Katsugeki Touken Ranbu, based on the Japanese online card battling game Touken Ranbu, promises iconic pre-modern historical action drama featuring a cast of bishi-bishi boys crossed with…. sci-fi? Hmmmm…
Katsugeki Touken Ranbu focuses on the Tsukumogami, a collective of warriors from the 24th century who are the reincarnated spirits of former weapons from pre-modern times by their master, Saniwa. Izuminokami and Horikawa make up the main focus of the story, the two of them being the spirits of the swords of Shinsengumi vice-commander Toshizo Hijikata. As Tsukumogami, it is up to the team to go back in time to stop the Time Retrograde Army, a malicious group (also from the 24th century) who are travelling back in time to change the flow of history for… reasons. While Izuminokami and Horikawa are the clear centre for the story, as the series goes on we see more team members join what becomes the Second Unit, which falls under Izuminokami’s stewardship. The series commences with a seemingly straight-forward mission that produces a series of ripples throughout time, necessitating a complex journey through this small window of time, culminating in the historic Battle for Hakodate in 1869.
Let’s be perfectly honest about Katsugeki Touken Ranbu – the whole premise is insane anime hijinks. The spirit of old swords brought to life in a human form, robotic kawaii fox super computers, mindless ragey demon spirits travelling back in time to troll history and throwing all this into a pre-modern Japan setting should be a hyperbolic mess. We discover no motivation or reasoning behind the Time Retrograde Army and very little exposition about the whole time travel aspect of the series or the Citadel and what that means in the far-flung future. All the bishi swordsmen all fall into different tropes, and we cross a massive gap of narrative at the tail end of the series. This should be a reasonably easy series to review and rate with a “meh”, and I think critically it’s stacked with all sorts of plot holes.
But subjectively it’s not so straightforward. Despite the familiarity with the cast’s personalities, I found the whole thing to be incredibly engaging. The setting is in a really interesting period in Japan’s history and should make for familiar ground for fans of other historical dramas set around Japan’s social and political revolution that culminated around the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Even the time travel element, which is crazy sci-fi/magic, made for a great ride.
This last point hints at why Katsugeki Touken Ranbu succeeds to be so engaging and entertaining. The pace is relentless and the cast do a solid job at maintaining the flow without filling in too many blanks to remind you of the lack of depth. This is enhanced through the amazing production values – an incredible amount of polish has gone into the choreography, detail, animation, music and general direction. Even the use of CG for many effects scenes, something that often annoys me, seemed in tune with the aesthetic with the series. Perhaps it was the fact that this one genuinely surprised me that I’ve come away so impressed – the premise is a bit silly and being based on an online card game as the source material meant I entered this one without wild expectations, but regardless – it was a fun ride.
For the local release Madman has kept things minimal but functional for Katsugeki Touken Ranbu. We have the full series across 2 Blu-Ray discs, the release is bilingual if you’re so inclined (I only watched it in Japanese) and it includes all the episode previews as a separate extra feature. This last bit was a bit confusing as I would have assumed these should have been stuck between episodes, but I’m happy they’re in there – each preview skit is a simulation of visual novel tropes and takes itself a little less seriously than the mainline plot.
Katsugeki Touken Ranbu is a crazy assault on your eyes, ears and sense of expectations. True it’s a little pulpy, but the amazing production values and interesting premise made for surprisingly engaging viewing. Very highly recommended if samurai drama tickles you’re fancy, especially if you can work through the odd sci-fi premise.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.