Uh, I got nothing. Let’s just start this.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
This is one of those series where I don’t want to explain too much of the premise here, because it’s really better to just experience it for yourself, so I’m only going to lay out the bare basics. Kara no Kyoukai takes place in a city where a lot of weird, supernatural s**t happens. Our main characters, Ryougi Shiki, Kokutou Mikiya and Aozaki Touko, whether as the target of these supernatural happenings or as relative bystanders, are involved in events time and again, making use of their supernatural abilities (or lack thereof) to try and contain the issue.
Huh, that was really concise, but I like how that came out.
Let’s not tiptoe around the obvious positive: Kara no Kyoukai is (in my opinion, of course) one of the best looking anime of all time, which isn’t entirely surprising since this is ufotable on a film budget. Ufotable’s forte has always been as much (or more) backgrounds, lighting and effects than sheer animation, and Kara no Kyoukai serves as a great example of this. When everything’s in motion and it all comes tumbling down, yeah, it looks amazing, but even when it slows down, the design remains striking. There’s actually a lot of stillness to a lot of the shots, but it does a great job of masking this, with again, that combination of lighting, effects and even good old fashioned cinematography. I highly doubt you’d be bored looking at these movies, whether the scene is a rainy, dimly lit alleyway or a bright, unremarkable office space.
One particular thing that often stuck with me, besides the satisfyingly flashy action, was the exact opposite: the small motions implicit to everyday activities, like opening a water bottle or answering the phone. In Kara no Kyoukai, even these subtle movements have a certain grounded nuance to them, a relatable realism that contrasts rather nicely with the impossibility of the story and setting. Naturally this lifelike design philosophy carries through all the way up to and including that flashy action, like occasional stumbles that come about from running at a full sprint, or bruises on the neck after being nearly choked to death.
However, I must mention that while Kara no Kyoukai is very pretty, it can also be very gruesome, and is certainly not a series for the faint of heart, because you will literally be seeing hearts (plus a few other miscellaneous organs). Kara no Kyoukai has no qualms being bloody and gritty. The third movie opens on a fairly explicit rape scene. This all works and fits for the feel of the films (it’s not something where the violence feels gratuitous), but it’s explicit enough to deserve a warning if you can’t handle that kind of thing.
Let’s move on to the soundtrack, shall we? Kara no Kyoukai is composed by Yuki Kajiura. Y’know, Madoka Magica, Sword Art Online, Fate/Zero, last season’s Erased. Now I am undeniably a Kajiura fanboy, I’ve found something to like from every soundtrack of hers I’ve heard, but even the more critical among us would have difficulty arguing that here, she knocked it out of the park. The music of Kara no Kyoukai produces a very nice, what’s a good word, synergy with the animation, hitting the exact same beautiful but ominous tone. Simple chimes, epic chants, good old fashioned violin and piano. There’s never a scene where you’ll think, the music could be better or could have been used more effectively, even during the credits.
The ending themes of all seven, or kind of eight (or kind of eight and a half) films in the Kara no Kyoukai series are performed by Kalafina, a group which has since produced themes for Fate, Madoka Magica and Aldnoah.Zero, among others, but this was the start of it all. Kalafina was originally formed by Kajiura for the specific purpose of providing music for Kara no Kyoukai, so it is not at all surprising that their themes fit the series to a T, maintaining the eerie, alluring quality that defines the instrumental pieces.
So Kara no Kyoukai has great music and great animation. Combine the two, and what do you get? Great atmosphere. I am rarely one to use this term because it can sound vague, but the aesthetic of these movies is utterly entrancing. Dark and dour, but not hopeless. It creates a world that draws you in and immerses you, urging you to keep going, keep watching, because you are spellbound.
But what would this world be without characters to occupy it? I’m not going to spend time talking about every half-important person, and instead will focus on the main two: Ryougi Shiki and Kokutou Mikiya. Shiki is enigmatic, flippant, beautiful, rude, cute, badass. Those are all nice adjectives, but who is she? Well, Shiki is a girl, with her fair share of problems. She… she’s... man, this is harder than I thought it’d be. Imagine a person who doesn’t know exactly who they are, but they know what they want in the now, and what they ideally want to have in the future, but the two are seemingly incongruous. Your nature makes it hard to pursue what really makes you happy, but you keep trying regardless. That’s Shiki.
