When it comes to creative ambition, there are few – if any – anime projects that could easily be compared to Type-Moon and ufotable's Kara no Kyoukai – The Garden of Sinners. It's a series of 7 lavishly animated feature films, all of which played limited theatrical runs in Japan, that tell a very complex serial storyline, often entirely out of chronological order. It's a dark, haunting, slow, sometimes very confusing and intensely violent tale, one with a high barrier of entry, requiring your undivided attention. The experience is draining, but at the end of it all, what they've created here is an achievement worthy of admiration and respect.
Frankly, Kara no Kyoukai gets off to a pretty rocky start. We're introduced to Shiki, supernatural knife-wielding ice queen with a dual personality and magic eyes that can perceive individual mortality. Then there's Mikiya, mild-mannered, bespectacled high school kid who's falling for Shiki; he works as an investigator for Toko, a red-haired sorceress masquerading as a sculpture artist, running a kind of supernatural detective agency called Garan no Do. In the first chapter – the shortest of the lot at 48 minutes – there's a series of bizarre suicides going on (hint: if you're watching a thriller there's ever a series of “bizarre suicides”, they're going to turn out to not be suicides) and a bunch of creepy ghost girls hanging out on the roof of the building where these high school kids are leaping to their deaths. Shiki destroys the ghost girls with her magic knife skills and crazy eyes; one of them returns to her mortal state, then promptly flings herself off the roof. It's a whole lot of “what?” by which to introduce this series. Not only are the characters short on personality, it's difficult to really care about what's happening at all.
Thankfully, the second film – A Study In Murder (Part I) immediately begins to provide some context and starts building the series’ small cast of characters. We're given reasons to understand the connection between Mikiya and Shiki – which is ultimately what this whole thing revolves around - and slowly but surely the real story of Kara no Kyoukai begins to take shape. While it's nearly impossible to accurately summarize the entire complex and multi-layered story in anything less than a lengthy treatise, suffice to say it is an emotionally intense, often confusing, sometimes even punishing journey that you won't fully appreciate or understand until the credits roll on the seventh film. Each passing movie sets up a network of moments, lines of dialogue and minor asides that seem like unimportant digressions or worse, creative indulgences by the morose staff weaving this tale, but ultimately it all winds up being cleverly planned connective tissue that brings the whole story to a remarkable crescendo with sincere emotional impact.
It's very rare to see a film series like this that asks so very much of its audience. At various points throughout the series – which all along the way is completely humorless, wallowing in angst, practically staring at itself in the mirror while applying black eyeliner through bloody tears – it's terribly confusing, extremely gruesome, and even boring at points. The camera lingers on scenery forever and we're asked to simply contemplate Mikiya's static facial expressions for what feel like minutes at a time. The characters - generally stoic, or cold, or purposefully obtuse - are nearly impossible to become personally attached to for most of series' run. They feel disconnected, just beyond the reach of the viewer. Sometimes it's almost as if the series is daring you to give up and walk away; there's graphic rape, bloody dismemberment, obnoxiously cryptic dialogue that leans heavily on extended allegories and a whole lot of screaming and crying. If you can take all that – and it does get easier around the fourth film, once you start to see hints that these disjointed pieces are going to come together in a meaningful way – you will be rewarded for your endurance. Understanding what Type-Moon and ufotable have constructed after 9 hours of film is far more satisfying than the experience of actually sitting through it; it's a bizarre creation, something that is infinitely better in hindsight than it is in the moment.
All that said, the most conventionally entertaining (if still intensely bloody and disturbing) is the fifth film, Paradox Spiral, one of two installments that run for a full 2 hours. While it doesn't necessarily function completely as a standalone film, the story here is examined in binary, with both Shiki and Mikiya's participation in this twisted tale told from separate perspectives. Akin to a particularly violent Twilight Zone episode (or perhaps Tales from the Darkside), we're introduced to a disturbed young man named Tomoe who brutally murders his parents and flees the scene. When the cops arrive, his folks are mysteriously alive and well. Inexplicably drawn to Shiki – who he identifies with as a “fellow murderer” – Tomoe's story slowly unfolds like a puzzle box, one that would be a shame to spoil. This is an example of Type-Moon firing on all cylinders, and is easily the film that is most effective at convincing potentially weary viewers that the creative team has known what they're doing the entire time.
Production-wise, Kara no Kyoukai is undeniably beautiful. While the series’ visuals are uniformly maudlin, rendered in deep blacks, stormy grays and that unmistakable crimson, the gorgeous background art is second to none. The character animation – while sometimes a touch awkward, with moments of low-framerate-shenanigans – is generally very fluid and pleasant to watch. The action sequences in particular are smooth as silk, and the many ghostly special effects are handled with serious expertise. Perhaps as a result of having a theatrical budget, even though the series was produced over two years, the high quality is consistent throughout. Movie 4 looks just as great as Movie 7, and so on. Special mention must be made of the stellar soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura, who is operating at the peak of her considerable powers here. The music is especially beautiful and haunting, with some genuinely great theme songs capping off each film. In all, the artistry on display is breathtaking, even if it is often intentionally stomach-turning.
Kara no Kyoukai's North American “release” has been controversial mostly for its eye-popping, Japan-centric price tag: a whopping $400 for all seven films in high definition bluray, an eighth bonus disc featuring an all-new OVA that adds more to the story, a hardcover artbook and a fancy case to store it all in. The HD quality – which some have decried as a simple “upscale” of existing DVD masters – looks exceptional and crisp to these eyes, even if elements of the animation itself (mostly character outlines) occasionally appear a bit soft, which is a production issue rather than a video quality issue. The default audio track is uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo (with an optional 5.1 mix), which really brings Kajiura's intense score to booming life. The discs themselves have elegant, clean menus, and while there aren't a lot of on-disc extras (usually just a trailer or cute little preshow warnings against recording in the theater), the presentation here is still highly competent. It's a lavish release to be sure, but as American consumers are rarely ever asked to choke up 400 dollars for any media release – let alone anime, which has dramatically come down in price over the last 10 years – it's impossible to justify the price tag to anyone outside of extreme hardcore Type-Moon fans with a small mountain of disposable income. Kara no Kyoukai is certainly a memorable and unique experience, but just as the series itself is difficult to immerse yourself in, the price tag for this release – which as of this writing is sold out anyway – simply cannot be reconciled. It would be nice if Aniplex eventually decided on a more reasonably priced version of the series, if only so even more adventurous viewers looking for something new and challenging can expose themselves to Type-Moon's brutal creation.
It's a bit odd to recommend something that is nearly unpleasant enough to thwart all but the most patient and curious. Kara no Kyoukai is an intentionally rough sit, in the early stages clearly designed mostly to please fans who were already familiar with the hyperviolent supernatural twists and turns of the story, constructed in a manner that suggests they wanted to keep newcomers out right from the start. But as it all unfolds hour after hour, it becomes quite clear why this story exploded in popularity in Japan and has attracted a small but devoted American fanbase. Slowly it's revealed that you're watching something very special and all that angst-ridden, blood-spattered sturm und drang will eventually come together to create an experience that is wholly unique in the world of anime. The barrier of entry – both emotionally and financially – are intimidating to say the least, but if the opportunity to subject yourself to this challenging and haunting series of films comes your way, you'd be remiss not to jump in.