Usually, the books come to an audience before the TV series that adapts it. When you're dealing with anime in translation, it's more often than not the other way around. Katanagatari, from Nisioisin's twelve-book adventure novel cycle of the same name, appeared for English-speaking audiences in 2010, long before most, if any, of Nisioisin's books showed up in English at all. With time, and thanks to anime adaptations of his other works driving interest in their origins, his stories have emerged in English, and now we have the original Katanagatari stories out on this side of the Pacific thanks to Vertical. No better time to revisit the animated version, in all its stylized, sassy, and (sadly) commercially unavailable glory.
She's a thinker, not a fighter; he's a fighter, and maybe a lover
Katanagatari is in its broadest outlines a fusion of two reliable subgenres: the He & She story, and the Road Trip. The latter has as venerable tradition in Japan as anywhere else (see: Ikku Jippensha's riotous Hizakurige); the former is more relatively modern, but no less universal.
The "he" here is Shichika Yasuri, seventh in a line of fighters that cultivate the "swordless style" Kyotōryū — essentially, karate for battling armed opponents. Shichika's father engineered a failed uprising against the Shōgunate; being a war hero, he was only exiled to a distant island with his son and daughter (Shichika's sister Nanami) instead of being beheaded outright. The "she" is a stranger who comes ashore one day without warning — the "Strategemist" Togame, a high-ranking figure in the Shōgunate whose job is to outfox, outthink, and outsmart anyone who poses a threat to the powers that be.
The threat in question isn't a "who" but a "what" — a whole dozen of them, in fact. In years past, swordcrafter Kiki Shikizaki created twelve bizarre weapons of such legendary power that anyone who tries to wield them ends up falling under their spell, such that you have to Pry It From Their Cold, Dead Hands. Togame's job is to Pry Them From Their Cold, Dead Hands and make sure they can't be used to tip the balance of power. But Togame's a thinker, not a fighter, and so she needs a certain kind of muscle for the job. And what muscle could be more fitting than the kind trained specifically to fight without weapons, the better not to be bewitched by them in the first place?
At first Shichika has zero interest in any of this. It's not so much that he's dedicated to his rural life with his frail younger sister Nanami; it's that he's too gormless and callow to think there's anything else worth doing. But then in come the Maniwa Ninja, a clan of freakish shinobi also after the swords, and Shichika busts out his Kyotōryū moves against an actual opponent for the first time. The experience, and the presence of another human being other than his sister or father, galvanizes him. He'll go on this journey with her, but not because there's money or fame or prestige in it — it's because Togame's managed to capture his heart, just as she intended.
Twelve unearthly swords; twelve possessed wielders
They make a fun pair, these two — the slightly dim young man who's deadlier than anything that can be pointed or swung at him, and the brassy young woman with her albino-snake coil of hair and three-dimensional-chess-master's mind. The setup promises a certain story pattern: Each episode involves them finding one of the swords, her scheming how to get it away from its owner, and him executing the plan (and the owner), all interleaved with character-centric banter and martial-arts pyrotechnics.
In the bare outlines, this is exactly what happens. The details, however, feature a whole host of devils. Each iteration of the find-plot-retrieve loop introduces a new manner of complication. Hints of this come in first time around, when Shichika faces down a Maniwa Ninja with the ability to distort his body so thoroughly that he can massage it into identical copies of others. Bad enough on its own; even worse when combined with the fact that Shichika has spent so much time in isolation that he can barely tell one person from another anyway.
At first each episode's complications seem strictly logistical. Some stem from each sword's properties — this one's unbreakable; this one can cut anything; that one weighs so much it's almost unwieldable in the first place. Some stem from the personality or circumstances of the current wielder. Consider episode two, which plays like a locked-room murder mystery in reverse: How to get a sword away from a man who can instantly kill anyone that so much as puts a toe over the threshold of his room? How to deal with a sword that's not even a sword, but a suit of armor that confers near-indestructibility on its wearer?
Another track of complications develops in parallel: how the personalities of the wielders, and the ways they interact with Shichika and Togame, become their own obstacles. Episode three is one of my favorite examples: the owner of the sword for that episode, Tsuruga Meisai, is a former bandit queen who now oversees a temple that's a refuge for women. Togame is impressed by her, and troubled by the dilemma she embodies: Why take the sword from her only to leave all those women under her protection with no one to look out for them?
