Time to talk the first episode of the promising Kyoukai no Kanata! Now with 100% more exploding youkai.
Three things immediately stand out about Kyoto Animation’s new effort, Kyoukai no Kanata (or Beyond the Boundary.) The first is the animation, which true to the studio’s standards is expressive and first-rate throughout. The second is that OP and ED are both fantastic stylistically (though closer to standard j-pop musically.) The third is the show’s focus on “dark fantasy,” a clear deviation from the majority of KyoAni’s work. Rejoice, those sick of school life hijinks, cute girls and low stakes! Kyoukai no Kanata has girls who conjure swords out of their blood, monsters that explode into green goo and the fight scenes you’ve been waiting for since Nagato cleaned house in the first episode of Haruhi. The show even has a sense of humor! But don’t worry KyoAni fans, all those school life hijinks and cute girls are right there where you last saw them, with the exception that the characters are now fighting for their lives. With all this in place, you’d think that Kyoukai no Kanata stood a chance of being not just the most unusual KyoAni series in a while, but one of the best anime of the year.
The gaping paradox at the center of this premise is that while Kyoukai no Kanata may be a whole new world for KyoAni, it remains well-trodden territory that many, many light novels have already cannibalized over the past five years or so. If Haruhi lead to the current explosion of anime being adapted from light novels, then it was Bakemonogatari that (for better or worse) codified the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, riffing on cliches that were already well-worn in 2006. Immortal, too-noble-for-his-own-good protagonist? Quirky heroine with a dark, magical secret? Hidden world of spirits that exists under the mundane? Self-referential humor that sent up everything from mainstream pop culture to obscure otaku fetish humor to literary conventions themselves? Kyoukai no Kanata has a significantly different vibe from the Monogatari series but even then it has to contend with dozens of other light novels that have drunk from the same well. As great as the animation is, as charming as some of the character interactions can be, there is the distinct sensation throughout the first episode that you have seen it all before. Some of the crazy monster designs featured here hit that sweet spot, but it’s worrying that a “dark fantasy” story features a lack of genuine strangeness.
For me the problems with Kyoukai no Kanata really crystallize in the story’s heroine, Mirai. She can conjure swords from her bloodstream, she has a Twitter account, but I had a nagging sensation throughout the episode that she was more of a checklist than a character. Glasses? Check! Extreme clumsiness? Check! Dark past only hinted at in the early going? Check! Extreme lack of confidence that only the main character can help her with? Check! With the right execution, this might have been forgivable even if the character was a literal Frankenstein of moe traits. But at every opportunity, the direction bends over backwards to make the character even more moe. The bucket joke was just over the top enough to be funny, but by the end of the episode the character had tripped so many times that I had stopped laughing. Mirai isn’t completely incompetent, and some of the horror beats viz a viz her plunging her sword through a locker like a Michael-esque stalker piercing a door with his knife, were well-done. But there wasn’t a moment in this episode where I felt KyoAni weren’t beating us over the head with their heroine and trying to make us empathize with her. Note to self KyoAni, you make us empathize with characters by writing them as people worthy of empathy, rather than constructions we want to protect.
Note that the direction itself was very solid, with some inspired visual framing. Similarly, I was impressed by how the series immediately links its cast to the world of the spirits from the get-go, rather than waste crucial time. Another series might include a viewpoint character completely new to the world of the spirits, but thus far every character in Kyoukai no Kanata is a half-demon or youmu slayer or someone equally linked to the weird goings-on, with histories of their own going back years. This doesn’t make the series any less cliche, but at the very least the writers assume we can put things together as we go along rather than slowly and carefully feeding us stuff we’ve consumed many times before. This is refreshing and partially makes up for the aforementioned infuriating elements of the pilot, but not quite.
In the end, how much you enjoy Kyoukai no Kanata will probably come down to how many of the show’s immediate vices you’re willing to stomach. There’s a strong visual aesthetic and an unusual amount of neat symbolism, the scenes with Mirai taking her sword of blood to invading youmu are as visceral as you were probably hoping for, and there’s plenty of room for the story to blossom into something genuinely interesting. It’s also worth noting that in standard KyoAni form, the protagonist is a far cry from the typical bland reader insert common in many anime these days (though he’s hardly an original construction either.) That said, for all the talk of KyoAni expanding beyond their comfort zone I can’t say there’s anything new here. Execution will obviously be the key from this point out, but I’m hoping that the staff of Kyoukai no Kanata will keep in mind that the weird is a far better companion for the “dark fantasy” they’re aiming for than the familiar.
Further reactions from the writers of Isn’t it Electrifying may be contributed below this point. Check back for updates!
vestenet: I guess I can appreciate the show not spoonfeeding us, but at the same time this episode had me asking many questions, including “Who?” and “What?” and most importantly “Why?” As the show goes on, it will surely (I hope) elaborate on the concepts and characters introduced in this episode, but the key to starting a weird story about strange supernatural beings in medias res and without any context is the act of tampering an audience’s bewilderment with the intrigue of what already happened and the tantalization of what’s to come. The audience has to be given a reason to become invested in the story, which is most easily achieved through the characters and their relationships. I can see the show trying to do this, by framing itself as “hey, we might be a fantasy with blood swords and youmu and stuff, BUT we’re also a light novel with meganekko and dojikko and all the -ko you want,” but for me that’s undercutting the interesting fantasy element with boring, played out tripe. I’d be much more invested if the show played its hand like a light novel at first, and THEN hit you with the dark fantasy whatnot.
In fact, I liked the first scene because it did precisely that. After putting up with the light novel protagonist’s opening monologue (and we know he must be the protagonist because he’s giving the monologue), we’re treated to the sight of our heroine stabbing him quite literally through the heart. The first episode has a few seemingly meta moments like this, which make me wonder if I might be selling the writing short. Take this dialogue:
“It’s not like you’ll draw the readers in if you simply make all the murders grotesque…”
“Then what type of murder should I go for?”
“I think that the readers are most interested in the character’s actions and logic behind them.”
This is 100% true, and again, I think the show is trying to do this, but when the characters so far look and act like they fell off a mass-production line, it falls short of following through with its own advice.
Of course, it’s KyoAni, so everything looks great. Just wish it felt great too.