In 2010, I boldly stated that Kara no Kyoukai was the ultimate summation and culmination of my interests in the animated medium. Over the course of this experimental video series, I will attempt to discern if and how that may still be true. Just as in the original post, my approach here will be more insular than what is typical of this channel. While there will be both analysis of the themes, characters, and storylines of these films, and probably some critical or personal notes about what does or doesn’t work dramatically, this series will also have me burrowing a lot into my own head and fanboying about certain things that I don’t expect others to relate to. I’ll be sharing a lot of personal anecdotes and history as well. I’ve always taken the approach on this channel that I should present my ideas on a series in the same way that I engage that series, and since the way I engage Kara no Kyoukai is complex and very personal, that is the approach I’ll be taking. This coincides well with the nature of Kara no Kyoukai, so I think it all works out in the end.
As for introducing the series itself, Kara no Kyoukai is a series of light novels written by Kinoko Nasu and illustrated by Takashi Takeuchi in the late nineties. They were originally independently published chapters which made a splash in the underground doujin market around the time that light novels were just becoming a part of popular anime culture with the success of Boogiepop and Others. Not unlike Boogiepop, Kara no Kyoukai was a series of vignettes sequenced anachronically, and featured a dark, character-centric supernatural storyline set in modern Japan, with elements of Lovecraftian horror. (It’s worth mention in passing that Boogiepop and Others was my favorite book for a long time.) The authorial team, who came to be known as Type-Moon, went on to achieve further acclaim with their popular visual novels, such as Tsukihime and Fate/Stay Night, and eventually Kara no Kyoukai was re-released under a major publisher. In 2009, the series was then adapted into eight anime films produced by Aniplex and animated by UFOTable.
I have not read all of the original Kara no Kyoukai. By author Kinoko Nasu’s own admission, his style was far from refined in the early days of writing it, and he’s mentioned embarrassment over the first chapter, Fukan Fuukei. I’ve read this chapter translated in the first volume of Faust, the American version of a short-lived Japanese multimedia magazine which really deserves its own video from me in the future. Even though I had seen the film version of this story, I still found it hard to follow and amateurish in text form. There have been fan translations of some of the other chapters, but I find fan translations of light novels nearly impossible to get into. For one thing, most light novels just aren’t that elegantly written, and when that is filtered through an unprofessional translation, usually by someone who is no better at writing with elegance, it usually comes out laking.
Having said that, it doesn’t bother me too much that I can’t read the Kara no Kyoukai novels in any satisfying capacity, because I already have the films. I am aware that some of the films do not completely recapture all of the nuances and information presented in the original story, but the films add so much in the way of tone, subtlety, presentation, and generally being really well made, that I think the tradeoff is more than worth it. I would go so far as to say that the intimate details of Kara no Kyoukai’s story are less important to me on the whole than the aesthetic experience of watching the films, which is of course a matter of personal taste, but one that affects me very strongly.
Kara no Kyoukai 1 is called Fukan Fuukei, translated to “Overlooking View,” or perhaps “the View From Above” if I were the one proofing that translation. It has, perhaps, the most memorable and appealing visual aesthetic of any film that I’ve ever seen.
I am a diehard fan of dark urban settings, especially the empty, abandoned, or obscure places that man has built, only to forget about. Every time I’ve gone to visit a large city for any reason, I spend some time walking the streets and taking in the sites of alleyways, alcoves, and eccentricities that give the city unique life. I appreciate the density of a city-scape–a place where almost every square foot is different from the last, if because the sidewalks are discolored, or the alleys are full of trash, or each building is different from the one next to it. I spent a month in Manila in 2011, and the majority of the time I spent outside of the house I was a guest at, was spent wandering the city and drinking in the sites. Riding on light rails, wandering labyrinthine malls, and seeing the seedy streets of downtown where the trash and smog blacken everything. These are the most gripping and memorable visuals that I’ve seen.
