arms and become aspiring martial artists. I suspect that kendo schools and martial arts suppliers everywhere owe a great debt to Rurouni Kenshin for revitalizing interest in the sword arts. I've been interested in the martial arts and Japanese swordsmanship for a while now, and Kenshin definitely sparked my renewed interest in the subject. (I even recently bought myself a bokken.)

The sword techniques portrayed in the anime had both realistic and fantastic elements that I found appealing. The techniques were clever, unusual, and awe-inspiring, and not always impossible. The techniques had strong realistic elements, pushed beyond their normal limits and taken to their extreme. Having practiced some kenjutsu on my own (with a bokken), I've been exploring some of the techniques of Rurouni Kenshin and analyzing their real world fighting applicability. I've been a martial artist for several years now, but I haven't received any formal kenjutsu training, so any input (especially from more experienced sword practitioners) is welcome.

Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu

Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, practiced by both Himura Kenshin and Hiko Seijuro, is a full-featured style with many techniques to accommodate many different fighting situations. Let's examine the real life usefulness of some of these techniques:

[note: My post will make more sense if you have a basic knowledge of what these techniques look like. For that info, see this Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu explanation page:]

Warning! Technique and fight spoilers follow

Ryu Tsui Sen
Being a downwards slash from the air, this technique is not very practical since most normal human beings can't jump as high as Kenshin can. It might be useful, however, if you are already higher than your opponent and are jumping down to attack.

Ryu Tsui Sen - Zan
This technique is similar to Ryu Tsui Sen, but performed by thrusting the sword downwards instead of slashing with it. It suffers the same flaw as the former technique: you're not usually going to be that much higher than your opponent.

Hi Ryu Sen
This is a surprise attack where you thrust your sword out of its scabbard and hit your unsuspecting opponent with the butt end of the sword. I could actually see this technique working in real life. Note the limitations of the technique, however. You have to be very close to your opponent for the technique to be reliable. Also, if you miss, there's the possibility that you'll lose your sword. Disarming oneself before a sword duel is not a good idea. ^^;

Ryu Kan Sen
The aspect of this technique where one sidesteps a thrusting attack and attacks the opponent's weak side is technically very sound, and is a common principle across many martial arts. The main problem I see with Ryu Kan Sen, however, is that it is often performed with a spin. After Kenshin sidesteps the oncoming attack, he spins 180 degrees and slashes at the end of the spin. Generally, spin moves are dangerous because they expose your back to your opponent and it takes longer for your attack to reach the target. Only if your opponent has committed heavily to his attack, like a strongly forward-moving thrust (gatotsu, anyone?), would it be even vaguely safe to spin. In my opinion, it would generally be better to sidestep the attack, and slash without spinning. Keep your enemy in front of you at all times and make your attack as quickly as possible. Kenshin probably got away with the spin technique because of his godlike speed...

Ryu Kan Sen - Tsumuji
I'm not positive I can visualize this technique in real life, since it requires one to move towards your opponent, twist around his attack, and then slash him when he's within range. I suppose the closest thing I can think of is to move under and slightly off to the side of the attack while it's coming towards you, and twist the body upwards while slashing upwards. The technique I just described seems fairly reasonable from my point of view. You're dodging the attack, the opponent is in front of you at all times, and you're not wasting any motion before slashing.

Ryu Sou Sen
This technique involves attacking all nine target points on your opponent's body in quick succession. While such a blitzkrieg attack could be attempted (and even successful) in real life, I don't think a normal human is fast enough to pull it off like Kenshin can.

Ryu Sou Sen - Garami
This technique attacks a single point over and over again in rapid succession. In real life, I suppose one could slash or thrust at the same spot of an opponent over and over again. However, you'd have to be really fast and ready to defend yourself if your opponent manages to defend your predictable barrage of attacks.

Ryu Shou Sen
This technique is to counterattack aerial attacks. Since aerial attacks probably aren't forthcoming, this technique might not be very useful in real life...

