All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
– William Shakespeare
Theatrics have always been a mixed suit in anime. I don’t necessarily mean overdramatized behavior – no, that can be found in nearly any anime, to an extent. What I mean is a specific study and behavior of a story; a type of storytelling which functions as a staged performance or a play. I could pick out a couple of aces, such as Gankutsuou, a dramatic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, or Wolf’s Rain, a tragic story with heavy allusions to the bible and the epics Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. On the other hand, we have Romeo x Juliet, a dramatized version of the Shakespearean play, which ended up becoming blase and strayed far too off the mark, or Zetsuen no Tempest, which only takes some themes and roles of the play and trivializes them as mere inserts, rather than exploring them in full detail. Katanagatari, I’m happy to say, works specifically in the former suit, as it plays out its trump card this episode – a move well made.
Each episode up till Episode 4 has worked as a certain ‘Act’; we are introduced to the antagonist, are given solid buildup (mixed in with comedic relief, in the form of a discussion between Togame and Shichika) only to follow up to a climax and a speedy resolution as Shichika defeats his opponent and gains a little humanity in the process, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Episode 4 was an Act, as we witnessed Nanami’s true nature.The episode still functions as an Act despite following a different structure as the episode also builds up to the eventual climax of Episode 7. As soon as Episode 4 finished, the Acts resumed; Episode 5 and 6 followed the same format as 1-3, with Episode 6 merging the storyline of Episode 4 and the previous Acts together. Episode Seven is the seventh stage, where the final battle begins as Nanami and Shichika come into full conflict and wage battle against one another.
If we can assume that the previous six episodes have served the purpose of being the protasis, epistasis, and cathastasis (exposition and rising action), then episode seven functions as the climax and falling action/denouement.** It is the stage of both an internal and external conflict; a setting where Shichika must confront himself (man against self) and his beloved sister (man against man). There are no new characters introduced in the final act; no further plot progression. The focus of the episode isn’t even about the sword of the month; no, it is about the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. Thus, the requirements have been set for a final Act. For the first half of the episode, Shichika spends his time burrowing himself in depression and anxiety, unable to confront the fact that he must defeat his sister not only to gain a Sword but also because his training and efforts have amounted to nothing. The second half of the episode is where the climax begins – Shichika wins his internal battle from the help of Togame and prepares to fight his sibling, and ends up succeeding at the cost of being forced to kill his sister. The episode finally ends with Togame and Shichika sailing off into the distance, with Shichika having found peace in his sister’s death, determined to find the rest of the swords.
From a playwright’s perspective, the seventh episode is a perfect construct of a tragedy in its last stages. The dramatics are consistent and a sacrifice paves the way for resolution. Of course, this sort of tragic drama can be found anywhere in anime – look at the listed examples above! Zetsuen no Tempest focuses around Aika’s murder and revenge; Romeo x Juliet has the two main characters sacrifice themselves out of love.* But what these shows lack and what Katanagatari has in spades is self awareness and the understanding of how theatrics should work. For instance, there’s a two minute sequence where the show summarizes up what happened before the events of Episode 7 through the format of a video game. Nanami faces her battles (as does Shichika and Togame) much like a regular RPG. In the same way, Shichika and Togame confront Hime’s henchman, demanding to know what’s going on.
This of course, is a play on how contrived Katanagatari‘s story format might have been with each Episode or Act, but it’s also an important allusion to how video games and plays function very similarly. Each character in a traditional video game follows a certain role or purpose in the story. They have set beginnings as they do with endings, much like characters performing in a play. This is also heightened at the end of the episode, when Shichika and Togame have their final battle. But before they fight, Togame tells them that they are not performing for their own ideals and revenge – they have an audience: the Buddha of War. This doesn’t only increase the sense of drama and tension as the two siblings are not only just performing on a stage for us, but it also breaks the fourth wall a bit as they are both fighting on a stage in the show for a God. It gives a sense that our characters aren’t just performing their roles within a show but truly within a certain final act, with their fates being left in the hands of the playwright, even down to their last lines.
It’s during these moments that Katanagatari proves that it isn’t just conscious of the tropes it’s pulling at, but that it’s also fully knowledgeable of what those tropes are and how to use them for maximum effect. To use the format of a play as a convenient excuse for writing is one thing, but to use it, be aware of it, and then play on it continually is a sign of masterwork, and that’s where the show succeeds.
