Nisio Isin has become a pretty big name in the anime industry in recent years. The anime adaptation of his Monogatari series was a hit in both Japan and the US and has had multiple seasons and movies and is still ongoing. What isn’t as well known is Katanagatari, an anime based on a series of novels by Isin that, despite the name, has nothing to do with Monogatari.
Katanagatari is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan ruled by the fictional Owari Shogunate. 20 years prior to the story, there was a rebellion against the Shogunate that was put down by Yasuri Mutsue, master of the “ultimate sword style” Kyoutoryu (no sword style). As the name suggests, Kyoutoryu doesn’t use any weapons and involves using one’s own body as a “sword.” In spite of his service to the Shogunate, Mutsue and his family were banished to an island because the shogun feared his power. 20 years later, Togame, a self-proclaimed “strategemist” for the government, seeks Mutsue’s help in recovering 12 legendary swords for the Shogunate. When she arrives at the island, she discovers that Mutsue is dead, but his son Shichika is still alive and also a master of Kyoutouryu, so Togame decides to get his help by making him fall in love with her. Her efforts to do this are questionable, but Shichika claims to have fallen in love with her and decides to go with her as her sword.
This may sound like a lot, but all of that plot and more is covered in the first episode. The only reason that works is because the episodes are all 50 minutes long and cover one novel each. In addition to letting the show cover more plot in each episode, this makes every episode feel like a self contained story with a firm beginning, middle and end. An overarching story develops as the show goes on, but the individual episode stories are usually self contained and involve characters that only appear in that episode, similar to Cowboy Bebop. Even with only one episode of development, the episodic characters usually feel fully developed and are able to have a complete arc. Some were so well written that I wish they had gotten more screentime.
One thing that Katanagatari understands is that episodic stories usually need strong characters to keep everything connected, which makes Shichika and Togame’s relationship crucial. Luckily, that’s one of the best parts of the show. Shichika starts out pretty bland, which is actually the point of his character. Because of his Kyoutoryu training, he considers himself to be just Togame’s “sword” and doesn’t really have any goals or desires of his own. He claims to love Togame, but it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t really understand what that is and only thinks he does. The best part of Katanagatari is watching him grow into a person with desires of his own and start to really care for Togame. Togame herself starts out very practically minded about Shichika and only really concerned about her goal of collecting the swords. Her arc focuses around her growing to care for Shichika at the same time as he grows as a person. The one criticism I have for how the characters were handled is that Togame never came off as the kind of cold blooded strategist she was supposed to be. Characters (including Togame herself) talked about how she was, but it was never convincingly shown through her actions. She justcame off more as clever than any real strategist.
One of the things that stuck out the most was how most of the character deaths (Katanagatari has plenty) felt like a waste. There generally aren’t big sacrifices or climactic battles as much as characters just dying. It doesn’t feel like they had to die in their situations but it ended up happening anyway. They just felt pointless. That might sound like a criticism, but it actually made them even more impactful since the whole thing always felt unnecessary, like they had more they could have offered.
I can’t go any further without mentioning how verbose Katanagatari is. Characters frequently narrate and analyze what’s going on at the time, or just chat about nothing important for long stretches of the show. Episode 2 has a particularly memorable instance where Shichika and Togame get in a long conversation about what Shichika’s catchphrase should be. I don’t mind large amounts of dialogue and the dialogue in Katanagatari is good (the anime would be unbearable if it wasn’t), but there’s so much of it that it can get tiring and sometimes comes at the expense of plot development and emotional punch. Katanagatari can be very emotional, with several memorable deaths, but the amount of dialogue involved can sometimes take away from that. It’s hard to stay focused on how sad something is when characters spend so much time talking about it while it happens. That sort of thing takes you out of the moment and weakens the emotion of scenes that should hit much harder. It also sometimes feels like scenes are being dragged out longer than they need to be because the characters spend so much time talking around the point (see the previously mentioned scene in episode 2) Like I said, though, the dialogue is good, with plenty of characterization being conveyed just through conversation and a lot of wit as well. Shichika and Togame bounce of each other really well and provide a lot of really funny scenes (especially about Togame’s catchphrase “cheerio!”). Ultimately, stylistic choices like this come down to personal preference; some people like Isin’s constant stream of dialogue, I’m just not a huge fan of it. I wouldn’t be quite this critical of all the talking if it hadn’t caused so many problems for the ending.
The ending is a distinct drop in quality from the rest. The emotional core of it comes from a certain character’s death, which didn’t have nearly as much impact as it should have because there was so much talking during it. Dialogue during an emotional scene isn’t a bad thing and can frequently make the scene in question better, but this didn’t. Instead of being heartfelt and emotional, it was primarily explaining certain character traits that hadn’t previously been shown, which is bad on two levels. Firstly, adding character traits by having the character just say they’re like that without really showing it is usually a bad way to write a character. Secondly, doing that made the scene last much longer than it should have and made it feel more tiring than heartbreaking, which is what the entire setup for it warranted. Similarly, the rest of the ending just feels unsatisfying and rushed. I know this is pretty vague, but I can’t explain more without spoiling it. It’s just not the ending the series deserved.
The animation for Katanagatari is generally quite good, especially during the action scenes. The fights are always well choreographed and no two feel quite the same. They’re not usually very long, but are generally well done. The art is heavily stylized, and not like anything else in anime. It’s not very detailed and can look flat, but that fits the aesthetic quite well and contributes to the mood of the show. It also makes the comedy funnier than it would be with a more realistic look. The soundtrack is a mostly traditional Japanese music, but also has some rap mixed in. This might sound like a strange combination, but it fits the flagrantly divergent historical setting really well.
Overall, Katanagatari is a really good show that by all rights should have been a great show. The characters were all memorable and well written, the dialogue was witty and funny, and it wasn’t afraid to get serious and have some real emotional scenes. In a way, Katanagatari’s own style was its own worst enemy, with all the dialogue getting in the way of some of it’s best scenes and a poorly executed ending. Fans of Nisio Isin will probably like it more than me, but it’s still very good and worth watching even if you’re not a huge fan of his.
Katanagatari has been licensed by NIS America, but is out of print and not available for legal streaming anywhere.
Final Score: 8.9/10