Sagara Sanosuke, born Higashidani Sanosuke, is a main character in the Rurouni Kenshin series. A former member of the disgraced Sekihō Army, in his youth, Sanosuke spent the years after the Meiji Revolution taking out his frustrations as a "fight merchant" under the name Zanza, all the while hating the Ishin-Shishi that framed and murdered his comrades as well as the flawed Meiji government that they created. After meeting Kenshin, however, Sano is able to put his feelings aside and end his fighting merchant days - instead taking up with Kenshin's group at Kamiya Dōjō. With his great strength and upright character, Sanosuke is a welcome and invaluable ally in Kenshin's adventures, serving as a trusted friend in times of peace and a dependable "right arm" in battle.
Tall and lean, Sanosuke's slight build belies his immense strength and his superhuman toughness, but his wild shock of spiky brown hair and intense brown eyes are clear indications of his demeanor. Sano is always seen wearing a white happi jacket with black trim and the kanji character aku (惡) - meaning evil or bad - emblazoned
conspicuously on the back in black as well as white dōgi trousers. While he always wears his jacket open - sometimes leaving his arms out of the sleeves so that it simply drapes over his shoulders, Sanosuke does not wear a shirt beneath it, instead leaving his chest bare while white sarashi bandage tape is wrapped around his abdomen; this same white sarashi is wrapped around his ankles and feet. Additionally, Sano wears a long headband and matching sarashi around his left forearm, both of which are often depicted as red, but sometimes seen in purple. As he fights with his fists and relies on his ability to absorb damage rather than any defensive skill, Sano is also frequently seen in bandages, most
notably around his right hand and forearm after mastering Futae no Kiwami.
After he leaves Japan and goes to the mainland at the end of the series, Sanosuke lets his already wild image grow wilder by allowing his hair to lengthen to a shoulder-length mane while growing a chinstrap beard.
Straightforward and brash, Sanosuke presents a rather complex set of morals despite his relatively simple demeanor. Not particularly occupied with whether a person aligns with "good" or "bad", he instead places importance on whether or not people are honest with themselves or others. Due largely to his experience with the Sekihō Army and the Ishin Shishi of the Meiji Government, Sanosuke is acutely aware that the definitions of good and bad are arbitrary and subjective - often changed or switched depending on who is in a position of authority - and, therefore, does not judge those who choose either path or balk at doing "illegal" or "immoral" things himself. However, he marks lies and hypocrisy as the height of villainy and, as a result, is unusually forthcoming with his own intentions and also bald-facedly critical of others' half-truths.
Though usually displaying a demeanor somewhere between sardonically jovial and bored, Sanosuke is described by those close to him as having a temperament like fire - a fire that smolders with the losses of his past in times of quietude but comes fully aflame when his fists itch for combat. In keeping with his brash and forthright character and in spite of his quick tongue, Sanosuke is more prone to speak with his fists than with his words. For him, there is no greater enjoyment than that found in brawling with strong opponents and no greater disappointment than raising his fists against a weaker man. When Sano's temper is ignited by the victimization of a friend, however, he becomes unable to calm himself until his fists have struck a target, regardless of his enemy's strength.
After coming into contact with Himura Kenshin and the group at the Kamiya dojo, however, Sanosuke has begun to see a deeper path through life. For the most part, forgoing his violent nature, Sano soon comes to admire Kenshin and joins the ex-hitokiri's mission to aid the downtrodden and victimized. Along the way, Sanosuke encounters more and more people whose strength he begins to evaluate differently; to those whose inner strength resembles Kenshin's, Sanosuke offers his strong right arm, and to those whose ideals are misguided, Sanosuke seeks to give the same inspiration that Kenshin has given him.
Unfortunately, Sanosuke's brash straightforwardness carries a strong strain of thickheadedness with it. Though rather observant in crucial situations and particularly astute with doling out criticisms, he can often be rather simple-minded, requiring those with sharper minds to explain the finer points of any complex occurrence. Sanosuke is also known to his close friends as a bit of a mooch, skulking around the Kamiya dojo for free meals, borrowing cash from friends without any real promise of reimbursement and racking up a rather large unpaid tab at the Akabeko.
