The Power to Protect; Katanagatari Episode 2

A swordsman needs something to protect. Without that, he is nothing.

The need to protect is a trope I’ve always been fascinated by in anime. It’s been used plenty of times, from the older Shoujo Kakumei Utena, when Utena decides to be a Prince to protect her beloved Anthy, to the more current Fullmetal Alchemistwhere  most of the cast protect each other out of respect and love. Despite it being a subject constantly approached in shows, the idea retains its appeal. Why? Because it can be found everywhere. The idea of a bodyguard is embedded in many aspects of the ‘human code’ – both in biological sense as well as in a historical sense. Mothers protect their children instinctively in the biological world because they care about their offspring. Kings rule over people, protecting them and their social, economical and political welfare; samurais protect their landlords to ensure that their lives are safe from any sort of assassination attempts, and priests protect the idea of faith and religion with their teachings. Protection as a code for survival can be found on nearly every macroscopic and microscopic level on the hierarchy of humanity – of the world. It is no surprise then, that it would be an interesting idea to explore in media as humans are inherently built around the protected/protector laws.

Katanagatari takes a look at this notion of protecting and examines it from a humanistic perspective, subverting typical bodyguard elements that can be found in most fiction. Fiction usually holds the truth that we all protect someone because of a simple emotion: love. Yet what makes the idea of protection so unique is that it’s fueled not only by a simple emotion, but an instinctive action as well. One’s  desire and concern for someone is paralleled with the compulsory need to use one’s body as a weapon and as a shield for another’s body. In Katanagatari, we see the similarities: Shichika and Ginkaku both comment specifically that they can become stronger if they have someone or something to protect. But the premise of becoming a bodyguard, or being a protector for the two separates right there. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Shichika and Ginkaku represent opposite sides of the same coin in being a protector. They might  share a similar concept, but they are foils to one another: while Ginkaku represents how becoming a protector can only make you weaker,  Shichika subverts the idea of why  and how we actually protect someone in the first place; something I find rarely explored in anime.

Ginkaku aims to protect the idea of honor, pride and glory. Ginkaku is a symbol of the past. He holds onto ideas that have long been buried under the sands of time, living in a territory that is desolate and is politically erased from the Shogunate. But his  desire to protect stems from regret and misery. Upon the realization that there was really nothing to protect, and that he had been the one enabling his own suffering all along instead of a 100+ year tradition, he simply states that there is nothing left for him to go back or forward to. He himself is a relic, refusing change and the company of others to the point where the only thing he can physically protect is a sword that holds more value than his own life. It’s both sad and ironic that in the end, all Ginkaku becomes is a man who can only protect himself and his own beliefs when both his individuality and his tradition truly ended the day his castle was abandoned.

Ginkaku wearing a forlorn expression as he stands dutifully in front of his castle.

This is the type of development that was sorely lacking in the first episode, so I am glad that they fleshed out Ginkaku’s character in an original way here instead of inserting some sort of sob story at the end. Let me make myself clearer at that last part of the sentence:  Ginkaku’s background is anything but original, but the execution is something else entirely. Ginkaku’s past is revealed remarkably quickly – only for a decent 7 minutes in a 49 minute episode – but it succinctly summarizes the difference between him and Shichika. His past isn’t just there for character development and background, but serves as a foil to Shichika’s beliefs in what it means to protect someone.

If Ginkaku holds his pride, past and honor as things worth protecting, then Shichika’s love for and trust in Togame is what fuels his desire to protect her. They are two completely different set of feelings. Ginkaku’s desire to protect is self-serving and embodied by his feelings of duty and a need to protect. Without that, he has nothing else; it is a last resort, a last will that he clutches on to. For Shichika however, his desire to protect stems from him having absolute faith in Togame’s ideals as well as his own faith in loving her. In the end, he chose to go with Togame, not out of duty, money or a contract, but out of free will. It’s that exact reason why Shichika serves so well as a bodyguard. We could have argued in Episode 1 that Shichika came along with Togame out of mere amusement, but it’s here in Episode 2 that we really see the depth of his love and trust in Togame. Shichika considers Togame to be an equal, respectfully objecting to her plans only if he thinks his plans are better. He even goes shopping with her! He lets her choose his clothing to an extent, and even uses her catchphrase “By that point, you will have been torn into pieces.”

