#1 Nisio Isin’s narrative style
Katanagatari is a 2010 historical fantasy anime originally written by Nisio Isin; the renowned author behind the Monogatari series. While it feels a little too easy to point at Bakemonogatari and say that Katanagatari is that, but in a shounen action mold… the truth isn’t far off.
The story is about Shichika, who is the heir to a swordfighting style where no swords are actually used. His body is a weapon in and of itself, honed through years of physical training while living in exile alongside his sister. One day their island is visited by the young strategist Togame, who enlists Shichika in her mission to collect 12 legendary swords from all across Japan.
The premise is a lot easier to parse than the convoluted supernatural mysteries of Monogatari, but the style of storytelling is very distinctly Nisio Isin’s, and will be especially appealing to fans of his other work. Newcomers may find themselves baffled by the extremely-prolonged dialogue sequences, the anime’s tendency to trick the viewers, or even just how unusual the characters are in their behavior and personalities.
Whether you’re an established fan of Isin’s work or you found Katanagatari because you just happen to like shounen, it’s an anime that’ll defy your expectations one way or another.
#2 Togame and Shichika’s relationship
Togame, being a strategist, doesn’t put much trust in people who are motivated by quantifiable desires. Money, fame, and power are causes that leave one open for manipulation or betrayal. Instead, when recruiting Shichika, she insists that he must fall in love with her so as to guarantee his loyalty.
An interesting problem here is that Shichika has never actually met people. He was born and raised in exile, having never met anyone besides his now-deceased father and his older sister Nanami. He has no concept for what love is supposed to mean and initially can’t even keep Togame apart from any other people they happen to meet.
This sets the two of them up for a relationship that always leaves you wondering what is really going on. Shichika insists that he has fallen in love with Togame, but is so aromantic that it’s hard to estimate what he even means by that. He doesn’t seem romantically or sexually interested in anything, but at the same time you know that there’s something inside him that keeps him invested in this adventure.
Togame is a fascinating character as well. While she is much more expressive than Shichika and is actually quite easy to fluster, there is the constant impression that she is never being entirely truthful. She is a conspirator by profession, after all. Seeing how that uncertainty develops as Shichika grows as a person throughout the anime feels almost like a ticking time bomb: sooner or later, this is going to explode into trouble.
#3 Hybrid of music genres
Composed by one Taku Iwasaki, the soundtrack uses a mixture of traditional Japanese music with modern touches weaved into it. So while a song like Bahasa Palus might start out with old-timey instruments and chanting, the song then fuses in electronic music and even rap segments. It sounds like it should be impossible, but Iwasaki truly manages to marry these vastly different genres in a way that brings out the best in both.
Not every song in the OST goes all out like this, but there are enough that do. Some of my favorites besides Bahasa Pasu would be Peacock Blue Eyes, Negotiation, and the rap song Ao Dai.
#4 Tragic deaths
The characters that Shichika and Togame encounter on their journey are fascinating people. They are afforded a lot of development thanks to Nisio’s character-driven storytelling and the double-length episodes, making them many times more complex than your average villain-of-the-week in any other shounen series. However, Katanagatari is a brutal story and thus conflict is inevitable.
Togame and Shichika must compete with the mysterious Princess Hitei and her servant, as well as the colorful members of the struggling Maniwa ninja clan. Meanwhile, those who possess the swords have their minds poisoned in subtle ways. Most will fight to the death to protect their swords, even if they themselves are fundamentally good people.
The first few episodes are particularly powerful. One episode sees Shichika and Togame take on a quiet hermit, who only wants to protect himself, his sword, and the one room that he occupies. They basically end up robbing a poor dude who is making every effort to live a peaceful life. Another episode sees the duo take on a former bandit on a journey to redeem themselves; something for which they desperately need their sword. Not every character they face ends up dying of course, but that in and of itself makes the show intense. You’re never sure if a peaceful outcome might be achieved after all or if the sword hunt will senselessly claim another life.
This also turns Shichika in a different kind of hero than you’d expect from an anime like this. It’s not that he’s morally grey, it’s just that he doesn’t understand the world enough to have a clear sense of morality at all. Katanagatari does a great job at building on this flaw, leading to some phenomenal pay-offs in the latter half of the series.
#5 Episode 7
All of Katanagatari is excellent in my opinion, but the absolute peak of the show, for various reasons, comes in episode 7.
After other episodes were primarily concerned with episodic rivals, episode 7 mostly acts as a point where several story threads are tied back together. It’s a pay-off to the intrigue established in the earlier episodes, and in doing so becomes a turning point for Shichika’s character development up till then. It’s emotional and full of intense moments; one of those episodes that “gets you” every time.
Then there is the inspired directing. As a bit levity, large parts of episode 7 are shot as homages to various video games. Hectic battles are portrayed as bullet-hell shooters, dialogue uses animated sprites of the cast, and various other scenes are just entirely 2D. The characters even have extra-thick outlines throughout this episode, to make them look even more like moving pieces that pop out against flat backgrounds.
Video game references in anime are not unique, but so much effort and creativity is put into the execution here that it stands out very well. And mixed with an emotional story, episode 7 is undoubtedly one of the most memorable episodes in all of anime.
More anime & manga like this
Monogatari Series: Shares stylistic elements with Katanagatari in terms of writing and characterization.
Samurai Champloo: Mixes traditional Japanese themes with modern elements, especially in terms of music.
Imperfect Girl: A phenomenal drama manga by Nisio Isin.