Studio: White Fox
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Drama with Light Comedy Elements
Release Date: 07/05/2011
Katanagatari or, “Sword Story,” for those wanting a literal English translation, manages to be both a very unique and yet very generic anime at the same time. Instead of being a weekly half hour series like the vast majority of anime series, this was an hour long show that was broadcast one episode a month for a full year. I had to really wrack my brain to think of an anime series that had hour long episodes without counting OVAs or short one shot movies. In this respect, Katanagatari is a very original series that stands out from the glut of shows made across the Pacific, just in format and broadcast release alone.
The other way the series stands out is that Katanagatari is with the animation style. Both the character design and fluidity of the hand drawn art really stands out from any other anime series I’ve watched before. This is especially true of the eyes characters have. For the first couple episodes the style threw me off and I debated regularly over whether or not I liked the style, but eventually I came to rest on the side of liking it. You can just take one look at the characters from this series and known they are from Katanagatari. Well, maybe not Azekura Kanara. He looks like The Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The flip side is that the story, both in its hook and its progression is extremely generic and has been done countless times before. Your main character, Shichika Yasuri has lived on an island his whole life with his slightly older sister. He is the master of Koto Ryu, a martial art where one’s own limbs act as swords. Hence he is a swordsman without a sword, like the previous generations of his family before him. A woman named Togame comes to the island and seeks Yasuri’s help in collecting twelve Deviant Blades. Although the anime refers to them as katana, when they are also quickly shown in the first episode, you see that they are, in fact, a myriad of weapons. In the episodes contained in this first volume, we get a hammer and some armor as the objects du jour for the anime. I groaned loudly when I realized this was following the same pattern of anime series where each episode would feature a specific bad guy with a specific weapon who would then fall to the main character before the end credits began to roll. This sort of thing was fine when I was younger with Vampire Princess Miyu, countless anime movies brought over by Central Park Media or U.S. Manga back in the day, and even Voltron but by 2011, it reeks of clichés and almost feels lazy writing-wise.
The good news is that, even though the story does indeed progress in this extremely played out fashion, the series does its best to keep things somewhat fresh. A good example is the fourth episode where you never actually see the battle between Yasuri and his enemy du jour. Instead, this epic battle happens totally off camera and you never get any of it. Instead, you get to see his sister do battle with three ninja wearing bug motif costumes. This was a nice touch and it actually had quality story reasons for occurring as it would eventually set up the seventh episode in this series…which you won’t get to see until the second boxed set that Nippon Ichi will release some months down the line. But at least the episode had a purpose other than yanking the viewer’s chain in two different ways.
Characters do tend to be fairly stereotypical for the genre. Yasuri is the super strong buffoon with a heart of gold ala Gourry from Slayers. Togame is the arrogant but clutzy girl that has been down in thousands of anime series, and even more manga. The antagonists encounters are two dimensional and really are interchangeable with the bad guys from any anime series that follows this pattern, from Wraith of the Ninja to Pokemon. They’re just there to advance the plot. What saves the anime from being purely generic is the occasional plot twists (Unfortunately the second volume will have the more dramatic and superior ones), and the combination of writing and voice acting that helps all the characters in Katanagatari come to life.
I will admit that biggest problem I had with this anime series was neither the generic plot or recycled characters, but the length. With each of these episodes lasting twice as long as a normal anime episode, yet containing the plot of something you’d see in a regular length one, so there is a lot of padding. I hate padding. It’s like stock footage in 50s sci-fi movies to me. There is many a scene in Katanagatari that could have been cut to make the anime shorter and run smoother. I won’t lie. My feelings towards the anime were pretty bi-polar. I either couldn’t take my eyes of the screen or I was bored and started to read a book or check my email while keeping my ears open for something important happening.
At the end of the day Katanagatari does a decent job of reinventing the same old story we’ve heard time and time again and it’s a very pretty series, but the generic nature of the title combined with the length of the episodes leaves me to give the series as a whole a thumbs in the middle. In terms of Nippon Ichi releases, it really is in the middle quality wise. I preferred Toradora!, Arakawa Under the Bridge and Our Home’s Fox Diety, but I liked this better than Persona: Trinity Soul, Wagnaria, and Pandora Hearts. So three better and three worse. That means this wouldn’t be my first recommendation from Nippon Ichi’s library of titles, but it also wouldn’t be my last.
Now for the contents that make up the premium edition of Katanagatari, Volume One. Like Arakawa Under the Bridge, this Nippon Ichi release is actually a DVD/Blu-Ray combo set and so you get two of each discs allowing you to play the series in whichever format you prefer. If you have a Blu-Ray player, this is definitely the way to watch the series as the visuals are fantastic and it really brings out the beautiful hues and colours that are plentifully used in the series. It does make the series more expensive than previous Nippon Ichi releases, but when you look at the cost per disc, it’s actually much lower. The DVDs themselves lack any extras save for cleaning openings and closings though, which is a bit of a bummer. There is only a Japanese audio track, but this is true of all Nippon Ichi series. So if the thought of sitting through hour long episodes with only subtitles makes you cringe, this won’t be the series for you.
The set comes in Nippon Ichi’s patented double-wide, double-length hardcover box. Both sides of the box are beautifully illustrated with characters from the anime and it’s the most striking premium edition box Nippon Ichi has put out yet. Like everything else about Katanagatari, it oozes style.
The premium edition also contains a thirty-two glossy page hardcover artbook. The book, entitled, “Togame’s Travelogue” is nicely done. You get a lot of full colour artwork featuring the characters from the series, episode guides, character breakdowns for each episode, lyrics for the theme songs and poems for some odd reason. Toward the back of the book there is a style guide along with a glossary. The glossary is a wonderful idea and for those that are familiar with Japanese lore and history, this guide really helps flesh out the anime.
Overall, Nippon Ichi has put together a really good package for Katanagatari. The artbook is wonderful, the packaging is the best NISA has put out so far and the anime itself is truly beautiful to look at. Sadly, the story and characters are the two areas that prevent this package from being one I can truly recommend. With each episode lasting a padded filled hour and the characters and plot of each episode being extremely generic to the point where you start to count all the series that have followed this exact same progression, it can be hard to actually watch an episode at times. Still, when the series is good, it’s really good but it can also be quite boring as well. If it was just the anime, I’d be hard pressed to give you a simple “buy or don’t buy” answer. With the entire package being reviewed here, I can give it a mild overall recommendation, thanks to the quality bits of the premium edition and the fact the set is a Blu-Ray DVD combo pack, but considering Arakawa Under the Bridge came out the same day as this and it is better in every way, I’d suggest buying that one first. You’ll be happier that way. Trust me.