Sometimes, a journey is about the distance travelled rather than the original goal or destination. As doors open and horizons broaden, it becomes possible to view the world in a completely different light. To that end, a similar thing could be said about renowned author Nisio Isin’s quirky spin on a traditional samurai tale, Katanagatari.
Nisio Isin has become somewhat of a household name in the anime community for his signature writing style. Widely acclaimed for his work on both the Monogatari series and Medaka Box, Katanagatari is another example of Isin’s talents. Situated in a traditional period setting, Isin defines his story with contemporary allusions and innumerable jokes on the sub-culture particularities of modern day Japan. Along with an eccentric cast that remains engaging, Katanagatari becomes a journey unlike any other.
As the title suggests, Katanagatari is a story about swords, or more specifically a journey set in Japan’s Edo era revolving around the collection of twelve legendary swords sought out by the shogunate: the Deviant Blades. The plot kicks off following the shogunate’s self-appointed tactician, Togame, landing ashore a small island in the middle of nowhere. Here she meets Shichika Yasuri, the son of an exiled war hero and seventh head of the Kyoutouryuu school of martial arts. Through some rather unorthodox reasoning, Togame enlists Shichika’s aid. Much to her dismay however, she receives far less than what she bargained for as Shichika is a country bumpkin with some of the most deplorable social skills. And so begins a journey of friendship, adventure and tragedy as the two skewer Japan’s outer reaches for the twelve Deviant Blades.
Much like Shichika, Katanagatari is a story that hails from humble roots. Since the show’s premise does very little to distinguish itself from a bare bones fetch quest, audiences expecting a more innovative plot line may be discouraged at first glance. Coupled with a narrative composition similar to a JRPG, Katanagatari can give the initial impression that it’s nothing more than a string of random fights interspersed between lots of long-winded dialogue.
Fortunately, this is one story that proves it shouldn’t be judged solely by its cover.
Although the premise makes it clear that the original goal of the story was to retrieve each of the twelve Deviant Blades, the route that Katanagatari takes allows for a much grander experience. The episodes are usually structured in such a way where adequate time is given to allow the two characters to soak up the local culture extensively before confronting their foe. Each of the locations that the characters visit is rich with unique customs, practices and cuisine. Complementing the backdrops nicely is Isin’s vision for his story, which integrates endless puns, otaku-centric humour and modern day practices into the script.
Further immersing the viewer are the show’s artistic direction, animation quality and soundtrack. To complement the wide variety of locations that the characters visit, the animation quality remains high throughout the series with plenty of rustic detail being given to the interior locations and outside environments. However, to spice things up, the unusual character attire designed by illustrator Take along with the colour palettes chosen by White Fox juxtaposes the more traditional style of the time period. There’s also some other nifty elements of contemporary culture present such as Togame’s misuse of the British saying “cheerio” along with some of the designs of the later Deviant Blades. In a similar vein, the soundtrack is primarily composed of traditional Japanese music, which is occasionally mixed in with more modern day electronic tracks, further adding to Katanagatari’s uniqueness.
For an individual such as Shichika who has lived a secluded life with largely only the company of his sister, the journey unsurprisingly does wonders for him. As the series progresses, he becomes increasingly humanized, gaining a better grasp of the way of the world, its customs, and most importantly of all, how to hold a regular conversation. Now this may seem like a fairly straightforward progression in terms of character, but one area Katanagatari excels in is how naturally it handles Shichika’s development. While many series encounter the unfortunate pitfall of having characters restate the obvious via monologue, the show takes a subtler approach by conveying his improved conversation proficiency and wider variety of facial expressions. In his upbringing, Shichika was raised solely as a human weapon, an idea which finds itself challenged by Isin’s writing numerous times throughout the series. The dialogue central to Shichika is part of White Fox’s comprehensive process of humanizing him over the course of the twelve fifty minute episodes. The end result of this progression being that it directly reflects the encounters Shichika has across the different lands, making the journey a more believable account.
Of course, only half of the credit can really be given to Shichika himself as he’s just one side of the coin. His trusty travelling partner, Togame, complements the dynamic duo’s chemistry nicely by serving as a motivating love interest and compensating for his intellectual weaknesses. Togame is a bit of a tsundere character minus most of the unneeded servings of abuse and archetypical one-liners, sparking some engaging dynamics between her and the show’s resident brick wall. Her upbeat, quick-tempered attitude with the occasional blush thrown in really lightens up a lot of her conversations with Shichika considering their rather questionable methods for obtaining the swords. Especially during the early stages of their journey when Shichika’s social skills are lacking the most, Togame’s ability to make light of many situations keeps the dialogue from reaching an otherwise dead halt. Along with her cultural clumsiness, snarky remarks, and childish demeanour, she helps to maintain the energy of the journey amidst the most barren of locations. These conversations also highlight Shichika’s social ineptitude, keeping it in focus for the audience so that his progress throughout the series becomes evident.
Aside from the two peas in a pod and the contemporary allusions used to spice up this tale, it is Isin’s signature writing style that is the final ingredient of Katanagatari’s unique flavour. The most prominent instances of his style are his characteristic fourth wall breaks, word plays and genre parodies, which fit nicely into such a dialogue heavy show. Many of the pair’s conversations err on irrelevancies such as Togame’s misuse of common sayings or Shichika’s lack of knowledge about the world, whereas other topics deconstruct more common usages of words such as a weapon. That isn’t to say that these conversations serve no purpose in the grand scheme of things, as it is actually quite the opposite. Since much of the series revolves around Shicika’s social development, even the most mundane of topics help with his progression and are thus important in the long run.
However, there are instances where Isin’s writing style is almost a double-edged sword. Though a great deal of the dialogue heavy scenes between Shichika and Togame are right on track, the same cannot be said for every application of his writing. Since Katanagatari does feature a number of fight scenes in almost every episode, there are instances where the long-winded dialogue does more harm than good. This is partly due to the show’s primary antagonists, a group of ninja also seeking out the Deviant Blades called the Maniwa Corps. Unlike Shichika and Togame, the Maniwa seem to just ramble on about unimportant details that can leave the audience in anticipation for far too long. And while some of the wit or self-parody can be amusing at first, the pre-battle dialogue does drag out to the point where some viewers may wonder why Shichika hasn’t already floored each overly flamboyant punching bag. Especially for audiences simply craving a good fight, this aspect of Katanagatari along with the large gap in strength between Shichika and his opponents can be rather off-putting.
To make matters worse, a lot of the genre parodies within the script can make it difficult to determine how this story of swords wants to view itself. While there are instances where it’s evident that the show is engaging in light hearted fun, some of the more serious moments aren’t made nearly as crystal clear. The merging of clichéd dialogue with highly emotional moments can frustrate some audiences, while leaving others bewildered. It also doesn’t help that the series lacks closure during parts of its finale, making it difficult to determine whether Isin’s writing is simply getting sloppy or he’s just pulling the audience’s leg once again.
With all said and done, Katanagatari is still a fresh take on a fairly traditional tale. The numerous contemporary allusions, colourful cast and setting along with the script possessing Isin’s signature flair truly makes this a journey unlike any other. The dialogue between Shichika and Togame is rich with puns and clever word plays, while ultimately reflecting their experiences during their journey. Although the story does have a few rough edges, it’s certainly something that can be overlooked in favour of the overall experience.
Even with the original purpose of the journey lost, meaning can still be found in the enriching experiences encountered along the way. While every person may have his or her own island, Katanagatari demonstrates that it is only if they travel into the wide seas that they will truly see the world for what it is. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.