I know that was weird and vague, but Shiki is a character that I find hard to put into words, besides the basic adjectives I listed a few moments ago. Shiki is always interesting whenever she’s on-screen, whether she’s chasing down an opponent or simply whining on her bed, and resolving the ultimate conflict of the week almost invariably comes down to her actions, because she possesses Mystic Eyes of Death Perception (the same thing Tohno had in Tsukihime, those eyes that let you cut anything in existence).
Then, we have Kokutou, who… I mean, you could call him the romantic interest since ultimately that’s what he is, but he’s also the grounded, moral pivot to guide Shiki, who is often vocal about her pressing bloodlust. For reasons that not even he entirely understands, Kokutou really loves Shiki, and he wants her to grow, to learn what it is to really be a person. He’s a nice guy, but he’s also not an idiot. He’ll get angry when he has to, try to fight when he has to, even give an ultimatum if he feels he has to, but nonetheless, every step of the way, he is always there as a pillar of support for his love.
I said I would only talk about those two, but as I say these words, I realize I should probably mention Aozaki, too. Touko is Shiki and Kokutou’s employer, and a magus (may-gis? mah-jus? I’ve never had to actually say this word aloud). Um, I don’t have a whole lot to say on Touko, she’s knowledgeable, she’s cryptic, she’s powerful, she’s a tad sardonic, but in her own way, she’s also kind. Usually, her role is not a hugely active one, instead feeding information to Shiki and Kokutou such that they can overcome whatever challenges they face on their own.
At this point, I’ve talked about Kara no Kyoukai’s cast, its visual and musical charms, but I’ve barely touched the story itself, for good reason because it is, like Shiki, somewhat difficult for me to describe, especially if I’m skirting spoilers, partially because I don’t for sure where that spoiler line begins. Is it fine to talk about the entirety of the first movie or two? The basic conflicts of all of them? What about the fact that they aren’t even in chronological order? These are the difficulties I have as reviewer... but enough of my complaining, I’ve got to say something of substance here.
The story is simultaneously a love story, as I implied earlier between Shiki and Kokutou, and a pseudo good vs. evil conflict, with almost every movie entailing a faceoff between Shiki and either the evil mastermind himself or an event of his making. This manages to be kind of gripping, in its weird supernatural way, captivating despite being at times seemingly nonsensical. This isn’t a case where every turn of the plot will make perfect sense to you, but even if it goes over your head you can gleam the general trajectory of events; although this is made harder by the fact that, as I mentioned, these movies are out of order. If they were released as 1 through 8, the chronological order is 2, 4, 3, 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 (you’ll notice it does settle down after the halfway point). Thanks to this, Kara no Kyoukai very much rewards rewatching, because once you already know how all the pieces fit together, you can put aside that confusion and redirect focus to the other stellar elements it brings to the table.
Talk, Talk, Talk
Kara no Kyoukai is adapted from a series of light novels written by Kinoko Nasu, the original writer of everything in this Type-Moon Month. Nasu’s style, to put it lightly, is verbose. The Fate/stay night visual novel is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. The man quite likes his long, in-depth conversations, which works okay in a text medium, a book or a visual novel, but is harder to nail in an anime. It can be done, I’d direct you to Nisio Isin’s Monogatari, but Nasu’s writing can lack the addictive back-and-forth flow that I’ve experienced with Isin’s work. As such, there are some scenes in Kara no Kyoukai that, putting the visuals aside, toe the line of being boring or laughable. This can range from mildly pretentious philosophical musings about the topic of the week, to just extended conversation about in-depth elements of the setting that are difficult to comprehend, especially if your experience with the Nasuverse is limited.
This tendency to overtalk is exemplified in the worst way possible in Kara no Kyoukai’s half-hour epilogue. For the full span of its runtime, this epilogue is one long, long philosophical conversation, without even any meaningful change in scenery to even keep things visually fresh. This conversation does provide some snippets of closure for the story, since it is an epilogue, but ultimately comes across as self-indulgence, the ramblings of a writer who thinks he has a lot more to say than he actually does. Kokutou summarizes this rather effectively near the end of the first movie, when he remarks “I don’t understand what you’re talking about”. Join the club, man.
