Kara No Kyoukai Light Novel Review Essay


Title: Kara No Kyoukai

First Aired: December 1st, 2007

Studio: Ufotable

Director: Multiple

Rating: 7.0/10

The anime adaptation of Kinoko Nasu’s light novel, Kara No Kyoukai (Boundary of Emptiness or alternatively, Garden of Sinners), demands in its audience some of the rarest, most precious of qualities – a keen eye, a sharp mind and an unwavering attention to detail. Split into seven movie length instalments, Kara No Kyoukai follows the story of Ryougi Shiki, a strange, aloof young woman whose eyes can perceive the ‘death’ of the objects she sees; and Kokutou Mikiya, a kind young man who takes an interest in her. It is a lean, almost minimalistic story in some ways; the cast of characters is fairly small story’s scope doesn’t extend too far beyond the characters themselves. Within these parameters, however, there is plenty of depth and vibrancy – whether in the richness of the world itself or the various characters’ numerous internal conflicts. Appreciating these things is no mean feat, however as Kara No Kyoukai doesn’t exactly hold the audience’s hands as it tells its story but instead relies on the audience to observe and understand. Passive viewers shouldn’t despair too much though; animation studio Ufotable’s visuals are characteristically gorgeous and even if you miss out on the story and character development, the action and animations ought to be entertaining enough to pull most casuals viewers through.

The division of Kara No Kyoukai into seven parts (plus some additional bits that offer closure and context) gives the series an episodic feel. Most of the story’s strengths and weakness are a direct result of this division. On one hand, each episode tells its own self-contained story, complete with introduction, complication, climax and conclusion and as a result, each movie feels like an acceptably entertaining and satisfying, self-sufficient entity. Furthermore, given that the series was written as several different stories, the division into different movies is logical and true to the original work. On the other hand though, the trouble with the division is that, beyond the shared cast of characters, there isn’t enough to connect the individual episodes together and piece them into a larger story. There is no overarching storyline that ties the seven movies together; instead, the movies have connections to each other – the first, third and fifth movies form an arc of sorts while the second and seventh movies connect very well as well. Arguably, there isn’t exactly a central villain to tie the movies together either, though there is a strong case to be made for that being Araya Souren’s role. It doesn’t help that the cohesion of the series that the stories are told out of order. In some series, the non-linearity creates mystery and tension that is essential to the series’ central conflict or sometimes the ordering can even help make a story more coherent than a chronological telling but in the case of Kara No Kyoukai, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for the ordering apart from deliberately making the story a little more challenging to digest. The disorientation the non-linear chronology creates is exacerbated by having a new director for each instalment. Depending on your familiarity with the medium, the differences can be either unobtrusively noticeable or utterly jarring. That there are differences though, is undeniable and these changes affect the tone, the pacing and overall feel of each movie. That said however, there really isn’t that much to complain about regarding the rotating directors since while each director naturally has a different approach, the quality of the final product never really wavers all that much.

If there is any sort of overarching story to Kara No Kyoukai, it is probably carried by the various themes that connect the movies. There are some works of fiction that rely to power of the narrative to carry the story through to the finish line while others which rely on character development or our engagement with the setting. Kara No Kyoukai doesn’t rely on any one of those devices but rather pushes through with a mixture of all three. Far from diluting the effect, it ends up reinforcing the things that the story (ostensibly a murder mystery), the characters and the setting (dark, violent, urban) have in common. The series’ themes include isolation, hopelessness and internal struggle. Each of these three themes is propagated through different aspects of the story. Isolation, for example, is an idea that appears to be suggested again and again in the series’ setting – the city that characters reside in is a grim one and very often, especially in the scenes at night, the streets appear hauntingly empty and give the story’s horror aspirations a good amount of mileage. The notion of internal struggle and fighting against ourselves is one that is emphasized in the story (though there is certainly an argument to be made that the characters push it further), especially through Shiki’s struggle between what she thinks she is and what she wants to be. Lastly, hopelessness is something the characters embody, though in this case it isn’t our protagonists but rather the antagonists. Each of the movies’ villains seem filled with despair and more often than not, it is that despair that leads down the dark road and compels them to do the things they do. For a series that features such aesthetically pleasing action sequences, it is interesting then that all the heavy-lifting of conflict resolution actually occurs within the characters. Kara No Kyoukai can be very graphic at times but at the same time it is a highly introspective work – more often than not, by the time things have reached the stage where violence is inevitable, the conflict in question feels like it has already been resolved and the question becomes less of ‘can the good guys win’ and more of ‘how will they win’ or ‘what does their victory imply’. To some, that might come as a disappointment but the latter questions often leave more of an impact than the former.

