WARNING: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS FOR KATANAGATARI, ESPECIALLY KATANAGATARI’S ENDING.
Katanagatari’s ending is something that doesn’t come from anime very often. While there are a lot of people that don’t like it for various reasons – understandable reasons too, something truly fantastic comes from it on a much deeper level. All throughout Katanagatari there is a constant theme of failure, especially as the show is coming to an end. Look at every single faction or character that was trying to accomplish something; they all ended in failure (with some exceptions). The story, in essence, ends in failure. Shichika fails to carry out Togame’s mission – both her fake mission and true, vengeful mission. This means he fails to be a sword; the very thing that his life is devoted to. Togame fails to overthrow the shogunate and carry out her father’s will. She also fails to collect all 12 of the Perfected Deviant Blades. She fails herself by falling in love with Shichika. The story itself is a failure but the storytelling is an incredible success; and the story is about Shichika.
As stated in my Katanagatari Review, the characters and storytelling are some of my favorite parts of Katanagatari. NisiOisiN is really able to flesh out each character and make every one of them important to Katanagatari’s ending. I’ll touch on each character/faction and explain their failure and what I believe it represents for the storytelling.## Shikizaka Kiki
Shikizaka Kiki was a soothsayer and swordsmith. He crafted the 12 Perfected Deviant Blades and also Kyotouryuu. Though he died many years prior to Shichika’s time, his mission was set to be accomplished by Shichika: killing the shogun and therefore altering what was to become of Japan. Shikizaka Kiki succeeded the most. Kyotouryuu was to become the Completed Deviant Blade once Shichika overcame the previous 12. Everything went as planned, up to the altering history part. Everything that should have mattered simply did not. Japan was still heading quickly towards being overcome and what his ancestors envisioned went unchanged. Shikizaka is the reason that we got the story of Katanagatari, which is very important. Be it fate, destiny, or bad luck, his failure was the most noticeable and arguably the most important. Everyone’s failure in Katanagatari is the failure of Shikizaka Kiki. His success, however, was the story of Katanagatari.
Deviant Blade Holders
Assuming I counted correctly, there are 29 different holders of the 12 Perfected Deviant Blades. Every single one of them fails to hold the blade and the responsibility that comes with it. While this is the simplest, it is also one of the most resounding. Shichika and Togame were collecting the blades. The success of their mission depended on the failure of at least 12 others. In the end, Shichika destroyed them all, symbolizing his completion as the greatest blade; also symbolizing his failure to protect Togame and her mission as well. Again, success for one means failure for another; and that is prevalent throughout Katanagatari. When the dust settled, failure for all also meant victory for no one but fate.
The Maniwani are one of my favorite factions in Katanagatari. They are all so similar and different at the same time, but for the sake of this article it will be easier to consider them one single entity. That said, the Maniwani probably fail the most miserably. They fall apart in desperation from the beginning to the end. The Maniwani embrace failure though. Throughout Katanagatari, there is this feeling that there is more to the Maniwani than they are letting on. Even though they are also after the 12 blades, they continuously fail at both stopping Togame or retrieving the blades themselves. Maniwa Hōō, their leader, especially embraces this and even serves to help Togame and sacrifice his own men. This confidence seems to show that the Maniwani have something up their sleeve, when in reality they are truly being slowly decimated.
As the viewer witnesses this, I think there is a sense of empathy for the Maniwani. It is clear that they are truly defeated by episode 10 but feelings of their defeat arise much sooner. In spite of their defeat, they add a lot to how interesting Katanagatari is. This is a direct parallel to Katanagatari’s ending. The story of their failure added immensely the Shichika’s story.## Hitei and Emonzaemon
Princess Hitei is the exception to Katanagatari. She did not fail; for she didn’t want to succeed. Her plan was to continue the will of Shikizaka Kiki (her ancestor), but she was not hoping it would succeed. She enjoyed making things difficult for Togame, but not particularly for any reason. She enjoyed having fun with all of the elements at play in the story. By extension of this, Emonzaemon’s successes and final failure was more or less irrelevant to her, proving her complete demoralization of him. The one important thing to note about Hitei, is that she is always enjoying what is happening and never frustrated. Hitei is in much the same position the viewer is in when the theme of Katanagatari comes to light.
When Shichika doesn’t kill her, this should be surprising to viewers. It was very surprising to me. I believe that this shows how much Shichika understands the situation. While she was the reason that Togame died, she also saved Shichika’s life. She was unaware that the result would end up keeping her alive, which is a great example of the beauty of uncertainty that is especially prevalent in the final episode. Hitei and Shichika were the only two survivors of Katanagatari, and consequently they were the only two that had nothing more to fail at. Hitei had no goals and Shichika had already failed at the ultimate level by becoming human and not protecting Togame. The story does not continue to follow them because there is no more failure possible, and failure is what makes Katanagatari what it is.## Nanami
Nanami is a direct contrast of Shichika. She is unnaturally powerful, overly observant from her Migeika, and most of all she is human. At the beginning of the story, she is relatively normal. As normal as someone can be that was raised on an island with only her father and brother. Because she was never trained in Kyotouryuu and she never became a sword, unlike Shichika. As Shichika’s journey persists he gains humanity. Nanami’s journey drains her humanity, effectively transforming her into a monster. She even becomes one with Akutō Bita just before she is killed; which is similar imagery to Shichika actually being a sword.
