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Katanagatari Anime Review
Human society has been, and likely always will be muddled by the constant defamation of good intentions by use of over-generalization, closed perspective, and inane association. This is clearly evident via the millions of emigrants who become confused and sometimes discontent with their new homes because of the culture or general behavior of said area. Many brave individuals have sought to shatter these barriers, only to be halted by the fact that humans will usually favor what is familiar to them over anything that dares to bring them out of their comfort zone, even if this change were to primarily be an admirable one.
It is for this reason that some of the government systems become stagnant (mainly the United States) and rely heavily on patriotism and charm to earn the superficial rewards for their career rather than actually accomplishing anything. Henceforth, the anime titled Katanagatari challenges these issues through use of character symbolism. The main question in this challenging title is whether or not it succeeds in what it was intended to do.
Katanagatari (literally "sword story") is a 12-episode anime series animated by studio White Fox and released in 2010. White Fox's most notable titles include: Steins;Gate, Jormungrand, and Akame ga Kill! Nisio Isin, author of the Monogatari series, wrote the light novel series which Katanagatari is based on in 2007. Each episode of this anime clocks in at about 50 minutes, making it comparable in length to a standard 24-episode series. The story follows martial artist Shichika Yasuri and Togame, a strategian, as they attempt to obtain all 12 of the legendary swords crafted by Kiki Shikizaki, centuries prior.
From the very first second that he is on screen, one thing is made fairly clear about Shichika Yasuri: the fact that he far surpasses the definition of what would normally be called "strong" (it's worth noting that this is shown in a non-verbal way). Undergoing intense physical training for a large percentage of his life, he has come to a point where he can carry heavy objects for long periods of time without any indication of exasperation. Shichika is called a swordsman, though he possesses no skills with a sword whatsoever and doesn't carry one with him, instead, he practices a fighting style known as Kyotouryuu. Kyotouryuu focuses greatly on use of dexterous movements of the user's entire body in order to defeat opponents. Another point regarding his moniker as a swordsman, Shichika not only doesn't use swords, he is simply incapable of using them in any way and becomes near useless the instant one enters his hand. This is a trait passed down in the Yasuri family line, and so is Kyotouryuu.
Being that he has spent the majority of his life on a remote island, our hero knows little about the civilized social world that he lives in, and many a folly are bound to occur because of this. Since this isn't a direct result of his personality, you can't really cite him as the cause of his naivety. Furthermore, he has an innate intuition that gives him the appearance of being keenly aware, which he is for the most part.
Togame is a strategian for the shogunate, a sort of governing body in Japanese history. Many of her physical and mental traits are complementary towards Shichika's, being that she is familiar with the culture she lives in but doesn't possess much physical power. The two are still similar in that they have a lot of the same ideas, but each express them in entirely different ways. Sophistication and effectiveness are two important ideas to this woman, making her a possible enemy of rebellious denizens.
A group of ninjas known as the Ninja Corps has 12 leaders that appear periodically throughout the series. They oppose Togame and Shichika in their quest to obtain the the twelve swords, but they don't add a whole lot to the plot of Katanagatari in the long run. Houou Maniwa, the leader of the Maniwa Ninja Corps, is the only one of the twelve heads that really does anything significant in the story, but not until the eleventh episode. All of the remaining Ninja Corps heads serve primarily as fodder for the protagonists and the sword owners, usually dying without accomplishing anything. However, they still question the ideas and intents of the protagonists during their encounters with them, fleshing out the world and characters of the series.
Another competitor, Princess Hitei, is assisted by a nimble man named Souda Emonzaemon. The two seem to have little interest in each other due to their conflicting personalities, with Emonzaemon being very reserved and patient and Hitei being somewhat the opposite. Emonzaemon always has a mask on that completely covers all his facial features excluding his mouth, further indicating his identity as a man of little to no emotion. Hitei was fairly acquainted with Togame prior to the events of Katanagatari and they even had a sort of rivalry, probably due to their vastly differing world views and methods; something which is evidenced by Hitei's long-term based plans and Togame's diminutive ones.
All of the remaining characters, being that they are owners of the swords that Shichika and Togame aim to attain, usually only exist for one episode each because they are killed or become unnecessary to the plot at the end of the particular episode they are involved in. These characters usually get a considerable amount of backstory despite how short their on screen existences are. The audience is lead to believe that these characters have reasons for owning the sword they possess that are more or equally as honorable as the motivations of the protagonists, making them more than just another enemy for Shichika to defeat.
The whole of Katanagatari is about Shichika Yasuri's journey to understand the world around him and decide what stances he should take towards certain ideas and why he should take those stances. Each sword owner challenges his methods or way of thinking in a different way from the last. This is reflected both in the personality of the sword owner as well as the traits of the sword itself. With this series challenging the meaning of the word "sword," going so far as to refer to a suit of armor and even an entire man as a sword. This is meant to accentuate the phrase "what is your sword?", meaning, "how do you go about fighting for what you believe in, and why?" This idea is explored more obviously in the final episode of the series.