- Sagara Sōzō - Sano's childhood mentor and hero, the Captain of the Sekihō Army treated the boy as a younger brother, entrusting him with all his dreams and ideals for the future. Sano came to see Sōzō as a shining beacon of hope and honesty and so, when the newly formed Meiji Government branded the Captain as a traitor and executed him to hide its own lies, young Sanosuke's innocence died with him. In times of emotional turmoil, Sano reflects on Sōzō's selflessness and finds the inner strength he needs to see the path in front of him. On at least one occasion, these reflections have granted Sano a vision of Captain Sagara as if the man's ghost were standing before him.
- Himura Kenshin - Sanosuke respects Kenshin's strength, but initially holds a bitter grudge towards him, as he is one of the Ishin-Shishi, believing all of them to be hypocrites for framing and murdering the Sekihō Army and his mentor. After losing to him, however, he learns of his beliefs in protecting the weak, which contrasts with many imperialists who simply sought power and wealth at the expense of others. Since he regards Kenshin's ideals as similar to what his mentor believed in, he develops a deep level of veneration for him. He reveres Kenshin much like he did his mentor and is willing to follow him to the end, even if it means death. However, when Saitō told Sanosuke that Kenshin left Tokyo due to him being a liability, Sanosuke took great offence. He proceeded to follow Kenshin to Kyoto and reminded him with a punch that he can more than hold his own, and that he would always be there to back Kenshin up whenever he needed a helping hand. In addition, he remembered the intense sorrow that struck him deeply and remained with him for a long time, after the murder of his mentor and so wanted to help Kenshin in order to avoid re-living the same sorrow. During the fight with Yukishiro Enishi's men, Kenshin refuses to help Sanosuke due to his respect for his strength and pride, saying that if he dies, "He was only that much of man".
- Tsukioka Katsuhiro - Former comrade under the Sekihō Army. Sano is surprised when he learns that Tsukioka is still alive, living under the alias "Tsunan". They later get together and Tsunan is willing to help him out when he needs it, e.g. giving him bombs when he decides to travel to Kyoto in order to help Kenshin bring down Shishio Makoto, which come in handy as he is able to use them to destroy Shishio's prized ship, the Rengoku.
- Yūkyūzan Anji - The closest thing Sanosuke had to a mentor since the death of his late master, Sano first met the fallen monk at Shimosuma, the site where the Seikihotai were executed. Having overcome Anji's trial of learning to use the Futae no Kiwami attack in a single week, Sano was drawn to the deep spirited and equally Meiji-hating monk-turned-fighter. However, because he had also been Shishio's henchman, the third strongest of the Jupongatana as the Bright King, their confrontation was inevitable. Seeing his former, embittered and enraged self in Anji's hellbent demeanor, Sano lost no respect for his mentor but fought hard and bravely to bring him back to his senses. He still deeply respects Anji by the end of the series, continually making mention of his strength and enlightenment. When fighting Fudōsawa, Sano goes berserk and while beating him to a bloody pulp, states that he's no match for a man who fought and learned from the God of Destruction himself (referring to Anji).
- Myōjin Yahiko - They have a very brotherly relationship. Sano likes to pick on Yahiko, and the two often get into fights with each other (resulting in Yahiko getting beaten up). They are also often partners in mischief, often to the dismay of Kaoru. However, when things are serious, Sano will give Yahiko his advice and guidance, especially regarding becoming a man. Near the end of the series Sano grants his apartment to Yahiko, while Yahiko would later begin wearing Sano's signature aAu symbol on the back of his collar.
- Kamiya Kaoru - Sanosuke often treats Kaoru like a child and plays jokes and pranks on her, alongside Yahiko, however, the two are still comrades and good friends and look out for each other when the time comes. When Kaoru is allegedly murdered, Sanosuke burns with rage and for the first time he has a desire to kill her supposed murderer, Enishi. After, it is learned that Kaoru is alive (thanks to Shinomori Aoshi), Sano helps the others track her down and join the battle against Enishi and his henchmen.
