The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide
Katsugeki! Touken Ranbu
How would you rate episode 1 of
Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu ?
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How was the first episode?
All right, that was cooler than I expected. Touken Ranbu Hanamaru didn't do much to catch my interest last year, so I didn't come into Katsugeki Touken Ranbu with particularly high hopes. This new series tweaks its game adaptation formula away from comedy and towards more serious action, and that turns out to make a big difference. Instead of a constant barrage of in-jokes, this episode was a surprisingly accessible (and very good-looking) mix of historical scenery and fluid sword fights. Color me impressed.
While background knowledge of either the source material or the relevant historical period is likely a plus here, it's by no means necessary. Most of this episode tells a relatively simple story of two characters going on a dangerous mission together. Kane is the cool-headed veteran of the pair, and he acts as a mentor to the nervous rookie Kunihiro. The two of them have some solid chemistry, and the “rookie's first mission” setup is immediately compelling. The script sneaks in some big-picture exposition here and there, and by the end I had a functional understanding of who everyone was and what they were trying to do.
The character designs and background art are both easy on the eyes, but it's in the action scenes that Katsugeki really hits its stride. The animation quality is impressively high, and the viewer is able to get a sense of the main characters' personalities as they take on the first group of enemies. Kane has the aggressive, fluid moves of an experienced fighter, while Kunihiro's motions are stiffer and more focused on blocking the enemies' attacks. When choreography can act as a silent source of character development, it's usually a sign of strong animation and visual direction. There's also a definite sense of dramatic tension as we realize that the guys are thoroughly outnumbered, although that goes away to some extent once their boss shows up with reinforcements.
I don't think I'm the intended audience for a “famous swords reimagined as handsome guys” story, so it's a very good sign that I'm immediately on board for more of this show. It seems to have learned an important lesson from other game adaptations: start with a small cast and gradually add more as needed. Because I wasn't immediately bombarded by a dozen characters shouting their catchphrases out of context, it was much easier to stay immersed in the story. As long as the production values stay high and the narrative remains focused, Katsugeki Touken Ranbu looks like it'll be a strong and accessible action series.
Touken Ranbu is an interesting property. It's essentially the boy-focused version of Kantai Collection - instead of taking famous battleships and turning them into cute girls, it takes famous swords and turns them into cute boys. Mixing collect-a-thon and RPG gameplay with cute characters and a dash of historical fandom, it's an odd-sounding but ultimately inevitable premise, the natural endpoint of fandom's diverse interests.
But what works perfectly well as a dramatically arbitrary browser game is a little tougher to translate into a coherent anime narrative. Touken Ranbu threaded this needle by actually splitting itself into two adaptations, with Dogakobo putting their slice-of-life mastery to work on the lighter Hanamaru, and ufotable embracing their action anime strength to work on this season's Katsugeki. So far, the results are pretty spectacular.
Katsugeki manages the inherently convoluted and somewhat silly nature of its premise by keeping its focus small. Instead of barraging us with exposition about the Time Retrogade Army's history-manipulating shenanigans, we're quickly introduced to Kunihiro and Kane, two sword partners tasked with halting their mischief. This episode moves quickly through two separate missions, letting the context of their story emerge naturally while emphasizing their unique personal bond. It's a great tactic that ultimately makes this episode feel intimate, propulsive, and informative all at once. I figured I'd be somewhat put off by the show's premise, but Katsugeki works hard to make this story feel as impactful as any other.
It also helps that Katsugeki is drop-dead gorgeous. You can generally rely on ufotable's stellar photography work to result in copious beautiful backgrounds, and that's certainly true here - rich colors and endless details bring Katsugeki's world vividly to life. In addition to that, Katsugeki is blessed with consistently fluid animation and a great eye for visual composition, meaning that Kunihiro and Kane's feelings are often expressed largely through their positioning on the frame. Even the CG enemies don't seem terribly out-of-place here, though ufotable's tendency to smother their animation in digital effects still feels a little overbearing.
Overall, this was a very solid premiere that did a great job of navigating the inherent hurdles of adapting this property. Our heroes' opponents were still generic videogame bad guys, and their own emotional conflicts felt pretty basic, but this episode succeeded unconditionally both as an action and general visual feast. If you're either a history buff or an action fan, I'd definitely check it out.
Having been less than impressed with the previous iteration of this game franchise's foray into anime, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this version of Touken Ranbu. The basic premise is the same – pretty boys who were once famous swords fighting to save history – but the more serious tone suits the story better. The mission in this episode is to protect the year 1863 from the dastardly machinations of the Time Retrograde Army, who for reasons as-yet unknown want to change the course of history. Given that their warriors are skull-headed ghouls who emit a constant cloud of black miasma, I'm going to have to guess that their motives aren't honorable.
What's interesting about this episode is that we really don't know any of the motives, not the good guys' or the bad guys'. Yes, we know that history must be preserved, but apart from the fact that that's generally considered a good thing (see: virtually any time travel story), there's no further explanation. We're not even sure WHO the good guys are trying to save – with the help of their talking fox and his magical bell computer, potential targets have been lowered to three men, but the show doesn't tell us who they are or show us anything beyond very basic head shots, so unless you're really up on your guys with shaved heads in Japanese history, it's impossible to tell. From one perspective, this is incredibly annoying, but on the other, it's an interesting approach: it indicates that while the people will become important to the future, to their saviors, they're just goals to be protected. History must remain as-is; these guys are just the means to that end.
