Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu Episode 13
by Anne Lauenroth,
How would you rate episode 13 of
Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu ?
"There's nothing we can do but watch."
Three years Horikawa spent as a human among humans, protecting history while working to create an outcome where Izuminokami would get the chance to fix his one regret. And through joining the Shinsengumi and apparently succeeding at getting Hijikata to a point where he would express his own doubts, Horikawa succeeds. But given the chance to either save his old master's life or at least be with him in death, Izuminokami chooses to stay true to the decision he already made and the role given to him by history: Hijikata's memento, the idea of the warrior's soul that will live on long after the person who inspired that idea is gone.
Horikawa worked hard for this moment, and he's clearly moved by seeing his comrade after what must have felt like eternity to him. From the cool symmetrical shot that saw them separated by a large cannon in the foreground to the wonderful absence of music for long parts of the conversation (making it both intimate and distant at the same time, with no weeping strings or a lonely piano ready to provide relief), their reunion was full of tension. I'm always a fan of purposeful silence instead of drowning every scene in unmemorable sound tapestries, as it allows for more poignancy when the music does kick in (as Izuminokami reminds Horikawa of the necessity of choice).
While Izuminokami does get to meet his old master, his encounter with Hijikata is very different from the one Mutsunokami shared with Ryōma. Izuminokami isn't there to save Hijikata or alleviate his pain, he's there to give him the resolve to die. To turn himself into the symbol of Hijikata's resolve, Izuminokami has to reject both choices Horikawa gave him: accompany Hijikata into battle as his sword or save him as a human ally. In this moment, he acts as a soldier with no name, but as the partly human Second Unit's captain, he will always have to carry the doubt with him. Izuminokami needed to see the human doubt in his old master to reconcile being both a warrior's memento and a leader questioning his choices, making the scene significant beyond his individual struggle and more representative of a Tōken Danshi's existence.
Even though their exchange was a straightforward shot to reverse shot affair, not being at eye level allowed for some nice camera angles, with Izuminokami working himself up visually according to their levels of resolve, before ending up in a high-angle shot with hair obscuring his face when Hijikata reaffirms his readiness to die. Izuminokami couldn't "win" this conversation, he could only play his part, accept the pain, and carry the doubt his actions bring. It's an interesting contrast to Hanamaru, which ended with Yamatonokami having to work through his inner struggles and eventually shake off his doubts after a brief venture into history-altering territory by joining in his old master's fight. Katsugeki doesn't offer such cathartic liberation, only more doubts, which can be lamented and accepted but never truly overcome.
When the question of resolve has been dealt with at the episode's midpoint, it's time for the final battle. Luckily, the sun is just about to come up, which means we're treated to a color palette beyond just shades of blue, a real celebration of color and cinematography (setting aside the robotically animated soldiers). When the remaining members of both units arrive to Kalafina in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms to join in the showdown, we know things are going to be alright. With the combined powers of epic team-ups and the glory of awesome slow-motion, Mikazuki and Tsurumaru dance through their enemies while Yagen and Honebami ride the cherry-blossom-powered winds to prevail against an overwhelming supernatural army, just in time for the human armies to slaughter each other in peace like they're supposed to. Every last TRA soldier will be defeated before the last petal hits the ground.
Between sweeping aerial shots, sharp editing, and cinematic animation, the fight is extremely well directed, making the contrast all the more noticeable when the supernatural armies make way for the historical ones. It's a fight we see only from afar and in glimpses, a sad final epilogue to a lost war. Izuminokami and Horikawa's run towards that skirmish is a far cry from Izuminokami riding into battle with the TRA. But maybe battles can only be as heroic, epic, and awe-inducing when fought by the mementos of history's heroes, whose own fights were so much more nuanced than their legacy would suggest. There's neither room nor need to explore these themes in greater detail here, but I'm content with the series giving me just enough to ponder on my own. Somewhere in that distant cloud of dust lies Hijikata's body. What survives is his warrior soul, and stories about the Shinsengumi will probably always be more heroic than reality ever was. That's also part of the history the Tōken Danshi are tasked to preserve and protect.
Katsugeki! Touken Ranbu wasn't the most emotionally sophisticated or thematically intriguing show, but after stumbling in the middle, it ends at the same level of satisfaction it started on, with high production values, great camera and editing work, and characterization efficient enough to tell its story in a rewarding manner. Should the announced movie project turn out to be a retelling, I'm thinking this story might work even better in a tighter movie format.
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