Shelf Life Kyousougiga
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
Since I have relatives on both sides of the country, I'm used to the six hour ordeal of flying from coast to coast. Getting stuck in an airport for seven hours last Thursday after missing a connecting flight was a new and special brand of misery, however. Always, always fly non-stop if at all possible, folks. Welcome to Shelf Life.
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On Shelves This Week
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Shelf Life Reviews
We've covered some really strong titles over the last couple of weeks, and Gabriella keeps the Shelf Worthy train rolling this week with a review of Kyousougiga.
In an ersatz version of medieval Japan, a priest lives in solitude on the outskirts of Kyoto. This priest, Myoue, can bring drawings to life, and lives apart from society due to this power. However, his lonely life gets turned on its head when one the drawings, the black rabbit Koto, falls in love with him. Borrowing a bodhisattva's human body, the rabbit moves in. She resolves to wear through his surly attitude with her affections, eventually proving victorious. Now an item, the two take to playing house and form makeshift family out of various children, either found or pulled out of drawings. This goes on until the Shrine – the organization tasked with enforcing order in this world of humans, gods, and yokai – catches wind of Myoue's actions. For a while, it looks like he'll have to put his newfound domesticity back where he found it… until he comes up with another idea. Seeking safe haven, Myoe moves his family into his drawing of Kyoto, which is beyond the Shrine's reach. Now Myoue, Koto, and their three children – Kurama, Yase, and Yakushimaru – rule over a through-the-looking-glass version of Japan's former capital – a land where nobody ever dies, disorder prevails, and all sorts of magical critters live together in harmony. The whole thing amounts to a Buddhist-Shinto version of Wonderland, just served alongside a heaping dose of parental abandonment.
One day, the parents leave without explanation, and the kids are left in charge of the city. This gives them all horrible abandonment issues. Exacerbating their existing character flaws, Kurama props himself up as the responsible regulator of the three, while Yase encases herself in a palace of nostalgia. The youngest takes their father's place, inheriting his position, appearance, and even his name. This second Myoue (formerly Yakushimaru) is the most sullen of the three, although all of them have pretty thoroughly self-isolated. Life continues at this pace until a sudden bolt of lightning strikes the city's central tower. Rushing to investigate, Myuoe II discovers that a girl has burst through the supposedly impenetrable barrier around the Mirror City. Wielding a giant hammer, she states her name as Koto and declares that she's come in search of her long-lost mother – the black rabbit. At this sight, Myoue II recalls his father's parting words – a promise to return, as well as the ominous assertion that he'll bring with him “the beginning and the end.”
Yes, all of that is in the first episode. It's a busy show. So this is an Alice in Wonderland riff where the Lewis Carroll stand-in falls in love with the White Rabbit, Wonderland is part of a folkloric multiverse, and it all builds up to an exploration of familial dysfunction. There's also an interdimensional police force, and even a giant robot fight or two. As I said before, this is very crowded for a ten-episode show. Just a little more crowded than its runtime can handle, really – although the fact that most of its two dozen story ideas still work speaks quite well to the show's writing, all-in-all. I'll spare you further spoilers, but this tangled narrative does come together in the end, and even manages to be quite thoughtful. It's most interesting, I think, as humanistic conception of Buddhist dogma, which is allegorized by the family's intergenerational dysfunction. The central conflict ultimately hinges on Koto's relationship with the two Myoues, who've both fallen prey to vicious cycles of self-loathing produced by their relationships with their fathers. That's right – this is a bad dad anime, and I've got to say that Kyousougiga's entry earns his place in that vaunted pantheon, alongside the like of Shou Tucker and Good Ol' Gendo. While I like the narrative a lot, it's worth mentioning that there's a barrier of entry in terms of the show' reliance on Japanese folkloric and cultural traditions. There's a good chance that you're going to have to look up words like bodhisattva and takamagahara, so I recommend watching the show when you can pay focused attention to it. Actually, this probably applies even if you're totally familiar with the ideas at play – Kyousougiga is so dense with important information that you'll probably miss something crucial if your attention wanders for even a minute. It's more than a bit exhausting, but I'll get back to that later.
