A Heavy Burden
Many superheroes can trace their origin to a defining tragedy. This is not necessarily the moment the gained their powers or began fighting crime, but rather the critical moment that set them on their life’s path. The obvious example, of course, is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which began the years of training and dedication that would forge their son Bruce into Batman. Likewise, the death of Hal Jordan’s father or Barry Allen’s mother, or the genocide of the Martian people, were all defining tragedies that helped make Green Lantern, Flash, and Martian Manhunter into the heroes they now are, respectively. Even wounds that do not run deep, such as the destruction of Krypton for Superman, are carried by these heroes. It is a kind of emotional baggage that helps to focus and define them, providing motivation and context for the roles they have taken up in society.
But for Tatsu Yamashiro, also known as the sword-wielding superhero Katana, the emotional and psychological weight that she carries is something else entirely.
From an early age, Tatsu was encouraged to pursue her passion for the martial arts. She dedicated herself to training in the various forms of armed and unarmed combat native to Japan, as well as adopting aspects of the belief systems and philosophy of the ancient samurai tradition including honour and duty. But her interest and passion for martial arts didn’t play a major role in her life until adulthood, when her husband Maseo as well as her children were murdered by her brother-in-law, a member of the Yakuza named Takeo who was jealous of Tatsu’s love. Engaging Takeo herself, Tatsu disarmed him of the katana that killed her husband, though she was unable to save her children from the collateral damage of their fight: a fire which consumed their home.
Following this tragedy, Tatsu rededicated herself to her training, fully immersing herself in the ways of the samurai, especially with regard to combat. Her training complete, she took on the masked identity of Katana and set out to find Takeo and exact her revenge. While pursuing her own mission, she would cross paths with other heroes who would later come together as charter members of the Outsiders, a super-team assembled by Batman. It was her membership in the Outsiders that would help assuage her rage and single-minded desire for revenge, but she never stopped carrying the baggage of her personal tragedy.
In fact, she carries that tragedy in a very literal sense.
The katana she wields – the very same one that Takeo used to murder her husband; the same one that became her heroic namesake – is actually an ancient mystical weapon known as the Soultaker Sword. In addition to being nearly indestructible and capable of cutting through most materials, the Soultaker’s most notable feature is that it contains the souls of all who are killed by its steel. The sword’s wielder is able to connect and communicate with the souls trapped inside, tapping into their knowledge and skill to augment her own. Additionally, the wielder can perform a particular ritual whereby they are able to give the souls within the sword temporary corporeal forms, commanding them to act on the wielder’s behalf.
Since Takeo used the Soultaker to kill her husband, Katana is able to communicate with her lost love, literally carrying him by her side into every battle. The Soultaker Sword is a literal manifestation of the tragic baggage carried by all superheroes, but specifically that which is borne by Katana herself. It is woven into the very core of her identity as a superhero – Maseo was killed by the sword that she would take up in order to get revenge. She named herself for the weapon that symbolizes the act of violent aggression that killed her family.
Even beyond that particular, defining tragedy, the Soultaker Sword represents a sort of emotional and psychological trauma faced by a specific type of hero: those who kill. The phenomenon of heroes killing is not foreign to the DC Universe; several heroes have, at one time or another, opted to take the life of a villain. Some, like Green Arrow and Wonder Woman, try to steer clear of the act, but in extreme situations reserve the right to end a villain’s life – the former killed Prometheus after he destroyed Star City and killed Roy Harper’s daughter, Lian; the latter, for example, killed Maxwell Lord in order to release Superman from his telepathic control. Many other heroes, including Katana, kill villains far more regularly, or at least are far more open to the idea. But regardless of the frequency or context, and certainly regardless of the morality, what is clear is that the mythology of the DC Universe places an extreme weight on the act of killing; it affects the heroes who do it emotionally and psychologically, or at the very least it affects their relationships with heroes who refuse to kill.
In this way, the Soultaker Sword had a much broader symbolic resonance. In addition to her husband, the sword contains the souls of every person it has ever killed. It is an artifact which holds the collective psychological weight of thousands of killings, making it an incredibly powerful piece of the mythology. It is a weapon designed to kill – to think anything else of a katana would be naïve – so by being the weapon of choice and namesake of a hero implies that there is a mythological acknowledgement of killing as an option in the course of justice. But by housing the souls of the dead, it is also a literal manifestation of one of the mythology’s central tenets: killing comes at a price. That doesn’t mean that every hero who kills goes completely off the psychological deep end as did Green Arrow, or that they sacrifice part of their humanity as seemed to be the case with the Question, but whatever form that price takes, it is there.
The mythologies of Katana and the Soultaker Sword are completely intertwined, and though they have a very obvious symbolic importance with regard to killing, they also more broadly represent one of the universal truths of superheroes, and of life in general. Every decision made or action taken (including making no decision or taking no action) has a consequence, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we carry those consequences within us. For Katana, who was molded by tragedy, wielding the Soultaker is a commitment to never let go of the past, as well as a reminder of all that she has done in order to avenge it.