Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Shichika and Togame are finally halfway through their sword-hunt, and no sooner are they past the milepost than their greatest foe makes her appearance: Shichika's sister, Nanami. Having come from their island home to give Shichika some sisterly advice, she has spent her spare time slaughtering every warrior she can find before coming into possession of one of Shikizaki Kiki's Klesha Bringers. Nothing good can come of that. Afterwards Togame, the Maniwa Ningun, and Togame's arch-rival Princess Denial, the three groups in pursuit of Shikizaki Kiki's creations, continue their delicate dance. But eventually one must succeed and the others perish, and the truth about the Klesha Bringers must out. After securing so many swords at such cost, can the increasingly inseparable Togame and Shichika manage to be the last ones standing? The only thing for certain is that tonight's pleasure ends here, forever.
For fans who've been discontent with Katanagatari's formulaic rigidity, the good news is that its second half is more fluid than its first. The bad news is that that doesn't really change anything.
True, the formula now includes more moving parts, and more connections between episodes. Behind Togame and Shichika's quest now move the machinations of Princess Denial, which span the entirety of the second half, as well as the increasingly desperate quest of the rapidly dwindling Maniwa Ningun. The lethal rivalry between the factions adds an extra layer of conflict to the usual sword-hunting adventures as well as a mystery or two to bridge episodes. Personal issues also come to play a larger and larger role in each episode, not only through Shichika's face-off with his sister, but also through his acquisition of human feelings and re-evaluation of his past, and through Togame's reflections on her own history, and most importantly of all, through the intensification of the pair's relationship.
However you complicate it, though, each episode is still fifty minutes devoted to Togame and Shichika confronting a new sword owner and eventually dispossessing them of their Klesha Bringer. It's easy to see the changes as more cosmetic than substantive, and in truth they are. But that's hardly the point. Katanagatari's stories have always been as stylized as its visuals. You shouldn't think of them as individual tales so much as narrative refrains. Like musical refrains, they're meant to be repeated: the same melody each time, but darker and richer with each iteration.
That's part of what makes Katanagatari so unique. It is singularly devoted to stylization. Its character art stylizes anime style, stripping its design conventions down to their most basic components: funky hair, big eyes, sweet clothes, no excess detail. All of the series' lines are thick and deliberately artificial, its settings designed to look like paintings of places rather than the places themselves. Dust, clouds, and wind-blown hair swirl in decorously unrealistic curlicues, and even the violence is stylized, with flying blood rendered as sprays of leaves or petals. Naturalism is the farthest thing from the series' mind; everything looks flat and arranged, like a richly colored, densely illustrated picture book.
And it doesn't stop at the art. Like their designs, the characters aren't real people, or even abstractions of real people, but abstractions of abstractions. Princess Denial is so distilled to her essence as the contrary female antagonist that she's actually named Princess Denial. Similarly the Maniwa ninja are frequently boiled down until they're nothing but a single personality trait, or better yet, a quirk. Togame and Shichika are the exceptions, beginning as simplified as any other character, but slowly adding layers as the series progresses. They aren't by any stretch realistic, but when the last couple of episodes apply some pressure, they reveal some pretty unexpected depths.
Such simplicity is not laziness; Katanagatari is as ambitious in its simplicity as any anime is in its complexity. It finds in its distilled character types and pared-down quest narrative the common ground between otaku culture and the tales of yore, melding the two into an organic whole that so naturally combines the snarky self-awareness of nerd-dom with the storybook simplicity of fables and the dead-serious tragedy of mythology that they might as well have never existed apart. (The score takes a similar approach, blending traditional chants and instruments with pop and rap insert songs). The result is something both incredibly basic and entirely new. If you unearthed ancient scrolls from an otaku civilization, you'd expect them to look something like this.
If uniqueness is Katanagatari's strength, than emotional distance is its weakness. Archetypes are cold, calculated things, and nearly all of Katanagatari's cast is archetypical. It's hard to care a whole lot who lives or dies, even when there's as much dying as goes on in the series' latter stages. The series itself is aware of that, and pushes blithely past or treats with odd humor many of the cast's major casualties. That isn't an entirely bad thing. The flippant way the series treats its carnage often makes it more, not less disturbing—the creepily cute video game version of Nanami's bloodiest rampage being a prime example.
The characters aren't really the main cause of Katanagatari's emotional remove, though. That would be its dialogue. The series is drenched in verbiage. Characters talk about events, about schemes, about people and places and feelings and relationships and trauma and the flow of history. And they rarely stop. The dialogue is swift and often witty, never didactic or recycled and never less than sharp, but it also serves as a buffer between us and the characters' feelings. Everything the characters think or feel is mediated by words, never experienced directly. We are separated from them by walls of words.
That really becomes a problem as the finale looms and the series finally lets fly with an emotional blow aimed well below our collective belts. With even the main characters kept at arm's length, it never lands with the force it should have. That doesn't mean it doesn't pack a punch. It's a tragedy so simple and senseless that it hurts just to contemplate and leaves an ache that lingers long after the credits have rolled. But, given its quality and execution, it should have done more than that. It should have eviscerated us, left us standing staring quizzically as our emotional innards slid out of the wound into a steaming heap on the floor. It should have destroyed us. We should have cried and cheered and torn holes in our armrests as the big battle that followed ran its admittedly thrilling (and of course highly-structured) course. The end of Katanagatari is good, but had it allowed us in closer, it would have been great.
NIS America's releases remain laudably consistent. This set is the same size and shape as previous sets (about the size and shape of a coffee-table book), built just as beautifully and solidly, and covered in the series' dense, swirling artwork. It includes both DVD and Blu-ray versions, the latter being a nice perk given the series' art, and a big hardcover booklet jammed with even more of the series' artwork, all in spectacular color. The book also contains episode run-downs, song lyrics, and a glossary for the series' complicated terminology. The discs themselves feature clean versions of both the inferior new opening and the set's six unique, and typically very pretty, closers. As always, this is a set worth every penny of its price tag.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Darker and less formula-bound than the first half, but still as witty and fun; potent final act; unusual unity of style and substance; far, far off of the beaten path.
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