The characters in Kara No Kyoukai are the series’ greatest assets but when they fail to deliver, the end result can be phenomenally lacklustre. Kara No Kyoukai gets a lot of mileage out of the characters’ badass credentials; a very large portion of the pure entertainment value of the series comes from watching Shiki effortless rip her opponents to shreds. Her character, from both a visual and developmental perspective is the best thing about the series but her supporting cast aren’t slouches either. Mikiya strays dangerously close to the line that separates plain and simple from boring and irrelevant but in the face of all the fantastic magical action going on around him all the time, his simplicity is charming. His boss, Aozaki Touko, is much livelier when she wants to be but chooses to spend more of her time lecturing the other two than actually doing anything spectacular. Yet, hers is the character with the most insight, the one who distils the essence of each movie for the audience. However, as innately watchable as this engrossing cast of characters is, at no point in the movie do they feel human and that makes them very difficult to relate to. Ironically enough, it is the villains, with their numerous mental issues that seem more sympathetic and understandable than the main characters. The trouble with all this is that there are sections of the series that rely on the audience’s attachment to the characters in order to work and if that attachment is insufficient, not just the scene but the entire movie can be negatively affected. The series’ final instalment is more character driven than any before it and while that shift in focus benefited the movie immensely, it would have worked even better had the characterization felt more consistent.

In the end though, it does feel like both Nasu and Ufotable missed the chance to create something truly memorable. The characters, the story, the dialogue, the setting; all of these things work fine and, from time to time, work very well yet there are too many flaws in each of them for Kara No Kyoukai to really rise above other stories with similar themes. Kara No Kyoukai has its strengths and on the merits of those alone, it is a series that is worth investing time and effort into but there is an inconsistency to it that pulls the series down – the series makes the audience invested in the destination but fails to make them care enough about the journey.

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Anime, Kara No Kyoukai, Reviews

anime, garden of sinners, kara no kyoukai, kinoku nasu, magic realism, murder speculation, type moon, ufotable

Introduction

When I first watched The Garden of Sinners (Kara no Kyoukai), I loved the animation and the soundtrack, but thought the themes and storytelling were an incoherent mess.

Yet I could not stop thinking about the movies. Something about the premise kept drawing me back. I thought there must have been something that I missed: some deep meaning to uncover, some symbolism to analyze, some character journey to unravel and prove The Garden of Sinners’s literary merit.

So I scoured the internet for analysis, but nothing satisfied me. Nothing I could find gave meaning to the story as a whole. Nothing made me care about it.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated by the show’s double title. The Japanese title, Kara no Kyoukai, translates to “the Boundary of Emptiness”, which is entirely different from the English title TheGarden of Sinners. The former seemed to evoke Eastern, Buddhist concepts of Emptiness, in contrast to the latter’s Western, Abrahamic religious imagery. As I organized my thoughts on the meaning of each word in the titles, I had my epiphany: The Garden of Sinners is a story of tragedies and struggles at both grand and personal levels, and these ideas are captured in the titles.

Mandatory spoiler warning: this piece assumes familiarity with the light novel or movie series, so spoilers will be unmarked.

Part I: Kara no Kyoukai (空の境界—the Boundary of Emptiness)

Kara (空—emptiness) uses the same Kanji as the Buddhist concept of Emptiness, so I thought it had a deep philosophical meaning. I was disappointed. In Buddhism, the idea of Emptiness has many interpretations depending on the school (see Wikipedia), while in Kara no Kyoukai it refers to the protagonist Shiki’s loneliness and loss of direction and identity. Although the author loves to remind us that it can also refer to Shiki’s third personality as “the Void from which Everything Originates”, that is only trivia from world-building—not what I’m interested in.

