Legacy is a funny thing. It can inspire the greatest acts of artistry or heroism, but has no tangible form. It can form the cornerstone of societies or empires, or just as easily lead to their ruin. It can inform all our actions, but when our actions are reduced to mere history as well, what does legacy leave us?
Katanagatari has somewhat mixed feelings on the concept. Its two central characters, Togame and Shichika, are each agents of legacy in their own way – Togame’s desire to avenge her father fuels her mission, and Shichika himself stands as a living representative of his family legacy, the sword style Kyoutoryuu. Beyond his nature as a “sword,” his priorities mirror Togame’s – at the beginning of the series, he can only be roused to anger by insults to his father’s home and school, and he initially falls for Togame specifically because of her apparent dedication to her father. The fact that his father was directly responsible for the death of her own does not enter the equation – after all, his father was a mere sword performing its duty, and the grudges of that sword’s owner have nothing to do with the sword itself.
On that note, swords are also kind of a big deal in Katanagatari. The central narrative of the story concerns the collecting of the Twelve Deviant Blades, mystical weapons forged by the charlatan Shikizaki playing his own legacy-focused games. But clearly the show’s definition of a sword is somewhat unique – one “sword” is actually a suit of armor, another a pair of pistols, and, most critically, Shichika considers himself a sword. So what’s their definition here?
It’s actually pretty simple – a sword is a weapon. It is a tool for inflicting your will upon the world. When Shichika says he is Togame’s sword, he means it – at the beginning of the series, he is merely an extension of her will, with no individual agency, morality, or doubts. In being her sword, he is performing the secondary duty of being his father’s sword – for it was his father who dictated he take up the Kyoutoryuu style, and who decreed that the legacy of their family would be to exist as swords and nothing else. Shichika’s slow path from sword to human is the central character arc of the series, and the markers of this journey crop up constantly throughout. In the second episode, after being called off by Togame from mercilessly killing some bandits, he frankly asks her if that’s some specific mainland custom. In the third, his will as a sword proves unbreakable even if the face of Meisai’s compassionate plea on behalf of her mission and shelter. But slowly, the influence of Togame and the others he passes begins to change him, and he discovers compassion, mercy, humor, and love – marks not of a sword, but of a human being.
Few characters in this series fare so well. Despite her passion and her own wielding of Shichika, Togame is ultimately no more than a sword herself. It is legacy itself that wields her – she is simply an instrument of her father’s wishes, and her actions are calculated to seek revenge and exercise his will without mercy or restraint until the very end. In spite of this, she learns to love Shichika as well – but her love is used as one more tool in service of her father’s legacy, and it is only at the end, when her hopes of fulfilling that role are dashed, that she allows herself to embrace her love for him. Even that small admission might classify her as one of the lucky ones – legacy’s stern hand leads most characters in the show to ruin, as Togame’s quest leads them from one dying family name to another, seeking the swords that act as both lightning rods for legacy’s ambitions and markers of their dying era. In a show obsessed with swordsmanship and the ephemeral nature of legacy, it is fitting that the very last sword is a pair of pistols – fitting as well that their first mission finds our heroes assaulting a once-great castle, now buried by sand. The way the weight of history’s passage itself is contrasted against the individual weight of family name and expectation that nearly every character labors under is just one of Katanagatari’s many tragic parallels.
Ultimately, despite her growing love for Shichika, Togame is undone by her inability to forget the past and become a human herself. Her last act as Shichika’s master is to order him to forget her and move on – fortunately, by that point, he is no longer a sword at all, and as a human he is not bound to obey. Instead, he makes the human choice to break the cycle, dying if he must, and ending both the personal grudges that doomed Togame and the corrupting influence of Shikizaki’s meddling legacy. In the last act, he destroys Shikizaki’s swords entirely, along with the fake empire they installed and the last of the great swords, Emonzaemon the retainer. Emonzaemon and the Princess Hitei act as constant foils to our protagonists throughout, and in the end it is the two who have abandoned the pull of legacy who survive – Shichika, who has finally become a full human, and the Princess, who herself admits she does not care how her ancestor’s legacy is resolved. After the dust has settled, Shichika emerges as his own man – though the scars of his love for Togame match her own distinctive eye, that love is his own choice, and what he does with it he will do as a human being.
As far as the boring review-ish concerns go, Katanagatari has an incredibly distinctive and frankly beautiful visual style, and is peppered with stylish and well-directed moments of brief action. It seems odd to mention costume design in an anime review, but here it’s just incredible – each character has their own specific theme and aesthetic, and many of them are also thematically relevant (Shichika’s autumn leaf dancing briefly as it falls and Togame’s constant encirclement by the self-devouring serpent being two of the highlights). The soundtrack is eclectic and excellent, and the dialogue is distinctly Isin while also being much more focused in its character illumination and thematic elaboration than he tends to be. His style is clearly an acquired taste, and there’s definitely an argument against his method of slow, circuitous storytelling, but all the elements of this show work towards the same goals, and I believe that the show’s meditative pacing ultimately works to its benefit. Characters reflect each other in their journeys and beliefs (honestly, I’ve only begun to scratch the various parallels here), the personal themes reflect the universal ones, and the construction of the whole builds gracefully out of each individual story, making Katanagatari work as a eulogy for an entire era of swordsmanship and legacy while also telling an achingly personal story of love and self-discovery. It is beautiful and creative and absolutely uncompromising. I don’t really have any complaints.