Speaking of Kokutou, I’m not sure I’d call this a complaint with his character, but perhaps a mild annoyance was that, basically, he’s a drab guy. I mentioned he was Shiki’s pillar, her moral compass, so to speak, but that’s pretty much all he is. He’s nice enough, but he’s just not a terribly interesting person. A nice guy who says nice things and believes in the good of humanity. To put it bluntly, without Shiki to pick up the slack, Kara no Kyoukai would have been sorely lacking for memorable characters.
And let me keep the minor issues coming with this: I thought the music was too loud. To my memory, this is never a complaint I’ve had with a series before, but in comparison to the volume of the voices, the music was too loud. Listen, I don’t watch anime on my computer with headphones, I hook it up to a TV and plop down on the couch, meaning that anyone else around can hear it. So, when watching Kara no Kyoukai, I literally had to adjust volume on the fly for certain scenes, because when people were talking I could barely hear them, so I turn things up, but then when a fight ignites the orchestra is blaring, and I have to quickly turn things down before I deafen anyone in the general vicinity. Was this a weird issue with the particular files I watched, and not a universal problem with the series? It’s possible, I suppose, and if that is the case, feel free to ignore this section entirely.
Mirai Fukuin (kind of)
Next, I would like to spend a short time talking specifically about the eighth film, Mirai Fukuin, as it is certainly the odd one out. While the first seven Kara no Kyoukai were released from 2007 through 2009, and tell a full, complete story, Mirai Fukuin came out in 2013, split up into segments that alternatively take place before, during and after the original series. The reason I took the time to call this out in “The Bad” isn’t because I think this film is bad. Actually, I like it quite a lot, but I don’t think everyone will.
Mirai Fukuin has some noticeable stylistic differences with the rest of the series. For one, there’s practically no action. Almost the entire runtime is talk in one form or another. For two, the actual presentation is, for a lack of a better term, brighter. To illustrate my point, here’s some shots from the original movies. They fit into how I described Kara no Kyoukai earlier; chiefly, there’s a darkness there. Now, here’s some shots from the eighth film, Mirai Fukuin. I think you can see why “brighter” was my choice of description. I did find this a little offputting at first, but at the end of the day, I would not consider it a “bad” style, just a different one than everything that came before, which could understandably rub some people the wrong way. So, as an advance warning, Mirai Fukuin is, in that respect, the black sheep of the series (or, perhaps more accurately, the white sheep).
Out of Order?
Lastly, I’m not sure how much the achronological sequence actually adds to Kara no Kyoukai. It mostly only succeeds in making some plot points, already wrapped up in supernatural and philosophical fluff, even more inaccessible, since they take place in the middle of a timeline you’re not familiar with. For example, the first movie, if you recall, sits right in the middle of events. The cherry on top is that, not only are the movies themselves out of order, the fifth movie, within its own boundaries, is also somewhat out of order, though this will not become apparent until roughly its second half.
However, my misgivings are more along the lines of “it could’ve been done better” rather than “it doesn’t work”. I would still tell a new viewer to watch the series in the order of its release, rather than the chronological order. Yes, it’ll be confusing, and at times, even nonsensical, but I think the alternative would rob a hallmark of the Kara no Kyoukai experience.
So, the “too long; didn’t read” is: great visuals, great music, but plot and dialogue that can be hard to follow if not outright boring or pretentious. However, while I don’t want to say that that dialogue is part of Kara no Kyoukai’s charm, it is part of the package and, for better or worse, intrinsically linked to the show’s identity, for me.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S... at its best Kara no Kyoukai is very much S-worthy, but at its worst, when it leans too heavily into the writing nonsense, is more B or even C. So, overall, we’ll go with A. I would say check out the first two films, and if you’re not having a good time, you probably won’t much like the rest, but if you find things to enjoy, continue on and prepare yourself for the latter part of the series.
Unfortunately, Kara no Kyoukai is not currently available for legal streaming from any destination, and to my knowledge never has been. If you’re willing to cripple your budget and sacrifice your firstborn, Aniplex does have a Bluray and DVD release for sale, but if that doesn’t sound too appealing, I suggest looking into other solutions.
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