chaostangent

Anime of the decade: #5

Kara no Kyoukai

Kara no Kyoukai is, without hyperbole, one of the most ambitious and intelligent series, movie or otherwise, to come out in the past ten years. As the progenitor of the Type-Moon dynasty it is afforded the means to avoid the overbearing franchise overload that can scare away fresh viewers. It presents a world precariously balanced between a chaotic realm of magic and spirits, and the more mundane world of humanity. Instead of falling prey to the common fantasy trap of treating the setting as the story, a stunning selection of characters is carved out who are not attempting to simply survive but trying to thrive in the ordinary world of emotions and ego. Bolstering this cast are some elegantly malevolent antagonists: from the physically tortured to the mentally deranged, rarely has there been as solid a set of evildoers in one series.

they are painted in shades of grey: whether twisted by magicks or a natural predisposition
Following the story of Mikiya Kokuto as he leaves high school, he is immersed in the unseen world through his affection for the stoic Shiki Ryougi who suffers a near fatal accident which causes a dormant power within her to awaken. Araya Souren, a mage of immense skill, meanwhile wishes to reach the Spiral of Origin, Akasha, the source of all knowledge and a kind of holy grail for those seeking knowledge; to do this however and to avoid the universe's natural defences against this sort of intrusion, he constructs an elaborate plan to use Shiki's now awakened power: the mystic eyes of death perception. Summoning aggressors to temper and hone Shiki, his quest has severe ramifications and the aftermath spills out long after he is assumed defeated.

Approaching Kara no Kyoukai requires a clear mind - difficult to achieve if one has been burned by any other Type-Moon creation: Tsukihime and Fate/Stay Night are obvious candidates. Whereas they hold a distinct pretentiousness, Kara no Kyoukai transforms that into austerity by exploring darker emotional veins: envy, pride, revenge and bloodlust. It does however retain an arrogant demeanour by demanding complete attention and a quick uptake to fully grasp the minutiae of the narrative without being left adrift in a wash of jargon and motives. This attitude is not helped by the chronologically jumbled order which results in earlier instalments coming across as needlessly obtuse; characters flit between ages and personalities with a frequency that will skim off all but the most determined of audiences.

There are rewards to be had though, and taking the time to absorb and understand each piece of the larger whole reveals a sublimely realised world thick with atmosphere and rich in an imagination, one so excellently poised that it has spawned countless progeny that could frankly never hope to match the breadth of work on display here. The symbolism runs deep from the more blatant mentions of ideas like the Taijitu to more subtle concepts such as the juxtaposition between the male persona SHIKI and the staunchly female Shiki. None of this however is necessary to fully appreciate the fractious love story between Shiki and Mikiya which underpins the wider narrative. More than just classical intimacy is an affection that begins as one sided but gradually unfurls and develops between the two, an understanding born out of mutual respect and only possible after the two have squared away the reasons they feel the way they do about each other.

Without the antagonists though, Kara no Kyoukai wouldn't be half the series it is. The three films opt for more sympathetic opponents who are evil through misguidance rather than deliberate malfeasance. The final four movies however introduce true evil, running the gamut from precise and calm malevolence to abject insanity to voracious sadism. The exquisite plot prevents them from being heinous beyond reproach and they are painted in shades of grey: whether twisted by magicks or a natural predisposition they are personal to the protagonists and are either echoes of their past or portents of their future and serve as counterparts to the characters rather than plain reflections. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that they trigger the chemistry between all the characters; whether it is the playful banter between Mikiya and the enigmatic Toko or the rivalry of Shiki and Azaka, the script is gracefully minimal but errs on the side of verbosity rather than art-house silence.

Tangibly, there is an abundance of reasons to fall in love with the series. From the opening seconds it is unspeakably beautiful; a sharp set directorial eyes infuse each instalment and the budgetary freedom to move away from humdrum talking-heads lets the viewpoint glide with dramatic precision. Animation, produced by the fickle ufotable, is universally sublime giving otherwise flat character designs presence and fluidity that places it in a pantheon of top tier production studios. Colour grading adds an ethereal layer to the aesthetics and skilfully shifts the tone of each scene, highlighting when necessary or skilfully portraying mood. Topping all of this off is a score by Yuki Kajiura that starts hauntingly familiar to her previous works but progressively expands in grandeur until the it is lush and supremely confident. Kalafina, Kajiura's most recent project after FictionJunction, has an ephemeral quality to their voices which sharpens each scene and bookends each film with surprisingly memorable melodies.

Kara no Kyoukai is one of the most starkly beautiful and boundlessly impressive series of the past ten years. It deftly explores adult themes which question the philosophy of base emotions and binds this with a fertile setting that is easy to lose oneself in. Every aspect, be it an off-hand comment by a character to the order of the films, is ripe with meaning and repays analysation with a supremely satisfying grasp of a setting with much to offer and always more to research. For those with the will to persevere beyond the sporadically incomprehensible first films and a stomach strong enough to swallow the sometimes grotesque acts perpetrated, the series can be called a masterpiece; for everyone else its pretension and opaque nature will keep it from the pinnacle of greatness.

Vitals

First aired: 01 December 2007
Fin­ished air­ing: 08 August 2009
Epis­odes: 7
Avail­ab­il­ity: DVD — CDJapan, PlayAsia
Ref­er­ences: MyAnimeL­ist, Wiki­pe­dia, AniDB, Anime News Network, Type-Moon Wiki, BakaTsuki, Fuyuki
Previously on chaostangent: Overlooking View, Murder Speculation (Part One), Remaining Sense of Pain, The Hollow, Paradox Spiral, Oblivion Recorder, Murder Speculation (Part Two)

Screenshots

Responses to “Anime of the decade: #5”

  1. Martin

    I've been fortunate enough to see some really outstanding films and series over the years that I'm almost reluctant to call 'anime', purely on the grounds that they can stand alongside my favourite live-action counterparts (e.g. the back catalogue of Oshii, Shinkai and Kon). It doesn't happen very often but when it does...it feels like this.

    I've enjoyed both the Tsukihime and F/S N visual novels (and enjoyed the TV adaptations to varying degrees) but KnK differs for me in being a very personal story. The Nasu staples of philosophy, morality, bloodthirty action and the supernatural are all here but it's as much to do with personal issues and a very strange yet heartfelt romance as it is to do with magical battles and murder-mysteries. Maybe that's because it's adaptated from a series of in-print novels rather than a VN but anyway...

    The writing is superb, which is amazing considering how early it is in Nasu's CV, but the production values don't hurt. It looks gorgeous and immersive but the soundtrack is stellar - it exceeds everything Kajiura's done so far (Cosette included). So much love for Kalafina!

    In any case, you've done an excellent write-up for a series that I found really difficult to write about at points. It's quickly become one of my all-time favourites so I can't judge it objectively any more!

    Reply to Martin

  2. chaostangent

    I'm not a huge Type-Moon fan, and while I found the Tsukihime anime enjoyable enough, Fate/Stay Night never hooked me as it did some people. KnK though, as is obvious, flicked all the right switches and was a very late addition to my Anime of the Decade feature.

    This certainly wasn't an easy article to write, in some respects I'd said a lot of what I wanted to with my individual movie coverage and speaking about the series as a whole was difficult without making generalisations or delving into areas I'd already explored. In a way, I felt KnK deserved the effort because of its quality.

    I certainly agree re: Yuki Kajiura, she's come a long way since Noir and .hack//sign and even comparing the first film's score to the last is tremendously revealing.

    Reply to chaostangent

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