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"Katanagatari" Part 1: Yakety Yak

Katanagatari is one of the most aggressively boring shows I’ve seen in a long time. In some ways, being aggressively boring is worse than being aggressively bad, because at least bad shows can inspire extreme reactions, and can even be memorable as a result (even if you don’t want to remember them). But with a boring series, you just sit there stone faced. Actually, I take it back; boring series can inspire extreme reactions: You get upset because a show is taking precious time you’ll never get back.

The Edo era-centered story concerns a martial arts hermit named Shichika who lives on an island with his sister, Nanami. One day, a spunky female general named Togame meets Shichika and enlists his help in recovering twelve “Deviant Blade” swords, all of which have their own unique characteristics. Shichika goes along with it, and soon the two are off on an adventure, fighting various opponents along the way. Katanagatari won’t win any awards for originality; it’s the typical “collect enough pieces of (insert object here)” plot. Although in fairness, there are two unique aspects: First, Shichika can’t use any swords of his own in the fights. Second, Shichika and Togame outright decide to love each other right at the start (a tactic utilized to make their fighting bond strong and prevent betrayal on either side), so it’s refreshing that we don’t have to deal with the whole “feign disinterest” cliché that just delays the main characters getting hitched until the end.

The flaws of this show are many, but let’s go over them one by one. Settle in.

First and foremost, the show is way too talky. Literally, each episode is crammed front to back with dialog, like they were afraid that silence would cause the viewer to lose interest. Now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against dialog. Some of my favorite shows are dialog-based. But in Katanagatari, characters over-explain everything, including the ever-popular practice of delivering clunky exposition and backstory, which isn’t all that interesting to listen to. You feel like you’re getting a history lesson. That’s not even counting terminology that practically requires a dictionary to fully keep every term straight. (Indeed, the set comes with one!) The overabundance of dialog is especially true in battles, which end up being more of a taunt fest than actual, y’know, fighting. Speaking of that, you won’t find anything special here. The actual fighting doesn’t last long and won’t showcase anything you haven’t seen before. So if you’re buying this for the action, prepare to be disappointed. It doesn’t even pull the typical trick of having an exciting first episode followed by a bunch of lower-key material to save on the budget. The show is talky from the get-go.

Now, some positive reviews I’ve read claimed the excessive dialog in Katanagatari means it’s easy to understand the characters’ insights and goals, and I can understand that, in theory. But that also means no effort is required of the audience to analyze things for themselves, because it’s all laid out in great detail. At the same time, I truly found it a concerted effort to care about everything occurring precisely because of the over-information. Besides, this is a visual medium. If you’re going to have a bunch of characters standing around yakking and not doing much else, you’re better off reading a manga, or a novel of the same material. In fairness, Togame’s VA, Yukari Tamura, is pleasing to listen to, but you could also get much of the same result by listening to a drama CD.

The show also has some missed opportunities. Shichika’s lack of familiarity with typical customs (being a hermit, and all) is only touched upon at random times. I’m not suggesting to make that the only aspect of his character so that he becomes one-dimensional, but there could’ve been so much potential for light comedy there. The adversaries may be more “three dimensional” than your typical villain, but they’re also pretty forgettable. For example, we’ve seen the type of character that can transform into other characters to trick the protagonist. The only exception is a character who speaks in backwards sentences, but sadly he’s killed after only a couple minutes of screen time. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is that we’re cheated out of what looks like a fantastic fight scene. We see snippets of a really cool ocean-based battle in the episode 4 teaser: Waves crashing, sharks being cut in half, lots of kinetic movement with characters hopping towards and away from the camera … and what do we get in episode 4 instead? A slow-paced battle involving seemingly weak Nanami. We only get to hear about the battle when we rejoin Shichika and Togame at the end of episode 4. What a gyp.

None of this is helped by the fact that each episode is 50 minutes long as opposed to the usual 25, which drags the pacing out to longer than we’re used to. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the DVD counter while watching this. Would it be any different if each episode were 25 minutes like normal? Perhaps, although that wouldn’t automatically erase other issues I had with the show.

The presentation is just as much a letdown. Outside of the (very) brief flashes of higher quality animation in the fight scenes, this is one of the most static anime series I’ve seen. Characters barely move anything but their mouths, and when they do move more than that, it’s often choppy and perfunctory. I also don’t care for the character designs, which are much simpler than we’re used to seeing in anime, lack much detail or shading, and featuring eyes that are often merely a black circle or single color. Togame is kind of cute-looking in an abstract way, I guess, with her really long white hair (so long that it can wrap around Shichika!) and ruby red eyes, but that’s about it. The music by Taku Iwasaki is a mixed bag; there’s some rousing orchestral stuff, but just as much that is so dull that it fades into the background. On the plus side, the Edo period backgrounds are gorgeous and varied.

At least the Blu-ray/DVD combo set is quality. Six 50-minute episodes are on this first half of the series, split between two DVDs and Blu-rays each. The image quality impresses, the subtitles are easy to read, and the Blu-ray set starts with the menu instead of just automatically playing the episodes, which I appreciated. On the downside, per usual for NIS, there isn’t an English dub, and there are very few disc-based special features, with the only offerings being clean openings and endings. As with a previous NIS America title I reviewed, Wagnaria!!, the set makes up for the small number of disc features by including a sturdy, tall, eye-catching artbox that also includes a hardcover book of artwork and staff comments.

I can’t recommend Katanagatari. I know the show has its fans, but I was restless throughout, save for a few isolated moments. Maybe the show will improve in the second half, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I doubt it.

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