Home > Episode Reviews, Katanagatari > Katanagatari Episode 6 – A Dish Best Served Cold

Katanagatari Episode 6 – A Dish Best Served Cold

I’m a big fan of serial storytelling. It’s one of the reasons I started watching anime in the first place, back in the late 90s where the only American show attempting a long-form story was Babylon 5. The episodic structure of American TV at the time was such that every week the writers were free to construct any sort of narrative they wanted—so long as status quo returned by the end of the episode. The absolute freedom to create anew was also a straight jacket of conformity, and prevented any real story from being told.

After the success of Lost, serial storytelling has become a bit more common in American TV, although often not to the same extent. Rather, shows like Burn Notice provide a self-contained story in every episode, but also have a running plot slowly advanced throughout. This creates a hybrid of the serial and episodic models: Each episode is technically independent, but character growth is consistent, motivations understandable, and there is a real payoff at the end of each longer arc. It’s a method that doesn’t overly penalize new viewers, but which does reward long-time watchers.

I comment on all this because Katanagatari is one of the best examples of this hybrid format I’ve seen in either American or Japanese media. The standard Japanese model is to either start off the meta plot directly, or do a set of self-contained intro episodes to introduce the characters and then start the meta plot. Rarely does a show keep self-contained episodes throughout its run and advance a metaplot at the same time. But Katanagatari, precisely through the “sword of the week” format I was originally so skeptical of, manages to make each episode wonderfully entertaining in its own right, even as the themes, motifs, and characters advance steadily.

In addition to proving that Maniwa clan is completely lacking in fashion sense, this conference would ensure their future ...

You don’t need to know, for example, that Shichika and Togame are in Ozu after having diverted there by a vengefully jealous pirate king, for example, only that, while they are there, they are going to take the opportunity to collect their sixth sword from the Itezora tribe of Mt. Odori. (Note: Mt. Odori does not actually exist.) But knowing that fact makes a viewer attuned to the theme of vengeance as a whole, which carries throughout this episode’s plotline.

It was only last episode that the informal leader of the Maniwa ninja clan heads, Houou, brokered a truce with Shichika and Togame as the two groups raced to collect the swords. But the greatest threat to a new truce is not your enemies but your allies, still caught up in the passions of vengeance and retribution. So while four of his surviving compatriots agree that the truce is in their best interest, one sets off on her own. Kyouken blames Shichika for the death of six of her friends (even though technically he only killed one of them), and she is going to make him pay.

... if not for hotheads like Kyouken. Note the markings on her face and the color over her eyes

In the days it takes her to cross Japan to get to them, Shichika and Togame find the icy climate to be their greatest threat, and survive only due to the kindness of Konayuki, an eleven year old child and the last remaining member of the tribe that possessed the sword. Their village was destroyed by an avalanche, she claims, which both Togame and Shichika find less than convincing as a story, but decide not to question the matter.

As it happens, Konayuki knows where the sword was buried, and helpfully brings it to them. The sword, however, is absurdly heavy, so only those of the absurdly strong Itezora tribe can wield it. Konayuki offers to give them the sword, but notes that tradition says that it should only be given to those who win against the tribe’s champion in combat. She volunteers herself for the role.

Konayuki says she's weak even for her age, but as the sword she's carrying is too heavy for Shichika to lift, this is obviously relative

What follows should be a lopsided fight: Shichika is a greatly skilled combatant who is fast, strong, and savvy against fighting swordsmen. And it is lopsided, against him. Konayuki is just as fast, far stronger, and fights in such an amateur fashion that he doesn’t know what to do. Precisely because she is a child, and has no training, he has no training to counter her moves. In a fight of raw power vs. raw power, he loses, and is lucky to get away with a broken arm.

Another advantage of serial story-telling: You can employ Chekov’s gun without being obvious about it. In an episodic show, new characters and themes are introduced because they are relevant to the immediate plot at hand. An episode where a new team member joins and the plot is to find a traitor, will always find that the new team member is the traitor. So last episode, it was mentioned on three separate occasions that Shichika had yet to be injured in a fight. The obvious expectation, particularly as the fight against the pirate king proved arduous, would be that Shichika would get hurt—but he doesn’t. It’s only now that the gun goes off.

Konayuki is actually surprised this hurt Shichika. I can only imagine what Itezora bar room brawls were like

Of course, being injured is not what you want to be when a vengeful ninja arrives for your head. Konayuki’s combat skill works both ways, as she disables Kyouken almost immediately upon her arrival. But Kyouken’s secret skill isn’t an actual combat technique; it’s an ability to swap between hosts, so long as they are female. Kyouken has hundreds of years of combat experience, and she takes over Konayuki’s body to use it.

By now, I’ve already given the hints to let you know how Shichika survives his rematch with the newly possessed Konayuki, so as per my custom I will not spoil his victory method. I will say that it doesn’t strike me as quite as creative as Shichika’s previous wins, with his success being as much based on luck as anything else. I didn’t like that approach when it was used in the first episode and I don’t like it now.

That Konayuki is possessed is rather easy to determine

The more surprising moment is that, even after Togame not just gives him permission but orders him to kill Konayuki (an order she refused to give while Konayuki was just your normal friendly superstrong girl), Shichika manages to figure out Kyouken’s possession method—another thing you the reader might be able to piece together from this review—and breaks it, leaving Konayuki unharmed. Shichika has never shown respect for human life before this point, and that he disobeys an order from Togame to do it makes his development all the more striking.

Vengeance is not a helpful emotion; one of Togame’s few positive traits is her complete disinterest in the subject. Arguably she has plenty of reason to hate Shichika and his family, but she is capable of doing the rational thing and pursuing higher goals instead of petty hatreds, and going beyond even that to real affection. Kyouken was not, that leaves the Maniwas in a dangerous position, with their truce broken before it really began. I’m still not certain why Houou wants a truce so badly, rather than just settling for a policy of deliberate avoidance, but once again he makes a serious sacrifice to ensure the peace is maintained.

I think it's safe to say that what destroyed the Itezora clan was not an avalance. The Maniwas learned another village in possession of a sword was wiped out, probably by the same person

This episode marks the halfway point of the series, and once again manages to be a perfectly enjoyable story in its own right. With only a little background narration and some recap hidden within conversations, a first-time watcher can easy learn enough to follow the plot of the episode. But Shichika’s injury has more weight to those knowledgeable of episode five, and his growing moral sense is more significant to those who have seen episode three. Providing a self-contained plot is remarkably helpful in sating audience expectations when there’s a month wait between each episode. But Katanagatari’s overarching story puts many fully serial anime plots to shame with its consistency, quality, and forethought.

One last note for those of you who have yet to watch this episode before reading this review: DO NOT continue watching when the narrator starts her end of episode summary. The spoiler dropped is something, again, that long time watchers would be able to guess, but would not want to know for certain ahead of time.

In return for returning the sword to Owari, Konayuki is promised a home at a shrine. Here's hoping she doesn't sink the boat on the trip

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