The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Katana Maidens ~ Toji no Miko
How would you rate episode 1 of
Katana Maidens: Toji no Miko ?
What is this?
For countless years, monsters known as aramada have threatened the lives of humans. To combat these creatures, the divine swords known as okatana are wielded by toji, girls trained in the use of their special powers. Kanami Etou is one such toji-in-training, and a very promising one at that - in fact, having just won her local high school tournament, she's now heading off with her friend Mai to compete in the national toji student competition. Kanami loves swordfighting, but her arrival at the national tournament will herald a dramatic and unexpected shift in her life. When Kanami runs into the mysterious Kagari Juujou, the two of them will end up cast out from toji society, and on the run from an organization with powers beyond reckoning. Katana Maidens ~ Toji no Miko is based on an upcoming mobile game and streams on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 10:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Katana Maidens has a little bit of flair to its production, notably in the tournament fights that make up the last third or so of this first episode. But it seems so weighed down in formula and explanations, perhaps trying too hard to lay out the twin appeals of cute girls and cool swordplay. It's easy to come away from the premiere enjoying the briskly-paced swordfights, to say nothing of the show's killer plot twist at the end. But revisiting it to check out the dub, it's inescapable just how much this opening acts feel like padding. The show isn't much to look at in spite of a few nice character designs either. Sparse backgrounds and needlessly overused CGI shortcuts only bring it down.
My hope with this dub was that listening to the show in my native tongue might make some of the story's overwrought terminology easier to follow. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way. All of the various specialty words pertaining to the Toji, their demon enemies, and their sword techniques are left in their original Japanese forms. The problem the show had in Japanese persists here, as there's no attempt made to actually explain the terms. At the very least you might pick up on what the ‘Utsushi’ refers to, but when they're throwing out lightning-fast references to Iai and Jin-Ei, it's easy to get lost again. It's honestly easier to follow if you've already watched the Japanese version, which is certainly not an ideal situation for a dub like this. The rest of the translation seems pretty smooth, including an amusing bit where Mai references Kanami's ‘Happy Place’.
The performances seem to mostly be working out fine. Our initial characters of Kanami and Mai fit well, though Sarah Wiedenheft's Kanami can hit some uncomfortably high notes at times. Jeannie Tirado as Hiyori pointedly doesn't get much to say as the stoic character thus far, but she's pointedly intriguing. The rest of the supporting cast all get snippets of dialogue to preview their performances. The Elite Guard sound nicely distinct from one another, but the duo of Erin and Kaoru seem oddly mismatched in their voices, almost like the actresses for them should be switched. They could easily come into their own by the time their characters become relevant in the show, though. It's harder to be sure if the series itself can become strong enough to be compelling over time, and if this dub can do enough to support it.
Katana Maidens' series opener is unfortunately the exact kind of premiere that doesn't do much for me at all. It isn't explicitly terrible in anything it is attempting to do, but it isn't in any way memorable or interesting either. There is one twist in the story that makes things a little more engaging near the end of the episode, granted, but it isn't enough to make up for the preceding twenty-or-so minutes, which amount to a total snoozefest, through and through.
The biggest problem here is how rote and lacking-identity everything feels, in regard to both the writing and the production. The “Japan, but with monsters that have been attacking everyone for a while” and “high schoolers with swords that have to fight each other” premises have been done to death by this point, and I'm not seeing a whole lot here that would make it feel any more fresh or interesting. Even the tournament angle feels slapped on and rushed through here, with no real build up given to the fighters or their bouts with one another; the whole setup feels like a series of boxes being checked and moved through without much thought or feeling. Now, this could certainly change over the course of the next few episodes, but the job of the introduction to any story is to grab the attention and investment of its audience, and Katana Maidens just doesn't do that. It also doesn't help to make this premiere any more engaging when so much of the technical and cultural jargon surrounding the fighters and their techniques goes unexplained, a problem that actually had me rewinding the episode a couple times when I thought I had accidentally missed some relevant exposition.
The episode's artistic ambitions also rest squarely in the realm of “middling at best”. As with the general premise and layout of the script, nothing here is actively bad, it just fails to make any sort of impression whatsoever. The girls all seem to have been crafted with some kind of Generic Anime Teen Generator, and the empty, artificial feeling backgrounds do nothing to help remedy this overbearing sense of staleness. The animation itself is perfectly fine, though the brief, CG assisted bouts between swordswomen are too stiff and blandly directed to be much fun. Land of the Lustrous this most certainly is not.
