Kara No Kyoukai: Mujun Rasen (Paradox Spiral) is an excellent example of movie that is meant to be watched twice. The non-linear narrative would have been reason enough to watch the movie twice but it is far from the only reason to do so. ‘Paradox Spiral’ is jam-packed with action; not just in the sense of swords slicing and people getting knocked about – though there is a fair bit of that too – but in the more general sense that at any point in time there is just so much going on on-screen. ‘Paradox Spiral’ emphasizes everything that makes Kara No Kyoukai what it is – the elements that made the series stand out in the first four movies continue to be present in this fifth installation but somehow feel highlighted and a little exaggerated. Whether this is a good or bad thing really depends on your opinion of the first four parts of this series; there is a good amount of graphic violence that not everyone might be comfortable with and there is a lot of world-building exposition that can feel both too abstract and too complicated to take in within the context of this movie alone. Yet, at the same time, you could make a convincing argument that ‘Paradox Spiral’ finally provides the characters and overall story with the context that they have been crying out for since the first or second movie. Either way, there is no denying that it is quite possibly the best directed Kara No Kyoukai movie so far; it balances its various constituent elements very well, from the quiet character moments, to the beautiful action sequences to the tense, tight story-telling. More than anything else though, ‘Paradox Spiral’ is a movie that rewards an intelligent audience with an eye for detail.
The success of ‘Paradox Spiral’ as a story lies in its structure. The movie is broken up into three sections; Shiki’s story, Mikiya’s story and a final section that ties the whole thing together. Naturally, a great deal of the narrative burden falls on the final third since it is responsible for answering the plethora of questions that the first two parts raise but that itself is a natural consequence of the movie’s narrative philosophy. Like its predecessors, ‘Paradox Spiral’ doesn’t hesitate to throw its audience into the deep end of the story and let them figure it out as they go. Shiki’s story is arguably more confusing than Mikiya’s especially since Shiki is not exactly a talkative character who would explain what is happening to either her confused companion or her equally confused audience. The movie relies on the fact that the intrigue that the story generates via the violent drama in its beginning will keep the audience’s attention despite their confusion at what exactly is going on. It’s a fine assumption but there are times when there are just too many jumps back and forth (more so in Mikiya’s arc) to keep full track of. To the movie’s credit, all the information that the audience needs to keep the story straight is presented within the confines of the movie but unless the audience knows what details are important, it is quite likely that some bits will be lost and that’s where the confusion starts. A simple, relatively spoiler free example can be found right at the beginning of the movie – we see Mikiya getting driving lessons, Enjou in Shiki’s room and then Enjou trembling in fear as Araya pulls a knife from his own throat. Each flashing scene makes sense in the bigger picture but the first time you watch it, you leave those flashes already feeling a little disoriented and with a billion questions on your mind. The movie’s pacing is pretty quick as well and there isn’t enough time within the movie for the audience to disengage from the events on-screen long enough to really digest what has been happening. A second watch fixes both issues though; since the audience is no longer fixated on the actual plot, they can absorb the finer details and process the bigger picture, though personally, even after watching ‘Paradox Spiral’ three times, there are a few questions that I still don’t have answers to. Why does Shiki think the timing is too perfect (she mentions something about 8 days)? How long was Enjou living with Shiki and where was Mikiya during all this time? We are told that he was sick for a month (with what?) and that he was driving for another month (seriously?) but there are a few gaps in the timeline which seem more convenient than realistic, though not beyond anyone’s suspension of disbelief.
More so than its predecessors, ‘Paradox Spiral’ is very heavy on symbolism. The world-famous yin-yang symbol appears numerous times throughout the movie and idea here seems to be of two equal but opposite forces being in play and the symbolism does hold up for much of the movie though the exact interpretation is a little fuzzy. The strange condominium that the movie takes place in is made up of two equal but opposite halves – one half representing endlessly repeating life and the other a single final death. The symbolism extends to the way the story is told too. The yin and yang are in constant contact and while they never overflow into each other, there is a constant presence of one inside the other – the small black dot in the white half and the identical white bit in the black half. Mikiya, oddly enough, does not appear in Shiki’s story but he is reference in it by name and by reference while Shiki does not directly appear in Mikiya’s part of the story either despite being spoken to, replying and having the scene framed from her perspective. It’s a clear sign that the two halves are being kept apart deliberately but to what purpose? They unite and successfully combat the twin threats of Cornelius Alba (though technically, that’s all Touko) and Araya Souren but is there a deeper meaning to the two arcs converging? Notably, the convergence happens in the building’s lobby which is the only place that the two halves can mix but what is the deeper meaning to it, if any?
