Katanagatari, adapted from the light novels by Nisio Isin, is the story of Togame and her “swordless swordsmen” Shichika. Together they travel across Japan in search of the Mastercraft Klesha Brigners, 12 powerful katana that, in the wrong hands, threaten the power of the Shogunate. The series is divided into twelve, 50-minute episodes, or Quests, with each Quest predictably following the pair’s attempt to recover one particular sword. NIS’s Volume 1 Premium Edition of Katanagatari collects the first six of these Quests in one truly extraordinary package.
From these first six Quests, you might surmise that Katanagatari is quite the extraordinary work. It has humor, romance, and action, all in abundance, but not at the expense of the characters. In this regard, the writing of the series is top notch. The characterization of Shichika himself is a triumph. Having been raised in hermetic isolation on an island with his father and sister, Shichika’s excursion into the outside world finds him in contact with the masses for the very first time. And although he’s some twenty years of age, we find his people skills are more akin to that of a three-year-old. He can’t even tell one person apart from another at first, having never developed those skills. And while fighter animes are typically presented in half-hour installments, Katanagatari’s 50-minute format allows for even the one-shot antagonists of each Quest to be explored at length. Thus, we find ourselves developing considerable affections for many of Shichika’s foes, which, in turn, allows us to invest more fully in the outcomes.
The six Quests collected herein are impressively diverse in content, despite their necessary similarities. Each episode, being an entire quest, follows roughly the same effective formula save for the significant departure in Quest 4, marking the greatest action sequences of the first half of the series. This Quest abandons Shichika and Togame almost altogether to follow Shichika’s sister as she comes under attack by the Maniwa Ningun, a ninja clan scrambling to procure the Klesha Bringers themselves. As of the conclusion of Quest 6, however, the major conflict of the series has yet to materialize, for we learn an unseen enemy of Togame is preparing to claim the swords for herself. Of course, concluding Katanagatari Volume 1 with Quest 6 makes perfect sense, as this marks the series’ halfway point, but this volume doesn’t really end a cliffhanger, per se. However, a stray comment by the narrator regarding a confrontation in the subsequent quest will make the wait for Volume 2 quite unbearable for this writer at least.
Visually, Katanagatari is a highly stylized series in which even the most minor elements reveal complex stylization. Flashbacks throughout the series, for instance, are presented in a grainy, 1970′s film stock aesthetic, and the music alternates between some more traditional scoring and an emphasis on rap and R&B reminiscent of Samurai Champloo. But perhaps the most highly stylized element of all is the character design, especially with regard to hair and attire. And yet, the individual models are also deceptively simple in many ways. A single line is used to represent a nose and the characters’ eyes are simple to the point of being almost expressionless. But the aforementioned superb writing and stellar voice work compensate for any distancing of the audience this might otherwise result in.
Furthermore, these simply-modeled characters are set against beautifully nuanced backgrounds, which serve an important dual purpose. First, the detailed backgrounds reveal to us that the simplicity of the character designs is in no way evidence of some deficiencies in the talents of the series’ artists or merely an attempt by its artists to cut production costs. Secondly, the extreme attention to detail given the backgrounds is strikingly offset by the character designs in such a way that our eye cannot help but be drawn immediately to the characters. And given that Katanagatari is a dialogue-heavy series, this is instrumental.
Now, if you are an anime fan and have yet to pick up one of NIS’s Premium Editions, you have no idea what you’re missing! I tell you, they are the things of every collector’s dreams. Contained within a hard case measuring nearly 8”x11”x1” (WxHxD) are two slimline cases containing the four discs (2 Blu-ray and 2 DVD) along with Tagame’s Travelogue, an incredible, full-color, hardcover supplemental book. As for the quality of the discs themselves, the 480i picture of the DVDs alone looks wonderful, but transitioning up to the 1080p Blu-ray discs, you’ll find a noticeable improvement, especially in terms of image sharpness and color vibrancy. The Blu-ray discs are nothing less than a feast for the eyes. What’s more, because of the added image clarity, NIS is able to provide the BD transfer with smaller, far less obtrusive subtitles than the DVDs.
Special features on the discs are limited to clean opening and closings, but Togame’s Travelogue more than compensates for the relative lack of disc-based features. The Travelogue devotes an entire section to each Quest in Volume 1, each with character write-ups, a plot synopsis, the lyrics (in both Japanese and English) to the Quest’s unique closing song, and a beautiful, full-page artwork featuring the principle players of the Quest. The Travelogue also contains the lyrics to the series’ opening theme, “Midnight Flower Corridor” (again in both Japanese and English), additional artwork including a two-page spread of character models, and the “Katanagatari Glossary.” This 2 1/2-page glossary, divided by Quest, acts not only as your typical glossary, defining the series’ terminology, but acts as in-depth translation notes, relating the complexities and dual meanings of the Japanese names honored in the subtitles without translation into English, as well as many of the problems the translators encountered while working with the text. As a companion, the glossary alone makes Togame’s Travelogue indispensable for anyone embarking on Shichika and Tomage’s adventure.