Shichika is continually forced to face these differing resolves and methods, becoming a person so different at the conclusion that some might consider him to be a different character entirely. For example, in episode six, Shichika and Togame face Konayuki Itezora, an eleven-year old girl who wields the sixth of Kiki Shikizaki's deviant blades. Konayuki has no fighting skill at all, but is able to brandish the immensely burdensome Kanazuchi. Due to a trait passed down in the Itezora bloodline, Konayuki can hold an item that Schichika cannot lift an inch, let alone carry.
Because of her unparalleled strength and lack of predictable tactics, Shichika is unable to defeat this adversary even though he is considered the "greatest swordsman in Japan" at this point in the story. He is then forced to rewrite his fighting approach to overcome this conflict, learning more about himself, Togame, and even Konayuki in the process. This may make it sound as if Katanagatari is a repetitive series, though I can assure you that Nisio Isin put a lot of work into maintaining the enlightening and revitalizing atmosphere from the beginning of volume one until the end of volume twelve.
The fighting sequences in Katanagatari have a great amount of notoriety to them being that they borrow a lot of tropes from action shounen series, with characters announcing their special moves prior to their usage and having the ability to transcend what is considered normal human capability, such as suspending themselves in the air for normally impossible amounts of time and moving at near light speed. The main thing that separates the action of this series from titles such as Dragon Ball Z is that the encounters last only from a few seconds to a few minutes, instead of hours upon hours of grueling back-and-forth bantering. Furthermore, some of the characters in Katanagatari have an odd habit of explaining their techniques or motives to their opponent.
What's not clear about this is whether or not these events are meant to be taken seriously or in a satirical light, since there are distinct parts of this show that are meant to be humorous, and these segments do not exhibit this attitude. I'd go as far as to say that these possibly nostalgic confrontations aren't meant to be viewed with gaiety. With this, I can safely conclude that this series takes itself a little too seriously at times. I mean, it's hard to take something one hundred percent sincerely when scenes like the one following are treated like a common occurrence in an otherwise tame world (though I can't deny that they're pretty stylish).
One of the pinnacle features of the sword story is the relationship between Togame and Shichika. Each relies heavily on the other to fill out their specific part of the bargain, and this leads to their strengthening association as the series progresses, as most similar cross-gender relation usually result in. This is another thing that is important to Shichika's growth as a character, being that he has virtually no one else in his life who has done as much for him as Togame. Togame also gets a decent amount of personal development, and she reviews many of the reoccurring conflicts in her life with the help of Shichika, who aids her of his own will. The two frequently exchange playful, yet at the same time, critical phrases - which further demonstrates their openness with each other.
Another important message in this tale is the opposite of growth, in which humans are generally inclined to act in the ways that they habitually have in their lives, even if it may have seemed like said habit had long since vanished. The main idea in this is probably something along the lines of: "humans will ultimately all be tied to the traditions and behaviors that govern them." Being that this is more relevant in Japan than it is in the west, some viewers might find this to be unrelatable. The setting of Katangatari, a sort of alternate version of feudal Japan, may be a play on this since it is the very origin where many of the traditions of the country were derived.
Some of the dialogue comes off as too lengthy, with one scene in the first episode being around fifteen minutes of continuous dialogue detailing the main goal of the series. During this time, no visual aids were used to augment their conversation and it was a very lazy and poor method of putting across the most important plot points. There aren't any other scenes that violate the "show, don't tell" mindset of storytelling as much as this one, though a few come close.
On the subject of the ending, I found it to be a little cheesy and overly dramatic, while still giving fitting closure to a mostly flawless narrative.
Animation & Sound
The animation in Katanagatari is unlike anything else in White Fox's repertoire, or anyone else's for that matter. Opting for a cartoon-ish style that tries to take weight out of the show's preposterous action scenes, the animation has few parallels with realism. Unfortunately, this particular technique doesn't fit well with the highly violent material that the story demands from time to time. One thing of particular note is the eyes of the characters, which vary greatly between characters when compared to any other animation style. I'm not sure what the point of doing this was, though I have reason to believe it might be relative to each character's personality. Perhaps this was done because having normal-looking eyes for everyone would have combated with the animation's aloof feeling.
The sound is another defining aspect of the show. Some of the more memorable tracks use an R&B-esque style that fit well with the weird, alternate feudal Japan setting, similar to the one that Samurai Champloo used. There's also some more traditional-sounding songs on here, abiding to the setting just like everything else. There isn't an English dub and there won't ever be one. The voice actors did an exquisite job at showcasing the emotion and overall feel of the characters they encompass. There's a few conversational quirks here that rely on Japanese language knowledge, which could potentially alienate non-Japanese speaking viewers.
Katanagatari is a series that begins and concludes without any major flaws, though it is a little lackluster with some of its subject matter. Nisio Isin delivers his usual self-indulgent dialogue pattern, but this is all in good fun and not to be taken too seriously. Each of the characters execute exactly what they were meant to do and are highly symbolic in some areas, being fulfilling to those interested in a (somewhat) thought-provoking experience. Each introduced personality feels three-dimensional, even if the personality in question is shortly-lived. The action sequences are over-the-top and are unintentionally humorous at times, coming off as gaudy. All in all, Katanagatari is a series I think everyone can and should enjoy, but some may be put off by the insane amounts of text and silliness of it all.