Home > Episode Reviews, Katanagatari > Katanagatari Episode 4 – The Face of the Enemy

Katanagatari Episode 4 – The Face of the Enemy

I mentioned last time that, after establishing a fairly effective formula in the second and third episode, previews for the fourth indicated that it might be breaking it. Well, I was right, but had no idea how right I was. The fourth episode of Katanagatari doesn’t just break the mold: It smashes it into little bite size chunks and then melts it down.

Yes, Shichiki fights Hakuhei Sabi in what may be the most epic fight of all time. We just don’t see it. The only glimpses we get of the fight are from the next episode preview from last time—although Shichiki and Togame are quite happy to spend their screen time discussing how cool the fight was in loving detail. But the bulk of the episode is depicting something else entirely.

Although I’ve never put up spoiler warnings on posts before (as it should be obvious that episode reviews are going to contain spoilers), I feel obligated to do so now. Please, before going any further, watch the episode for yourself. I’ll wait.

Our heroes provide a blow-by-blow after-action report of all the wonderful techniques that Hakuhei pulled off. Thanks for sharing

Ok, for those of you who have seen the episode, you can skip the next four paragraphs. For those of you who haven’t and chose to read this anyway, the meat of the episode comes from the actions of the Maniwa’s, who—in a move which seems both intelligent and cruel—head out to the island where Shichika was exiled in order to kidnap his sister, Nanami. A sickly and defenseless girl, they reason, will be much easier to take down than the current Kyotouryuu head, and once they have her they have a precious bit of leverage with which to control him.

So three Maniwa heads (there are only twelve total, and three are already dead) descend upon the island, only to get utterly walloped. Curb-stomped. Pwnd. It quickly becomes clear that each of them coming after her individually was a dumb idea, but Nanami is on such a higher level than they are that it probably would not have mattered even if they all came at once.

The Insect Squad is just as bizarre looking as any other Maniwa, although they at least have a theme

The Yasuri family already has an oddity in its bloodline (that Shichika can’t use swords) but apparently that’s not the only one. As is hinted by some dialogue at the end of the episode, occasionally now and again someone is born with an absurd degree of combat skill, specifically the ability to learn and master techniques just by witnessing someone else do it a couple of times. (This might be the result of tinkering by the same mad genius who crafted the deviant blades.) As it happens, Nanami has this ability.

So the first Maniwa, who can grow his fingernails into blades? She has that now. The second one, who can eliminate the effect of gravity on his body and any body he touches, effectively allowing him to lift heavy objects and walk on water? She can do that too. The entire corpus of Kyotouryuu, which took Shichiki his lifetime to master? She learned it just by observing his practice. Even sword play, now that’s she witnessed it, is within her grasp. She combines this with a first rate tactical mind which instinctively understands how to best use each ability in a given situation—it’s no wonder that Shichiki himself reflects this, if he had to practice against her.

It's implied the only reason Shichiki survived his last practice fight with Nanami is because she didn't feel like killing him

So instead of seeing Shichiki fight what everyone thinks is the strongest fighter in Japan, we see the real strongest fighter in Japan rend apart three high ranking ninjas. All of this amounts to the second-best subversion of audience expectations I’ve seen in anime, ever. Yes, I would have really liked to see ten to fifteen minutes (or even five!) of a Shichiki/Hakuhei fight. But the result here, while remarkably disturbing, is also a great surprise.

There’s another subversion going on, once which I expected even less: Midway through the episode, I started siding with the Maniwa’s, even though I knew they were doomed. Some of it was because of the natural sympathy for the underdog, which I think is an American trait. But most of it relates to the fact that Nanami is outright terrifying, and not just because she’s so powerful. It’s because she’s plainly one of the most villainous characters the show has produced so far.

Force feeding a ninja his own razor sharp nails, already ripped off his fingers, is only the beginning for Nanami

From purely from the perspective of the plot, it’s not like she does anything particularly evil. She’s subjected to an unprovoked attack by a group of outsiders who clearly want to capture and/or kill her in order to kill her brother. Given those circumstance, that she responds with lethal force and threatens to torture her first attacker for information is reasonable, at least. (We don’t actually see her torture anyone, either.)

To add to that, she kindly euthanizes the third attacker (dying of a painful poison) at his own request, and further buries them together in accord with his wishes. Whenever she is not fighting for her life, she extends every possible courtesy to her opponents, and never does she act in a way that is indulgently sadistic or unjustifiably cruel.

Even as a child, Nanami's ability was so frightening that her father knew better than to train her. It didn't matter

But her outward politeness only makes her more disturbing, for behind her pleasant demeanor runs an undercurrent of barely restrained malice. She describes, for example, ripping out her brother’s fingernails when they were both children, to teach him to stop biting them. She mentions, with some anticipation, that she will need to “punish” Shichiki for being so slow at collecting the swords—and we can only guess how brutal that punishment would be. And there’s this tendency of hers to give off a creepy little smile, perhaps unconsciously, whenever she thinks about hurting people.

Nanami, despite of her awesome combat prowess, is irrevocably broken. The illness everyone says she has is real, and it has caused her a considerable amount of pain from her birth. It was particularly obvious in her infancy, before she had the force of will to control her reactions, and her earliest memories are of her mother earnestly wishing that Nanami would just die, so she would be free of her pain.

Nanami's was not a happy childhood

Whether or not Nanami has internalized this as a functional death wish is unclear. What is clear is that she resents both her abilities—which she thinks separates her from the normal range of human experience—and her illness, and has built this resentment into a barely constrained rage, kept in check only by the boundaries of propriety that she has also internalized. But her politeness can’t conceal that forever.

It’s also clear that the show wants its audience to view the Maniwa agents as sympathetically as possible, showing their loyalty to each other and revealing their hopes and aspirations, about to be destroyed by one unfortunate decision. For the first time, we have a human face put on the Maniwa clan (previously seen as betrayers, psychopaths, and freaks), even as they continue to pursue objectively evil acts. But while the face of the true enemy is revealed in this show, it isn’t the Maniwas’, or even Hakuhei’s.

Another ploy to direct the audience's sympathy is when one ninja confesses his marriage plans before going off to fight. His partner is genre-saavy enough to know this is a bad idea

Consider: Nanami, by stealing the ability of the gravity-defying ninja, is now empowered to leave the island. (The ninja used that power to get to the island, after all.) She has what she considers to be legitimate reason to leave, as Shichiki is collecting the swords too slowly for her liking. And she, unlike Shichiki, is perfectly capable of using swords, including the deviant swords she is going to start collecting herself—swords which, we have been informed time and again, necessarily corrupt their users.

So Nanami, a woman of unquestionable power and very questionable sanity, will very soon get her hands on one (or more!) of this story’s equivalent of the One Ring, which will only increase her power while corrupting what is already a very shaky moral foundation. I think we’ve just been shown the face of the true enemy. And she’s not who I thought she would be.

Every time Nanami gets this smile on her face, the proper response is to run away

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  1. KF
    November 8, 2012 at 1:14 am

    A truly terrifying episode. OMG!!!!!!!!

    TQ

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