Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu
Episodes 1-3

by Anne Lauenroth,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu ?

While last year's Tōken Ranbu: Hanamaru focused on the slice-of-life adventures of the browser game's human swords at the Citadel, Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu seems to go for a different angle. The chances of Katsugeki's Kanesada and Mutsunokami breaking into song while making udon or playing butler cafe seem rather slim. Instead, we see them fighting the Time Retrograde Army in slick ufotable action, which is not only very pretty but also surprisingly newcomer-friendly. Also contrary to Hanamaru, Katsugeki takes a quality over quantity approach, facilitating a more focused narrative. While the jury is still kinda out on whether there will be an overall driving plot or just episodic action vignettes, it's nice that the cast hasn't gotten so big that I simply want to give up memorizing the names of the swords and their former owners (plus the era they were forged in), which greatly contributes to my investment in the show from a historical perspective.

The history buff in me enjoys seeing the swords of Sakamoto Ryōma and a prominent Shinsengumi member constantly rubbing each other the wrong way – reformation versus preservation, nicely reflecting their approach to (not) altering the course of history and their former masters' political positions. But even for non-history geeks and people unfamiliar with the property, Katsugeki started out as very accessible, competently executed, and beautiful to look at.

More than just being attractive, character designs intend to reference the human swords' original era and type of weapon in clothing, hairstyle and body type. Of course, the idea of a wakizashi facing off against a katana without the advantage of combat in cramped quarters is fairly ridiculous from a fighting perspective, but variety is important for a collectible game. Out of the five heroes we've been introduced to, only two wield the same blade, and one of them favors a secondary weapon. On top of that, each character is assigned a different seasonal/elemental theme in the OP – fall for Mutsunokami, pouring rain for Kane and Kunihiro, fire for Yagen, winter for Saniwa, before it's eventually time to join up for battle under the cherry blossoms, naturally.

Backgrounds are gorgeous and detailed, making the unfortunate castle town really come alive. Vibrant lighting, such as moonlight reflecting in the swords, adds vividness and plasticity. Action comes in short, dynamic, well-paced bursts of strong fight choreography, never lingering on violence, making battles feel immediate and real. Dramatic tracking shots add a cinematic feel ufotable has perfected over the years, as our heroes run over burning buildings toward their enemies. Framing is particularly effective, with the steamship pushing violently onto the screen, trapping Kane and Kunihiro in a corner and visually threatening them an entire episode before the related plot plays out. Clever blocking communicates characters' emotions, such as Kane sitting in the corner, refusing to look out at the fire reflecting in his hair, killing people he just smiled at. There's money in this production, and on a technical level, it has been put to very good use. When the other swords arrived in an explosion of light and cherry blossoms at the end of episode 1, I found myself smiling and nodding in approval. Unfortunately, from then on, it was a much more mixed bag of beautiful moments and plot shortcomings.

Despite some clunkier setting and objective exposition already present from the start, characters got primarily established through body language and interaction with each other. Kane and Kunihiro function as a team despite Kunihiro's rookie status. They might not have worked together as humans, but the history they share as Hijikata Toshizō's swords creates a trust deeper than words, which is all told through action. Kane smiling off the invitation from the innkeeper nicely contrasted with his inability (or unwillingness) to let the little girl burn to death, all time travel butterflies be damned.

With the introductions dragging on too long, episode 2 struggled to keep up the established pace, while still offering some interesting moments – Mutsunokami's shock and disgust at the bloodbath, Tonbokiri's excitement about the steamship turning into melancholy after realizing just how out of time he is, how irrelevant the accomplishments of the people who forged and wielded him seem compared to modern inventions. Of course, Sakamoto Ryōma's sword would dream of traveling the world like his master did (and apparently does to Kalafina's catchy ED).

In episode 3, the bigger narrative problems became more apparent. Historical Revisionists as a supernatural enemy could make for intriguing political commentary, which the show doesn't seem too interested in given the bad guys' lack of a bigger goal, at least for the time being. There's no conflict between the Time Retrograde Army and our heroes beyond the physical, as neither of them has a motivation of their own. In order for the conflict to turn into something more interesting than a moment-to-moment reaction to seemingly random attacks, it would have to become internal. But even though they very clearly show human emotions, the swords are neither human nor fully developed characters, just weapons to execute someone else's orders. There's a very fatalistic aspect to it all, with the swords playing their part as interchangeable observers and preservers, only taking action to make sure everyone else follows along the already predetermined path. And neither them nor their enemies seem to know or care much about the "why".

Still, there's the promise of conflict between their purpose as weapons and being reborn as humans with troublesome emotions like compassion getting in the way of fulfilling their purpose, as we see with Mutsunokami's refusal to accept their inability to save people who are, technically, already dead. So far, the series has only touched upon these ideas in passing to enable mostly superficial arguments. Being from Tosa, Mutsunokami can sympathize with the more radical factions of sonnō jōi from Sakamoto's earlier days, while Kane, like Hijikata, enforces the rules, personal attachments and sentimentality be damned. This is all nice enough if you're a fan of history and the Bakumatsu in particular, but not because the episode does a particularly good job at telling it on screen.

It doesn't help that the lack of motive isn't the only aspect of the show's writing that seems somewhat half-baked. Sure, the Time Retrograde Army switching from simply assassinating people to working behind the scenes and manipulating the ones actually from that era to alter the course of their own history would be much more difficult to foresee and contain, but how exactly did they goad those rōnin into attacking foreigners if they wouldn't have done so on their own? How is that any different from assassinating foreigners to push their countries towards war (where, technically, it would still be the people of that era who changed the course of history by declaring war)? And what's up with that Historical Restraining Force business that conveniently kicks in when our heroes fail but weren't supposed to? The only interesting part of that last mission was Mutsunokami recognizing himself in those rōnin, settling for saving people over preserving the flow of history, only to be prevented from doing so by the Time Retrograde Army, whose attack allows the rōnin to find their way toward the constables and their own demise. Sure, Kane also had his part to play in the bloody but history-saving outcome, but there was a certain irony in how this all played out.

Three episodes in, the first arc concludes with the second unit formed and its members more or less established. Even though we briefly catch a glimpse of the Citadel and other swords in the OP and ED, it looks like we're going to stay with the band in Bakumatsu Japan for our next mission and possibly beyond it. These turbulent years in Japanese history make for a promising setting not just because of their game-changing outcome. Both Sakamoto Ryōma and Hijikata Toshizō are still alive in 1863 (and not exactly on the same side), teasing not just the obvious external potential for conflict, but also internal ones for our swords whose masters fought – and died – in this era. Hanamaru addressed the swords' desire to protect their former masters against history in brief vignettes before returning to the fluffier slice-of-life side of things. With its different tone, Katsugeki could decide to pursue such notions in deeper fashion.

I might be expecting too much from a browser game adaptation, though. For now, let's hope not knowing the bad guys' motivation and the heroes lacking any beyond being summoned will prove to be something the narrative can explore – or at least a shortcoming ufotable's production values can make up for.

Rating: B-

Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Amazon's Anime Strike.

Anne is a translator and fiction addict who writes about anime at Floating Words and on Twitter.

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