This works with the statement that even if you know a tragedy is about to take place, such as the fire towards the end of the episode, you mustn't interfere. Changing any one little thing could be equally as disastrous as losing a key figure, so if you save that kid from death, he may grow up to really screw things up. It's made clear that this is the most difficult part of the mission – controlling yourself so that you don't prevent history from rolling onward even when you know how bad that can be. I hope that theme remains throughout the show, because it stands to give the story a little more depth than “hot guys fighting ghoulish fiends for history,” which is what this risks becoming, especially with the addition of three more characters at the end, one of whom has a voice that is far too deep for his shota-ish appearance.
While there are some backgrounds that suffer from looking like they're running on a loop (the burning rooftops are a particular offender), this is otherwise serviceable with some nice choreography for a couple of the fights and good use of hair and clothing blowing in the wind. If nothing else, the guys will be nice to look at going forward, but as motives are revealed, this stands to be an interesting show to keep an eye on.
Now that's more like it! The first couple of series released this season ended up being decidedly underwhelming, so leave it to ufotable to finally get the summer started off right. Not only that, but they also demonstrated how to properly adapt a trading card game – instead of going for “all style and no substance”, Katsugeki! Touken Ranbu opts for “absolutely gorgeous style, plus just enough substance to keep things interesting”. Is this series going to be a work of art? Probably not, but it was at the very least a hell of a lot of fun.
A lot of this episode's success has to do with ufotable's inherent talents. I'm pretty sure they could animate an hour-long checkers game and make it visually arresting, so “bishounen warriors fighting evil time traveling demons” is more or less a cakewalk for them. Sure, the premise is by its nature a bit trite, since it's trying to make the most of a setup designed to facilitate card battles, and the whole affair will feel more than a little familiar to anyone that has seen ufotable's adaptations of Type Moon's Fate Franchise. Still, this is the kind of familiarity I can handle, since everything is being executed with enough panache to keep it feeling fresh. Kunihiro and Kanesada play out their respective “naïve youth” and “experienced warrior” archetypes well, and their rapport is engaging enough to keep the non-battle scenes interesting. The episode does a good job in general of setting up the premise of the battle against the Historical Revisionists without info-dumping too much at any given time, and by the time the credits rolled I was definitely interested in where things might go from here.
It's all well and good that the world building and characterization of Katsugeki! Touken Ranbu is able to pass the smell test, though there's one thing an ufotable production is really expected to do, and that is have its characters kick a lot of ass and look good doing it. Thankfully, K!TR looks like it will carry on this proud tradition, as the show is absolutely gorgeous, and the action as uniformly well animated and cleanly choreographed. One thing ufotable has always excelled at that is on display here is their ability to execute quick and clean action scenes that don't revel needlessly in their flashiness. There's something to be said for a ten-minute-long action extravaganza, but sometimes all you need is a few efficiently paced beats of bloodshed to keep the story going. So while K!TR doesn't pull out any of the big guns in its first episode, it doesn't really need to. It sets up the story the series is going to follow, and gives us just enough ass-kickery to whet our appetite for more. It's a solid premiere, and I can't wait to see where the show goes next.
Back in the Fall 2016 season Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru, a series about male incarnations of the weapons of famous historical figures, debuted. This series is a spin-off of that one, and while it features several characters from that series, no familiarity with that series is actually necessary to understand what's going on here. The basic premise for that series – that a demonic Retrograde Army is traveling back through time from 2205 in an attempt to alter history to some nefarious end, and an individual named Saniwa is dispatching minions to counter such efforts – can easily be pieced together from various snippets of conversation between leads Kanesada and Yoshiyuki throughout the episode, and really, that's the only background that's actually necessary. Absolutely nothing about the Kane or Yoshi originally being weapons is relevant here.
The play-out of the story is a very straightforward time travel adventure: find the bad guys that are trying to change history and eliminate them before they can do whatever changes they are intent on. The motive of the bad guys don't matter; only the task does. Of the two dashing protagonists, Yoshi is the younger and less confident one who fears that he's dragging Kane down even though Yoshi is clearly capable on his own. Kane is also clearly more knowledgeable about the time period of March 1863, as he knows enough to not room on the side of a river where a major fire is going to break out. When they get in over their head in the big fight at the end of the episode, their master shows up and summons more help to deal with the problem. In other words, take an excuse to show off more buff or bishonen guys in action.
And that's the main thing that needs to be understood here: this is connected to a mobile game aimed squarely at female players, so the emphasis is on showing hot samurai guys. At that the first episode is quite successful. That doesn't mean that male audiences won't be able to appreciate it, as it does have a lot of action and a fairly sharp look, but don't expect anything other than bit-part female characters so far and the historical context doesn't yet involve major events. The production effort by ufotable results in a darker look and feel than the original but one that, in many respects, resembles the studio's production of Tales of Zestiria. Overall it's not a bad start but doesn't offer anything to encourage me to watch more.
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