Fukan Fuukei doesn’t necessarily present much of its city. In fact, it mostly concerns itself with one building. It’s not that this building has a particular amount of character in itself, though it is well detailed as any abandoned building should be. But it does, however, have significance. Any building, really, has an explosive amount of significance, as it is an object which passes through the lives of great many people. Unless the building is built by one person, and that one person becomes its only resident, and they live in the middle of nowhere, most buildings are relevant to many people at various parts of their existence, and this could never be more true than it is of a large apartment building in a large city. Much of our lives are outright defined by the place in which we live–our-habitat–and thusly a building is deeply integral to the ecosystem of any habitat.
The Fujyou building has a history of hope and failure. The daughter of its creator haunts it from her hospital bed, as her existence has been split in two. She leads young women to the roof where those women jump to their death. Both the building and the woman are failures–existences which have failed at hope, lost their place in the world, and serve now only to facilitate death. Fukan Fuukei had the subtitle of “Thanatos” in the original novels, which most likely refers to the name Sigmund Freud gave to the human “death drive.” This so called death drive isn’t regarded as a real thing in modern psychology, at least in the way that Freud thought it was something featured in all humans, but Fukan Fuukei seeks to look into the mind of the suicidal and come to grips with what drives some towards death.
I’m rather surprised by how interested I was in the central themes of this story, as armchair psychology stuff tends to bother me, especially when characters like Aozaki Touko explain things in a matter of fact way. As much as I do love Touko, helped by her aesthetic as the cool smoker chick with red hair, an attitude, and a ton of knowledge, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Nasu wrote a lot of her dialog to be deliberately indirect or confusing so that she would seem cooler and smarter. In reality, it only makes her points more unclear, though at least it helps the series to feel more impartial, as different characters can express their viewpoints without everything coming down too squarely on Touko’s shoulders. It walks a thin line here though, and I can’t imagine that I’d be so interested in all of it were I not buying into the show’s aesthetic so hard.
Somehow, the question of whether Fujyou was falling or flying really did make me reflect. I’ve had many times in my life where I felt ecstatic highs and bottomed-out lows over the exact same things. One minute what I’m doing might feel like following my dreams, and the next it might feel like wasting my life away. Right now, I can’t tell you if I’m falling or flying–I won’t be surprised at all if it turns out I’m floating. Is this all a state of mind thing, and if so, does the state of mind determine the end result? Post-credits, Touko remarks that Fujyou “couldn’t fly today,” so does that mean she could’ve flied if she’d had the right mindset? Is there a possibility she still could? Touko only seems to have answers insofar as she can recognize a vast network of possibilities. Anyone can look like a fortune-teller if they present every conceivable outcome–like throwing darts at a board, some are bound to stick.
Mikiya’s metaphor at the end suggests that Fujyou could never have flown, but that she had to try because of the dragonfly’s brilliance. She had to catch up, and I’m not sure he’s aware that Fujyo was trying to catch up to him. We never learn much about Mikiya directly in this film. We learn that he’s captivated by emptiness, and it’s probable that he seeks to fill it. He’s quintessentially romantic, even though he has a pragmatic mindset, which for me makes him kind of uncomfortably relatable. Fujyou saw him as someone who could fly, and maybe it doesn’t really matter if she was correct, or why she felt that way. The results speak for themselves in the end.
Touko’s explanation of how the girls all ended up killing themselves hit me pretty hard. It all comes down to a momentary lapse–an overwhelming and encompassing sensation. When confronted with the bigness of a world laid out in front of them, many lose their sense of self and placement within that world. Vastness leaves much to the imagination, and the empty have nothing with which to fill that void. Not to say that people are necessarily only empty or full, but I think that on the momentary level, we can sort of be robbed of our insides. In the same way that someone strong, with boundless resolve, can suddenly be made frail by something as innocuous as a fear, in the moment that one stares into the abyss, it can rob them of their sense of self, if only briefly. The essence of Lovecraftian horror is that there are things beyond human comprehension which can bring a human to madness, and Fukan Fuukei explores this on the smaller scale of personal relatability. It argues that those feelings can come from simply trying to comprehend the scale of reality, and in that lapse of hope, the result can be fatal under the right circumstances.
