As most of you reading this probably know, I recently just got done watching Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and am in the process of playing through the VN, both for its own sake and so I can watch Fate/Zero, a series that I keep hearing very good things about. However, since I have only recently finished the UBW route of the Fate/Stay Night VN and am working my way through the Heaven’s Feel route, I decided a while ago, based on recommendations, to take a small detour away from Fate related material and instead take a look at Kara No Kyoukai (or if you prefer, Garden of Sinners). As far as detours go, this barely even counts; like Fate, it is written by Kinoko Nasu and is considered one of his earliest works. As Kara No Kyoukai consists of seven movie length ‘episodes’, I’ll be doing one per week (though if the movies run long or I need to watch them a few times to figure something out, I might take longer) starting today with ‘Overlooking View’. I’ll also drop a comment detailing my experience with the UBW route, since I’ve only just begun on Heaven’s Feel and want to put it down sooner rather than later.
‘Overlooking View’ begins the Kara No Kyoukai series almost in medias res – there is no section of the episode where the characters are explicitly introduced or where the way this particular world works is explained, though anyone even mildly familiar with Nasu’s other works will probably have an instinctive grasp of its often vaguely defined parameters. As an introduction then, ‘Overlooking View’ seems more incidental than intentional as we begin with the key elements of this episode’s story firmly in place. The episode centres on a series of suicides by seemingly untroubled schoolgirls as the story’s protagonist, a detached and unfeeling young woman named Ryougi Shiki, decides to investigate after her friend and colleague, Kokutou Mikiya, becomes a victim of the supernatural force behind the suicides. Compared to the only other Nasu/Type-Moon work that I am familiar with, this first episode of Kara No Kyoukai feels darker and much more sombre. The theme of suicide immediately turns the story away from the more action heavy focus of Fate/Stay Night and instead toward a more emotional and psychological one. Its characters feel less dynamic but based on the limited dialogue and screen-time they receive, perhaps that’s too harsh a conclusion to draw too soon. Beyond any of that though, the episode is hauntingly beautiful, not just in its themes but also in its visuals and soundtrack. Since this is the first episode of the series, let’s consider what we have learned about our characters. Ryougi Shiki appears to be the protagonist of this series and while I’ve already described her as detached and unfeeling, it’s very clear that that’s not the full story. Her friend Mikiya describes her as a strawberry, or perhaps more accurately, as a rose – she is both pretty and prickly. As far as women in anime go though, Shiki is no shrinking violet; in fact, based on this episode, she is possibly one of the most unflinchingly violent characters introduced so far. Yet, what is more striking is her absolute fearlessness; whether it’s heading into a haunted building to confront a murderous spectre or jumping from roof to roof in pursuit, it seems that Shiki is experienced, capable and ruthless. The last of those characteristics gives her an air of inhumanity – yes, it’s impressive (and very intimidating) that she is willing to stab her own (semi-prosthetic) arm to deny her enemy an advantage, but that’s not exactly the most humanizing of moments, no more than the unrepentant finishing blow she dealt the ‘spirit’ of Kirie Fujou or even her barely furnished, strictly functional room. Perhaps then, her fearlessness isn’t based solely off her impressive capabilities as a fighter but also from a simple, abnormal inability to understand fear the same way people like Mikiya do. It’s apparent from the way she leaves her door open to the way she just walks into enemy territory that it isn’t that she’s hiding her fear; she genuinely isn’t feeling any. It isn’t that she is incapable of humanity either – her final scene, where she tells Mikiya to stay the night and finish his ice-cream is evidence of that – but rather that she has not yet learned how best to express this humanity. This conflict within her is perhaps best summed up in a surprisingly tender scene in which she eats her strawberry ice-cream alone: with her prosthetic arm temporarily out of commission, we see her nonchalantly opening and eating her bowl of ice-cream with her single hand. She is damaged but doesn’t seem to care and that’s just not very human but at the same time, she is eating the ice-cream her friend bought her and is missing him and that’s pretty much as human as it gets. It feels like Shiki eating the ice-cream is her subconsciously accepting Mikiya’s assessment of her (rather simple as it was) and the compliment that came with it. Of course, in all this I have thoroughly ignored any speculation about what her powers or abilities really are since I’m sure the next episodes will detail them better but to hazard a guess, I believe that she has the ability to suppress others’ power or at least temporarily nullify them. We know a good deal less about Mikiya but the little we do know makes him an interesting foil to Shiki. He seems both warmer and less rigid than she does and that warmth comes with an emotionality that Shiki only infrequently demonstrates. Mikiya understands people and he seems capable of empathy and compassion – which in turn allow him some insight into the mind of others. It also gives him a further dimension compared to his female colleague – where Shiki’s understanding of the world seems limited to the practical and the immediate (in a very robotic (puppet-like?) manner, I should add), Mikiya is able to capture the nuance and intricacy of a situation, at least if his final assessment of the butterfly that tried to fly instead of float is any guide. Yet, there are already signs that Mikiya is not the perfect, emotionally stable young man that he appears to be. What does his keen interest (we’ll stop short of calling it an obsession, though Aozaki implies it) with empty, lifeless puppets imply? Is his interest, romantic or otherwise, in Shiki based on her soullessness, her resemblance to a puppet? Without reaching too far on too little evidence, I wonder if this will be a case where Mikiya is compensating for his own mildness, what he considers his own kind of soullessness in his fascination with Shiki and her more volatile, colourful temperament. Lastly, we have Touko Aozaki, the master magician and puppeteer – though, technically we don’t know if the former is true but she seems knowledgeable if nothing else. Aozaki, easily the eldest of the major characters introduced, acts as something of motherly figure to the two younger characters. It isn’t particularly overt and the dynamic seems