Ryu and Ken’s famous rivalry is based off of one of Japanese history’s most famous rivalries, that of Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki.
Ryu and Ken are easily the most iconic fighting game characters there are. They’ve served as the basis for countless other fighting game rivalries, including Ryo and Robert of Art of Fighting fame (which led to shoto-clone-inception with the creation of Dan). But are Ryu and Ken based on an even more famous pair of dueling rivals? Enter The Duel of Ganryu Island.
The day was April 13th, 1612. Musashi, a battle-obsessed vagabond (for more, see the manga Vagabond), had challenged the relatively famous Kojiro to a duel. Musashi’s goal was simple: to forge himself in the flames of battle. Kojiro’s was no doubt more complicated. With his own sword school and a position as chief weapons master of a fief in what is now Northern Kyushu, Kojiro was most likely eager to show off his now famous Tsubame Gaeshi (usually translated as Flying Sparrow Cut) and attempt to garner more fame for his art. But Kojiro underestimated Musashi’s dedication, no, obsession, with fighting. Musashi had little need for social status and fancy titles, he cared only where his blade(s) landed next. Kojiro’s speed and reach with his nodachi brought him close to victory many times against the wanderer, despite Musashi’s attempts to get into Kojiro’s head (various taunts and purposely arriving late were among many psychological tricks Musashi used). The end of battle differs depending on the sources (so do many other aspects of the story), but the most well-known version is that Musashi positioned himself to where the sun was shining over his shoulder, which blinded Kojiro, and Musashi dealt the finishing blow with a bokken carved out of an oar, cracking Kojiro’s skull, killing him.
The Pervasive Power of Legend
The story of these two rivals is immortalized in many types of media and entertainment, including traditional Japanese art and kabuki plays. Musashi and Kojiro even show up in modern entertainment, with Musashi appearing in the famous Makai Tensho story (which later inspired Samurai Showdown — Haohmaru and Ukyo are Musashi and Kojiro respectively — and Last Blade), Square’s Brave Fencer Musashi, and a league of historical fiction-based entertainment, like Samurai Warriors. Kojiro, who is almost completely defined by his duel with Musashi, rarely appears by himself, but does have an appearance as Assassin in the anime Fate: Stay Night. Even Team Rocket’s dynamic duo, Jessie and James, are known as Musashi and Kojiro in the Japanese version of the Pokemon anime (there’s gotta be an interesting explanation behind that one). But, in my opinion, we’re missing one more subtle appearance: as the characters of Ryu and Ken in the Street Fighter series.
Ryu as Musashi
The characteristics of Musashi Miyamoto are pretty easy to notice in Ryu, once given the relationship. Ryu lives to fight. He wanders the world seeking only to prove himself in battle. Through his dedication, no, obsession with fighting, he lets other aspects of his life suffer, including his hygiene and social status. But this doesn’t bother Ryu. Ryu doesn’t care about these things. Musashi was known for ignoring the social aspects of the samurai class (if you’re unfamiliar with this idea, think about the wealth and fame knights had in medieval Europe) to further hone his martial abilities. Even after becoming famous, Musashi chose rather to live in seclusion than to join the increasingly soft and ritual-bound samurai class. This fits Ryu’s personality very well. Ryu’s endings in the various Street Fighters games usually show him walking away from the wealth and fame awarded for being a prize fighter, instead focusing on his fighting prowess. He, like Musashi, lives only for the fight and the self-improvement that results from it.
Ken as Kojiro
The similarities between Ken and Kojiro are even more clear. Cocky, wealthy, physically attractive, and well known for their fighting, both seem to have everything going for them. They both love the fight (and excel at it), but are driven by the fame as much as, if not more than, the clash. Ken’s story has him settle down and start a family, a symbolic acceptance of social status and a “normal” life. Ken even takes a student in Sean during the Street Fighter 3 storyline, much like Kojiro’s opening his own school to further teach his art (notice that this was not mentioned in the Ryu/Musashi comparison, Musashi was reluctant to take students, and we see this in Ryu’s reluctance to train Sakura). Kojiro’s preferred weapon, the nodachi, was known for its reach, and his sword art was known for its speed. Ken, especially in later games, relies on his lightning fast, far reaching kicks to devastate opponents. There are aesthetic similarities as well. Kojiro is usually depicted as having sleek, almost feminine facial features and long hair. Ken, especially in his Street Fighter Alpha iterations, most certainly could be described as such as well. Finally, the nature of his rivalry with Ryu is very similar to that of Kojiro’s with Musashi. Ken won’t throw his wealth and fame away to become the best fighter in the world. Ryu is more than happy to do so, and so, Ryu always has a slight edge over Ken.
Legend as Meme
Certainly there are many similarities between the two dueling duos, but I don’t feel confident saying that Akira Nishitani and Akira Yasuda purposely based Ryu and Ken off of Musashi and Kojiro. However, it’s clear that the latter’s rivalry is easily one of the most widely known tales in Japan. My hypothesis here is that the meme (see meme theory) of Musashi and Kojiro’s rivalry affected the design of these two characters, particularly in later games of the series, in ways that the developers might not even realize. No one creates in a vacuum, and certainly not in a vacuum wave motion strike.