Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu
Episodes 7-9

by Anne Lauenroth,

How would you rate episode 7 of
Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu ?

How would you rate episode 8 of
Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu ?

How would you rate episode 9 of
Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu ?

Finally back after a forced absence due to spotty internet reception on the road, I fully expected the First Unit to have taken over Katsugeki by now, at least for a couple of episodes. After catching up, I'm more than glad to see I was wrong, and we haven't seen the last of the Second Unit just yet. While the First Unit took over to feature a few more characters of the game's huge cast, their mission served to reflect on the pressing issues of guilt and responsibility our already established team saw itself confronted with again.

Before we get to the Second Unit's triumphant (and surprisingly emotional) return, let's take a quick look at what worked well in the 1.5 episodes we spent with Honebami and his comrades. On his first mission as part of a unit, Honebami is sent to his original time, but since he doesn't remember anything from before his former master's death, his agency and inner conflict are very different from Mutsunokami's in the following mission. While there's not enough time to characterize Higekiri, Hizamaru, and Ōdenta beyond their unique fighting styles, both Mikazuki and Yamanbagiri are established as true (if quirky) badasses. Instead of just more of the same on a higher skill level, we get an element of the unknown in the form of a new, unpredictable enemy (mech-like fusion of TRAs included).

The First Unit's superior fighting skills are obvious from the way they take down multiple ōtachi without breaking a sweat. It's an impressive display, especially after seeing the Second Unit struggle as much as they did, but even more interesting and relevant is how the First Unit found a way to cope with the consequences of protecting the big picture at the cost of smaller tragedies. We witnessed Izuminokami struggle to come to terms with his inability to save everyone, causing him to doubt himself and their mission before just barely snapping out of it. While Izuminokami is assuming guilt for something beyond his control, Honebami is holding on to the truth that all those personal histories being changed for the worse are not their fault. Seeing the First Unit pursue compassion and acceptance over both guilt and indifference is even more telling of their experience than their superior combat skills. The food distribution might be a bit on the nose, but it serves the purposes of humanizing the Tōken Danshi by making sympathy (and the corresponding suffering they witness) their choice. In going beyond Saniwa's direct orders out of human emotion, they become more relatable as characters rather than just tools called on to fight for some abstract goal.

The same is true for Izuminokami's decision to accept his responsibility of his own volition, reaffirming his will to fight alongside his comrades not because he was ordered to, but because he wants to. All of this is build-up to the end of episode 8, when the returning First Unit passes the torch to a reunited Second Unit that now has a much better idea of what it truly means to protect history. It's a lovely exchange, short but full of resolve. Only one member of the Second Unit has yet to make the emotional connection between big picture success and individual cost: Horikawa. This finally brings us to episode 9.

Titled Former Master, episode 9 offered everything I had hoped for after the series' premiere and what the show had never quite managed to deliver yet. It seems we had to take this detour to the First Unit's exploits to arrive at a point where things no longer felt narratively hollow and unambitious. Everything this week was spot-on, from Mutsunokami briefly entertaining the idea of running away to save his former master from certain death just two years later, preservation of history be damned, to Horikawa realizing why the Tōken Danshi try to avoid meeting their old masters while staring at the (now empty) bridge. The characters acted like people with agency and a shared past, like Izuminokami trusting in Mutsunokami's ability to withstand the temptation of changing history. Badass moments became memorable because they were about more than ufotable's technical skills – they were finally relevant to the emotions of the characters experiencing them.

While all of the crucial scenes were shot and scored effectively, unerringly aiming for the sweet spot between epicness and sentimentality – Mutsunokami's shock when he first set eyes on Ryōma, Ryōma's bleeding hands reaching for his sword prompted the human sword to step forward and protect him one last time, Ryōma's confession of how losing his ability to grip his sword made him feel (and what this means to Mutsunokami), and Ryōma throwing Mutsunokami the beloved sword he can no longer wield in a moment of well-earned slow-motion.

However, the crowning moment isn't reached before an instrumental version of the ED kicks in, after Ryōma and Mutsunokami have said their goodbyes in the powerful absence of any score. While Mutsunokami managed to restrain his own feelings for the good of history just like ufotable managed to hold back on the sentimental stuff enough to keep from crossing into kitsch, Horikawa is left to ponder the purpose of their mission and his existence between the temptation to change history and torment for not wavering to weeping strings.

Episode 9 was Katsugeki! Tōken Ranbu at its best since the premiere. No matter which unit we follow next, my confidence in this production has been restored for now.

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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