Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Angolmois anime.
Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the destiny of the Mongol people was transformed. From the squabbling horse tribes of the steppe, they were now the mounted conquerors of empire. Unified as a people, the Mongols challenged the august authority of the Celestial Empire: China. They took that authority for themselves, tearing the stars from their skies, crushing Chinese resistance in the north and declaring themselves China’s new rulers. The grandson of Genghis Khan and the third leader of the unified Mongol horde, Kublai Khan turned his conqueror’s appetite toward the Land of the Rising Sun and ordered the first of two Mongol invasions of Japan.
It is in this historical backdrop that Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion finds its setting and conflict: Tsushima, 1274 – the first frontline of the first invasion of Japan by the Mongols. Kuchii Jinzaburo and a band of exiles – a fellowship of petty scoundrels and disgraced warriors – find themselves ferried out of death row and shipped into a battlefield. There, those among them willing to fight alongside Tsushima’s defenders make their own contributions to this drama of bloodshed and sacrifice that, judging by the history, will amount to little more than a delaying action for the Mongols’ ultimate goal: the Japanese mainland.
But how did it come to this? How do the events from the history inform this animated fiction?
Kublai, Mongol Khan and Chinese Emperor
There aren’t records existing today that express a specific reason for Kublai Khan ordering an attack, but historians have speculated on factors that probably informed to his decision to do so.
Kublai Khan was both leader of the Mongols and the grandson of the Genghis Khan. He may have desired more lands due to personal ambition and glory, and he may have been attempting to live up to his people’s expectations and his ancestor’s legacy. He was also a newly enthroned and self-proclaimed Chinese Emperor, and he may have felt that he had to live up to this title. He may have wanted to prove that he was the only Chinese Emperor and that China was regionally #1. Kublai Khan consolidated the northern Chinese territories that his Mongols wrested control of and declared himself the “rightful” Chinese Emperor of a new Yuan Dynasty. To the south and the rest of the Chinese lands was the Southern Song dynasty with its own “rightful” Chinese Emperor.
Supporting Kublai Khan in the Southern Song in brisk trade, if not in direct military arms, were none other than the Japanese. Sending envoys over the Sea of Japan, Kublai Khan demanded that Japanese cease trading with the Southern Song. Japan’s rulers refused this demand. Kublai also demanded the Japanese become tributary vassals to his Chinese Empire, or else be forced to submit. Outside of “Celestial Empire,” the other moniker that Chinese Emperors tend to refer to their country as is “the Middle Kingdom.” Japan’s rulers refused this too.
Seeing their vast imperium as occupying the world’s center, Chinese Emperors have traditionally demanded that the smaller countries surrounding the Middle Kingdom enter into its system of tributary relations with it. Under this tributary relations system, the rulers of these smaller countries would send tribute to the Chinese Emperor. While it was often the case that Chinese Emperors would bequeath gifts and privileges to these countries in turn, implicit in this tributary arrangement is the acknowledged subordination of these smaller countries to the Chinese Empire.
Japan had its own Japanese Emperor and considered itself its own Japanese Empire. The pride of Japanese rulers in their own imperium and independence would not permit them to consider any other external power Japan’s political overlord… not even the Middle Kingdom. To the frustration of Chinese Emperors, Japan’s rulers have historically refused to be China’s willing tributary. To these Chinese Emperors’ consternation, because of both Japan’s geography and remoteness relative to China – a sea separates the Japanese archipelago from the rest of the Asian mainland – any attempts by the Chinese to impose its tributary demands on the Japanese would be costly and troublesome. Until Kublai Khan, most Chinese Emperors didn’t bother.
To recap, over a period of three years, Kublai Khan sent envoys demanding, with increasingly aggressive rhetoric, that Japan (1) break its ties with the Southern Song and (2) become a tributary of the Chinese Empire. Japan’s rulers not only refused these demands. They didn’t even bother sending Kublai Khan replies of their refusal. However, rather than completely rely on their country’s formidable geography and relative remoteness to protect them, Japan’s rulers began preparing for fighting in the most likely areas to be attacked in the initial wave of Mongolian invasion. The shogunate at the time called on its samurai vassals in the southeast to mobilize for war. 1274 approached.