As one of the only exceptions in the show, she actually succeeds in her mission – sort of. She wants to be killed by Shichika, but her immense strength proves too much for him. In the end, Togame creates the perfect environment in which Shichika can kill her. Of course, when Shichika does kill her he doesn’t even consider it a win because it was basically a trick. He feels as though he failed at killing her, which wasn’t exactly Nanami’s goal. She wanted to be killed by her brother because she wanted validation that she wasn’t the only monster. Her failure was also her greatest feat, becoming the most powerful person in Japan. For Shichika, this means several things. First and foremost, it is a continuation of Shichika’s failures that begin after he becomes “Japan’s Strongest Swordsman”. Secondly, it is one of the first looks that both the viewer and Togame get at the truly human side of Shichika. After Nanami is “beaten”, yet still alive and begging for death, she threatens Togame. Shichika is bound as Togame’s sword to protect her, but what we get a glimpse of is not him following those orders. Nanami also cuts off Togame’s hair which is hugely symbolic for a number of reasons:
- NisiOisiN frequently uses haircuts to symbolize transformation of a character.
- In feudal Japan, women cutting their hair indicated a life-changing even in most cases. Cutting another’s hair was a serious insult.
- Togame’s long hair (coupled with her eye) symbolized a snake – this is especially evident in her death scene – which represented her burden of revenge and all that it entailed.
- Shichika’s favorite physical feature of Togame was her hair.
Those last two bullet points are especially important. Shichika goes apeshit after Togame’s hair is cut and Togame realizes this. He is not following orders, he is killing his own sister for harming someone that he truly loves. I believe this is the precise moment that Togame falls in love with Shichika, and none of it would have happened without Nanami. On top of falling in love, her burden of revenge is temporarily lifted; from episode 8 to 11 Togame is living happily with the man she loves. When she is dying and reveals her plan of vengeance, that burden returns (symbolized by the snake).
So, considering her fake success as a contrast to Shichika, Nanami’s failure to validate herself as something besides a monster contribute’s two things to the ending theme:
- You cannot change who you are.
- The transformation of Togame, effectively causing her to fail as well.
Togame and Shichika
Episode 4, where Shichika defeats Sabi Hakuhei, Japan’s strongest swordsman, is actually his last victory. Every single battle after this is either a battle that Shichika considers he lost at or simply that it didn’t feel like a success. One-third of the way through the show marks the end of the main character’s success. This seems to be a subtle way of getting the viewer used to defeat. It is a common anime trope for the heroes to “power up” and get better. Shichika never experiences this; he bottoms out partway through the first half. This is something that Togame seemed to recognize and attempt to remedy by giving Shichika strategies and keeping his morale up as best she could.Transforming Shichika from sword to human was Togame’s greatest failure. From the very beginning, she had devious plans. Her death scene in episode 12 is a pivotal point for most viewers, as it should be. Togame makes it clear to Shichika that she was simply using him in order to get revenge on the Shogunate for killing her father, and that she planned to kill him when it was complete in spite of her true love for him. These words were all true, indicated by her scheming eye and the snake symbolism returning her burden to her. This is a twist that, to many, seems rather unnecessary. Her death and reveal of her true intentions are the final piece in transforming Shichika from a sword into a human. Her dying order is for him to forget her and move on. Now that he had become human, he could live a normal life and enjoy it. Shichika directly violates this order as soon as she dies and storms the shogun’s castle, keeping her hair tied to his belt. He does this in spite of her plans to kill him, that she seriously would have done. His love, his humanity in that instant, is what made him transform from sword to human. Ironically, his transformation into a human is shown by him becoming the Completed Deviant Blade. I like to think of this as another parallel to the story. The story wraps up and unfolds simultaneously, right as Shichika transforms from sword to human by exhibiting his use as a sword.
Shichika enters the castle, wishing for death. Big surprise, he fails at that. He destroys all 12 blades and their users. He reaches the shogun and kills him while shouting “Cheerio”. Togame’s dying wish was to spread “Cheerio”, and this futile attempt accurately displays his desperation in the face of failure. Right after this scene, we see that Shichika is living on being supported by Hitei. Shichika is most definitely happy about his experience and becoming human. After all, that is what Katanagatari is about: Shichika’s journey. It was never his or Togame’s intention to give him humanity; it was a byproduct of their experiences together. In lieu of their failures, Shichika comes out ahead. The journey was worth it, much like the story was worth it. Neither accomplished much of anything but they both were worth every moment.
It should be fairly obvious that there is a large web of failure at play. Katanagatari is a lesson in storytelling. Even though the story ended in miserable failure for all involved, it was still a story very much worth telling.