to be something in between parent and mentor but it is already clear that there is a deep bond between this set of characters even if they haven’t verbally acknowledged it just yet. Aozaki seems to be the Nasu self-insert of some sort – she has all the answers and seems to be the mouthpiece through which we join him on his long-winded explanations of how his world works. She offers questions and half-explanations, possibilities and theories that seem like answers but aren’t really and, along with Mikiya, is the source of all the philosophical musing in ‘Overlooking View’. Yet, it would be a mistake to take Aozaki at face value – if we learned anything at all from Fate/Stay Night, it is that the characters, even Nasu himself, can be wrong and later change their minds. Aozaki’s musings in the early section of this episode seem confusing at first but on hindsight turn out to be both hilariously indirect answers to the questions that Shiki didn’t quite ask yet and incisive insights into the human psyche. We’ll jump into just what those insights are and what they mean in a second, but it’s clear that Aozaki isn’t just a designated wise woman but rather someone with experience to back her words with. In considering the overall story of ‘Overlooking View’, I think it is paramount to consider the terms ‘falling’, ‘floating’ and ‘flying’. Aozaki defines the difference between floating and flying as having a purpose – if you have a purpose in life, if you’re motivated, you can fly but without one, the best you can hope for is to float. So what then, does that say about Kirie Fujou, who couldn’t even float? Mikiya’s metaphor for the relationship between him and Kirie Fujou was likely spot on – he was the dragonfly, going about his usual business, and Fujou was the butterfly that once knew what it was to fly but no longer could. She wanted to fly beside him, but never could. Had Fujou decided to accept that she could never fly again, she would very likely not have committed suicide but Mikiya stops short of answering the implied question; what is the value of a life where one can only float but never fly? Was it crueller to give Fujou her spiritual body (the question who gave it to her is neither asked nor answered) or to take it away from her? There is an interesting parallel between the haunted, desolate Fujou buildings and its previous owner’s daughter. Both buildings start out as symbols of hope – Kirie as the first child, the Fujou buildings as a symbol of the economic boom – but eventually end up in disrepair, abandoned and forgotten till the suicides bring them back into relevance. You could even argue that the two share their warped view on time – for Kirie, each day in the past decade has probably felt identical to the one before, which is just about as unhealthy a relationship with time as you can have. The idea of the power of the overlooking view that Aozaki implies early in the episode is that it has the power of diminishing, of forcing a perspective that we humans are loathe to accept – that we are small, insignificant. As she says, we know it in our rational minds – there are billions of people on this planet after all, but experiencing it on an emotional level can be devastating. It is in the one instant of overwhelming smallness that Fujou probably struck, preying on both her victims fascination with that overlooking view as well as the moment of terror they experience at being so insignificant in the larger world. That she knew what kind of feelings to incite and how to manipulate them should tell us enough about her agency as a character – say what she will about just being lonely, Kirie Fujou knew exactly what she doing to cure her loneliness. It’s troubling, to say the least, that every one of Fujou’s victims had at least some tiny spark of suicidal tendency within them by which Fujou could seize them and convince them to make the jump – Mikiya included. The beautiful irony that it is the same inhumanity that I accused Shiki of earlier that let her fend off Fujou’s assault; the implication being that that bare suicidal tendency that existed in the otherwise perfectly healthy schoolgirls exists in most normal people as well but Shiki, being decidedly abnormal, lacked that inclination. That said, it’s a mystery why Mikiya was spared; even if we assume that Fujou spared him because she recognized him as the boy with the flowers, why not kill him so he could keep her company? They say the devil is in the details and by that metric, this episode excels. Horror, drama and related genres feed off of implication; ask any seasoned horror movie fan, for example, and they will tell you that a monster jumping out is never as scary as the implication of a monster running around unchecked. Now, Kara No Kyoukai (or this episode, at least) isn’t really horror per se, but it has its more tense moments. Shiki’s first foray into the abandoned building had me holding my breath without even realising it but it is really in the small details that the tension really builds up; the dog walking away from the body with blood on its paws, the body dropping from the building in the background and so on. The movie is a visual treat as well, from the vivid colours of the living, especially the lively coloured Shiki, to the dull, muted colours of the dying and the dead. The actions sequences, few as they are, are exactly what I’ve come to expect of Ufotable but the real MVP is the soundtrack. That eerie, haunting choir suits the movie’s theme and tone so perfectly, it’s hard to imagine anything else taking its place. As powerful as ‘Overlooking View’ was though, it was not a perfect story. The episode clearly deals with suicide and explores it but if that is its sole purpose, it does a poor job. After all was said and done, what exactly is the story’s point? Not just about suicide, but about anything? Maybe Mikiya wasn’t entirely wrong in thinking that the whole is no more than a cheap novel? My personal answer is that the story isn’t quite deep as the themes it explores would warrant but neither should that nullify that episode’s effect. I think of this first episode of Kara No Kyoukai as a story that functions more on an emotional level; specifically, I don’t believe that ‘Overlooking View’ is about suicide as a subject but rather that it is about this particular suicide and any emotions we as audience have attached to it. It’s one of those stories where your own degree of investment in the story (not the characters, just the story) depends on your own experience with suicide and hopelessness. If you’ve ever experienced something similar, the whole analogy of floating and flying, or even the thrill of the fall, speaks to you on some level that it just will not to someone who hasn’t experienced it. The downside or upside of such stories is that they become extremely subjective, more so than art normally is, but that should be no means determine the importance or value of the tale in the first place.