The Mongol Warpath from Korea to Kyushu
The 1274 Mongol Invasion of Japan, the first of two Mongol Invasions into the Japanese archipelagos, would pit attacking Mongol forces against defending Japanese. The expeditionary Mongol force consisted mainly of both Mongols warriors and their Korean vassals. At the time, the unified Korean kingdom of Goryea were vassals to Kublai Khan and supplied many of its soldiers and all the ships for the Mongol camp.
The Japanese defending force mainly consisted of Japanese samurai households in the warpath of the invasion. The Angolmois anime’s protagonist Jinzaburo may have been an exile from northeastern Japan, but the vast majoirty of the Japanese samurai that fought were from the southwest. The participating Japanese samurai were just as much fighting to defend their homes as they were following orders from above.
The invasion route would begin in Korea and attempt a beachhead on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands. Mongol forces would then venture into the interior toward the Dazaifu, Japan’s southwestern military-administrative center. But before an assault on Kyushu could be made, the Mongols sought to first capture Tsushima.
The Situation in Korea, and Tsushima Stuck In-Between
The unified Korean kingdom of Goreyo had been fighting off Mongol invasions for decades before 1274. To spare the country from further war devastation, the King of Goryeo reached out to none other than Kublai Khan for an early peace in exchange for Korean Goryeo becoming a Yuan Dynasty vassal. With the matrimony of a Korean prince to a Mongolian princess, Kublai accepted the terms of the agreement. Taking advantage of this agreement later on, the Goreyeo King was ordered by Kublai Khan to the supply the Mongol expeditionary force of 1274 with many of its soldiers and all its ships at his country’s cost. Friction existed between the Korean and Mongol forces during the invasion as the Mongols often ordered Koreans on the frontlines of the fighting.
The Mongol expeditionary force may have also included soldiers from the Mongols’ other subjugated territories, such as the Jurchen. However, the historical records only make prominent note of the contributions of the Mongols and the Koreans.
The island of Tsushima is the closest Japanese territory to the Korean Peninsula and the Asian continent. Far smaller in size compared to Kyushu, its far closer proximity to Korea and China nonetheless made it a hub for trade between Japan and various Chinese dynasties and Korean kingdoms. Tsushima’s short distance from the Asian mainland made it an ideal springboard for Japanese wakou pirates raiding Korean and Chinese coastlines, and a susceptible target for any foreign invasion from the Asian continent and especially the Korean Peninsula. As the island laid directly in the Mongol warpath to Kyushu, pacifying and occupying Tsushima meant availing Mongol supply lines from harassment and securing a closer base of operations to Kyushu.
The Samurai Defending Tsushima and Japan
Opposing this Mongol-Korean expeditionary force were samurai households who lived in the way of the invasion route. Japanese administration at the time operated in a feudalistic arrangement where a military government called a shogunate was headed by a head of a samurai clan called a shogun. The shogun derived its formal powers from the Japanese Emperor and its actual power from the samurai vassals that swore him allegiance. While Japanese Emperors nominally reigned over Japan, Japanese shoguns held the real martial power in the country.
The institution of the shogunate started with the Minamoto samurai clan, whose founder, Minamoto no Yoritomo, secured/threatened the privilege of the hereditary shogun title from a Japanese Emperor. Connected with this title were the exclusive privileges of levying taxes on the country, keeping the country’s peace, and appointing hereditary deputies for those purposes. The Minamoto based their power in Kamakura, and their government came to be known as the Kamakura shogunate. At the time of 1274, the Kamakura shogunate was in power.
