Cutting Class: Katanagatari

(Cutting Class is a series of blog posts written by Arden Ripley, meant to showcase the world of anime beyond high school settings.)

I figured I'd start this series with my favorite anime of all time: Katanagatari.

Katanagatari was released over the course of a year, with one 50-minute episode airing per month, which is already very different from the standard 24-minute weekly releases most anime gets. Summing up the plot - a swordsman whose body is his sword is recruited by a strategist to find and collect 12 legendary swords - makes it sound like a fairly straightforward action show. It's anything but that. The best moments in Katanagatari aren't the beautiful action sequences (even though they are beautiful), but quiet, delicate moments between characters, where the strength of the writing shines.

The first thing you'll probably notice about Katanagatari is the unique visual style. Picking screencaps for this post was difficult because, honestly, almost every shot of this anime is absolutely stunning. The animation has a level of polish I haven't seen before or since - the attention to detail, the way the scenes are framed, it's all gorgeous.

Everything is colorful, bright, and bold, without ever feeling "busy" or oversaturated. The character design is beautiful - there's a big cast in Katanagatari, and each character's design manages to both stand out on its own and while still being cohesive with the look and feel of the show as a whole. One of my personal favorite things about the design is characters' eyes - each cast member's eyes are drawn differently from anyone else's, and that sort of variety isn't as common as I'd like it to be in anime. For just one episode, the entire style shifts slightly, with the lines becoming thicker and bolder so each frame looks more like calligraphy than anime. Katanagatari's unusual development - giving the studio a month to work on each episode with the love and care it deserved instead of rushing an episode out the door each week - allowed for experimentation like this to happen, and to pay off.

Of course, art alone isn't enough to hold up a show, and Katanagatari has some of the best writing I've ever seen. It's not just "good for an anime", it completely stands up on its own.

Togame is a cunning, intelligent strategist who travels to the island where Shichika, the current head of the Kyotouryuu school of fighting, lives in isolation with his older sister. Kyotouryuu is a style of "swordfighting" that can't use swords - rather, they treat their bodies as their own swords. Togame asks Shichika to become her sword, and to assist her in gathering 12 legendary Deviant Blades made by a master swordsmith. She's been betrayed before, and she doesn't want people who will work for money or honor - so she demands Shichika falls in love with her.

Honestly, I tend to be a little wary of most romance in anime! I've found that a lot of it has dynamics that make me uncomfortable, but are often played off as cute or endearing. But Togame and Shichika's relationship is natural and intimate, in spite of the fact that she's essentially ordered him to love her in the very first episode.

The first episode has Shichika telling Togame he's fallen for her, and it's clear he doesn't really understand the significance of what he's saying. Similarly, Togame couldn't be more blunt about wanting him to love her so he'll be a loyal sword for her to command. And yet, their relationship grows over the course of the series in tender and sweet ways, and the words "I've fallen for you" become true. They're equals whose strengths complement the other's weaknesses - Shichika is naive and says he's "no good at thinking", while Togame is physically weak. On their own, they're still capable, competent people, but together, they're better than they could be alone.

I don't often see physical intimacy between romantic couples in anime. I'm not sure why that is. An entire season of a show can work up to a single kiss, and a brief hug can be cause enough to make people gasp. What struck me first about Shichika and Togame's relationship was how instantly physically comfortable they were around each other, in a way that felt believable. It's sweet little gestures that make their growing relationship feel real - Shichika loves wrapping himself up in Togame's long white hair, and they frequently cuddle and hold each other, sleeping together in the same bed before they've even kissed. They support and protect one another, inspiring the other to grow, and their beautiful dynamic alone makes the show entirely worth watching.

The side characters in Katanagatari are intriguing and well-realized, and there are very few one-dimensional villains present. Shichika faces off against a new opponent each episode in the quest to reclaim the Deviant Blades, and while this could easily get formulaic and boring in the hands of less skilled writers, each new face he meets is memorable.

In fact, part of the brilliance of Katanagatari's writing lies in it subverting narrative expectations and audience desires. Quite a lot of people expected it to be a pretty action show when it started airing, and the very first episode consists mostly of characters sitting down and talking to one another, with little actual fighting. Fairly early on, I realized I was dreading Shichika's showdown with one of the Deviant Blade owners because they were so well-characterized and I didn't want them to die, even if it was for the sake of the two protagonists who I adored. It's impressive that a show can provide viewers with gorgeously animated, slick action scenes set to a heart-pumping soundtrack, and then make you wish that they weren't about to happen.

But Katanagatari is never sad or cruel for sadness's sake - it's telling a story, one it commits to wholeheartedly, and you're along for the ride. There is no otaku wish fulfillment, no thrilling shounen power fantasy for its own sake. It accomplishes impressive, meaningful narrative subversion without resorting to fourth wall breaking (although there's a cute exchange early on where Togame insists that Shichika needs a catchphrase so her report back to the shogunate will be interesting to read). It tells a powerful story, one about humanity and love and even about telling stories, and you're along for the ride.

I can't recommend Katanagatari enough, or sing its praises more highly. It's a truly special and beautiful piece of art, one I wouldn't change a single thing about. It breaks my heart that more anime isn't like this - taking risks with storytelling and putting so much care into every frame. Even the soundtrack (composed by Taku Iwasaki) is unique, an eclectic but cohesive mix of traditional Japanese music blended with hip hop and jazz. There's nothing else like Katanagatari out there. It might not be your new favorite anime like it became mine, but it's a hidden gem that often gets overlooked, and one you owe it to yourself to experience.