[DesuFag] A Look into Symbolism of Swords and the Characters who Wield Them [Orange Farm Archive]

In the wonderful of anime, swords appear just about everywhere.  But what do they mean?  Let’s unsheath the matter, shall we?

It is a common sight in anime; a character unsheathes their prized blade, and strikes at the enemy.  An epic battle of good and evil ensues.  Our intrepid hero is hopelessly outmatched, yet finds the power to win out in the end.  Yeah, I pretty much described almost every sword battle in every anime featuring swords ever.  But why swords?  Why an item that mankind has lived and died by since its creation as a weapon of war?  What makes them so intriguing?  Is it their beauty?  Their functionality?  The symbols they represent?  I took some time to research into the matter back in my journalism days, recently touched up on the symbolism of a staple item of many cultures.

To start off, is a no brainer, swords are largely weapons of war and self defense.  They have been around as devices of military conquest since at least 2300BC.  Also interesting to note is that swords also developed as items of decoration, but more on that later.  Each ancient culture developed their own style of blade, commonly intended for thrusting, cutting, or both.  Often, how it was used depended on blade shape and design.  Fast forward about 3000 years, and we see that each culture has advanced their own sword-making technique to a form of art.  Especially in asian cultures, where single-edged swords were more prevalent, and great effort and care were taken to construct masterpieces of metal to be used either for shrine/military decoration or for war.  Back in Europe, dual-edged blades owned the scene, and class of military often branded their own type of blade, commonly short or long swords.  What unites the two vastly different theaters is that the blade was almost uniformly a sign of nobility or warrior class.  Common peasants did not have access to them.

This post needed more Ike.  He fights for his friends.

This brings us to the symbols of what swords represent.  In European cultures, the sword was largely a political symbol.  It showed wealth, nobility, the power of the familial blood lineage.  If you defeated a great enemy in battle, you took their sword, as proof of their defeat.  In return, you gained almost legendary status, aqcuiring fame and wealth.  During the times of the great crusades, it often was the symbol of Christianity, serving as a symbol of truth and justice.  Indeed the swords of the period were indeed constructed to look the shape of the cross, as where the shields.  One could gain great fame once again by returning alive from campaign in the Crusades.  Many knights made careers on it.  Alternatively, the common image of a great king, such as King Arthur, or Richard the Lionheart, are often depicted in armor or robes, holding a sword to show they they had the qualities of truth, justice, and honor.  They also posed another symbol: Leadership.  Portraits of Kings were often done in thoughtful poses, or generals with action scenes, leading their battalions into the fray.  Another important part of it’s symbols is courage.  Medieval legends of the honorable knight, portraying these same qualities, heading off to slay the serpent or dragon, which represented evil and malice, also show that even back then, we valued stories of courageous individuals of good triumphing over evil, and of justice being served.  Seiba from Fate/Stay Night is a good example.  Seiba herself symbolizes honor, leadership, and purity just on basic of fact of who her identity is.  This is further exemplified on her use of Excalibur, which symbolizes nobility and justice, as well as victory.  The character as well as the sword are largely ports used with great artistic license however.

Over in Asia, however, the sword, and the making of it was considered an art, and much time and sweat were put into the rituals of the creation of a blade.  Beauty important above all else.  It had to be beautiful, and functional.  The more beautiful, the better the chance that the blade would be a decoration for a god or perhaps an emperor.  As for swords of war, swords of certain makers were prized, and made you a target on the field if you had one.  At the same time, living by a code brought you great honor as a samurai.  They lived and strived to maintain that honor.  To them, honor from living by the way of the sword was more important than life, as opposed just like western nations which valued honor brought through deeds done through campaign.  On top of that, the blade symbolized strength.  A good, strong blade could last you through many battles, and duels were often held to prove who was the strongest samurai, or at least, who had the better sword.  Again, staying with the easy characters,  Kenshin vs Sojiro is a good example here.  In their first match, they destroy each other’s blades and must obtain new ones for a rematch to see who was the stronger swordsman.  In the end, Kenshin wins out, frustrating Seta whose ideals are in direct conflict with Kenshin, nearly breaking him.

The most famous group of swordmen in Japan, the Shinsengumi

Other symbols of the sword include protection.  It is common to see a swordsman standing guard against some malicient force threatening those he is protecting.  The knight protecting the fair maiden from the dragon/serpent I used earlier is a perfect example.  Even thought a sword is a tool of war, it can also be used to protect something.  In Asian cultures, it could be to protect the Kingdom, or the master protecting his students.  The sword was the tool to enforce the reason they were fighting for.  For example, in the perhaps the pinnacle of Japanese theatre, the story of Seven Samurai, seven hungry warriors defend a town from the evils of looting and plundering by a gang of marauders.  The anime version, Samurai Seven, tells a whole different story, in typical Gonzo fashion, but the samurai themselves are still protecting the village from the Nobuseri.  In either adaption, Kikuchiyo, dies laying the final blow on the leader/warship to protect the village.

Another important staple point to both western and eastern cultures was that while not necessarily being the blades themselves, but rather the people who wielded them, symbolized utmost loyalty to whatever cause they served.  Samurai served their lords, or later on, the Tokugawa Shogunate, while the knights of the west served their kings and queens.  To show disloyalty was a sign of weakness, and treason, and brought shame on the family, especially in the eastern cultures where living by the sword was the most important aspect of life.  Look at Setsuna Sakurazaki; loyalty defines this character, no doubt about it.  She is fiercely loyal to her Konoka ojo-sama.  Symbolizing protection as well, protecting both Negi and Konoka from harm in the early series, although Negi is at a level where he doesn’t need protection now.  Her half-demon form is still yet to be expounded upon, but heritage and nobility could play a part in her character creation.