To both carry out its duties and shore up its power, the Kamakura shogunate granted hereditary titles of regional shugo to the heads of prominent and loyal samurai clans. In exchange for the honor and privileges associated with the shugo title, these heads were duty-bound to marshal their bannermen and resources to protect and defend their regions from threats from within and without. The Kamakura shogunate technically had the authority to call all of the shugo into war, and they might have been tempted to in 1274 against the Mongols. Fictional liberties regarding Kuchii’s inclusion in the anime aside though, the Kamakura shogunate ultimately gave the Kyushu shugo in the warpath of the invasion the primary responsibility of defending Japan against the Mongols in 1274 because of logistical difficulties.
At the time, the shugo of the Shoni clan was responsible for defending Tsushima. The Shoni clan was based in relatively distant Kyushu though, so the on-the-ground defense of the little island during 1274 was mainly handled by one of its vassals based in Tsushima, the So Clan. Kagesuke Shoni, the younger brother of the historical shugo responsible for Tsushima at the time, established himself as a war hero during the 1274 invasion. In the Angolmois anime, Kagesuke see him cameo-ing briefly in disguise as a Buddhist monk, promising Kuchii before departing that he would send Tsushima reinforcements. The anime would feature him later attempting to marshal those promised reinforcements in the Dazaifu. The historical So clan head Sukekuni So makes a more prominent appearance in the Angolmois. Sukekuni and his bannermen are shown as the first to clash with and die at the hands of the Mongol expeditionary force while Kuchii watches overhead.
Tsushima is Lost, but Japan Survives
For the Japanese defending their Tsushima homes in 1274, their lot in the invasion is brief and tragic. The Mongol expeditionary force fully occupy Tsushima. They capture, torture, and otherwise kill every Tsushima inhabitants they met; thereafter, they move on to Kyushu. If the events of Angolmois ultimately follow the flow of history, then the defense of Tsushima is likely doomed to ruin, along with Kuchii and his comrades-in-arms. While the defense may be lost though, there may be survivors of the struggle.
Like their countrymen on Tsushima, the defending Japanese on Kyushu fight valiantly, but suffer defeats and are pushed deeper into the interior. At some point, just as the Mongol expeditionary force is about to reach the Dazaifu, the Mongols halt their advance and withdraw from Japan entirely. Tsushima is also abandoned. Speculations abound as to why the Mongols pulled out despite still having the strength to keep going: (1) that the expeditionary force’s general was sniped by Kagesuke Shoni, and (2) that the invasion’s actual purpose was reconnaissance.
Regardless of the reasons for the retreat, the Mongols would attempt to invade Japan again, this time with a larger invasion force comprising of Mongols, Koreans, and Chinese. The Southern Song Dynasty would fall to the Mongols sometime after the first invasion attempt. With a combined contingent of Mongols, Koreans, and newly impressed Chinese soldiers, Kublai Khan was determined in 1281 to make Japan finally bend the knee – to him, the Mongols, and the Yuan Dynasty.
It is that same 1281 invasion that the legend of the kamikaze arose.
The article has covered the recorded history of the 1274 Mongol Invasion of Japan. The Angolmois anime goes further, adding speculation, mythology, and hypotheticals to the historical drama, all of which I don’t find myself informed enough to make a definitive explanation about. Characters make frequent references to the Genpei War, the outcome of which led to the fall of the Taira clan, and the establishment of the Minamoto-headed Kamakura shogunate. The show utilizes the mythos of the child Emperor Antoku’s survival, who in the histories was reported to have drowned at sea during the Genpei War’s last major battle. The series also incorporates the legend of the Toi, the originally Korean term that the Japanese used for Jurchen “barbarians” who once attacked Japan’s shores long ago. I haven’t even touched the period armor and armaments that each faction in the show are using, and there are admittedly certain aspects of Kamakura shogunate politics (i.e. the power struggles between the Minamoto and Hojo clan) that I chose not to mention to avoid getting too tangential.
For anyone interested in the history woven into the anime, I encourage reading not into the first and second Mongol Invasions of Japan. I very much also recommend researching the history and legends surrounding the Genpei War.