Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu Complete Collection (Cert 15)
2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 299 minutes approx.
In Japanese folklore is a belief that everyday objects, tools, and weapons can acquire the spirit of a living being after they have died, known as tsukumogami. This the central premise behind Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu but in reverse – the spirits of historical blades are reincarnated as people.
The year is 1863 and Japan is bifurcated between pro-and anti-Shogunate factions as per the history books, yet a malevolent presence known as the Time Retrograde Army seeks to change the course of history by sending its monstrous warriors back to the Bakumatsu period of feudal Japan to alter the future through violence and destruction.
By way of preventing this from happening, spirits from legendary weapons have been given human forms and are sent through time prior to the arrival of the Time Retrograde Army in order to foil their plans. These Sword Warriors can interact with people in a completely normal fashion without raising suspicion the only rule being they mustn’t ever come into contact with their previous owners.
Fans of the classic series Bleach will recall a filler arc entitled The Zanpaktou Rebellion, in which the mystical spirits that dwelled within the swords manifesting when bankai was activated came to life and turned on their masters. As an outlandish fantasy, this worked within the diegesis of Bleach – in a historically based samurai yarn however, it is a bit of stretch.
With its origins in a card browser video game, Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu assumes we are familiar with the game, thus opts not to explain the backstory to this fantastic idea of weaponry coming to life. We learn a wizard-like being named Saniwa is responsible for extracting the spirits of blades once wielded by legendary figures to keep the timelines intact but that is all we get.
Confounding matters further, the motives of the Time Retrograde Army for changing history are never revealed either, nor is there any discussion of a higher power or supreme overload calling the shots. These skeletal beasties simply appear in 19th century Japan at the same time a major event is due to place and try to disrupt it. Apparently, the audience doesn’t need to know why and none of the Sword Warriors bothers to ask either.
In fact, the first episode begins in medias res with central duo Izuminokami Kanesada and Horikawa Kunihiro clashing with a squad of supernatural invaders and doing a grand job of it with just the two of them. Kanesada – Kane for short – is the veteran of the two, once the sword of Shinsengumi vice-commander Toshizo Hijikata, as was Kunihiro, who is on his first ever mission.
The next job Saniwa has for the duo is too big for the pair of them so he recruits a few more Sword Warriors to help out – Tonbokiri, Yagen Toushirou, Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki, and Tsurumaru Kuninaga – who comprise the second unit of the Sword Warriors. Even though the first unit have their own two-episode mission later on, nothing is shared as to why the second unit are the focus if there is a superior rank above them.
Unfortunately this is a recurring trend with the series and likely to the biggest turn off for viewers. It’s one thing to ask an audience to suspend their disbelief and invest in your story but at least give them a reason to do so. Whether this is a continuation of the original video game’s lack of exposition or simply lazy writing on the part of the anime creators I can’t say but this is bad form even for a game adaptation.
Attempts are made to flesh out the characters and make them more dynamic beyond being the huge beefcakes or effete duellists they are, such as Kane’s objection to gun wielding Yoshiyuki joining the team but – you guessed it – this grudge is never explored. Yagen and Kunihiro are practically twins save for the former’s ludicrously tiny shorts which give him an air of androgyny about him.
Saniwa might be the one overseeing everything but he seems to have limited power, always ducking out of the missions early, unless his power is the reason they Sword Warriors exist – again nothing of his background is disclosed. To act as his messengers, Saniwa has a group of magical foxes support each unit, capable of summoning virtual reality versions of Wikipedia and locating the enemy. Guiding our heroes is Konnosuke.
Without explaining what the Time Retrograde Army hopes to achieve by altering history, very little appears to be at stake from their actions. Then, there are the usual paradoxes that come with time travel that only raise more questions we know won’t be answered. For instance – what does it matter if a warrior meets his master? He won’t know this chap is the manifestation of his sword?
And how can they exists in the same timeline anyway? And if the Time Retrograde Army knows to send more soldiers because of the Sword Warriors interference, why don’t they simply arrive earlier and prevent the event from being planned instead? Presumably, we’re not suppose to give too much thought to such trivial matters like logic, and whilst this is annoying, some of the stories do hold up as oddly compelling.
Since not everything is vexingly bad, let’s instead focus on something more positive. The animation is courtesy of Ufotable and is pretty much worth the price of admission alone, it is that astounding. The seamless blend of photorealistic CGI and 2D results in some truly stunning moments, personal highlights being a nighttime sea battle and the fiery finale.
However, the gorgeous imagery may not be enough to save Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu for some, let alone make it easy to recommend. It has its moments, mostly when focusing on the action, but the frustration of not knowing why any of this is happening is a huge hurdle to overcome, leaving us with another fantasy series failing to meets its obvious potential.
English Language 2.0 DTS HD-MA
Japanese Language 2.0 DTS HD-MA
Disc 2 only:
Clean Opening Animations
Clean Closing Animations
Rating – ***
Man In Black