So the premise and the art of this premiere don't a whole lot to help Katana Maidens make a great first impression; how about the characters? At this point, everyone in the cast feels cobbled together solely on theire stock character traits and their mediocre designs. Kanami and Mai seem like likeable enough friends, to be sure, but if it weren't for the amount of screen time and dialogue given to them, there wouldn't be much about their personalities, characteristics, or chemistry with one another to separate them from any number of similarly written heroines from anime past.
The one slight exception might be Hiyori, who doesn't present herself as much more than the “stoic, determined lone wolf” type that you always find in a show like this, but her actions at the end of the episode at least lend to the one moment of genuine excitement to be had in this premiere. Not only does her sudden attack on the head of the Toji lead to some interesting speculation about the precise nature and hierarchy of this sward-battling culture, Kanami also ends up casting herself in with her. Immediately this helps make Kanami more interesting as well, since her own motivations are only just being fleshed out.
As I said earlier, though, all of this occurs in the final few minutes of the show, so while it might be enough to get audiences interested in the next episode or two, it doesn't actually make the first 4/5ths of the episode any less dull. There might be some latent potential in Katana Maidens that is just waiting to be taken advantage of, and it could very well be that by the end of the season everyone will be talking about how Katana Maiden's was the winter's hidden gem. For now, though, there isn't too much reason to be diving in to this series.
Katana Maidens isn't actively bad. It's lead by a handful of attractive character designs and promises some dynamic monster vs school girl sword fights. Too bad the show is incredibly bland despite its action-packed opening sequence featuring a CG centipede. No, Katana Maidens is both incredibly rote and largely impenetrable for Western audiences without a nuanced understanding of religious terminology. I felt like I needed a translator note booklet to make it through the episode and, lacking that, am pretty sure I'm missing out on something.
The episode itself doesn't really get into it, but its cast of middle school girls all train in a types of sword-fighting that is in someway based around religious elements. Some of these are Shinto, as identified by Kanami. Some may not be and I'm also not entirely sure where the religious terminology ends and the sword-fighting terminology begins. What this translates to is that while the characters shout-out a particular word to identify an opponent's style or move, it's entirely lost on me and I presume a lot of the Western audience will find themselves in the same boat. You can gloss over it while watching, but it starts to feel like we're eavesdropping on sports strategy without the comprehension to figure out why any of the directions are important.
The sword fights during the tournament themselves aren't that great either. The episode blows through the whole thing in about eight minutes. Even if it was supposed to mimic real kendo match lengths, it seems awfully quick. Mai suffers the worst from this decision because we're supposed to believe she made it all the way to the semi-finals only to be taken out almost immediately by Kanami. It's disappointing too, because she takes up an interesting stance to begin the match but it doesn't lead to any surprises.
Overall, I found the episode pretty boring for what's supposed to be a supernatural action show.
There really isn't anything glaringly wrong with Katana Maidens, unless you count that one girl with the sword that I'm pretty sure isn't a katana…but there isn't anything glowingly right about it either. That's a shame, because it looks like it wants to offer a bit more internal conflict than the average “cute young girls fight monsters” show. That moment comes at the end of the episode, when a regular tournament turns out to have been a means for perpetually crabby Hiyori to attack the head of the toji (eponymous katana maidens) organization. It's not wholly unexpected, as we did see that Hiyori's family home was cleaned out by unknown persons and she mumbled something about “the Origami family” in a tone that did not sound complimentary, though we don't know the exact reason why her family and the Origamis might be on bad terms. That they are is amply demonstrated when Hiyori ignores her final opponent, perky protagonist Kanami, in favor of trying to cut down the Origami family member present.
That, and the fact that for some reason Kanami then leaps to Hiyori's defense and whisks her out of the Origami mansion, are what make this episode a three rather than a two and a half. Kanami's presented as maybe a little flaky, but certainly not stupid, so why she'd side with the attacker is unclear right now. It could be hinting at some dark undercurrent in the system of okatana maintenance, but if it turns out to be something silly along the lines of “because I wanna be your friend!” the show could lose its edge.
