For a lot of anime viewers, the name Ufotable conjures up high expectations of quality. With works such as Fate/Zero and Kara no Kyoukai under their belt, it would be difficult not to blindly trust the studio to deliver masterpiece after masterpiece, especially considering how little they release compared to other studios . While many seasoned viewers have already learned this lesson, Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu is the show that really helped me understand that you shouldn’t buy into the hype and excitement simply because of a big name, as even legendary studios can deliver a clunker or two.
For what it’s worth, Ufotable fulfilled their end of the bargain. Katsugeki’s art and animation are very much on par with what I expected from this studio after seeing their adaptation of Unlimited Blade Works. The art is crisp and simply beautiful. Though much of the background art is smoke and clouds amidst a night sky, all other scenes are filled with incredible detail. The character designs themselves are beautifully and meticulously detailed and varied. Their facial expressions are vivid and the character movement in battles flows without any awkwardness. On the topic of battles, the choreography felt light in the early episodes, but is well disguised by the flashes and flying particles of the sword clashes. As I have not played the game that acted as the source material for this show, there is little that I can say about faithfulness to the design of the original. It may be because of this that I have a much harder time enjoying anything this show has to offer with its story and characters.
From what I can gather, the story is about a bunch of historical swords that were collected by some unknown force that breathed life into them and gave them human bodies. These living weapons are now given the task of preserving time and history from the evil Time Retrograde Army that seeks to twist history by killing important historical figures. With a cool premise like that, I was rather shocked with just how boring of a slog it ended up being. The show simply doesn’t frontload enough information to let the audience get invested in its story. After 6 episodes, I still don’t know why the Time Retrograde Army wants to change history, nor do I know anything about its leaders or who the soldiers actually are. They look like shadowy samurai zombies and they are about as effective as villains as zombies typically end up being in modern media. Occasionally they are joined by some CG skeletons, but those do little to make them interesting adversaries.
Likewise, little is known about the actual organization that is leading this crusade to keep history intact. Despite their clear goal, the early episodes contain numerous scenes of our characters brushing aside their duty to preserve history by saving people that should have died. Perhaps that will be something explored in later episodes, but so far it seems a little too lax despite being the premise of the show. There is, however, hope for the show. As well as the debate of “savings lives vs preserving history”, the show brings about the question of whether or not the blades are serving the right master. If Katsugeki can stop meandering from one random battle to another, then perhaps it can deliver on some legitimately interesting plot points. It will still need to do something about its characters though.
The most saddening aspect of Katsugeki is that despite its varied cast of beautifully designed characters, not a single one of them is capable of holding my interest. To give a brief rundown of their personalities: Kanesada is the serious, idealistic leader. Kunihiro is the naïve kid with a strong sense of justice. Tonbokiri is the big, papa-bear. Yagen is the strong, silent type. Yoshiyuki is the reckless, annoying goofball. Despite these somewhat varied personalities, the team seems to have no chemistry. Much of the dialogue between them is stiff, serious and devoid of any charm. This is especially disheartening for Kanesada and Kunihiro, as their particular relationship should have at least some sort of personal touch to it. On the flipside, the arguments between Kanesada and Yoshiyuki tend to bring me out of a scene with just how annoying they are, even though they should be building a sense of tension. This is all wrapped together in a bow of some really awkward attempts at humor, especially from Yoshiyuki and the team’s fox mascot Konnosuke. Yammering on and on about food wasn’t funny when Goku did it years ago, and it isn’t funny now.
Though the show has a lot of merit seeing as it comes from Ufotable and a lot of promise considering the potential of its blooming plot and characters, there just isn’t enough shown to convince me that it’ll all work out somehow. When as a viewer you watch the shit hit the fan and feel nothing for the struggles of the characters, you know that the show just isn’t working for you. It doesn’t help that Katsugeki immediately follows up this “thrilling” episode with a whole lot of sitting around the Citadel and talking. Though this might be a treat for fans of the game or people who really like pretty anime dudes that occasionally do samurai stuff, I think that Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu will likely end up as one of the disappointments of the Summer 2017 season.