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Anime Review & Ramble: Kara no Kyoukai

If you’re in the mood for some horror anime this Halloween, you may want to check out Kara no Kyoukai (Boundary of Emptiness), a series of seven anime films (Ufotable, 2007-2009) based on the light novel of the same name.  Each film is a standalone story, forming the loosely arced tale of a dark and quirky detective agency investigating magic-related crimes, usually grisly ones.  As character drama, the series has its moments, but it is most notable for its dark, violent, intricately plotted mysteries showcasing strong female characters.  Not for kids.

The central characters are Shiki Ryougi, a somber young woman with amazing supernatural fighting abilities; Mikiya Kokutou, a kind young man who was her high school friend; and (to a lesser extent) Touko Aozaki, their boss and a powerful, offbeat sorceress.  The arc narrative—sometimes more central, sometimes less—concerns Shiki’s nature and how she grapples with her incredible powers and her desire to kill.  In the course of Shiki’s search for her place in society and sense of identity, the team encounters numerous murderers, sorcerers, destructive spirits, and so on.

Shiki

Don’t mess with Shiki.

Both Shiki and Touko are well-developed, consistently powerful female characters of a kind too rare in anime.  Both are badasses—Shiki in physical fighting, Touko through her magic and arcane knowledge.  This is not unusual in anime.  What’s unusual is that both are depicted as individualized, imperfect human beings, an amalgam of inner strengths and weaknesses that fit their personalities.  Shiki is socially awkward to the point of being antisocial and morose, and she is often simply scary in her capacity to lash out violently.  At the same time, she nobly fights her violent tendencies, puts herself in danger to save others, and shows a reserved but profound loyalty to her friends, especially Mikiya.  Touko is a bit of cynic, often willing to sit back and let the horrors unfold because she’s just not motivated to get out and keep fighting them; at the same time, she, too, sometimes steps to the fore with great courage and self-sacrifice, and when her power is on full display, she’s every bit as formidable as Shiki.  But most of the time, she plays the “adult” of the group, sitting back and commenting wryly on the angst of her young employees.  She is full of quirk and clearly has a strong sense of personal identity.

The weak link in character development is Mikiya.  Now, if I have to see either a woman or a man be underdeveloped, I would rather see a man just because it’s usually the woman.  But all in all, I would rather see strong development for everyone, and Mikiya does not quite get it.  He’s competent, likable, and very brave (stepping into the fray with no magic powers), but that’s just it: he’s perfect.  There is no strangeness to Mikiya, no personal weakness, no chink in his armor of kind, supportive wonderfulness.  As a result, he’s a bit boring in exactly the same way the classic heroine of indefatigable sweetness and compassion is.  He may be the only main character without superpowers, but he is also the least human.

Shiki-and-Mikiya

Shiki and Mikiya hang out reservedly.

Quick Overview
Story
I found the individual stories and parts of the arc narrative hard to follow.  However, I am not generally a mystery watcher, so it may be that those who appreciate a complex magic-mystery tale will enjoy the twists and turns.

Characters
Shiki and Touko are refreshingly well-developed, strong female characters.  Unfortunately, the flatness of Mikiya undercuts the development of the series’ main emotional relationship between Mikiya and Shiki.  I wanted to invest in their friendship and possible burgeoning romance but found it difficult: Mikiya is so indefatigably good and well behaved that he is emotionally inaccessible to me as a viewer.

Art & Presentation
The series is visually lovely.  The animation is good and ambience exceptional.  This contemporary magical Japan feels utterly alive.  The films feature diverse musical choices, most of which are several cuts above typical anime J-Pop.  The voice acting is good, and Shiki, in particular, is well individualized.

Touko

Touko being a bad role model because she’s like that.

Content Warnings
This is a dark series aimed squarely at adults.  Its routine themes include murder, rape, kidnapping, cannibalism, torture, child abuse, dismemberment, etc. and it can be graphic.  Not to be watched without a high tolerance for the grisly.  This is a horror series.

All in All
As a character drama, Kara no Kyoukai can fall flat because one of its top two main characters is rather flat.  However, as a viewing experience, it largely makes up for this with thrills, mystery, and terrific art.

Kara-no-Kyoukai

Crazy dude from Touko’s past.

Fun Facts
Kara no Kyoukai is set in what Wikipedia calls an “alternate universe to Tsukihime and Fate/stay night.”  Having seen Fate/Stay Night, I can see how this could be an analogous universe: a contemporary world that accepts the existence of magic and often highly honors magi.

The original series was published in 1998-1999, and though the anime was made about a decade later, it retains the earlier setting, complete with limited cell phone access and much less reliance on computer devices than we typically see today.  This near past setting is an interesting mix of nearly current yet quaint.

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