The danger with a seven movie project such as Kara no Kyoukai is that certain entries will be little more than stop-gaps meant to prime for forthcoming releases. This could be no more worrying than with a title suffixed "Part One", thoughts of incomplete plots and abrupt conclusions abound. The series has somewhat mitigated this by chronologically shuffling the releases; whereas the first movie was keen to eschew understanding for suspense and action, the second favours a sedate but no less gripping narrative that starts at the very beginning of Shiki and Mikiya's relationship.
Meeting by chance on a snowy evening, Mikiya - bespectacled and easy going teenager - strikes up an uneasy friendship with Shiki - a kimono-wearing misanthrope - which gradually leads to an infatuation with her. Grisly murders meanwhile are happening around town with bodies gruesomely disfigured or dissected and as the number increases, evidence points to Shiki who frequently roams the solemn town in the night time hours. Mikiya's cousin Daisuke is investigating the murders which indirectly leads to Mikiya becoming mixed up in them. Events escalate and a confrontation between Shiki and Mikiya takes a deadly turn that has long term consequences.
The burgeoning relationship between Shiki and Mikiya is the driving force behind the second movie; the murders instigate many of the steps forward the two make but fundamentally this is an exploration about how they became intertwined and giving context to how Shiki acts towards the torpid Mikiya in the first movie. The interactions between the two are made more complex by her dual personality SHIKI, a more capricious and tactile persona whose motives, but not origins, are explained. The dynamic between the pair is brilliantly portrayed with Mikiya able to coax out emotions Shiki tries hard to repress as well as acting as a foil to her more bleak and abrasive mannerisms. Far more is left to be investigated between the two and with the genesis of their relationship so intriguing, promises of more of the same is enticing.
Where the first part of Murder Speculation excels is that it does not forget the three-act structure that works so well with movies. Even with its status as the chronological opening to a large and complex universe and an involved storyline, it still manages to build to a satisfying and worthy finale. Throughout there is an increasing atmosphere of expectation and tenseness until it finally breaks with a mad dash through a rainy, moonlit bamboo forest; the conclusion may not be to everyone's taste, the sense of completeness however as the credits roll is satisfying. Easier though is to raise issue with the solemn opening two-thirds which in contrast to the frenetic climax is characterised by slow panning shots of breathtaking scenes and slow paced dialogue.
Omitting details in this case offers greater reason to anticipate further instalments: none of the supernatural overtones that took the fore in the first movie are present and other unexplained elements such as how both Shiki and Mikiya become involved with the wholly absent Touko and what precisely happened to Shiki's well-to-do circumstances are posed. The possibility that these mysteries and much more will be revealed demonstrates Kara no Kyoukai's greatest strength: the breadth and intrigue of its world. Ignoring for now the deftly crafted atmosphere, the characters all occupy a space in the penumbra of supernatural fantasy and routine reality, without the first film this could be written off as a staunchly adult take on high-school romance, in context though it becomes akin to the first steps of unfolding an intricate piece of origami to carefully reveal the folds and lines within.
Interspersed between the hauntingly delicate scenery, so vividly realised by ufotable, are some truly grotesque depictions of murder and post-mortem body modifications. Animated with the same care and attention given to bamboo forests or winter roads, the gore isn't out of place but does its job of shocking, even the most stoic of viewers will find parts hard to watch. At first relegated to quick flashes, as the murders increase so too does the brutality with descriptions of dismemberment and perverse mutilations. This could be enough to turn off the more casual audience but never is it used wantonly, bereft of malice or sadism this is far from schlock horror.
Kara no Kyoukai: Murder Speculation (Part One) is a seminal entry in the series. Superbly produced with flawless visuals and animation that is judiciously used and can at times put more prolific studios to shame. Characters are imbued with life by experienced and poised voice actors whose performances border on the sublime, combined with another astonishing soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura and a new pair of songs by Kalafina bookending the film, there is aural pleasure throughout. More than just needless spectacle though, the movie continues to explore the breathtaking world created by the Type-Moon progenitors and composes itself with subtlety, poignancy and grace.
The Kara no Kyoukai films are benchmarks of animated brilliance, quality of this magnitude in all aspects is a rare and precious thing, it is difficult to believe there are five more movies still to come. The first part of Murder Speculation may feel like the deep breath before the gunshot, loaded with suspense and anticipation, but it excels on all counts which makes the expectancy of the next film all the greater.