For general information on the series: Katanagatari entry
This review is for the first omnibus volume of Katanagatari (or “Sword Tale”) by Nisio Isin (with artwork by take). The English hardcover edition was released by Vertical in November 2018. It includes the text and illustrations from volumes 1 through 3 of the series as it was released by Kodansha Box in Japan. The next English omnibus volume will come out on June 18th, containing volumes 4 through 6. The series was completed in Japan with 12 volumes (from January to December of 2007), so there will be four hardcover omnibus English releases total.
Some points to keep in mind for this review:
- I believe I saw (part of?) the first episode of the anime adaptation a long time ago. I could not recall anything about it when starting to read this though. Maybe I’ll watch the anime after I finish reading the books. (It seems like it’d be a rather difficult story to adapt.)
- My opinion on Nisio Isin novels at the moment: I really liked the first two volumes of Zaregoto (can’t wait for the third), and I like some aspects of Monogatari well enough — but I am not interested enough to actively read more of the latter series.
- I have been dying for a translated light novel series set in a traditional Japanese setting for a LOOOOOOONG time now. I don’t get why this is such a rare and unusual thing. Katanagatari is admittedly a very quirky alternate universe take on the Edo era, but I’m all right with that.
Also, if you skipped the opening paragraph for the review — be sure to keep in mind this is a hardcover omnibus containing the first three volumes of the story! The book itself is very nice, and well-worth the asking price. The cover has a nice feel to it that I like more than most other hardcover books I’ve read. The pages are nice too, and a color foldout of the covers from Japan’s volume 2 and 3 is included at the front.
And speaking of illustrations, the artist (take) did a wonderful job here. Take’s drawings for Zaregoto were nice, but the unique art style feels like a perfect fit for Katanagatari. The character designs are highly stylized with a modern Japanese pop art feel to them, and the many two-page spreads throughout the book incorporate symbols, patterns, and nature motifs that hearken back to traditional Japanese artwork. This is also the only light novel I know of that not only credits an artist, but also a calligrapher (Hiroshi Hirata). All in all this is a quality book that is just nice to hold and look at.
One more thing to mention before diving into the story itself: the footnotes. The book is full of them, with the notes at the bottom of each page (rather than endnotes at the back of the book, like in My Youth Romantic Comedy). These footnotes include the Japanese text being referenced, a transliteration of the Japanese, and then an English translation that may or may not differ a bit from the actual translation used in the text (as a 1:1 direct translation will not always read well in English). Also, there may be a quick explanation of some wordplay (puns, homonyms, idioms, etc), or what some bit of traditional Japanese architecture, food, clothing, and so on being referenced is. I realize this is all something of a controversy in the world of translation. As someone with an interest in the subject matter, I personally appreciated the extra context the footnotes provided. I also think the translation of the text itself holds up on its own well enough that readers can get by all right without referencing anything, should they wish. That said, a large number of the footnotes probably didn’t need to be included, especially in cases where they didn’t seem to provide any new information (save for the original Japanese words).
The story itself is a simple one, feeling much like the setup of some tale from folklore: two characters go on a quest to gather twelve legendary swords, fighting off all manner of strange foes along the way. Each volume so far entails our leads locating a sword and then obtaining it from its current wielder. That said, I didn’t feel the story was all that repetitive, as each sword-wielder has been pretty unique so far, and there is a surprising amount of back-story to parse through as far as the setting is concerned. A famous swordsmith, a powerful shogun and his great sword hunt, various schools of swordsmanship, a rebellion, machinations within the government, clashing clans of ninja and samurai… The tale of Katanagatari is told in a markedly straightforward manner, but there’s still enough depth to its world and characters that you can take it seriously.
The two leads in particular, Shichika and Togame, are absolutely delightful. Shichika is the fish out of water in this story — he was raised on an island (with just his father and sister), and spent his life training in a style of swordsmanship that uses no swords. He is approached by Togame, a self-proclaimed “schemer” for the government, in order to retrieve the twelve aforementioned swords for the shogunate. Togame is an odd and funny woman, but she also has a strong determination and intriguing history. I’m glad to say though that there is more to both characters than meets the eye, and I look forward to finding out more about them in the volumes to come. And, as can be expected of Nisio Isin, the banter between the two leads is a lot of fun to read, with all sorts of clever quips and witty asides. (And, uh, catch phrases.)
And really, the prose in general for this one is great. There is a strong narration that will at times break the fourth wall (sometimes to hilarious effect), but the story still feels genuine and earnest as far as the characters and their personal plights are concerned. All in all I have to say everyone ought to give Katanagatari a try. It’s a lovely book to have in your collection, and even with the story’s unique setting, it’s probably the most approachable of Nisio Isin’s works currently available in English. Even folks who may not be that into anime and whatnot can find this a fun read, I wager, so long as they’re up for a rollicking adventure in Japan.
Cho’s Rating: Strongly Recommended
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