The format for anime has changed quite a lot over the years. In the time of my fandom we’ve seen the fall of the OVA, “Original Video Animation”, a straight-to-DVD release that was once a prestige format but is now mostly an afterthought or collector’s edition bonus material. When I started watching, the two-cour series (two seasons long, typically 24-26 episodes) was standard, usually following a standard template: A few episodes of character and plot introduction, some filler, a dramatic plot turn around episode 13, more filler, and then a few final episodes to wrap up the plot. (Some very good shows were made like this! Cowboy Bebop, for example, fits that template exactly.)
In recent years, the “standard” show has shrunk to one-cour (one season, 12-13 episodes) and remains at the 22-24 minutes length of TV releases, rather than the 30+ minutes of the old OVAs. Successful shows get second, third, or more seasons, but often they don’t immediately follow the original season to air. (Sword Art Online and Aldnoah Zero both follow this model. It lets the studio and its financiers gauge reaction to season one before committing to begin work on season two.)
Other formats pop up, though. One that has become more common is the ultra-short show, sometimes less than five minutes long with a 1:30 intro, which is usually a gag comedy or other simple structure. In this column, I’d like to talk about a show that went in the opposite direction.
Katanagatari is out of the ordinary in many respects. The title means something like “sword story” or “sword tale”, and in aired in 2010, released at one 50-minute episode per month throughout the entire year. The format seemed to suit it — Katanagatari is a slower-paced, more thoughtful show than the plot synopsis implies, and the longer run time lets the episodes sprawl the way they need to.
The basic story is pretty simple. Yasuri Shichika is the heir to a legendary sword style that fights without weapons at all, a style so powerful that his father settled his family on a distant, isolated island to keep them from being used by the feudal government. After seeing no one but his sister Nanami his entire life, a government official named Togame finds him and convinces him to help her hunt down the infamous swords forged by Shikizaki Kiki. These weapons are so powerful that any swordsman would be corrupted by them — only Shichika, whose style requires no weapons, is immune to their temptation.
There are twelve blades to gather, one per episode, which hints at the structure of the show. Because of the long gaps between the episodes airing and the length of the individual episodes, they work much better as self-contained stories than episodes of a typical anime. The typical episode has them locate a sword and its current wielder, figure out what the special “trick” of that sword is, and then try to overcome it, wrapping up by the end of the episode. (Although once the pattern is established, the later episodes do some beautiful subversions of this pattern.)
Also because of the long episodes, this is a show in which the dialogue really takes the forefront. It’s not that there isn’t good action — there is, with fairly high production values, even given the minimalist art style — but the long run time gives conversations a chance to stretch out a little. In the wrong hands, this could be deadly boring, but in Katanagatari it’s always fun. The back-and-forth between the naïve, curious Shichika and the overconfident, occasionally sarcastic Togame is great, and both characters get a degree of depth that’s not common in an action-adventure show of this kind. It’s relaxed, but never dull, and for me this is the show’s chief attraction.
The overall story, while not incredibly complex, has some twists and turns to it, and it reaches a very satisfying conclusion and stops there — another thing that’s not common, given how many shows are adapted from longer source material. With the focus on character interaction, we really get to see relationships grow, especially the trust and friendship between the main characters. For such a simple premise, it produces a surprisingly strong emotional response, and also includes some really good bits of comedy that catch you off-guard.
This isn’t a show I hear much talk about, possibly because it doesn’t fit neatly into the usual buckets. Maybe most people aren’t as big fans of talky, thoughtful, funny martial arts adventures as I am, but I definitely recommend giving Katanagatari a try.