Of course, the perfection of this episode doesn’t stop there. For such a grand finale, our main protagonists may have been Shichika and Togame, but the star of this episode was none other than Nanami, as this episode fully gave closure to both her arc as well as her complex nature. One of the more surprising parts with Episode 7 was when Shichika fully defeated Nanami in the last battle. As Nanami says herself just before she dies; inheritor or not, she is a member of the Kyotouryuu family, having engraved every skill Shichika learnt as a child into her own mind and body. She and Shichika are not just siblings: they are warriors carved from the same root, merely two branches on the opposite side of the tree. At the beginning we assumed that Nanami was stronger than Shichika because she was able to fully mimic his abilities as well as strengthen them with her own power. The flaw of this was that Nanami’s own body was unable to handle such an impressive skill. And thus, Nanami began to copy other’s skills, all which used a ‘blade’ in one way or the other. As she learnt more skills, her power scaled down and she was able to fight more easily, at the expense of her becoming ‘weaker’. Her last restraint was Bita, which forced Nanami’s body to ‘regenerate’ – a painful price for lengthening her life a little longer and becoming more durable. All of these efforts seemingly went to waste, as Nanami fell by Shichika’s own hand, leaving us with yet another tragic episode and some tears.
Hearing the synopsis of this at first seems a bit like a copout. “Why didn’t she create her own skills and techniques, like Shichika did? She could have beaten him then!” we could ask. In most cases I would have considered this battle to be a flaw of writing as it was too easily solved; something as simple as shutting off the lights and taking away Nanami’s eyesight in the dark shouldn’t have been the winning hand for Shichika. But as I thought more and more about it towards the end, it was because these events were so simple that they allowed for some greater introspections to unfold.
There are two reasons as to why Nanami did not win. First, Nanami couldn’t create new things even if she wanted to. Nanami’s entire life circled around the consequence of being stuck in limbo. Too powerful to die, too powerful to live, and forced to watch people struggle to attain the sort of godliness (or curse) she possessed was what Nanami went through. This isn’t to say that Nanami wasn’t aware of how demonic she could be – her phrase, “Is it good? Or is it bad?” clearly shows that she had no regard for the immorality of her actions despite being aware of how immoral they were in the first place. Nanami was simply put, a monster who relied on passivity.*** Her disregard for the ‘rules’ paralleled her ability. She could only watch and imitate and combine one technique with another, but to fully create something from scratch was something her body could not handle. Stealing other’s abilities was the only thing she could resort to, and even that slowed her down. Ironically, in copying other’s abilities, Nanami breaks the one law that does matter; the fact that Kyotoryuu cannot use swords. Her death is the both the result of Shichika killing her, but also of the consequence of what happens when a taboo is broken.
The second reason is because Nanami didn’t want to. She wanted to die. As said above, Nanami’s life was hellish, as she found no peace in the nightmare she was living day and night. Abandoned by the mechanics of basic nature (life and death), as well as her father himself, Nanami had nowhere else to turn to except her brother. It is a twisted sort of love Nanami harbored in that she wanted Shichika of all people to kill her – something she casually explains to Togame as “family history” as their father might have killed their mother. But the hard fact is that Nanami was tired of her cursed life. Her search for Bita was also a search for someone worthy enough to kill her, which led her straight to Shichika. Worried that he was too blunt and rusty of a blade, she used her death as an opportune moment to resharpen him, but also to finally find the peace she sought years ago when her own father tried to kill her.
For such a well developed character to have ended this early (I personally thought that Nanami would have been the final boss) would be a tragedy in most cases, but Katanagatari has only shown me that it has full understanding of its limits by killing off Nanami in this episode. There was nowhere else for Nanami’s arc to head next, as it had already been explored to its full potential. We’ve seen the darker side of Katanagatari through Nanami’s eyes in Episode 4: how the blessing of power can equally be a curse, and how she was the antithesis of Shichika. Whereas Shichika dulled with each episode but gained something a little more important and powerful, Nanami only continued to prevent her inevitable fate, decaying her body and soul in the process. With Episode 7, Nisiosin answers the important question: is there peace for someone like Nanami, who was given everything but nothing? The answer is yes, but leaves one more question to be solved. Can Shichika, who was given as much as any regular character was, also achieve happiness and true peace? We have 5 more episodes to find out, and I, like the rest of the audience, hope that the conclusion and answer is as satisfying as the ones offered in this episode.
*It is important to note that Katanagatari does not follow the construction of a Shakespearean nor Greek tragedy; Shichika is no tragic hero, and possesses no hubris/tragic flaw.
** Episode 7 (as well as the others, to an extent) can also be considered as a play within itself. Following the Three Act Rule, exposition is introduced in the form of a video game, our character falls only to rise again, and the major conflict is resolved.
***By no means am I woobifying Nanami; as said before, she was a monster. But whereas most monsters took a delight in their way of life, Nanami was fully aware of everything she had done and wanted an end, but shaped in the image of an ending that befitted the likes of her. The brilliance of this is that while Nisiosin answers the question of Nanami being able to reach peace, there’s a bit left for us, the audience, to decide. Was Nanami’s death befitting? That’s left up to the viewer.