It is Togame and Shichika’s relationship that strengthens Shichika, not the other way around. Katanagatari argues that defending someone is meaningless if that person is someone who you find to be lesser than you – someone weak and fragile. Togame is anything but weak and fragile. She makes up her lack of physical prowess with a very formidable intelligence and determination to pursue her interest. Independent, smart and sassy, she is always willing to take on whatever comes across her path. Of course, this doesn’t mean she’s incredibly masculine in any way – on the contrary, her enthusiasm for clothes, being self-conscious about her figure, and her image as a woman show that Togame does not shield away from her femininity, and actually uses it as a weapon when necessary. Shichika is fascinated by all of these qualities and respects Togame despite sometimes being confused by her (see: her arguments on ‘civilizing’ Shichika in society, where he contemplates its flaws). Shichika and Togame rely on one another, protecting and teaching each other. The idea of a bodyguard here functions in synchronization with the development of a relationship based on mutual trust and faith. And that is why Shichika wins in the end.

Of course, the battle between Shichika and Ginkaku doesn’t take up the entire 49 minutes, so there’s plenty of other things to look at. We do get some gags that once again, get a bit tiring after a certain point. Togame’s critique of Shichika not being an interesting male protagonist is fun in that it breaks the fourth wall a bit and pokes some fun at stereotypical shounen behavior, but there’s a limit to things being funny and things becoming annoying and sometimes Katangatari wavers on that line. Nevertheless, this episode was still interesting, especially with Shichika bluntly pointing out the way society tends to be dramatic about certain ideas and the idea that Shichika holds himself to be a swordsman despite Kyotoryuu being an art that uses no swords.

One thing I was really surprised about was the scene between Shichika and Togame as they went shopping. Togame criticizes Shichika’s appearance – one of a native, with leaves for shoulder pads and as a sort of skirt, his chest bare naked. He’s obviously not affected by the cold like everyone else is in town (which may or may not be a reference to how blunt he is), so why does Togame bother to give him new clothing in the first place?

We could argue that Togame wishes to stand out for strategic purposes, and that she needs to be ~incognito~ in order to get all of the Deviant Swords, but her dialogue shows that Togame is much more self conscious about her image as a privileged being and a participant of the society she seems to be fighting against than originally thought. It’s not just about looking pretty – it’s about looking normal, to be accepted. A role that Togame can be proud of: both a woman with high social status as well as a pretty tactician for the Shogunate. Even in society today, image and appearance mean everything: in ads, women put on makeup and wear appealing clothing to look good; we are influenced by the people and culture we surround ourselves with and thus we too, follow that culture. To Shichika, this sort of custom is amusing and odd, as he grew up isolated from this society and follows the idea that one should dress as necessary. After all, he grew up on an island where everything was made out of necessity and not for complete comfort and extravagance.  Nevertheless, Shichika to some level accepts Togame’s wishes and finds middle ground, with his unusual dress that still leaves his torso, for the most part, naked (to Togame’s slight discomfort).

This then leads to a rather amusing scene when Shichika nearly kills the thieves wishing to steal Togame’s clothing. Togame is shocked to hear that Shichika is actually quite serious about using Kyotoryuu to finish off his opponents, to which Shichika directly asks:

And it’s funny, in two ways. We laugh because to us, Shichika is asking a ridiculous question, but we laugh too because if we think about it, the society that both the audience and Togame are accustomed to are heavy-handed with obsessive customs and demands. We demand courtesy and respect in odd ways, and yet the system is corrupt despite all of these rules. It is hypocritical at best, if not pathetic at worst. To Shichika, the answer is simple: if someone takes something of yours without asking, that person is an enemy and must be taken down. It’s simple and short but also follows the sort of lifestyle he led on the island: survival of the fittest. But in our society, we have to abide by certain moral obligations and codes; codes that create the demons that possess the Deviant Sword and create ladies like Togame who wish to use the rules of society to rise to the top.

