Katanagatari Episode 12 – A Legacy of Failure
It’s been some time since the finale of Katanagatari aired, and since then I’ve had a variety of real life events (finals, the holiday season, etc.) to keep me from writing up a review. The real reason for my delay, however, is that I’ve loved the series, as I hope my reviews have shown. For months I was sure that this would be the best show of the year.
Thus, after seeing the last episode of Katanagatari, I had to spend a lot of time reflecting on what exactly to say. For if I am to properly explain why I think the series’ ending is a colossal disappointment, one which fails to properly deliver on almost every level, it’s important to be precise.
(My like for Katanagatari has led me to avoid putting major spoilers in reviews if possible, to preserve some of the clever surprises that made the show so good. That will even less possible here than it was for last episode, so fair warning.)
Last episode ending with Togame being mortally wounded by Emonzaemon, who nonetheless was “considerate” enough to avoid her heart or major organs, so that she’d have time for some conversation before she died. (Emonzaemon really seems to care about people’s last words, probably for some reason related to his never explained backstory.) Having no beef with Shichika, he leaves them alone for her final moments.
Togame’s final moments take over ten minutes, during which she makes it clear that she wants Shichika to move on. The reason for this isn’t, or isn’t just, that she cares for Shichika’s well-being, but that she feels guilty for having manipulated him as she did. According to her, everything she did to romance, befriend, and even help Shichika grow as a human person, was all just another one of her schemes. She was ultimately planning to kill him just for being the son of the man who killed her father.
I want to repeat this just to emphasize the point: her own feelings toward Shichika were a front: real in the sense that they reflected how she felt, but not in the sense they affected how she acted, planned, or schemed. When she got jealous in episode nine, when she was warmed by his growing regard for human life in episode six, when she insisted that she wanted him, and not another more “strategic” pick, to fight for her in episode five, even when she pledged to travel the country with him in episode 11—all this, and the emotions she felt as she did these things, were manipulated by some higher part of her brain toward achieving her end of revenge.
One could think that this admission was just a ruse to trick Shichika into not caring for her, which would better allow him to move on and not do something silly like get himself killed seeking revenge himself. But the various images that accompany her confession make it clear that she is being perfectly serious. Only in death, with all possibility of scheming her way out of things denied her, can she finally let her feelings be her feelings.
Keep in mind that for the last three episodes in particular, I’ve been gushing particularly about Togame’s character growth as a parallel to Shichika’s. I’ve pointed out how she’s come to accept her father’s death, and be more open about her affection for Shichika. And even before that, Togame—for all her selfishness, pride, and poor fashion sense—was really the moral heart of the show, or as close as the show got to one.
All that gets flushed down the toilet in the ten minutes it takes Togame to die. The show effectively reneges on all that, declares it a trick. In fact, Togame was at her core a woman bent on revenge, and would let that revenge drive even her deepest love for dark purposes and destructive ends (and leaving me wondering what the hell episode 10 was supposed to be about). Shichika later summarized her situation that she basically wasted her life thanks to these impulses.
Apparently out of rage for that, and not for her death per se, Shichika invades the castle of the Owari shogun, just as Hitei is meeting with him. Quickly ascertaining the situation, she tells the shogun that this too, was part of her ancestor Shikizaki’s plan. She convinces him that the best way to preserve the shogunate is to have his eleven most loyal retainers, along with Emonzaemon, take up Shikizaki’s swords and face off against Shichika one at a time.
It’s certainly a better plan than just letting Shichika mow through endless foot soldiers, but it’s not enough to stop Kyotouruu. Shichika is the finest “sword” Shikizaki crafted, and save for Entou Jyuu, Shichika knows the tricks of all the others. It helps that the people he’s fighting are all lesser combatants than what he’s faced before, foes whose inferiority reflects on the shogun who employs them.
Unfortunately, it means the fights aren’t particularly developed, or even interesting. The eleven retainers are all named and have unique character designs, but their roles are to march on screen and die, so they might as well be faceless mooks. Narratively, Shichika has to fight his way through them because that’s part of cliches that surround this sort of story, not because it is particularly necessary.
It’s not a complete loss; the fights reflect how Shichika has grown as a fighter over the last year, and how powerful he is freed from Togame’s restrictions to preserve the swords. While insufficient to serve as a climactic battle, at least the process is short; there’s less screen time of Shichika plowing through all eleven retainers than there was devoted to Togame’s death scene.
The climactic fight is obviously going to be with Emonzaemon and the flame sword(s), which the audience could tell from the title of the episode. This too is a disappointment; the battle feels like a return to cost saving animation techniques that also plagued Shichika’s fight with his sister, with blurred arm combat meant to convey superhuman speed but really just saving the animators the work of getting something prettier on screen.
Worse, Shichika’s way of solving the battle, while thematic and tied to Togame’s death, is sort of dumb. Just as he, with Togame’s death, is freed from trying to protect the swords (and in fact seems like he’s trying to break them), he’s also free from trying to protect himself. He actually claims that the entire reason he’s fighting is simply to die. Thus, he wins out against the flame sword by not worrying too much on defense, allowing himself to be injured in order to get in the finishing blow.
I know this seems odd, given all the other fantastical things he and others have done in this series, but this broke suspension of disbelief for me. One thing consistent about Katanagatari is that however powerful someone is, blood loss, broken bones, and other injuries are still serious. Shichika takes an absurd pounding and still walks around fine, without any noticeable decrease of his combat ability. When a broken arm was all it took to hamper him before, this just isn’t something I find plausible.