- Takani Megumi - Sanosuke initially despised Megumi for her role in his friends death from Opium. In the manga, he begins to warm up to her only after rescuing her from Kanryu. But in the anime series, he warms up to her after hearing the story of her family before she is captured.
- Saitō Hajime - Sano on the surface, hates Saitō and is resentful of the fact Saitō had complete control over their fight in Tokyo. Saitō regards Sano as weak and foolish and won't hesitate to remind him of that. It was the fight with Saitō that made Sano seek a means of becoming stronger as he made his way to Kyoto. However, despite Saitō berating him on his lack defense, Sano refused to get stronger the way Saitō suggested, claiming it wasn't his style, and possibly out of spite. Despite their animosity towards each other, however, the two quietly respect each other's strength.
- Higashidani family - A family of 5 consisting of Higashidani Kamishimoemon, Higashidani Naname, Higashidani Uki, Higashidani Ota and Sano. After the death of Naname and Sanosuke's choice to leave the family, Kamishimoemon raised the two younger children on his own. Sano's mother passed away after he left during the birth of his brother hence his not knowing of the existence of a younger brother and the death of his mother. His sister, who was very attached to him, didn't know what became of him and was devastated to learn of his leaving to join the Sekiho Army and later when she found out the fate of the Sekihotai. His father broke the news of his mother's death to him upon a chance meeting in which they fought each other out of pride.
Unfortunately, being rather thick-headed, Sanosuke doesn't have many skills outside of the physical realm. However, he makes up for that fact with a body remarkably suited for combat. Despite his lithe frame, he is a man possessed of almost superhuman strength capable of kicking down massive doors, splitting trees in half with punches and kicks, smashing boulders with his fists and incapacitating fearsome opponents with but a flick of his finger. Sanosuke's strength is also what allows him to brandish his tremendous trademark sword--the Zanbatō--as if completely ignoring its significant weight. Though his relative inexperience with swordplay coupled with the blade's unwieldy size make it necessary for him to swing it either laterally or vertically, Sanosuke manages to be quite threatening with it, carving trenches into the earth where his sword strikes the ground and even using it to swat aside cannon fire.
However, even with his monstrous strength, Sanosuke's true advantage in combat comes from his herculean toughness; conventional attacks, armed or unarmed, have little to no effect on him and in those rare instances when he is injured by a powerful opponent, he is usually able to shrug off the pain momentarily and bounce back from most injuries with unexpected quickness. As a consequence of this, however, Sanosuke has almost no concept of self-defense outside of simply absorbing blows; he is unaccustomed to blocking or parrying in a fight and often jumps back into battle before his previous wounds have healed completely.
After his defeat at the hands of Saitō Hajime, it's clear to Sanosuke that his level of strength will be of little help against the enemies to come. Sano's attempts to heighten his usefulness lead him into the presence of Yūkyūzan Anji, who teaches him the basics of his secret technique: the Futae no Kiwami or "Mastery of the Two Layers". With this technique, Sanosuke is able to supplement his prodigious strength with the ability to completely pulverize matter. He does this by implementing a double-strike, first using the proximal interphalangeal joints of his right hand and then folding his hand to strike with the proximal phalanx joints. The first strike counters and negates the target object's natural resistance and the second strike, delivered within 1/75th of a second, strikes the target object before it can recover from the initial blow, thereby causing it to shatter completely.
"Mastery of the three layers" His original technique which along with the first two strikes he pushes open his fist creating a third strike this was used to defeat the creator (Anji) of the two layers.
