In Defense of Katanagatari: Episode FourPosted: August 7, 2013
The 2010 adaptation of Nishio Ishin’s Katanagatari is one of the most divisive titles in all of anime, and its fourth episode is itself among its most controversial parts. But it is necessary to argue that those who denounce the episode – and the series as a whole –for its unsatisfactory ending are simply missing the point of the whole series, the existentialist and poststructuralist partiality to sheer effort over gratifying fulfillment.
Divided into twelve one-hour episodes, Katanagatari tells the story of Yasuri Shichika, 7th Generation head of Kyotouryuu, a school “swordsmanship” that uses the body as a sword (making it practically a martial art), and of Togame the Strategian, who works for the alternative-history Japan’s ruling Yanari Shogunate. Togame solicits Shichika’s help to collect the Twelve Deviant Blades, swords of eccentric design and poisonous entrancement forged by the legendary blacksmith Shikizaki Kiki. Shichika’s and Togame’s intertwined pasts, the struggles to obtain these intoxicating blades, and Shikizaki Kiki’s own motivation for forging them, compose the series’ main plotlines.
Episode four, “Hakutou Hari,” begins four months into Togame’s and Shichika’s sword hunt. Togame reveals to Shichika that Sabi Hakuhei, possessor of the Deviant Blade Hakutou Hari and labeled as the best swordsman in all of Japan, has just sent a letter of challenge for a duel to them. But right before the two land on the appointed venue – Ganryuujima, where another famous duel, that between Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, took place – the episode’s focus shifts to three members of the Maniwa Ningun, Kamakiri, Chouchou, and Mitsubachi. The Maniwa Ningun, the ninja team that betrayed Togame in her initial bid to get the swords, had thus far lost three swords to Shichika, and the three (collectively known as the Insect Squad), are on their way to the uninhabited island where the Yasuri House was living in exile. They intend to kidnap Nanami, Shichika’s sickly elder sister, in order to thwart his sword hunt. But the three, who share a deep sense of camaraderie, will be horrified to find out that Nanami is a martial artist of such unprecedented genius that her own father, the previous Kyotouryuu head, refused to make her successor for his being unable to teach her. The squad captain, Kamakiri, goes off to take her, leaving behind the two others to wait. But in spite of his wealth of experience, Nanami summarily tortures and kills him. When he does not return, Chouchou steps forward to check on him, but not before a friendly chat with Mitsubachi. Chouchou goes off, with Mitsubachi watching the match from afar to gain intel. In facing Chouchou, Nanami reveals what her prodigious skills are all about: she can learn a martial arts technique (Ninpou or Kenpou alike) by witnessing it at least once, mastering it on the second time. She kills Chouchou with a combination of Kamakiri’s Ninpou Tsume Awase (long claw-like nails) and Chouchou’s own Ninpou Ashigaru (the cancellation of weight), techniques that took generations to perfect and lifetimes to master for both ninjas. Mitsubachi is soon killed as well after launching a short counterattack. At the end of the episode, the focus returns to Shichika and Togame, who are eating dango to celebrate Shichika’s victory over Hakuhei. They talk about the match, but the match itself is not shown. The episode ends with Nanami intending to travel to tell Shichika a weakness in his ultimate move.
Anime viewers have complained time and again how this episode is disappointing for not showing the Shichika-Hakuhei match. And yet there is reason to believe that this denying the action from the viewer is exactly what the series is trying to do. The only time the match was shown on screen was in the preview for the episode in the episode preceding (there is a fighting scene between the two). Additionally, not even flashbacks showing the match is revealed, only artistic scenes of Hakuhei, the sword Hakutou Hari, and a shot of the island in ruin. The refusal to show the match could only be deliberate.
And the very action that is shown in the episode, that between Nanami and the Insect Squad, is dominated by what critics complain is an excess of dialogue (Carl Kimlinger sees this as the series’ weakness) . Much of the clash between Nanami and the three ninjas is verbal, with actual combat consisting of only a fraction of the episode. And yet, like the refusal to show the Shichika-Hakuhei duel, this scarcity of actual action in light of the complex conceptualization of special techniques, can only be deliberate.
This refusal to show the action goes back to that famous duel that also happened in Ganryuujima – the Musashi-Kojiro duel. In popular tellings of the historical match, Musashi arrives late, tantalizing Kojiro, and when he does arrive the match ends quickly with Musashi’s victory. Much of the match, many legends tell, involved a verbal bickering between the two, with Musashi provoking Kojiro to an imprudent outburst of temper.
The Musashi-Kojiro duel was never actually recorded, with much of the information known about it only based on rumours. And yet this very scarcity of detail, the tantalization of the drive to know, is one of the reasons why the duel remains part of popular culture to this day.
It is this same tantalization, one which dominates Katanagatari as a whole and in minute detail, which makes the Shichika-Hakuhei duel much more remarkable. The match, like Musashi and Kojiro, was already much anticipated considering the fame both parties have been enjoying. And yet, had the actual duel been seen, it would just have been another duel. That we have been denied of seeing the match has elevated it to that exclusive and therefore memorable category of things we could not get. “There are two great tragedies in life,” said Oscar Wilde, “one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”
This tantalization as a higher form of pleasure traces its expression to Wilde, but it is discussed in detail in Poststructuralist thought, something Nishio Ishin is no stranger to considering his repertoire. Roland Barthes made a distinction between plaisir (the immediate gratification of craving) and jouissance (the deferring of fulfillment to prolong craving). It is jouissance, with the continuation of desire, which is the more superior form of pleasure, as the gratification of craving ends the whole pleasurable experience. Thus, it is the craving and not the gratification that matters: as long as the individual can continue struggling to achieve fulfillment there will be pleasure.
