Katsugeki TOUKEN RANBU – Mid Season Anime Review
Synopsis: The year is 1863, Japan is split between the pro-shogunate and anti-shogunate factions. In this chaotic time, the era of the swords is coming to a close. Horikawa Kunihiro has manifested as a Sword Warrior and is joined by Izuminokami Kanesada, a warrior who served under the same master as him. Sword Warriors are “Tsukumogami”, spirits and willpower that reside within a sword. These spirits are awakened by Saniwa to protect the world from the “Time Retrograde Army,” who were sent by historical revisionists from the future to alter history. (Official Crunchyroll Synopsis)
Mid Season (6 Episodes) Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Katsugeki Touken Ranbu remains one of the most eye-popping anime this season. Vivid colors, fast action, intense visuals, there’s no denying that Touken Ranbu’s manages to keep your eyes glued to the screen even when the show’s other aspects fail to do so.
While Touken Ranbu remains the pretty boy of the season, it lacks depth needed to sell its epic time traveling warfare story. I’m namely talking about the characters. Six episodes in and you’re not likely to find yourself particularly attached to anyone. The show spends little time delving into its heroes, offering only the briefest of character building scenes, many of which fail to be memorable and don’t go farther than a bare, surface level, understanding of who each of our anthropomorphized swords are.
This means when the action ramps up, and things take a turn for the worse, you don’t feel quite as enraptured as you should and even perhaps a bit distant from the events on screen. It’s the art and direction that keeps Touken Ranbu engaging during all this, but it’s still not enough to sell a real sense of compelling drama.
Part of the trouble is Touken Ranbu’s interest lies in bolstering its cast right from the get go. But the end of first episode we have four more characters flung at us, in addition to the two leads. From there three of those characters become mainstays. It’s not to say that Touken Ranbu couldn’t work with five main characters floating about, but the show mismanages what time it has, never giving us the character building segments required to truly bond with these five heroes.
In fact there seems little hope the series will ever stop to become more character centric, as with episode six we’ve expanded the scenario to include an even wider array of characters from the games. Kantai Collection had a similarly sized cast. The difference however, between these two sibling series, is that Kantai kept itself often grounded in character based events. It explored its characters more frequently than it did the epic navel warfare, making it easy to bond and grow to like its ever expansive cast. Here, Touken Ranbu is more focused on adapting the game’s epic narrative than allowing us to really dig deep into any of its pretty boy leads.
These deficiencies speak to the series other problem: It’s narrative woes. For one, Touken Ranbu feels a tad less approachable than Kantai Collection. Kantai never explicitly states its premise of anthropomorphized war world II ships turned cute young girls. But it also found a way to work around that concept without needing to spell it out. Touken Ranbu doesn’t quite manage the same feet. It’s method for alluding to the characters origins as having been ancient Japanese samurai swords is far less masterful. Characters will reference their former masters, or how they now have human bodies, but anyone watching this show without being aware of its origins is more likely to find such lines confusing rather than illuminating.
A bigger problem however is Touken Ranbu’s disinterest in getting too dark. Much like Kantai, Touken Ranbu toys with letting its characters experience failure and defeat. Kantai did so by allowing a death amongst the girls, and while the series never steered that way again, that singular death left a solid impact on the rest of the cast and their development. But much like it’s first episode hinted, Touken Ranbu is wary of allowing its characters to actually fail. So much so that events leading up to the mid season, events that resonate more so as an outright failure and loss, are walked back in the very next episode, with little consequences. This undoes what could’ve been some great tension building and fed into the epic narrative.
Katsugeki Touken Ranbu isn’t bad. It has shallow characters, and undermines its epic narrative, but makes up for that with stellar visuals and some generally appealing character designs. It just could be so much more, and as it is what it is, I can’t say its truly worth holding onto for the season.