All of those questions are really the hook for next week, with this particular episode focusing more on introducing us to the cast. Kanami, her schoolfriend Mai, and Hiyori get the most time, but it looks as if the main group will ultimately add the busty blonde and girl with hair like ears, and that the Origami's personal guards will be sticking around, possibly as antagonists. In fact, the whole “fight the monsters” aspect plays a surprisingly small role in this episode, relegated to opening explanations before vanishing all together. Again, that could bode well for this show taking a different direction, and if you aren't turned off by the general air of “nothing special here” that this episode projects, it really may be worth sticking around to see what direction episode two takes the story in.
I feel an inordinate amount of sympathy for Katana Maidens. The show is almost reasonable, and that's a far sadder state of affairs than a show which never really had a chance at all. There are actively positive elements of this production, and ideas interesting enough that I'd like to see them bear fruit. But there's just also too much holding this show back, and on the balance, Katana Maidens doesn't quite get there.
Let's start with the positive. Katana Maiden's setup is about as arbitrary a “we need a reason for girls to have swords” premise as you can get, but this episode's internal narrative choices were pretty compelling ones. This episode very efficiently establishes Kanami and Mai's characters, and is thus able to dedicate the majority of its running time to a fully realized student tournament. Normally shows like this barely spend any time establishing their “normal” universe before some twist makes the protagonist relevant to some far-reaching conflict, so I was impressed to see this episode use a tournament to simultaneously establish the initial expectations of Kanami's world and also find satisfying conflict within her everyday life. This emphasis on Kanami's tournament means that when the twist actually comes, it feels like a genuine shock, giving this episode far more urgency and impact than many similar productions.
It also feels like Katana Maidens is trying to create a stark, compelling sense of atmosphere, but that's where the show runs into its first major issue: its abominable background art. Katana Maidens favors wide-open compositions that only emphasize the CG and aggressively artificial nature of its backgrounds, giant blocky buildings with simplistic repeating textures. I don't often see such a stark distance between a director's visual ambitions and the limitations of their tools, but Katana Maidens constantly feels like a show that's striving to make artless CG buildings feel somehow majestic. On top of that, most of the fight scenes here are undercut by their own low-quality CG models, meaning the action that should theoretically be this show's main appeal is instead one of its weakest qualities.
Aside from that, there's not much to say. Katana Maidens’ unique structural choices make it a little different from your usual “girls with swords” fare, but its characters are all still pretty basic, and its world not terribly convincing. On the whole, Katana Maidens is just short of passable - worth a look if this is your genre, otherwise a guiltless skip.
Though its concept and execution seems straightforward enough, Katana Maidens actually requires a fair amount of attention and concentration up front, as it throws out a lot of arcane terminology without much elaboration on what any of it means and some muddled wording on what refers to what – and with it being an original anime series, there isn't source material to fall back on for further elaboration. I had to watch parts of it through a second time to be clear that “okatana” refers to the divine swords used by the shrine maidens and not the shrine maidens themselves and that certain names thrown out are sword names and not references to fighting styles, something which also gets prominently mentioned in the tournament scenes. I know that most prefer the “show, not tell” approach in anime storytelling, but this is a series opener which could have stood to have explained itself a bit better.
Beyond all the naming conventions, the first episode's set-up is a typical one until near its end: there are beasties to be fought, and teenage girls are best-suited to the task because the divine swords seem to like them young. (Presumably this is the standard “pure maidens” logic.) Most of the episode focuses on establishing chipper Kanami, more tentative nice girl Mai, and “girl on a mission” Hiyori, with the whole tournament scenario somewhat surprisingly being zoomed through in just a couple of minutes, as the real twist is that Hiyori is more interested in making a swipe at the head woman of the Toji than actually winning. We'll have to wait until next episode to find out what that's about, although the opener shown at the end suggests that she will eventually team up with Kanami, Mai, and some other girls introduced against the elite guards of the head woman, who are the ones shown in action taking out the aradama at the beginning.
The promise of some kind of immediate internal conflict and intrigue gives a spark to a concept that otherwise doesn't stand out much, unless you are really enamored with the specific stances of various swordfighting styles. Solid visual merits (especially the appearance of the aradama shown at the beginning) also help, although I have to wonder about some of the soundtrack choices used here; jazzy music is an odd choice for these kind of duels. Characters introduced so far are likable but also absolutely stock personality types and won't carry the series on their own.
So it's hard to say at this point if this one will amount to anything special. Right now it isn't showing any clear signs of being much more than a run-of-the-mill actioner, but it isn't showing any glaring deficiencies, either.
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