Fukan Fuukei portrays most things at a distance. The film is full of wide-angle shots, where the characters are far away from the camera. It features very few close-ups or intimate moments. It carefully displays the spatial relationships between persons and objects, and familiarizes the viewer with their surroundings well. This isn’t only my favorite kind of filming style, but the one that I always envisioned my own films having, back when my dream was to become a director. I envisioned my films entirely in wide-angle frames, often from an overlooking view, as if to portray human beings less as the central focus of the world surrounding them, but as a feature of it. The shot composition of Kara no Kyoukai helps to convey the very theme of viewing from above, or from outside. It doesn’t invite us into the characters, but observes them from afar. We don’t really get into anyone’s heads, or have their motivations and actions explained, but we can infer certain things from the subtleties of their actions and reactions, and from their environments–be it Shiki’s almost empty apartment, or Touko’s excessively cluttered office.
In the most basic terms, Shiki is portrayed as someone who doesn’t really understand herself. She can’t resolve her feelings towards Mikiya against her self-perceived nature, and those around her purport to understand her perfectly, which is only even more frustrating for her. Shiki is the most in her element when performing a task she at least knows perfectly how to do, which is killing. She is brutally resourceful, willing to sever her own arm without hesitation–it may be prosthetic, but the pain is certainly real. Watching Shiki struggle to eat the Strawberry Haagen-Dazs with one arm has always been striking to me, especially now as someone who’s been making due with a broken foot for several months.
There’s something captivating to me about the loss of functionality. It’s such a paradigm shift in the way that someone lives that it necessarily teaches us more about ourselves and how we interact with our surroundings. Once in high school I wanted to get into the head of a one-eye’d character I was trying to write about, so at the end of the day I wore a blindfold over one eye, and ended up walking directly into one of the side-view mirrors of a school bus. It takes so much retraining to operate with fewer capabilities, and it’s impossible to really appreciate it without losing something, or enforcing limitations on ourselves deliberately. This is only expressed very lightly in the scene of Shiki eating the ice cream, but if anything it’s the way she aggressively goes about it without hesitation that says so much about her character.
How can I count all the subtleties in this film that work so well? The scene where the dog walks by leaving bloody pawprints which gives us just enough time for an “oh shit” reaction before we see the dead body. Shiki’s facial expressions in her scene with Mikiya, or Touko’s vague hints at her own dual personality.
Maybe all the wind noises and urban sprawl suggested in Kajiura Yuki’s phenomenal soundtrack. It’s easy to say that a Kajiura soundtrack is phenomenal, because she’s extremely popular from no shortage of projects, but Kara no Kyoukai is one of my personal favorite soundtracks of all time; and while I only ever had downloaded the soundtracks to the first two movies back when they came out, I listened to them countless times. Because the music is made to fit the length of the scenes, I could even predict the flow of a scene in this film, which I haven’t seen in almost four years, because I knew the music so well, and it made certain scenes even more exciting as I anticipated the rising action of the song.
I feel strangely about Fukan Fuukei. I love it more than it seems like I have any right to, and in ways that contradict what I supposedly know about myself. There is one thing which really bothers me about this film, and it’s the overdone sound effects of Shiki’s knife. No wait, it’s how Touko’s dialog seems a little too roundabout. No wait it’s how really, it’s not like this was that engaging of a storyline, or that it explored its themes in that much depth, yet why did it all resonate with me so strongly? Is it just the scenery porn? Am I that lost in Shiki’s legs when she gets out of bed? Maybe it’s this very feeling of how difficult it is to qualify the experience. The feeling of not engaging the work on a critical level, but on a purely emotional one. An emotional experience where it’s less important that the film didn’t really say that much about suicide, yet confronted me on just the right terms that it started eating into my mind. Or maybe it really is just the soundtrack. Whatever it is, I adored this film to an extent which I can’t expect others to really understand or relate to–and hopefully I’ve managed to communicate those feelings in a way that, whether it makes you resonate with the film more or not–at least makes you resonate with my emotions towards it.
Tomorrow, we’ll be moving on to Satsujin Kousatsu part one.