Dou Ryu Sen
One cuts the ground with this technique and uses the force of the cut to throw up rocks and dirt at the opponent, distracting him as a setup for a more powerful technique. In real life, I suppose you could use your sword in much the same manner, but I get the feeling you might be cutting lines in the ground more so than throwing up dirt and rocks. Furthermore, I don't know if I'd want to risk damaging my blade by dragging it across and into the ground.

Sou Ryu Sen
Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu is most famous for its battou-jutsu (sword-drawing) techniques, and this is one of them. Sou Ryu Sen is a double attack battou-jutsu. The initial sword draw and slash is followed by a slash using the scabbard. It's a simple but seemingly effective and clever technique. I like it a lot.

Sou Ryu Sen - Ikazuchi
If I like Sou Ryu Sen, I like this variant even better. Instead of attacking with the sword first, you attack with the scabbard first, and then draw the sword and attack second. Just make sure you are able to draw your sword quickly and reliably after the first hit.

Kuzu Ryu Sen
Hiko Seijuro's coolest technique, Kuzu Ryu Sen involves striking all nine of your enemy's target points simultaneously. Unless you have the speed of a god, this technique is best left to the anime professionals.

Succession Technique!

Ama Kakeru Ryu no Hirameki
The succession technique of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu also happens to be a form of battou-jutsu. Like Sou Ryu Sen, it's simple yet remarkably clever and effective. In my opinion, Ama Kakeru Ryu no Hirameki (with its leading left foot) is technically very sound. I think there are two major reasons why it is special and deserving to be the succession technique of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu:

1. Surprise Factor

It easily makes sense that leading with the left foot results in a slightly faster attack on the draw, since the sword is closer to the opponent than if one led with the right foot. Beyond speed however, the technique has an element of surprise to it--most swordsmen do not perform a left foot-leading battou-jutsu. Why not?

In the anime, it's mentioned how leading with the left foot is dangerous because one might cut one's own leg on the upswing if the technique is performed improperly. This is true, but I think there's an even more important reason why opposing swordsmen don't expect the left foot to lead on the draw, and that's the fact that most sword-drawing techniques tend to be high-to-low, as opposed to low-to-high (like the Ama Kakeru Ryu no Hirameki). For high-to-low slashes, a right-handed swordsman would invariably lead with the right foot because the full follow-through of a high-to-low slash ends with the sword more on the left side of the body than the right side, so one wouldn't want the left leg in the way of the down swing. Since most swordsmen are used to encountering high-to-low slashes on the draw, they'd find it surprising that one would lead with the left foot.

2. Efficient Utilization of Body Mechanics

Leading with the left foot instead of the right completely changes the body mechanics of the technique (a low-to-high slash on the draw). The technique becomes much stronger. In boxing, for example, it would be the difference between a jab (attacking with the lead hand) and a cross (attacking with the rear hand), the cross being much stronger. Or from a baseball perspective, it'd be like a right handed pitcher pitching with his right foot forward versus pitching with his left foot forward. Punching or pitching with the hand opposite and rear of the leading foot is much more powerful because it allows for greater torque, with the whole weight of the body behind the movement. Notice that Kenshin's succession technique is not weak and jab-like. In fact, it's strong enough to lift his opponents into the air. @_@

In addition, the motion of making a full step forward with the left foot is stronger than the motion of shuffling one's right foot forward. When Kenshin performed this technique against Aoshi, his left foot left cracks in the ground!

And very importantly, leading with the left foot makes the second part of the succession technique possible. With the right foot forward, one would have to spin a full 360 degrees in order to make the second slash. On the other hand, leading with the left foot, one only has to spin 180 degrees, which is much faster.

So use this knowledge wisely, and be careful not to become a hitokiri, or Master Hiko might have to kick your butt ^_~

If you have any other comments, questions, or technique observations, let's talk!


If you are interested in Rurouni Kenshin, similar manga titles, or Japanese martial arts in general, I recommend any of the following products:


Rurouni Kenshin, Vol. 1

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1

Flame of Recca, Vol. 1

Kenshin guidebook:

Rurouni Kenshin Profiles

Japanese sword arts:


Set of bokken

The Book of Five Rings


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Last updated on December 16th, 2010
Lawrence Eng