More compelling, however, is the word Kyoukai (境界—boundary). It represents a liminal state at the border between civilization and savagery, where many of the characters precariously balance. The antagonists of the individual movies all struggle at fringes of society: Fujou Kirie due to illness, Asagami Fujino due to her father and to the gang that abused her, and Shirazumi Lio due to his descent into madness following Shiki’s rejection. The protagonist, Ryougi Shiki, faces the same problem, and her story too is a struggle to remain within civilization. Born with a double personality whose primary instinct is murder, Shiki tries her best to suppress her alter ego, to at least appear harmless if not normal. Her insecurities become obvious when she begins to get close to her classmate Mikiya, as she wonders “what will he think when he finds out there’s another Shiki within me?”. Yet, when this alter ego is lost after a traffic accident, Shiki finds herself more than ever in a liminal state: although the other personality is gone, its murder drive remains, along with a newfound loss of memory and identity. As she wanders directionless in life, Shiki is tempted (hold that thought) by forces tugging her away from civilization—metaphorically by the antagonists who nourish her murder instincts, and literally by the spirits that try to possess her in movie 4.

But while the antagonists fail to regain their humanity (except Asagami who is forgiven—again, hold that thought), Shiki succeeds. Despite her lingering murder drive, her loneliness, her loss of direction and identity, she is able to hold on to her humanity thanks to Mikiya, the one friend who doesn’t mind her quirks and believes in her capacity for goodness. For anyone who has ever felt a loss of direction in life, Shiki’s journey from “the Boundary of Emptiness” is filled with relatable struggles, and makes a compelling narrative.

Part II: the Garden of Sinners

“Sinners” is fairly straightforward. For a tale so concerned with murder, “sinners” undoubtedly refers to the many murderers and would-be murderers in the story. But there’s more to explore. Closely tied to the concept of sin, at least in Christianity, is the concept of forgiveness. Let’s look at Asagami Fujino’s case. She appears in movie 3 as a telekinetic killer whose bloodthirst was awakened by a gang that abused her. After a series of murders that only further fuel her bloodlust, she is defeated by Shiki. Yet, Shiki spares her: an act of forgiveness for others. However, the real emotional payoff of Asagami’s arc is self-forgiveness. In an extra scene, we see Asagami having struggled through and overcome her guilt, and actually teaching self-forgiveness to a fellow classmate. For anyone who struggles with self-acceptance, this is a powerful message.

“The Garden” is harder to understand. The world of The Garden of Sinners is a maze of abandoned buildings and dark alleyways: hardly an idyllic Eden. Yet, this title makes sense if we consider it to refer to temptation and a tragic fall.

Who is the tempter, then? And who is the fallen angel? It is Araya Souren, the original tempter, the antagonist of the fifth movie who created all the other antagonists.

At first, Araya’s intentions are noble enough. Saddened by the meaningless deaths of a war-torn feudal Japan, he sets out searching for some sort of salvation for humankind. What follows is a tragic descent into immorality. Araya’s goals soon become twisted, from “finding salvation for humankind”, to “recording all of humankind’s deaths until the end of time, to find meaning in their lives”, to “seizing the power of the Origin of All Knowledge, and using it to achieve my goals”. Thus, he embarks on a god-defying mission to reach the Origin, by whatever means necessary. He builds an apartment complex, reminiscent of a Tower of Babel, and subtly manipulates its inhabitants to murder each other as he records their deaths. He tempts the other antagonists in their vulnerability at the fringes of society, and uses their fall from civilization (almost like an expulsion from paradise) to further his machinations*. Although Araya ultimately fails, his grand, impossible ideals, along with his tragic loss of humanity, render his story ultimately sympathetic.

Conclusion

Having mused over the titles, I think I’ve made my peace with The Garden of Sinners. The animation and soundtrack are still amazing, and the dialogue and storytelling remain a mess**. There’s nothing deep about the story either: it’s a straightforward tale of identity and self-acceptance, with a tragic story of good intentions gone wrong. Nevertheless, these themes and ideas were compelling, even if their execution was subpar. And even if the author never intended for the titles to be interpreted this way, that’s fine with me. Having mused over the titles, I’ve found my personal meaning in The Garden of Sinners, and that’s all I can ask for.

—————

*Araya’s plan is a long story of luring Shiki to him so that he can access the Origin through her. Details are beyond the scope of this analysis and can be easily found online.

**Details of my complaints about the storytelling are beyond the scope of this analysis. In short: Aozaki Touko spouting inane philosophy, the thematic purpose of the 6th movie and Azaka’s character, Kokutou Mikiya’s cringe-inducing dialogue and seeming perfection, among others.

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