Katanagatari’s origins lie in a series of 12 light novels written by Nisio Isin, author of Bakemonogatari and the Death Note Another Note spin-off novel. The anime series, produced by industry newcomers White Fox (founded in 2007), consists of twelve episodes, with each episode covering a single novel. The catch is that the light novel series, as a sort of publicity stunt, adhered to a one-novel-per-month release schedule.
Normally, one might question if this were the best recipe for success. After all, the thought of a new studio entrusted with turning an entire rushed-out light novel saga into a single season of anime doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, two facts help the situation a little.
The first is that White Fox consists of former employees of OLM Studio, the production house known best for the Pokémon anime. Team Iwasa, which was their name at OLM, however, are better known for Utawarerumono. As White Fox, their first anime production was Tears to Tiara.
The second is that each episode of Katanagatari is about 50 minutes in length, essentially making them OVAs, and more self-contained than a regular episode of anime. This is a good thing because Katanagatari takes its time with character interaction, going through line after line of back-and-forth dialogue and character exposition. The premise goes something like this:
Many years ago, there lived a legendary swordsmith name Shikizaki Kiki — inspired by Sengo Muramasa perhaps? — whose swords were said to turn the tides of entire wars. Kiki created twelve legendary blades, the culmination of all his experience as a swordsmith, whose power was said to be unmatched.
A strategist for the ruling shogunate, Togame, is tasked with finding these weapons and bringing them back. Her search leads her to Yasuri Shichika, inheritor of a legendary style of unarmed combat named Kyotouryuu. Shichika lives on an island with his sister, which is where his family was exiled ever since his father’s generation many years ago. Since they’ve been cut off from civilization all their lives, Shichika and his sister aren’t exactly aware of current events or used to being around mainlanders.
Togame tells the two that she decided to call upon the aid of the Kyotouryuu as her last hope. Every attempt made by the shogunate to obtain the twelve legendary blades previously was foiled by the betrayal of their ninja and samurai, all of whom fell victim to the allure of possessing one of the swords. As a result, the first six blades — the locations of the rest are, as of yet, unknown — are in the hands of extremely dangerous individuals. Since Kyotouryuu disciples care little for weapons, she has greater faith in Shichika than anyone employed by the government.
Katanagatari is — and I have no issues with this whatsoever — rather reminiscent of standard shounen fighting anime from the ’90s.* There are legendary weapons with special techniques. Said weapons are wielded by eccentric villains with crazy personalities. There’s lots of talking and back-and-forth wisecracking throughout the fights. The protagonist is — at least at first glance — rather simple-minded and idealistic. Oh, and my personal favourite: characters like to yell out their attacks, which is usually accompanied by an animated string of kanji onscreen.
Personally, I found the first episode of Katanagatari very comfortable to watch. I’m a big fan of aforementioned stereotypical shounen manga / anime, with Flame of Recca and Rurouni Kenshin being two of my favourite series of all time. Watching Katanagatari felt like stepping into familiar territory with a new twist. Perhaps like starting up a New Game + in that one game you always go back to.
It helps that the show looks beautiful. It’s colourful, well-animated, and the art style is different from what you’re probably used to seeing. The only real “flaw” I can point out is that the music didn’t make much of an impression on me. All shounen anime needs its identifiable themes to get the blood boiling, and I don’t feel Katanagatari should be excused if it hopes to keep this up for another (effectively) 23 episodes.
That said, the first episode left me curious for more and that’s always a good sign. Just don’t go in expecting anything similar to Bakemonogatari in the least.