That’s not the only thing; even Shichika’s ‘culture’ is a little grey. Before killing Ginkaku, Shichika states that he is a swordsman. That’s something I find interesting considering that in the previous episode, Shichika stated that his body was not accustomed to handling a sword. Kyotoryuu, as I understand it, is an art or technique of physical taijutsu that uses the body, not a manmade weapon. Though we could argue the definition of a ‘sword’. It is manmade, it is sharpened and exercised to kill, and meant to cut through whatever it touches. It is an extension of the arm. Shichika’s limbs function the same way, though more flexible and pliant as they are literally extensions of his own body. It is still sort of confusing when Shichika says this, however, because I was given the impression that Shichika harbored some distaste toward any other art of the sword other than his own. Here, he takes pride in the fact that he is a swordsman – though a unique one, at any rate.

But it all comes back to the idea that Shichika uses his limbs and his very own body to protect Togame and their ideals, however uncommon as they are. His pride does not lie in the art of protecting, but the art of fighting and the art of respect. It is that redeeming trait about Shichika that makes him such a likable protagonist, despite what Togame says about him being ordinary.

“Without something to protect, I am nothing.” Kiba says in Wolf’s Rain when holding a dying Cheza in his arms. Katanagatari respectfully disagrees. Having nothing at all to protect might make us weak, but we are most certainly not ‘nothing’. We are only weaker if we believe that in protecting nothing, we have lost purpose. Our strength does not stem from what we protect, but by why and how we protect someone. Ginkaku loses his life and battle because the thing he wishes defend is already gone. As such, he becomes weak because he loses sight of what he wanted to achieve in the first place. Shichika’s belief, trust, and love for Togame, as well as his firm conviction that he can win is what allows his protection to be so secure. This is not to say that Kyotoryuu is a perfect art; humans are flawed and thus the arts they perform are flawed. But Shichika succeeds in winning this episode’s battle because he wants to be with Togame and pursue this journey. Gikaku’s faith is shaken by years of being alone and by an inherited duty that he truly wishes to be no part of, and thus, he is defeated.

And with that, we have two swords down and nine to go. So far the journey has been smooth, but who’s to say that it won’t get rough next week? A hero always needs difficult trials, no? At least our protagonists are ready, in style, and with a good sense of honor and pride.

Enjoyment Level: 8/10

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2 responses to “The Power to Protect; Katanagatari Episode 2

  1. Watching Katanagatari in the beginning can be hard going. You touched on the fact that the jokes and fourth-wall breakage can border on immersion-breaking at times, and that’s going to keep being an issue for the next few episodes. After a while, though, the creators/author becomes better at balancing quirk and action, and the story becomes much easier to follow. You’ll know it when you get there.

    Keep a close eye on Shichika, by the way. He appears to be the everyman at first, but like just about everything in this show things aren’t as simple as that. He also has one of the most interesting arcs in the series, so watch carefully! I’d say more but I REALLY don’t want to spoil anything

    • It’s not that Katangatari isn’t unappealing to me in any way – it’s pretty, it has humorous scenes and it does have some great action and interesting themes. I think it’s more to do with the fact that the show is a full 49 minutes long and a.) I’m not used to anime shows holding my attention for so long and b.) Katanagatari has to fill up time somewhere in those minutes. I do appreciate that Katangatari doesn’t waste all of its time on comedy and bad jokes, but there are points where the puns and jokes do get a BIT long. But I still enjoy it a lot! And I’m glad to hear that pacing and execution improve along the way.

      Yeah something tells me Shichika and Togame are much more than what meets the eyes. It’s more obvious with Togame as we were exposed to a bit of her history and past as well as her motives (which is interesting considering that the story is told from Shichika’s point of view for the most part). In fact, I would say that EVERYONE is much more layered than first shown. (But don’t spoil me! You’ll have the pleasure of seeing my shock and excitement at every turn that way and apparently Katangatari does ride on those emotions, so)

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