I could not call myself a fan of Nisioisin after having read many of his previous works. I wrote kindly — too kindly, I think — about his ×××HOLiC and Death Note tie-ins — and less kindly about his original work, like the Zaregoto cycle and the Monogatari projects. Then the animated version of his Katanagatari cycle dropped, and I fell for it, hard — hard enough that when Vertical, Inc. licensed the original novels to be translated into English, I pre-ordered them sight unseen. Now all twelve books are available in English, in four three-in-one volumes, and if I am not a fan of anything else Nisioisin has produced, maybe that's only because the Katanagatari stories seem so hard to beat. Light novels have not been my thing, and even in the wake of this still aren't, but reading Katanagatari was as close to a conversion experience as I'm likely to come. It also stands as, to date, a go-to example for how to translate a work of popular culture where a good half or more of it would be lost in translation.
Swordless man and strategem woman go on a quest
I have written in depth about Katanagatari's story before, by way of its magnificent animated adaptation linked above, so I'll recap only in brief. Sometime in Japan's feudal era, Shichika, heir to a swordless fighting style, is drafted by "stratagemist" Togame (or "schemer", in this translation) to find twelve weapons of extraordinary craftsmanship and power. Such a bare outline doesn't convey the sprightly attitude and color with which it's told: every exchange of dialogue is a fencing match, and every encounter between enemies unfolds as a game of four-dimensional chess.
Both of those things — the banter and the plotting — are Nisioisin signature elements, but Katanagatari is my favorite incarnation of them together. Each book details the pair's quest to find one of the twelve weapons, and each such quest raises the challenge bar for all involved. At first the challenges are merely logistical, like the quasi-locked-room-mystery challenge in Book Two (how to take a sword from a man who will kill you the minute you step into the room where he refuses to leave?). But over time they become personal (how can Shichika defeat his own sister, now a wielder of one of these weapons?), and ultimately existential (can Shichika or Togame survive when their own personalities and motives have shifted over the course of this quest?).
Sometimes you like something just because it pushes your buttons. I didn't like much of the rest of Nisioisin's output because its cleverness and patter took a backseat to the way it fell into many of the same ruts as other light novels (high school, sigh). Katanagatari broke away from all of that, hard, and headed off into the kind of wild, fantastic territory I like best. (I understand Juni Taisen: Zodiac War has some of this flavor too, so I've made a future note to see if it measures up.)
Most light novels are designed to be fast reads: short paragraphs, even shorter sentences, straightforward declarations of intent that are sometimes just encoded directly into the work's titles (e.g., I Shall Survive Using Potions!). Nisioisin's books have the directness of style, but more than offset that with the complexity of the goings-on under the skin. Most every sentence spoken aloud has three or four others to go with it that detail what's uncoiling inside the heads of the speaker and the listener. Little prose is wasted on description — that's what the illustrations are for, aren't they? — but only because the real meat of the story is in the closely held motives and shifting alliances of the characters. I spent as much time with Katanagatari as I did not just because of its page count (1200+, across four books), but because there's a lot more on each page than at a glance.
The word hoard, unlocked
Where Katanagatari stands out most for me is how its English translation, by Sam Bett, sets a standard all its own. Literally every page sports footnotes, but they are for the sake of illumination, rather than comprehension. The base text can be read straight through without once glancing down, but each of the notes provides hints as to what's actually being said and how that colors the text. Sometimes they're plays on the ways Japanese characters can have multiple readings (Nisioisin loves that), as when at one point the word kunai, the knife we all know from having watched Naruto, is written with characters that indicate its literal meaning ("without pain"). Sometimes they're about the subtle shades of meaning around a term when used in a given context, when a more generic reading appears in the body of the text. Sometimes they're the literal translation of a proverb or turn of phrase with no exact equivalent in English. The only step up from this would be an edition with parallel texts on facing pages.
Few other translation projects from Japanese popular culture come close to the level of ambition at work here. One that comes to mind was the manga Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei, where every volume came with endnotes that threatened to turn reading the series into a mini-course in bleeding-edge references. Another was AnimEigo's production of the TV edition of Urusei Yatsura, also voluminously annotated — and that was back in the VHS days, when a project like that was even more daring than it is now. Come to think of it, AnimEigo provided in its own way a precursor for how Katanagatari handles its localization challenges. Many of their DVDs included two subtitle tracks: one for casual viewers, and one for fans who wanted more detailed cultural notes, in-line. It made repeat viewing even more fun.
I think we have more than the forbearance of Bett and the grace of Vertical, Inc. to thank for all this, although they deserve great credit; we also have the way things have changed with how popular culture from other places is received and processed. One of the notes I made when reading the different English translations of classics like No Longer Human and Kokoro was how such things previously never featured foot- or endnotes, the better to keep the reading experience as natural as possible. Translators typically edited the text and encoded the meaning there as best they could rather than use a note. It was easy for nuance to get pushed under the rug, or into the trash entirely.
But this is 2020. Audiences of all kinds, not just the self-selecting few who go deep into Japan's light-novel scene, are less put off by such things than before. Digital editions make it easy to ignore footnotes entirely if need be. New translations of Dostoevsky, for instance, aimed at mainstream audiences, call attention in footnotes to the quirks in the original, and how best to convey those to English readers. They are options, not requirements, to enjoying the material. After Katanagatari, the bar has been raised for how to make that happen with Japanese projects that cry out for it. Of which there are, I imagine, countless more still waiting to be translated, popular and unknown alike.