Reviewby Theron Martin,
Katana Maidens: Toji no Miko
Episodes 1-24 streaming
For centuries, Japan has been plagued by attacks from aradama, monstrous creatures from the netherworld composed of a supernatural substance called noro. Since they cannot be stopped by conventional weapons, the defense against them has always been special swords called okatana wielded by special teenage girls called Toji. Traditionally, the Toji were shrine maidens, but in modern times they are students of one of five academies operated under the Sword Administration Bureau. Kanami Eto, who wields the sword Chidori, is among the strongest of the next generation of Toji. A strange connection she feels toward her tournament opponent Hiyori leads the two of them to embark on a perilous quest to get to the bottom of what really happened during a great aradama-related disaster 20 years ago, and the ramifications of their quest will resonate deeper as their ultimate foe takes on a new form.
This 24-episode co-production by GENCO and Studio Gokumi gives off the distinct vibe of being based on a mobile app game, but in this case, the anime has debuted long before the mobile game which is still in development. Beyond that, this is a fairly simple "girls with swords" story whose appeal beyond that summary is likely to be limited.
That's not to say that it doesn't aspire to be more than a tale about cute teen girls fighting with swords. The story at least attempts to mix in some political complexities with factionalism, shifting loyalties, and underhanded media manipulations by the enemy. However, efforts to coax a meatier story out of this complexity generally falls short. The most egregious example of this is an attempt by the villain to turn public opinion against the Sword Administration Bureau, but this is largely ignored after it has served its purpose to advance the plot, and the ramifications of this plot are just told rather than shown. Implications of ties to foreign powers are never much developed either, and many character motivations are quite thin.
The setting and overall plot don't stand out much, either. One later revelation is an interesting variation on the standard concept of using the enemy to fight the enemy, but the series passes on a golden opportunity to explore this aspect in more detail. The history behind the whole Toji phenomenon isn't explored much either, and the justification for why the Toji have to be young girls is a fairly contrived excuse about traditional shrine maidens. No real reason is given as to why Toji aren't adults either way; all of the former Toji turned in their swords at some point in their 20s, with no explanation beyond the obvious marketing reason. The plot is also wholly standard fare. Two girls go renegade at the end of the first episode over internal corruption and gradually win over others before defeating that corruption at the midpoint, then they have to face their true opponent emerging after a minor time jump in the second half.
However, the series does a substantially better job of developing its characters and their relationships. None of the characters are terribly complex, with virtually all major characters falling into standard archetypes: the lazy one, the enthusiastic foreigner, the revenge-minded stoic, and so forth, although Kanami being a sword-style otaku who can read someone by fighting with them is a slightly unusual twist on the protagonist template. There's even an obligatory cute mascot character in the formed of a tamed aradama named Nene – because of course, it can only say “nene.” However, the relationships between the girls are at least a little interesting, providing the bulk of the series' dramatic meat. The bonds and loyalties that develop between the girls are usually enough to sustain interest between action sequences. They also result in the occasional bits of humor, such as one episode involving the laconic Kaoru being an ill fit as a squad captain, and setting up for a tremendously satisfying final episode. Notably, yuri fans should know that despite the predominantly female cast, there's not much content in that vein.
The other key component of the series is, of course, its swordfighting. Although many battles devolve into standard monster-slashing, striking, and counter-striking, at least some effort is put into depicting differing swordfighting styles, especially in the stances that the girls take. The series also employs the interesting concept of utsushi, which involves a Toji making a spiritual duplicate of herself that overlays her physical body. Harm done to the utsushi does not directly translate into physical harm, with lethal injuries only destroying the utsushi with no greater impact than sapping the Toji's energy, although that can incapacitate or even knock out Toji of lesser battle prowess. Powered suits called S Equipment are sometimes used to enhance fighting skill, although they rarely seem effective. A major feature of any fight is a super-swift movement accompanied by a succession of swift sword strikes. Sometimes this results in very brief battles, while on other occasions remarkably involved exchanges of swordplay ensue. Some of those exchanges can actually be exciting to watch, definitely delivering some of the series' highlight moments.
The key word is “some,” however, as the animation is hit-or-miss in its ability to support those battles. The lightning-swift moments are an effective trick for reducing the animation needed without affecting the art too much, but several battle scenes resort to using CG models and many animation shortcuts are used in general. Still, a handful of sustained battle scenes look sharp, including ones where multiple Toji attack an opponent defending with multiple swords at once. Aradama are usually fiery-looking CG creations, which can enhance their otherworldly appearance. Some of the architectural designs are also highlights, but animation outside of some action scenes is wholly unremarkable, and character models slip off-model fairly often. Graphic content is only moderate thanks to the utsushi concept and prurient content is very limited.
The series' musical score, particularly in dramatic scenes, sounds like the kind of pedestrian dramatic orchestration that might serve as the background music for a low-budget video game. It does excel in a few places with organ or piano numbers mixed with vocals; this is most effective in the last episode. Both the rock-themed opener and pop-styled closer are typical fare that don't stand out. Japanese vocal performances are also reliable but unremarkable, though the gimmick of occasionally having foreign characters randomly insert English words can get annoying.
Overall, Katana Maidens is a watchable but uninspired series beyond a few featured sword fights. While many parts of its story underachieve, it does at least finish on its strongest note, so those unimpressed by earlier parts but committed to finishing will have something to look forward to.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Character relationships, some sharp action scenes, strong final episode
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