Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 22nd 2011
Sub.DVD/Blu-Ray 1 - [Premium Edition]
Yasuri Shichika is the 7th-generation heir of the Kyoto Ryu technique, a swordless martial arts style designed to defeat any blade-wielding opponent. However, he hasn't had much chance to use it, seeing as he and his sister live on an isolated island. That all changes when an eccentric white-haired girl named Togame, a "Strategemist" for the government, enlists Shichika's help in collecting twelve legendary katana crafted by a master swordsmith. Shichika's quest will take him across the forests and cities of feudal Japan, as well as barren deserts and frozen wastes, as he battles the great warriors (and a rogue clan of ninjas) who seek to keep the blades for themselves.
Katanagatari is full of strange contradictions. It is groundbreaking yet formulaic; beautiful yet plain; complex yet simple. This adaptation of the light novel series by cult writer NISOISIN, originally written at a dizzying pace of one novel per month over twelve months, transfers much of its author's eccentricity to the screen. The result is something more like a project than a complete story: How can we mutate familiar character types of the historical action genre? How many variations can be made on the traditional heroic quest? How many ways are there to defeat weapons that supposedly cannot be defeated? The answers are hit-or-miss, but that's also what makes the quest a wild, unpredictable ride from one moment to the next.
At first glance, the most striking aspect of the series is the double length of each episode, clocking in at fifty minutes each. That's enough room to fit a full novel's worth into each installment, while erasing any need for irritating cliffhangers. (How many times have we seen a sword-slasher like Bleach cut to credits right after a grand heroic moment?) But while the series makes a groundbreaking move that allows beginning, middle, and end to develop cohesively, it also gives in to the demands of formula: Shichika and Togame always know where to head next, they always come up with a strategy for victory, and Shichika always wins the sword, no matter what. With a schedule of twelve novels in twelve months, it was only inevitable that the author would have to use some kind of template in order to save himself a little brainwork.
Still, it's the unexpected events within that strict formula that keeps the series watchable. The early episodes, for example, crack jokes about Shichika's backwoods upbringing and lack of social skills, like his inability to recall people's faces. The narrative continues to evolve after that—Shichika's adversary in Episode 3 has a rich back-story that lends depth to her as a character, and Episode 4 reveals some surprising truths about Shichika's sister (while also being one of the best anime practical jokes since Haruhi Suzumiya's "Endless Eight" arc). However, the creative energy tempers down after that with a couple of linear beat-the-bad-guy episodes—but even lesser moments are made enjoyable with the comic-relief efforts of the Maniwa ninja clan.
What is most unique about Katanagatari's storytelling style, though, is its endless stream of dialogue. This is the most obvious manifestation of NISIOISIN's writing, and sometimes it can be infuriating—Togame's exposition in Episode 1 tries to squeeze an entire political and cultural history into about 10 minutes of verbiage—but other times the pace is just too much fun to let go, like when Shichika and Togame get into an argument about personal catchphrases. Either way, viewers will have to prepare for a lot of words here, more so than the average action-adventure saga.
However, words only tell half the story, and the series' distinctive visuals also add a lot to its overall personality. Some aspects might be rightfully criticized for being too simple: the blank dot-eyes on Shichika's face, the character designs that seem to have taken about ten lines to draw, and the very flat, two-dimensional scenery. But behind that economical drawing style is a carefully calculated aesthetic—the way that key scenes are framed for maximum impact, the ballet-like moves of Shichika and his opponents, even the precise timing when a combatant calls out an attack and strikes. Everything follows the irresistible rhythm of a traditional samurai epic ... then pushes it into the 21st century with stylized, brightly colored images that only animation from the digital age can bring. No one's ever going to say that the visuals are historically accurate, or that it matches up to the woodland fantasies of Miyazaki, but it remains very much its own style.
A distinctive personality also comes out in the music, and with the eclectic Taku Iwasaki handling compositional duties, who would have expected anything less? Stuttering hip-hop vocals are just as likely to be heard as traditional folk melodies or stabs of avant-grade classicism, creating a collision of the historical and modern much like the visuals. But while dialogue and battle scenes alike are doused in musical creativity, the theme songs are less ambitious in scope, with a very run-of-the-mill opener and a rotation of closing songs that are notable only for changing every episode.
The lack of an English dub in this Blu-Ray/DVD combo set may put off some fans, but with the dialogue being as challenging as it is—even for Japan's top voice talent—surely a subtitled-only release is forgivable. Besides, the premium boxset is lavish enough as it is, packaged with an artbook containing promotional images, episode summaries, and translation notes that show great respect for the series' traditional Japanese flavor. Indeed, the subtitles err too much on the side of preserving Japanese names for things, resulting in moments of wordplay that go right over one's head, but the script does an excellent job of capturing nuances like formal language and even, at one point, a character who talks backwards. Yet for all this careful treatment, it's kind of a letdown to see that the only disc extras are clean openings and endings—what, not even character design galleries or interviews with the staff?
In the end, the first half of Katanagatari is a saga that can be as maddening as it is fascinating. On one hand, we have a narrative packed with wit and emotion and epic grandeur, with gorgeously staged fights between colorful characters, presented in a distinctive style. On the other hand, though, every episode follows the exact same pattern (with only variations and gimmicks to break up the flow), the artwork lacks a third dimension, and Shichika is so busy being this invincible fighter that one never gets a chance to really get into his personality. But this flawed work is still an ambitious one, and for that Katanagatari deserves credit. Better to have tried and failed, than to have never tried—a fact that even swordsmen and martial artists would have known back then.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : C
Music : B+
+ Double-length episodes, clever storytelling devices and unique characters make each story satisfying—along with slick, well-choreographed visuals.
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