Nisioisin's high-water mark
All that eventually unleashes the third set of complications: how Togame and Shichika are changed by this quest, and how they change each other. At first, again, the changes are relatively innocuous and procedural: How does Shichika deal with enemies of such wide-ranging and often unpredictable skill? But over time the struggles he face strike closer to the heart of his identity: How does Shichika deal with his first defeat in combat, at the hands of an eleven-year-old girl who thinks nothing of it? How does Shichika deal with his own sister becoming corrupted by one of the swords? And, ultimately, how does Shichika deal with Togame offering him freedom at the end of their mission — if indeed it's freedom she's offering him?
This last story element, Shichika's element of choice, is what stayed with me most. Shichika, under Togame's command, goes from a callow, blinkered young man to someone with agency and purpose, even if that purpose revolves exclusively around Togame. The story leaves a certain amount of ambiguity around the question of how much agency Shichika really has in the end. He claims he chose freely to follow Togame to the end of her mission and beyond. But he first made that choice back when it was questionable how much agency he had in the first place, and when at the end he's forced to rethink what it all meant, it transforms him yet again into a new person. Not necessarily a better one.
There is, this being Nisioisin's work, a larger final twist lying in wait at the end, about the motives of most everyone involved. One works; the other is iffier. The one that works is Togame's, because it's rooted in what she is as a person, how she both evolves and does not evolve as a character, and how that precipitates tragedy of a kind we're not anticipating. More than that would be telling, but it manages to be both clever (plot) and moving (story). The other, involving the real reasons for the creation of the swords, is less compelling; it's a fantasy element that exists mostly to be fantastic, and so is clever but not moving.
What surprised me most about Katanagatari was how thoroughly it spoiled me for Nisioisin's other written work, particularly what came out in English after the show did. I wanted to like what I saw of the Monogatari series, or the Decapitation cycle, but they all seemed to share a flaw common to a lot of modern anime/manga/light-novel product — a sensibility that in theory is aimed at fifteen-year-olds, but in reality is catering to thirty-five-year-olds who want to feel like they're fifteen. Instead of aiming for "young people who read" or "young people who watch TV", it's aimed at "anime and manga fans", with dismayingly clichéd and self-selecting results. But Katanagatari felt like it was hearkening back to an earlier, more open-ended stream of influences, with appropriately older characters (even if Togame doesn't look as old as she ought to be). There's less here of the chūnibyō flavor of Nisioisin's other works, which tends to undermine the complexity of his plotting and make it feel like turgid busywork. Done well, such plotting is like play. Here, Nisioisin makes it into a full-contact sport.
A rare beauty
A great story can survive with mediocre art; great animation art can be its own justification apart from a mediocre story. All that's good about Katanagatari as drama is elevated to an even higher plateau by its design work and animation, derived directly from the illustration work created for the original novels. Anime styles tend to be simplified for the sake of speeding up production, but the book's illustrations (by illustrator take) are even more geometrically primal than most anime work; they bring to mind the work of Masayuki Miyata. The show uses the simplicity of the designs as a starting point for a bevy of vibrant and sometimes hilarious transformations: at one point the art switches to 2D side-scrolling and top-down views reminiscent of RPGs and twin-stick shooters. It's tempting to call it anachronistic, but the material is cheekily aware of its status as a period piece; that's just one way it manifests.
Katanagatari was issued in English by NIS America, in a line of titles issued in deluxe long-box packaging with artbooks. The company no longer seems to be in the anime business, in part because the Western market couldn't really support a distributor whose entire output was deluxe editions, however carefully chosen. But if there was a title in NIS's lineup that deserved such a treatment, Katanagatari was it. Unfortunately, at this point the show is only legitimately available if you're wealthy or lucky, as each of the two volumes for the series can change hands for as much as $100 apiece. Normally I'd say that if you don't know where to start with Nisioisin, start here, but until someone else chooses to relicense it, that's advice I can't give, much as I want to. This show has become both a figurative and literal treasure.