This idea of the yin and yang is something that is quite central to Shiki’s character as well and while the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time diving further into Shiki’s character, there are a few interesting new details that pop-up. We learn that Shiki’s family name is really rather apt since it refers to the dual polarity of the yin-yang symbol but more than that, the whole concept of these two halves being in perfect harmony (or alternatively, keep each other in check) is one that forms the centre of Shiki’s inner conflict so far. When her yang half, SHIKI, was destroyed, she was left emotionally crippled and understandably so, since half her personality essentially disappeared overnight. ‘Paradox Spiral’ shows that while she is coping with that traumatic loss much better now, she has not decided to ignore it and move on but rather, is coping with it in her own way. It is difficult to tell with the translations but it would seem that our current, born again Shiki does retain some of SHIKI’s boyish speech patterns but the movie does not state clearly if that is because of some of SHIKI’s personality still persisting or if it is as Touko suggests, Shiki’s way of remembering her male half. Another interesting comment, made this time by Enjou, was about how a key makes a home. Mikiya had an issue with Shiki never locking her door in the first movie and even in this one, he is surprised when he mistakenly believes that she put the lock on her door. The lock is a sign of security and a guardianship and Shiki and Mikiya’s cute exchange of keys at the end of the movie is sign that their relationship is progressing along nicely. We don’t learn anything particularly new about Mikiya in this movie though; for the most part, the sensitive, nurturing side to him that drew him to Shiki persists and it is what helps Enjou open up to him as well. In the past, I’ve suspected that Mikiya was drawn to empty dolls and puppets and while Enjou isn’t exactly empty, everything about him has been manufactured; his body is a puppet and his emotions were implanted in him by Souren, which makes them ‘fake’ despite what Enjou himself wants to believe. Mikiya does display a more violent side to him, however, when he stabs Alba though I wouldn’t get too carried away – he literally did it as a last resort and purely in self-defence; Mikiya is still the kitten he always was. He makes up it in other ways though; both Enjou and Touko are independently impressed with his eye for detail and the thoroughness with which he put together the reports on the condo in question. Mikiya might not be much of a fighter, but he’s pretty much the most useful sidekick around.
The characterization of Enjou Tomoe is one of the things that ‘Paradox Spiral’ did really well. From the beginning, he was fighting an uphill battle in making the audience care about him and who he was; he featured more prominently in Shiki’s arc than Mikiya’s but even in that he was largely passive. His troubled (to put it mildly) family life made him interesting, as did his ‘murder’ of his mother, but for a large part of the movie it seemed like he was destined to follow the likes of Kirie Fujou and Asagami Fujino on the list of sort of ‘one-off’ characters in Kara No Kyoukai that would earn our acknowledgement but not our affections. Enjou is different because he is, ironically, easily one of the most human characters in the entire series so far, barring perhaps Mikiya – where Kirie and Fujino both had this mountain of issues that made them interesting but impossible to relate to, Enjou is messed up enough to be interesting but since he lacks knowledge of magic related matters, we can relate to him much more than to almost any other character. His realization of what ‘home’ was to him felt a little rushed and for a while, it seemed like an unnecessary detour from the story but it played its role when Enjou served his purpose. There is some irony in Enjou doing anything at all – his origin is ‘uselessness’ but despite that, was he really that useless? You can make the argument that Shiki and Touko did all the heavy lifting in this episode and that Mikiya’s detailed observations helped both of them but while the makes Enjou the least useful, I don’t know if that makes him useless per se. The ‘Paradox Spiral’ story centred on Enjou and the mystery of the murder he didn’t commit and it needed his character to deliver as more than just a vehicle to drive the plot forward and luckily, his character was able to draw the audience in and sustain their interest through the slower, more confusing elements of the early story until they reached the payoff at the end.
In discussing the characters and their roles in the movie, we shouldn’t forget Touko. In prior movies, Touko’s role has always been more secondary and coincidental. She would invariably be the spark that set the events of the movie in question in motion but it would fall to Shiki and Mikiya to actually drive the story forward beyond that. Her role in ‘Paradox Spiral’ is much more active and understandably so given her familiarity with the antagonists. Touko has always seemed wise, knowledgeable and, on occasion, even motherly, but we see a different side to her in this episode. We get the slightest of hints of a more troubled past than we might have suspected; a poor relationship with her family, specifically a sister she steals from, an inheritance she was denied and affiliations with some questionable characters (both of whom we will talk about in a moment). The movie, rightly, does not go into too much detail about her past but we do see that when the moment calls for it, Touko can kick ass with the best of them. The exact mechanics of her fight with both Cornelius and Araya are far too confusing to understand on an action-by-action basis but the bottom line was abundantly clear; Touko is not a woman to be taken lightly. Her aversion to the nickname ‘Dirty Red’ is interesting; at first, it seemed like an oddly comical reason for her to lose her temper, especially given everything else Alba said and did but perhaps we will get a more detailed explanation in the future. Speaking of the unhinged hatter Cornelius Alba though, the choice of antagonists for this movie was another high point. Both Cornelius and Araya were competent and posed a serious threat to the ‘good guys’, the latter more so than the former, of course. You get the feeling that Cornelius really bit off more than he could chew when he decided to pick his fight with Touko – had it not been for Souren’s aid, Alba would have barely been able to put up a fight. Souren, on the other hand, seems to have had things figured out much better – he correctly accounted for virtually everything, as Touko says, but somehow still underestimated how disgustingly overpowered Shiki is. Souren’s reasons for pursuing the path he did seem somewhat flimsy – nothing he experienced seemed so traumatically life-changing that he should resort to such an extreme measure to rectify it but and I almost feel like the movie would have been better off leaving his real motives undefined. Even as things stood, understanding his motives requires the audience to have fully followed the Touko’s lecture on how the Nasu-verse works, which in turns means understanding abstract concepts like the Counter Force and the origin. It’s not impossible, or even unpleasant, but it is also not everyone’s cup of tea. The end result is that Souren’s intentions don’t make him easier to understand but instead only serve to distance him from the audience and that in turn sort of negates the purpose of detailing his motives in the first place.
Ultimately, ‘Paradox Spiral’, like its name implies takes an almost perverse pride in its illogical nature. It is extremely well constructed, from the way the complex story is told to the way the scenes tend to flow and blend into each other. It is no mean feat to take a story filled with complicated, imaginary concepts and tell it in a way that can draw the audience in enough to get them to emotionally invest in the outcome but ‘Paradox Spiral’ was able to pull that off rather successfully. This was a movie that was never meant to be understood perfectly by a linear mind. Rather, it seems to be written with every intention of making the audience work to reach the payoff but that payoff, once reached, is a rather sweet one.