Katanagatari Box Set 1

There are plenty of programs I should like. People have told me so. Shows like The Big Bang Theory, Death Note, Game of Thrones, and Dr. Who should be among my favorites. I've sampled them all -- I even finished Death Note and got through the first season of Game of Thrones -- and I understand why they should have me applauding in delight. All of them have something special or unique about them. Yet there's a line I just can't cross. Whether it's terrible special effects or random sex scenes for the sake of nudity to sell subscriptions or laughing at nerds rather than laughing with them or rooting for someone who's genuinely evil, they don't work for me. Part of me wishes they did. I wouldn't have wasted my time. I don't hate them; I even admire some of them. But they aren't what I look forward to watching of an evening.

That's how I felt about Katanagatari.

I so wanted to like Katanagatari. 82% of folks over at Anime News Network have rated it an 8, 9, or 10. It is unique, being the only hour-long on-going broadcast anime I'm ever aware existed. That alone made me want it to succeed. It has an unusual art style that, while somewhat childlike, intrigued me. I find thoughtful, well-made samurai dramas wildly entertaining.  So I'm the prime audience. Sadly, though, I found that after watching the six episodes that make up NIS' first box set of the series, a multiplicity of errors make Katanagatari a surprising disappointment.

Kyoto Ryu is a martial art feared by samurai across Japan...it's no mere technique but a defense that makes the user into a human blade. Its last practitioner sent into exile years ago, his two descendants -- Shichika and his sister Nanami -- now live on an island far from civilization. Their peace and quiet is disturbed when Togame, a strategist for the Shogunate, arrives with a quest. The shogun needs to collect the twelve blades of master craftsman Kiki Shikizaki. Each one is deadly, but with all twelve, the shogun can both keep his people safe and defend himself against his foes. Shichika was raised to become the next master of Kyoto Ryu, so he accepts with little hesitation. He and Togame will travel far and wide to find the katanas and take them by force from the hands that wield them. Of course, they aren't the only ones on the hunt for these mysterious weapons that hold incredible power...

I'm not going to comment a lot about Katanagatari's artistic side because there's not much here to quarrel with or to recommend. Yeah, its characters have a different look to them, especially with the eyes. (It's more an issue for the leads than other characters.) But honestly, the artistic style is just kinda there. It starts to feel generic pretty quickly; the designs are special, but nothing else is really attention-grabbing. There are a couple musical themes used in the series that are excellent, and if you like new music, the ending theme changes each time, but nothing that requires a viewing.

There are four overarching problems that make Katanagatari a huge slog: the plot, the characters, and the pacing, and the genre. Oh, yeah...from start to finish, we're dealing with a hot mess. The storyline itself is neither exciting nor awful; a hunt for swords could take all sorts of twists and turns, so it wouldn't be impossible to take a simple concept like that and make it worthwhile. However, very soon we realize that things are going to be predictable. Every episode features a new enemy, a new katana, and our hero triumphing over his foe. Even though the fourth episode strays slightly from the formula, the formula is still in the background. There's a lack of tension that makes us wonder about the "how" but never about the "if," and the "how" just isn't interesting enough to keep it fresh.

But if the plot isn't interesting, the characters are far less so. Togame is simply annoying, and no more so when she's in conversation with Shichika. Shichika is a cipher; he admits that he is a dullard who knows little and remembers less, so he's strung along for the ride willingly. While he may be a human katana, who knew swords could be this dull? And if those two are frustrating, dear sister turns out to be a soft-spoken psychopath. You have to cheer for them, but the whole time, I was wondering -- aren't the supposed bad guys more interesting, even nicer, than the good guys?

Some of those things could be forgiven; after all, anti-hero shows can be entertaining enough. But the bold, daring move of having an hour-long TV anime is completely countered by having a plot that could easily fit into a half-hour show. The rest is padding. By padding, I mean talking. The thing is a gabfest. But not in the Ghost in the Shell vein of philosobabble or even the extensive dialogue of Wings Of Honneamise; no, it's mindless blather. The show attempts to be witty by breaking the fourth wall and having arguments over catchphrases, but it's nothing more than time filler. It also betrays budgetary constraints, since most of these discussions involve no more animation than lips flapping. All the unnecessary dialogue makes this move at a snail's pace. Combine that with the fact that the battles, when they occur, often are short affairs settled by a slice or two, and you've got something that made me struggle to stay awake.

But if that weren't enough, Katanagatari isn't sure what it wants to be. The animation is bright and colorful, reminiscent almost of a children's program...and indeed, I've seen more on-screen violence in GI Joe and Transformers. But there's a deep dark current running through the show that makes it hard to reconcile the artistic style. It isn't as if a lot of people die in Katanagatari, but there are a fair number, and having their deaths off-screen doesn't make them any less dead. The previously mentioned fact that most of those strewn around in the wake of this quest aren't very villainous makes it all the darker. Add to that the fan service elements as Togame tries unsuccessfully to seduce the clueless (and apparently castrated) Shichika, and you have something more mature than what it appears. That genre confusion continues into other elements too. Are we in a historical drama? A samurai epic? A meta-narrative? A broad physical comedy? After watching half the show's 12 episodes, I don't know.

A part of me does understand the show's popularity. It has a lot of shonen tropes, but it's trying to be a step up from Naruto or Bleach. The talkiness makes it appear artistic. And while I found it a frustrating experience, there's a small part of me that still wants to continue through the show to find out if they get all the katana or not -- and what happens if they do. Once you've invested close to six hours in a program, it's hard to set it aside, even if it's not a favorite. And of course, NIS continues to make beautiful box sets; if you're (gulp!) a fan of the show, you'll appreciate it.

The first half of Katanagatari proved to be a letdown. I can think of countless samurai shows that are more exciting, and if I wanted smart, talkative bad guys as heroes in my anime, I'd just watch Death Note again. I'd advise you skip it...though 82% is an awfully big number of people telling me I'm wrong.

Katanagatari Box Set 1 -- violence, brief nudity and innuendo, much darker than the animation would suggest -- C