This emphasis on effort over end echoes another philosophical movement: existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, in discussing how existence precedes essence, begins the discussion on the importance of human struggle to be in being human. An individual, in Existentialist terms, reaches self fulfillment in his attempt to be fulfilled. While touched by Kierkegaard (most notably in his views on belief in God in the Leap of Faith) and by Heidegger (in his concepts of Sorge and Dasein), it is in Albert Camus that the discussion reaches its height. Camus’s Absurdism, which looks at human struggle in light of the Absurd, not only reveals the limitations of pleasure in human finitude (a thought that rings similar to Barthes’ plaisir) but the pointlessness of struggle for pleasure as well. And yet we get in Camus’ Sisyphus what we also get in Barthes: it is not the gratification but the struggle to achieve it that gives pleasure. Sisyphus, in pointlessly lifting the stone up the hill, derives pleasure from the very impossibility of achieving an end (in both senses of the word) to his struggle. To face the absurd with continued struggle is jouissance, for in the light of the absurdity of all, it is not achieving something that gives fulfillment, but the struggle to achieve it. Everything is pointless, but to live is to try, and to be fulfilled is to be tantalized.
And this very insight returns us to Katanagatari, which time and again denies us of what we want to achieve but pleases us all the more for that. Episode four itself begins with tantalization, with the sexual tension between Togame and Shichika “rubbed” to its most suggestive arousal when Togame takes of her clothes and moans erotically as Shichika tickles her collarbone by accident (nothing happens to them, but the viewer could hardly avoid wishing). We do not get sex, and yet it makes them an even sexier couple because of that. The much complained about verbosity of the dialogue is itself an act of tantalization, particularly in this episode. The “wall of words” that Kimlinger complains about is the point of the dialogue. Additionally, the tension between Nanami and the Maniwa ninjas is made more palpable by Mai Nakahara’s Megumi Hayashibara-esque voice acting of Nanami, soft and polite but undeniably dark and dementedly threatening. While listening to the dialogue one cannot help but dread what horrors the unassuming Nanami can do – her unassuming character itself another manifestation of tantalization – and when these horrors are revealed the effect is much stronger than it would have been had they proceeded to fighting immediately. The tantalization of the Shichika-Hakuhei duel is perhaps the most elaborately set up, as it spans the previous episode. Katanagatari is the only anime I know that utilizes the episode preview to contribute to the overall effect.
And indeed there is reason to believe that this is the overall effect Katanagatari is trying to achieve. Episode four sets up many details that are crucial to the series, making it the pivotal episode: Shichika’s struggle to perfect himself, Hakuhei’s own attempt to be Shikizaki’s final blade, and the sense of tantalization that dominates the series. Later into the series, Togame dies, Shichika discovers Shikizaki Kiki’s plan to overthrow the Yanari Shogunate to alter history, he destroys all twelve swords, and he kills the shogun, only to have the Shikizaki plot fail with the replacement of another shogun. This outcome of events has earned Katanagatari much hate from the anime community, and yet the haunting final narration reveals that this is the point of the series. I quote the final narration thus:
“The ones who failed at revenge… the ones who failed at their goals… the ones who fell before achieving their aspirations…the ones who didn’t succeed… the ones who lost, the ones who stumbled, the ones who rotted away… the ones who fought with all their might, sacrificed everything, just to have their work be for naught, yielding fruitless results… who died unfairly, or perhaps illogically, tragically, without face, full of regrets… the story which offers a happy future for them, filled with hopes and dreams… Katanagatari, quietly lowers its curtains here.”
Many characters have died by the end of the series, including one of the main characters, and with Shichika’s failure to overthrow the Yanari Shogunate, all their deaths were, to put it, “in vain.” And yet these same characters had lived, struggling to get what they wanted, and whether or not they got what they wanted is beside the point. It is the trying that matters.
There is even reason to think that Ishin had Existentialist and Absurdist messages in the series. I earlier discussed how he expounded in Nisemonogatari the importance of trying in the context of real and fake. This thought, with its existentialist roots, is also echoed in Katanagatari. Togame tells Shichika that her affinity with him is fake, that she was just using him, and yet that their affinity was a choice and not simply the product of nativist causes makes it even more genuine. The Shichika-Hakuhei fight itself, while not really a fight as we know anime fight scenes to be, becomes an even more impressionable fight exactly because it calls itself a fight. Togame, whose real name is Yousha-hime, dies in the end, and Shichika ends up traveling with Hitei-hime: this may be allegorical of man’s own absurd “denial” (“hitei” is Japanese for “denial”) of succumbing to the absurd while keeping “acceptance” (“yousha” is Japanese for “acceptance”) of it in his heart. There is also something to be said of Shikizaki Kiki’s soothsaying abilities: he has the power to see the future, meaning he knew that the attempt to overthrow the shogunate would fail, and yet he continued with the struggle anyway. The soothsayer’s existentialism, however, is best discussed in another post.
Just with its pivotal fourth episode, it is evident that Katanagatari at once marries Existentialist-Absurdism and the poststructuralist view of pleasure as the deferring of gratification. It is a deviant anime, robbing the viewer of the immediate fulfillment of “a good ending” and of “a good fighting scene,” and yet it pleases us in ways greater than other anime could. It takes a “writerly viewer” (to borrow Barthes’ term) empowered with the willingness to try and fail, to see the reaffirming and empowering nature of struggle in light of life’s absurdity. Nishio Ishin has created for us a title to struggle with, and ought not we to be happy for it?