Sanosuke is a former member of the Sekihō Army. When the group is destroyed by the Meiji Government, he becomes a fighter-for-hire to calm his anger by fighting. During his introduction in the series, he encounters the wanderer Himura Kenshin, who easily defeats him and is able to convince him to stop his mercenary work and instead start protecting people. After that encounter, Sanosuke becomes Kenshin's best friend as well as his partner in most of their fights. He also appears in the featured film of the series and in other media relating to the Rurouni Kenshin franchise, including a plethora of electronic games and original video animations (OVAs).
Numerous anime and manga publications have commented on Sanosuke's character. Mania Entertainment praised his character development, noting that he becomes more trustworthy and reliable as the series progresses. SciFi.com referred to him as a "video-game icon", and noted how he is portrayed as a "tragic figure". Sanosuke has been popular with the Rurouni Kenshin reader base, placing second in every popularity poll. Merchandise based on Sanosuke has also been released, including key chains, and plush dolls.
Creation and reception
Sanosuke was one of the last major figures of the series to be created. Watsuki created him to be Kenshin's best friend, who is willing to punch him when he is sad to make him "wake up" from his sadness. Although Sanosuke is a main character in the series, Watsuki felt that he could not write everything he wanted about him, and thought that making him the title character of a series would prove interesting.
Watsuki describes Sanosuke's visual motif by referring to his design model, Lamp, the main character of Takeshi Obata's Mashin Bōken Tan Lamp-Lamp. Watsuki, working as an assistant on Obata's manga, formed the character by doodling in sketchbooks, adding and subtracting elements from the proposed character "with blessings from the original artist, of course". Watsuki saw Shiba Ryōtarō's version of Harada as the one he wanted to use as a model for his design and has said that the character's big spiky hair is the strangest element he has ever drawn.
In July 2006, the Japanese publishers of Rurouni Kenshin released the kanzenban edition. In the fifth kanzenban, Watsuki redesigned the character of Sanosuke in a draft version. To emphasize his hate of the Meiji Government, Watsuki drew the Japanese kanji for "bad" (惡 , aku) as a tattoo on Sanosuke's back; in the original series, the mark is shown on the back of his the character's jacket. Unlike in the manga where Sanosuke wields an oversized fictional version of a zanbatō, Watsuki gave him a more historically accurate zanbato. He also gave him an armor-like cloth to make him look more like a warrior.
In the anime adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin, Watsuki's designs were combined with the voice talents of Yūji Ueda, a seiyū. In producing the English dub version of the series, Media Blasters chose Lex Lang as Sanosuke's voice actor. When writing Sanosuke's dialogue, Clark Cheng, the writer of the English dub script, noted that the character was smarter than he would have liked in the first few episodes, and tried slowly to change the character's dialogue to make him seem dumber so he would be more similar to the Japanese version of the series.
In Live-action film
In the live action film, he first saw Kenshin when the two of them were in jail and upon discovering that he was Hitokiri Battōsai, he challenged and fought him, although Kenshin did nothing but dodge all of his attacks the entire fight (unlike in the anime/manga, where Kenshin beats him unconscious). Later on, he helped Kenshin rescue Megumi, who was kidnapped by Takeda Kanryū. He fought against Inui Banjin during that battle, while Kenshin fought Gein. Sano was put in bandages by Megumi and seen resting in the end.
- Munetaka Aoki who played Sano in a live-action film is 9 years older than Takeru Sato who played Kenshin, which is ironic, considering that Kenshin is 9 years older than Sano.
- He is deathly afraid of newly introduced western technology; he doubts the stability of the locomotive, believing it to be an explosive deathtrap, and fears cameras, believing that they suck in a person's soul. Of interest is that these aspects are far more exaggerated in the anime while the manga rarely touches on this.
- Like the rest of the Higashidani family, the origin of his name also involves a direction, in his case the kanji Sa means "Left".
- Sagara Sanosuke bares a striking resemblance to both Akira Yuki from Virtua Fighter Series and Ryu from Street Fighter Series. His appearance (face and hair-wise) could have also been an inspiration for Sol Badguy of the Guilty Gear series as it's creator had Baiken (another Guilty Gear character) inspired by Kenshin's appearance.