Samurai fiction is, more often than not, an ode to a long dead way of life. This is pretty much why I am a fan of Jidaigeki (and its faster paced subset Chambara) films, anime, and literature in a way that doesn’t translate to the action genre in general. Samurai stories have a beautiful way of tingeing the action with melancholy and an appreciation for the gentle sadness of the passing of time.
Katanagatari (Sword Story), a 12 part tale based on the light novels by Nishio Isin (of Monogatari series fame), is a meditative epic that takes the standard theme of the effects of history a step deeper: this is a samurai tale about the nature of history itself. We follow Yasuri Shichika, the heir to Kyotouryuu, a style of swordsmanship that uses no sword and son of an exiled war hero, and Togame, a “strategian” of the Shogunate with a mysterious past, on a journey to collect 12 legendary “deviant blades” forged by the enigmatic swordsmith Shikizaki Kiki. Along the way their stories, and their own histories, are intertwined with others who seek to preserve, forget, or change history.
Stories within a story
Katanagatari is a little unique among even other episodic anime. When it was airing, one episode was released every month for a year. Each episode is 50 minutes, more than double the normal length. This show asks for your time and attention, but it’s a worthwhile investment. The long episodes provide the right amount of room for each individual story to fully develop, settle in, and come to a close. Each character or set of characters introduced in an episode have their own reasons for fighting and pressing on. These full “chapters” allow us to understand and sympathize with these motivations. Although Katanagatari is the story of Shichika and Togame, it is equally a collection of satisfying mini-stories. Perhaps the monogatari in the title is plural after all.
Staying on theme
The story, or stories, all continue to revolve around the burden of history in their own ways. Sometimes it’s fairly cut and dry. A hermetic samurai guards his ruined castle, holding onto one of Shikizaki’s swords simply because he can’t abandon the legacy of his ancestors. A young dojo master struggles to keep her style of swordsmanship alive long after its prime. Even protagonist Shichika initially only fights because as the heir to Kyotouryuu, he simply cannot imagine another way. Sometimes the characters’ relationship with history is more complicated. The leader of a shrine clings to swords both as a way to heal from a remorse-filled past and protect the future. The inscrutable Togame and her rival, Princess Hitei, see the swords as a method for changing and controlling history. This central theme comes and goes with each story, but also builds to quite the big picture in the end.
An offbeat romance
Katanagatari is also a love story. Togame is a shrewd thinker and cynical after years of political and personal betrayals. The only way she can have confidence in an ally is to find someone who fights for love and unconditional devotion. Shichika, at first unaware and inexperienced with human nature and emotions, pledges his love as a matter of fact. This non-romantic set up of romance is a a reversal of the usual build up to a relationship, but it works for both leads’ skewed takes on the world. We may get the “I love you” early and often, but as the story progresses, we are rewarded by seeing both characters grow with each other and come to learn what those words truly mean to them. Shichika and Togame are far from your normal romantic leads, but their development makes them a pair to root for.
This show is an artistic triumph. I don’t just mean the art style here. The art is at once simplified and highly stylized. Colors and features pop, and most of the character designs are expertly crafted around a central symbol, color, or motif that says something about who that character is. These motifs are also used extremely consistently and punctuate the story and turning points for the characters.
There is also a real artistic appreciation for Japanese aesthetics, an element that compliments the samurai genre. Musical touches and an awareness of passing seasons underscore the theme of impermanence, one of the cornerstones of classical Japanese art.
Shichika is a human sword. Until Togame comes to shake things up and for some time after, being a human sword is his only concern. One of the most masterful aspects of Katanagatari’s writing is watching how Shichika grows and comes into his own as not only a human sword, but a human. Before that comes, though, he is pretty much a blank slate and therefore not a very interesting protagonist. After the first fourth or so of the story, he becomes a fleshed out character, but until then, thank goodness Togame is always compelling.
The gamut of opponents
As a samurai show about collecting swords, each of which has an owner who isn’t too keen on giving up the treasure, there are a lot of opponents and showdowns. Much more than 12, actually! There’s even a whole side(ish) story about a clan of ninjas with their own reasons for wanting the swords. Many of these opponents (I can’t call them all villains) are great characters who make their own unforgettable mark on the story and on Shichika and Togame’s outlook. Some of them are just flashy and don’t last past their own moments in the action.
And then there’s Sabi Hakuhei...man, what an amazing fight that was!
Isin’s gonna Isin
If you watched the Monogatari series, you’re used to Nisio Isin’s style, and he does have style in spades. He thrives on dialogue, and at his best, you never knew just watching characters talk could be so interesting, witty, and watchable. Occasionally, though, his dialogue meanders.
Just as there is a lot I can say about Katanagatari - it’s a comedy, it’s a tragedy, it’s a romance! - there is a lot I can’t say - character reveals, what it all means, and where it all leads to. You’ll just have to trust me here. If you’re up for a weirdly beautiful and slow burning ride that captures the joys, pains, and risks of those who dare to go against the tide of history, Katanagatari is worth the commitment.