Katanagatari has no right to be as grand and engrossing as it is considering its impressively banal premise. A mysterious woman called Togame turns up on a lonely island to recruit the martial artist Shichika. She needs his help to gather twelve swords from twelve immensely powerful warriors, and the twist is he will do so using no weapons of his own. All we need now is to line up the bad guys and watch the good guy pound through them one episode at a time.
Superficially, that’s exactly what happens. Every episode guarantees a bare bones episodic mystery and a feast of chanbara cliches to hook the mainstream (any fan of Ninja Scroll, Rurouni Kenshin, or the more bizarre Samurai Champloo, for instance, should find lots to love here). Substantially, though, this is just the show’s way of playing with us; after building certain expectations using the right hand, it magnificently twists and exceeds them using the left. I refer not just to its whimsical non sequiturs like The Fight That Never Was or its casual meta-references, but the entire construct in general is a curious marvel.
While essentially delivering a rousing, twenty-first century equivalent to Kenshin’s Kyoto arc, it actually swaps most of the physical ‘action’ for clever dialogue. Those already familiar with other Nisio Isin adaptations (Bakemonogatari) might have been more prepared than I, but the initial episodes seem jam-packed with people talking. Luckily, with the script lifted to some significant degree from light novels, it benefits from sleekly edited repartee and witty wordplay. By the end, recurring lines consciously forced into the story - like Shichika’s ‘By then, you will have been ripped to pieces’ - become natural rabble-raisers or else clever motifs to thematically tie events together.
Not that Katanagatari is incapable of stunning action sequences. The unusual format of twelve one-hour instalments ensures that, after substantial character development, there’s still plenty of room to stage a spectacular battle. Stylised and inventive, but also brief, the duels cap the hefty narrative like jewels on a crown. Anything from the fourth episode onwards is marvellous, but if Shichika’s final fight especially doesn’t set pulses racing, it means the audience is dead.
Katanagatari has ‘brave’ written all over it. It subsumes a set of clichés and tropes into its own unique fable, neither insulting our intelligence nor forgetting to deliver thrills. Its conclusion is ponderous and potent without being overwhelming or contrived. I cannot imagine anyone walking away from it unsurprised, but for me its ending was an opportunity to sit a few minutes mostly just thrilled and enthralled by its rare creativity.
I will not argue that Katanagatari is technologically innovative or even strong. Relying heavily on a combination of quick cuts, slow motion, and stills during fights, it ensures we rarely see more than a second of continuous movement. I will argue, however, that it is nevertheless beautiful and exciting. When it matters, the direction tries to find new ways to frame a clash, and the expert editing (aided by cinematic sound effects) leads to a strong sense of dynamism. Thus, Katanagatari’s artistry is much more evident in its clever composition and careful application of a modest budget.
The animators didn’t scrimp on character designs either, which are quirky almost to the level of a Gainax work. Conniving Princess Hitei with her two-toned, cloud-like hair reminds me of Nia Teppelin from Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. Togame’s cute-but-understated design and Shichika’s maple leaf motif, as well as the Maniwa ninjas’ impractical animal theme costumes, all add an unusual zest to Katanagari’s visual concept.
Many of the main themes are not to my taste, being so heavy on the synth that I cannot quite distinguish a melody. The music during the episodes, however is subtle, diverse, and appropriate to the Edo period depicted.
Togame represents the brains of Katanagatari’s outfit, composing schemes that utilise Shichika’s strengths to defeat their enemies. She combines her formidable intellect with a temperamental personality, which never seems as contradictory as it perhaps should. Interpretation plays a role, of course, but Togame’s embarrassed rants and petulant whinging come across like luxuries she affords herself while travelling with Shichika only because she otherwise plays the cool, unflappable strategist. This make her cute and vulnerable as opposed to crass and annoying. In any case, voice actress Yukari Tamura captures the contrasts in her personality marvellously, flowing from one extreme to the other while making it all meld into a coherent and deeply sympathetic personality.
And Shichika, having set off from his island a ‘blank slate’ simpleton, clearly needs her direction. A somewhat blunt instrument, he is seemingly fit between duels only for carrying her luggage, holding her long hair while she dresses, or standing against the sun to provide shade while she writes. Apart from that, something appears essentially wrong about him. Although perfectly polite and forthright, his lack of moral opinions or principles signify deeper disturbances and a bizarre mystery at the heart of the story. For him more than anyone, the quest becomes a unique opportunity for growth.
Togame and Shichika take a leaf out of the Spice and Wolf book of romance by being open about their feelings without bashing us over the head with it. I would venture calling them a comedy duo first and lovers second. Their development as partners involves a lot of playful antagonism as she insults his lack of flair or poor dress sense while he absorbs her teasing with a combination of steadfast pragmatism and simple gormlessness. Satisfyingly, they are not limited to playing quaintly off each other, delivering troubled or tender as easily as they do slapstick, and encapsulating the warm charm of Katanagatari’s cast.
Relegated to one episode each, the antagonists mostly stick to their gimmicky roles. There’s Ginkaku who sits in a tiny room of an abandoned palace, mourning the loss of his kingdom. Or Meisai, who runs a kind of nunnery in repentance of her murderous past. Their personalities hinge on peculiar tragedies but how their narratives spin out never feels manipulative. One or two of them even emerge from the left field to crash what seems a purely Togame and Shichika driven narrative and make unnerving impressions of their own.
Katanagatari’s episodic format is merely the springboard from which it leaps towards heroic heights. It takes us on a long journey that miraculously feels over all too soon, and when the characters walk onto the screen, we cannot wait to hear what they say. For fans sick of shows that blunder maddeningly at the finish line, especially, it offers a cure of perfect delivery - a story that’s witty and thrilling from its first moments all the way to the final cheerio.
In the wake of a rebellion that shook Japan twenty years prior, Togame Hida, general director and strategist for the army, seeks to obtain the 12 "deviant blades" created by master swordsmith Shikizaki Kiki to help add stability and security to the Bakufu government. To aid in this endeavor, she looks to enlist the help of Yasuri Mutsune, head of the Kyotou-ryu school and hero of the rebellion. But when she arrives on the island where he lives in exile, she finds him dead, succeeded by his skilled yet slightly daft son Shichika. Undeterred, the two set off from the island in search of the swords armed only with Togami's sharp strategic mind and Shichika's powerful, swordless Kyotou-ryu.
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