I tend to let it be well known that I have a serious love of books. I surround myself with them in my daily life. Books I’ve read, books I mean to read, books I plan to read again… Piles of books stacked on shelves and in odd little corners all in an order that makes perfect sense to me and me alone. I will seldom be found without a couple of books in the bag I’m carrying and certainly wouldn’t travel without the lighter e-reader version of a library.
So with that context, when I say that Katanagatari 1, a compilation of the first three stories of Sword Tale, is an extraordinary book, I do not say that lightly. I say it with love and admiration as right from when I first opened the package this one arrived in and felt the cover and admired the art work, that there is something very special about this book.
Part of that may be it is a rare case where I have a hardback version of a book, if only because there was no paperback version and I was keen enough to read this story that I did splurge a little on my usual book budget (a decision I do not regret in the slightest). However, unlike many hardcover books with their plain cover and then floppy book jacket that gets in the way while reading until you simply discard it in irritation, this one has the art beautifully attached to the actual cover with no flappy extras to interfere with the texture and feeling of the book or with trying to read it.
Now, full disclosure, I was already in love with the narrative here because the anime is something of an extraordinary watch with its 12 episodes of 40 minutes and quite unique art style. So I went in to this one knowing the basic outline of the story and what to expect. Still, I feel that whether you go in knowing or not nothing can diminish the pure joy of reading this book.
The care gone in to the book’s presentation only continues on the inside. The fold out art work is stunning, a table of contents given in English, and then a page which shows the first book’s original content’s page (this version of the book contains the first three ‘books’ of the 12 book story).
Throughout the book are footnotes which provide reference to the original kanji used and how it has been translated which helps at times to make sense of puns or jokes the characters are making or just adds insight into what the particular name of a place or attack might mean. These don’t need to be read in order to follow the story but they add enough in that I found myself regularly going back to read them if I’d gotten caught up in an action scene and skipped them for a page or two. While unnecessary, they just add a little something more to the story and I really appreciated them.
Peppered throughout the books are liberally illustrations with double page spreads showing characters, action sequences or new settings. Each consistently demonstrating the unique art style that the anime certainly emulated and they are striking images that are well worth spending some time just taking in.
At the ends of chapters and in the transitions between books there is a character note page that usually outlines information about the ninja or enemy faced in the book and again this isn’t necessary information but it just adds a little extra.
All and all, Katanagatari has gone all out with worthwhile extras.
But, what about the writing and the story itself given this is a book review?
I’m pleased to say that the writing style is nothing short of lyrical. You flow from one event to the next with dialogue keeping the pace swift in places or bringing it up short in others. Enough description is given as is needed to sketch the scenes without belabouring the points. Action is tightly written and again enough description given that you know what is going on, and if they happen to linger over explanations of particular attacks there is usually some purpose behind it.
Overall though, the tone of the writing is highly entertaining. While I know this version is a translated work and some of the author’s original style probably got strained out in the process, there’s a genuine love of language and words that comes through with the writing style that makes it pleasant to read. There’s also a fierce desire to not take the situations overly seriously as the characters lurch from one scenario to another.
Togame, the Schemer, and Shichikia, her sword, are a wonderful duo who bounce off one another in personality and dialogue in a way that is fun to read. The zany nature of the ninjas introduces provide enough in the way of sensationalism without crossing over into sheer ridiculous (though at times it is a fine line). There’s some tongue in cheek and self-aware comments from the narration but none so persistent that it becomes grating, and you just can’t help but feel that the author knew exactly what they were doing and where the lines were that would push it from amusing to silly, self-aware to smug and kept firmly on the side of enjoyable without sacrificing individuality in the process.
Did I mention I really loved reading this?
While the story across each of the three books is formulaic, enough elements are differentiated that it doesn’t feel like a rinse and repeat effort and there is method in the repetition. The scenario of collecting the twelve swords automatically sets up a quest of the book situation where one sword becomes the target of the hunt and Shichika and Togame need to deal with whoever stands between them and the sword. However, in just these three books we travel from Shichika’s home island to a desert to a shrine and in each place they face off against a different kind of enemy with a different reason for holding firmly to the sword.
I honestly couldn’t say I was dissatisfied with anything in regards to reading this story. Except of course where book 2 is not yet released so I’m now waiting for the next three stories so that I can continue the journey.