More to the point, Shichika has been saying from the beginning that his point is not to get revenge for Togame but to die. But Shichika doesn’t die, and he does get revenge for Togame. I don’t necessarily mind the latter part, although calling the current Shogun responsible for her death, or even her wasted life, is a bit of a stretch. But if you’re an writer and you’re going to send your protagonist into a death trap, when he says he wants to die, and wound him as badly as he is, you should own up and have the balls to kill him.
So, Katanagatari mars its character development and doesn’t really give the action the payoff it needs. Attempting to find some solace in the plot isn’t likely to help either. I’ve already discussed the battle parts of it, which seems more a concession to genre cliches than to productive narrative. (Hitei identifies that the fight is somehow necessary to fulfill Shikizaki’s plans, but gives no indication as to how.) Neither is the meta plot all that impressive.
Hitei eventually admits that her plan, following Shikizaki’s predictions, was to eliminate the Owari shogunate, just as the original historical shogunate in Edo was prevented from into coming into being by Shikizaki. The entire reason for creating the swords was to ensure that no shogunate would exist; by doing so, Shikizaki hoped that Japan would avoid a future calamity, which seems to be the atomic bomb droppings and occupation of Japan in World War II.
I’ll put aside the irony of having two shows this year, independent of each other, featuring super-powered characters in intrigues based on the predictions of seers employing future technology to avoid the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But while in Night Raid, the attempt to alter the future fails because the heroes are unwilling to take the brutal actions necessary to do change history, in Katangatari the attempt just fails. The dead shogun is replaced by a relative. Thus ends the seer’s machinations.
Keep in mind Shikizaki has been capable of manipulating events down to controlling who wound up getting the poison sword, and where Togame would die and how it would affect Shichika. He’s really good at what he does. Thus, for him to concoct a plan so intricate, that fails on so obvious a point, after he’s already failed once to keep a shogunate from forming, breaks suspension of disbelief for me yet again. I appreciate that the show wants to illustrate the resilience of history, but it should be able to do that without (and I repeat myself) undoing or contradicting what we know about our characters. I want a better explanation for Shikizaki’s failure than: “That’s just the way things are.”
But that almost seems the point. The narrator summarizes the show as nothing but a series of failures. The failure to protect a fief, to enrich a ninja clan, to aid girls wounded by the world, to woo a woman—those Shichika fought had in a sense failed in their goals even before Shichika came along to defeat them. Togame failed in her attempt to find revenge (or redemption), Shikizaki failed to change the fate of Japan, and Shichika was once again proven inferior to his sister, who at least made sure that when she wanted to die, she died.
Given I’ve just recently praised Shiki for delving into dark themes of hopelessness, nihilism, and despair, I want to make clear I am not opposed to such themes in general. I am opposed to them here because they negate the natural flow and progression of the series which we’ve seen in previous episodes. Shichika and Togame’s journey was a progression and development toward something positive, more humane and mature than when they started, and having accomplished some great work in the process. Even if it were destined to end tragically (as these shows often are), this tragic ending is forced, out of place, and ultimately degrading to everything that has come before it. I can’t see this ending as anything other than an embodiment of the very failure it takes as its theme.
Series Review: Obviously, I’m not happy about the ending of Katanagatari. But what do I think about the show as a whole? And is there anything I think the ending didn’t ruin?
Katanagatari at its best featured clever action, witty dialogue, and fascinating if flawed characters who were trying, in most cases, to be better. Many anime series don’t achieve any of these things, much less all of them; that Katanagatari’s narrative is frequently strong enough to bring all them in at once is a particular treat. The antagonists, including even the Maniwas starting at episode four, were always at least somewhat nuanced and sympathetic, giving the audience a more nuanced perspective. Even Hitei proved an unpredictable foe, if so no other reason than that she seemed to take pleasure in contradicting herself.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons I loved the show was in how, for its shades of gray, it did show both Shichika and Togame mutually guiding each other to be better, more loving and life-affirming people. The knowledge that, at the end of the day, Togame was not really becoming a better person puts a bit of a damper on that, and makes entire episodes seem undone as a result.
That doesn’t keep Nanami’s life and death from being both chilling and tragic, or Konayuki from being charming and lovable. It doesn’t make Togame and Shichika’s travel dialogues less funny and well-written. It doesn’t keep the combats (most of them, anyway) from being lovely, innovative, and carefully integrated to the overall plot. It probably doesn’t even keep Katanagatari from being the best action show of the year. But it makes Katanagatari at best a flawed masterpiece, and possibly something far worse.
I suspect that I’ll need more time to properly figure out whether the finale episode is like episode seven in not living up to expectations, like the end of Mai-HiME in marring a show I still otherwise enjoy and value, or something that ultimately will poison my perspective whenever I try to rewatch the series. The fact I am worked up about it, however, is enough to show how unique Katanagatari has been. Ordinary shows aren’t worth this much emotional investment.
Thus, I’m going to have to put Katanagatari in the recommended watch category. I know my reaction to the show is not universal (my co-blogger will be demonstrating that later this week), and even if you dislike the ending as much as I do, there’s far too many good things in the rest of the series to discard it for a single episode. I just wish the ending were good enough that I didn’t have to offer that proviso in the first place.