Well, this episode was cute. Cute as in quite good, but not Katanagatari‘s finest, unfortunately.
So far Katanagatari has grappled us in with a well-balanced plot that shifts from comedy to drama, with an undercurrent of something far more deep and powerful. The first five episodes constantly beat each other at its own game, so it was only natural for the show to keep going up. Every episode served a specific focus – both thematically and character-wise, until we slowly reached the higher portions of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see: my post on Katanagatari Episode 5) However, the opposite can be said, as Episode 6 felt a bit lackluster in its approach to be varied and full of depth like the previous installments. This doesn’t mean that it was necessarily bad – on the contrary, it was quite enjoyable – but it didn’t have the impressive performance and execution of the previous episodes, which made it fall a bit short of my expectations. That is, until the end.
But what expectations are we talking about here? Well, I have given up on trusting any information from our episode previews after Episode 4 (scream with me: NANAMIIII) but Katanagatari has shown me that it’s quite controlled and precise in where it’s taking us, even if we have no idea where that next or final destination is. If there is one thing that keeps me consistently hooked, it’s Nisiosin’s talent for casual mockery: swiftly changing from classic comedy to brutal and vicious drama. It’s that sort of talent we see a bit slowed down here but for specific reasons: this episode was a step back from plot, as I see it, to focusing on one of Katanagatari‘s best traits, which was the main theme here: balance and contrast. I’m not just talking about Shichika and the fact that he loses – a nice contrast to the previous battles where he had won every battle he had fought with no scratches or bruises on his body, or the subversion of ideas like ‘small and puny’ vs ‘large and powerful’. Katanagatari is a show that relies on contrast as effective storytelling, and it works.
The first component to this is the tone balance. The show so far, has had bits of action, comedy and drama, but whereas most series exclusively focus on one and leave the other for sparse moments, Katanagatari makes sure to equally balance each sort of genre in every episode. Out of fifty minutes, around fifteen to twenty minutes are spent on each section. In this week’s episode, there’s a good bit of empathy and humanization as we witness some rather unusual interaction between our ‘Sword Holder of the Month’ – a young girl named Konayuki – who turns out to be the last survivor of her clan, who was brutally murdered by, er, an avalanche (we’ll get to that in a bit). The pacing is easier to follow in this episode than others, precisely because Konayuki is such an adorable character; it makes the transition of comedy to action to some poignant moments pretty easy to follow, whereas the previous installments were a little more rough and jagged in this approach. This episode features some rather heartfelt moments as well – right after we are introduced to Konayuki, Shichika and Togame share an intimate peace which is followed by a rather comedic battle, which is then followed by some serious introspection and analysis of failure. Konayuki also smoothens the process of the ‘main boss battle’ in this month’s episode as she transforms into the weakly developed villain Kyouken, who has her moments of hilarity before becoming a flimsy opponent easily defeated by Shichika. This format is similar to the other episodes, but it’s this specific sort of progression that was the best thing about this episode, because I found myself much more able to carry on through without feeling like one portion or the other had been dragged out for too long.
The second component is character design. The animation has consistent across five episodes, but what stood out in this episode were the character designs for Konayuki and Kyouken. Konayuki is plump, round and very chibi-fied, which serves to emphasize her innocence and gentle heart. Kyouken on the other hand is bluntly sexualized, with a skimpy outfit emphasizing her large breasts and hips. However, as it turns out, Kyouken, with her lean body, has to depend on Konayuki’s body, to win the fight; an interesting contrast considering how in anime, the girls who are often sexualized are the ones who are physically fit to win a battle.
The last component is character itself. Nisiosin seems to heavily depend on exaggeration for contrast. In this episode, Shichika, a fully fledged warrior, trained in the arts of Kyotouryuu for as long as he can remember, loses to Konayuki who has never picked up a blade in her life. It’s not about the fact that Konayuki is extremely strong despite being an adorable little girl, or the fact that she’s more accustomed to the cold climate than Shichika is. It’s precisely the fact that Konayuki has never used a weapon before; that her style relies simply on play and fun and not combat tactics. And so for the first time, Shichika, who has never lost a battle since this journey, loses to a little girl and in the process, breaks his arm.
This is also contrasted when Konayuki, who is Shichika’s ‘enemy’ ends up becoming his reason to kill the next Maniwani Corp, but without harming Konayuki in the process. Konayuki is probably the most cheerful character we’ve seen yet, so it’s no mishap when someone like Shichika holds a subtle fondness of her that reflects in his battle. She’s an effective device used to make Shichika more of a human being than just a sword. Whereas in the third episode, where Shichika said he would calmly kill Tsuruga, here, we see Shichika strive to protect Konayuki, knowing fully well that she’s innocent of any crime. It’s a big step, and I’m glad to see it, but it also sharply contrasts with Nanami’s arc, which was only hinted in this episode as she seems to have annihilated the Itezora clan.
There’s also the balance of Shichika’s character with Togame, which has been the main current of the show so far and has already been talked about in previous posts. But more importantly, what I’ve noticed is the Maniwani Corps, whose presence have been growing larger with every episode, also has contrasts and balances of their own, resulting in great irony. In terms of a device, these characters have been completely subverted. So far, these ninjas, who were expected to be a large threat to Shichika and Togame, have been nothing but insects mowed down by unfortunate circumstances. The first Maniwani was killed by Shichika; the next by Ginkaku, the third by Tsuruga, the next three by Nanami, and the current ones by Shichika and Hou. This can contrast with the mysterious Princess and her henchman, who only have gotten bits of screen time in comparison to the Maniwanis, but are clearly becoming the main threat. Character-wise, the leader of the Maniwani Corps, Hou, is anything but a leader: he easily cuts off his teammate’s head just as he cut off his own arm. Compare this with the three weak Maniwanis we saw in episode 4, who felt pain and loss but were better at teamwork and bonds than Hou ever was. Also noticeable is the fact that Kawauso was a dedicated soldier and leader to the Maniwanis, but his ultimate purpose was keep the alliance between Hou and Shichika and Togame intact.
All of this points to the idea that sooner or later, these contrasts will be disrupted by some far more serious and dramatic, such as the fact that apparently next time, Shichika finally comes head to head with his beloved and terrifying sister, Nanami, with a dramatic change in animation style in effect. Wait, did I also hear that he kills her? Surely not….I don’t trust these previews anymore, like I said! But whatever is going to happen, it’s certainly going to change the mood and the story of Katanagatari so far, and I’m excited to see how it happens. It’s not that I’ve been getting bored of the typical “Sword of the Month” lineup – every episode has had their own story to tell, and a great one at that. It’s more to do with the idea that it’s time to move onto something a little more dramatic and bigger-scaled, because as far as I see it, so far the show has covered all its bases. We’ve talked about the sword and what it means to a human being; the art and purpose of fighting; the relationship between a sword and its user; the idea of pride, honor and love; and finally, the effectiveness of this Sword Story itself. It’s time to move onto something heavier, and next time seems like the perfect opportunity to open the curtains to that larger stage. While we’ll just have to sit tight to see what really happens, I can be assured that whatever comes, will be bigger and better than before.