I’m actually not sure where to begin with Katanagatari. There’s so much to this anime that picking one point to begin, and somehow trying to touch on everything, even in passing, is a bit like looking at a huge plate full of spaghetti and being told that you have to select the end, not the middle, of one noodle and carefully follow that noodle through the entire mass and have it touch on or wrap around or lead directly to the ends of every other noodle in the entire meal.
Seriously, they could write volumes filled with essays on all almost everything involved in this anime (and, I presume, the manga it’s based on). The characters, individually and together, the themes, the texture of the show, the dialogue… everything!
So, I have at least two important questions to answer: where do I begin, and how do I touch on everything without turning this into a novel?
Alas, the latter question is answered with bidding a wistful good-bye to great sweeping swathes of what I might have said. (sigh!)
As for the former question, I suppose I’ll have to begin at the beginning… and the end!
When I watched the first episode of Katanagatari, it seemed to be a fairly simplistic but entertaining show, mostly ridiculous, yet with some serious elements to it. When I watched the end, there wasn’t that much laughter going on, but my attention was absolutely riveted to what was happening, being so much more complex and intense than I had imagined.
Seriously, I had a moment where I went, “This is a samurai movie!” I haven’t watched many of those (oh, I so want to get my hands on a copy of Seven Samurai, and all the rest of Kurosawa’s works!), but there’s something about them which just sets them apart, ya know? Sometimes in ways which we, particularly a foreign, Western audience, might not always be able to follow… but which we can all, as humans, innately sense is freaking awesome!
Katanagatari translates into “Sword Story.” True to the name, the story revolves around a dozen extraordinary swords, and the effort to gather and control these unique, dangerous weapons. However, these “swords” are not always blades, including a suit of armor, a club, a pair of guns, and even a primitive robot. There’s even a “human sword,” by the name of Yasuri Shichika, and this is primarily his story, more than any other.
Again contrasting the beginning of the show with the end, we see Shichika very much changed in the end. This is reflected in how he thinks, how he speaks, how he fights, even what he wears, as he gradually became more and more complex and refined.
Shichika grew up on an otherwise-uninhabited island. His father was exiled by the shogun – that’s the chief military official, practically a peer of the emperor, for those who don’t know – who was afraid of his father after the man loyally wiped out an entire rebellion, single-handed. It’s rather illogical, if you ask me, to exile a loyal servant after he wiped out your enemies, but whatever.
Over the years, Shichika learned his father’s martial art, called Kyotouryuu, where they strengthen their bodies to absurd proportions, turning it into a sword-like weapon. They are called the swordless swordsmen, the swordsmen who don’t use swords, or, as Shichika puts it, swordsmen who can’t use swords. They have a complete inability to even keep hold of a blade which, when an enemy ninja shape-shifts into Shichika to try and defeat him with a sword, only to have said sword fly straight out of his grip like a banana peel coated in butter, proves hilariously fortuitous for Shichika. Not so fortuitous for the ninja, as Shichika promptly kills him.
That moment right there, with hilarity and fatality hand in hand, captures much of Katanagatari‘s texture very well.
The show seems at first glance to be about two people, Shichika and Togame, a female “strategian” (she came up with the word herself, as tactics are created by tacticians and she creates strategies) of high military rank (though she can’t fight at all and is even so delicate that she actually boasts about it), going around Japan collecting twelve “swords” crafted a couple centuries earlier by a most unique smith. The swords are so unique and dangerous that, depending on their wielder, they can turn said wielder into a one-man army capable of slaughtering actual armies. These are the Deviant Blades of Shikizaki Kiki. And as Shichika and Togame go around collecting the swords, they face off against their owners and a troupe of ninjas called the Maniwa Ninja Corps, or Maniwani, as Shichika calls them.
So, the classic male-female duo goes around questing for the magic swords, fighting their owners and killing off their ninja competitors. Seems to conform to a number of tropes, yes?
But then, just as we’re starting to get into this rhythm, the rug gets pulled out from under us. Or, rather, the rug is being tugged from the very start, and we just don’t notice until we topple over.
The Maniwani are built into something more than just a collection of antagonistic, murderous freaks even while they’re being destroyed, and not by Shichika and Togame. The act of killing people is carried out so cavalierly at first, and then it begins to have more and more weight, as it truly should in both entertainment and real life. Ruin abounds everywhere Shichika and Togame go, be it the slow, dwindling decay of the land or a bloodline, or the overnight destruction of entire groups of people.
And everything is handled in ways both obvious and subtle.
Including the murder of the youngest ninja in a way most terrifying, brutal, and realistic, no matter his magical ninja techniques.
There is a sage that tells Shichika, “When people are killed, they die. You’ve been ignoring such a basic concept.” And that is something many of us are guilty of. We didn’t think much about the first few ninjas as they died, partially because they were built into something despicable and we didn’t care about their fates. But is that really the right way to approach violence in our entertainment? Certainly it’s not how we should approach violence in real life, right?
See, it’s that sort of thing, making us ask questions about ourselves and how we’ve approached life and entertainment, which makes this a compelling tale to me.
Throughout all of this, Shichika becomes a very different person than he was at the beginning. At the start, he had almost no personality or will of his own, or even much of a mind for thinking about anything more complicated than food. He’s a caveman. Or a rock disguised as a caveman. He just went through the motions of what he was told to do without really caring about anything.
By the end, he has gained passions, intelligence, desires, and a will of his own, even if he’s now acting according to desires which seem to contradict even one another, which just means he now has more then just one. This is exemplified in how he delivers pointed dialogue to his enemies as he defeats them now and, even more, his greatly strengthened refusal when offered power over Japan, increased from a bland “No,” in the first episode, to a vicious scream, in the finale, that he would never want something like that.
Oh, and while he is formidable at the beginning, he is an absolutely terrifying enemy to face at the end.
Katanagatari is, more than anything else, the story of the “sword” named Yasuri Shichika, and how he becomes more than he was before. Yet there’s so much more to it! The discussion about death and destruction and ruination is but one aspect of the show. Despite all the ruin in the land, there are just a few seeds of hope growing strong amidst the rubble, and these belong to the people who don’t fight for power or money or some grand, vague ideals. They just fight to continue living in peace.
There’s so much more I’d like to go into in depth: one episode’s style probably represents a central character’s disconnect with reality; another episode promised us a titanic fight with the best swordsman in the land, yet only delivered a glimpse of it in the preview for that episode; one antagonist’s past clearly has a meaty story to it but it’s never explained except in cryptic phrases. And so on and so forth.
Katanagatari upsets a lot of the conventional tropes, crafting a unique story that makes us, or at least me, ask questions of myself.
I liked this anime a lot!
I’m rating it 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.