Kenshin <3

A blade often symbolizes the weight of life.  It is common for characters who wield a sword for the first time to comment how heavy it is.  As someone trained in Iaido, as well as fencing, I can personally remember the first time I held a blade as opposed to a practive wooden training sword.  There is a huge difference in weight.  Common ideology in swords defines this difference in weight as the weight of lives you have taken, or the weight of the lives you must protect.  I’ll use Guts as an example here.  In a series full of chaos, we have a character striving to maintain order and protect people he cares about (though far too proud to admit it), despite being detested by practically every other character.  In his armored form, determination and chaos are shown.  One of the few protagonists to display open aggression.  The sword he wields is not actually so much of a blade, rather than a large slab of metal (canon description), yet I would venture to say it symbolizes the weight of the burdens he likes to carry upon himself, since he does not like involving others in his personal battles.  Another example is Cloud Strife.  Here is a character of uncertainty.  Clouds traditionally represent inner peace and freedom, but we all know that’s not true until well into the events of Advent Children, where he finally learns to forgive himself for the events of his past.  Again, the massive blade he carries signifies burdens he carries on himself.  Cloud does not fit into any of the common molds for a sword-wielder, and as that train of thought goes, neither does Squall.  But this is Final Fantasy, so Square is allowed to develop their own characters.

Seiba is lovely

On the flipside, the villains who wield swords also serve their own symbols.  Aggression, and bloodthirst are common in literature and legends, where the antagonist will stop at nothing to topple a kingdom or assassinate the common people, disrupting order and peace.  Quite often are characters prone to bouts of aggression when a sword is in their possession, and often perceived as a negative aspect.  In modern traditions, villain’s blades are often some form of abominable machination (i.e. Soul Edge), where it is quite obvious the blade is evil just by looking at it, whereas hero’s weapons are more traditional, representing order.  Like I mentioned, Soul Edge from the Soul Calibur games is a perfect example for my point here.  While given to a lot of characters in certain forms, it is most commonly identified as Nightmare’s weapon of choice.  While the other swords of the game are rapiers, dao, katana, and gladius, Soul Edge is a massive, ugly slab with an eye near the handle in nearly all its forms.  Soul Edge also controls the user to kill nearly everything in its path in order to gain strength, covering the bloodlust point as well.

It can also represent a two-faced personality, or a condradictory perception, something like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect.  It is not that uncommon for a character’s personality to change when they draw their blade, often as a plot point of being a cursed sword, or a release of another self hidden deep within.  A good example of if this are the Kenshin/Battosai personas from Rurouni Kenshin.  While not a villain, Kenshin himself is usually kind and gentle, however, when he draws his blade, there is a high chance that he becomes his assassin self, Hitokiri Battosai.  It is a plot point for him to overcome this duplicity.  Battosai, however, shows aggression, and determination to kill his foes. Either character shows strength through use of the sword, but Kenshin gets it through others, where Battosai relies on himself for power.  Another example is Kyoshiro/Kyo from Samurai Deeper Kyo.  Here, Kyo comes out as an insanely sadistic personality who will hack to pieces damn nerar everyone in sight, as opposed to the gentler, pacifist side of Kyoshiro.

Aside from these common themes, the symbols vary significantly from culture to culture, but I feel I’ve outlined enough for the purpose of this entry.

Samurai are just plain badasses

In closing, swords are often the hallmark of heroes and villians.  But there is a lot more that goes into the character designs than “Hey, lets give this character a sword, it’ll make it look cooler”.  There is a lot of symbolism that goes into the generation of a swashbuckling swordsman.  The next time you see your favorite swordsman, just think of the ideology that went into their creation.  You just appreciate them even more.  As always, feel free to comment.


2 Responses to “[DesuFag] A Look into Symbolism of Swords and the Characters who Wield Them [Orange Farm Archive]”

  1. November 29, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    A couple of things to add here.

    It is not said about this, but Japanese katana were made rather beautifully simply because there was not enough metal in Japan to make a lot of them. Which also explains the prevalence of the spear (yari) and bow in warfare, among other things. It is a fact that the katana was meant to be a last-resort weapon, a mostly ceremonial weapon that also happened to be effective.

    There’s also the practical function of the sword to mention. Since Japanese katanas were NOT meant to be weapons that saw real use (considering the rarity of metals, iron especially), it would go down the largely ceremonail path. That is not to say that the katana was NOT useful. Rather, the design of the katana was such that it was capable of rending flesh and bone quickly.

    …Which brings us to the other function of the katana: as a means of honorable death. Hara-kiri is a gruesome act, and you need a specialized blade to cleave through flesh and bone. And no, medial autopsy saws were NOT available then.

    Whereas the sword in the West took on many, many forms. The French rapier (think of an extremely long needle), the short sword, the landskechts with their two-handed greatswords (which were NOT giant heavy things)…

    Well, swords in the West were meant to be used on the battlefield. Durability, flexibility, cutting strength AND armor-piercing were considered. It is said that the sword in the West was created to defeat armor.

  2. 2 desufag
    November 29, 2010 at 11:43 PM

    Great things to point out.
    Also, in regards to katana, for a while, Japan tested a sword’s quality by getting a skilled swordsman to see how many condemned criminal or cadavers he could cleave in a single cut. The more it cut, the better, and the amount would be inscribed somewhere on the sword.

    Either way, the katana is a fine work of art. Twenty layers of metal folded into a blade that a master smith could get to an edge the width of a human hair. Fascinating.

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