And even if the writing were a wash, Kyousougiga would likely still be a must-see on the basis of how it looks alone. While it's clear that Matsumoto has strong story sensibilities, the immediate impression she makes is as a prodigious visualist. The show's art design ties into its themes on almost every level. I only tend to see this from the Kunihiko Ikuharas, Masaaki Yuasas, and Hiroyuki Imaishis of anime, so the fact that she accomplished this right out the gate (in her 20s!) is extremely impressive. It'd take too long to run through all of it, but I'll cite the character designs as especially strong. They're some of the best I've seen – distinct, dynamic, and very much a part of the storytelling, in terms of revealing things about the characters. As to the animation, there's a distinct style at play here, which I'd describe as a sort of middle ground between the Gainax house style and the works of Masaaki Yuasa. It has some of the rough-honed, angular qualities of Yuasa's earlier stuff (Mind Game, Kemonozume), resulting in striking compositions. This, alongside the excellent color palette, is usually enough to keep the eye interested no matter how rough the actual animation gets – and it can get pretty rough. And much like, say, Kill La Kill, the show knows how to use limited animation to full effect, for impact, and even as the subject of self-referential gags. Overall, it's a triumph of design and execution on every level, made even more impressive by the relative inexperience of those in charge and the limited resources they were working with.
Ultimately, Kyousougiga's biggest problem is just how busy it is. So much happens at such a rapid clip that it becomes a little exhausting to watch, and that dulls the pathos. I think that's why I came off it a little cold on an emotional level, as excellent as it is. While everything feels like it should be heartwarming – all of the characters are likeable, there are tons of cute moments, the conflict is both heartfelt and resonant – the show just wants me to feel so much all of the time that I stop being able to catch up. This wouldn't have been a super hard problem to fix, on a structural level. There's a good amount that could have been cut to allow for some quieter moments – the Shrine stuff distracts more than it adds, for example. Matsumoto got this balance a lot better in her next show, Blood Blockade Battlefront, which is just as crowded, but better at pacing itself out. In the meantime, however, Kyousougiga's last few episodes kind of turn into them cramming climaxes in over and over.
Discotek's release is excellent. It's the best way to watch Kyousougiga by virtue of the revised subtitles alone. The original simulcast subtitles were rough, very much hampering a show that already suffers from intelligibility problems. That's all been redone here, and they're now much clearer. It also comes loaded with extras. Kyousougiga had a tangled release history, and it was originally produced as a series of shorts. Those are all included here, allowing for a comparison with the final product, as well as some exclusive material. It also contains episodes 5.5 and 10.5, which consist of live action recap and commentary by the show's staff.
As challenging as it is fun, Kyousougiga's biggest problem is a tendency to be too much of that, overwhelming both the senses and the viewer's ability to parse information. In spite of that, however, it remains an excellent show – one of the standouts of the past few years of anime. I have some quibbles with how it resolves, but that doesn't stop it from being a thoughtful, humanistic story about family, identity, and cyclical dysfunction. A startling artistic achievement on the part of its young director, Matsumoto comes off like her heroine, Koto, ripping through the establishment in declaration that she's here, and ready to rumble.
That wraps up this week's review section. Thanks for reading!
This week's shelves are from Matthew:
"I first found my interest in Anime a few years out of college so most of my collection reflects an older audience. The first two pieces of my collection started as Christmas presents: Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop. I put a long list of shows and movies on my list that year and threw in the only anime my friends knew to tell me about, Cowboy Bebop of course. I had played jazz band in high school and college, and that awesome opening song and choreographed fight scene in episode one were a lot of fun to take in.
I took my time going through established hits like GITS, Death Note, and so on. I soon threw away negative stereotypes associated with anime and otaku and grew an appreciation for all the great and whacky stories that fill anime. You can't judge a book by its cover, right?
I am 32 and as I clear out my watch list, I explore more genres. I recently finished Himouto! Umaruchan and Tanaka-kun is Always Listless. But as you can see from the shelf space, I will always love my space shows. Against my first impression I grew to love a good mecha show. I feel like Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans would have been a better introduction than Code Geass. That show is one wild ride though. Rurouni Kenshin was a great introduction to battle anime. I would have loved that when I was a kid. I love physical and gag comedy and have learned most of my knowledge about Japanese culture from watching every Gintama episode.
I fell into reading manga after watching Claymore. As with many others I am sure, I found the anime ending unsatisfying and thematically inconsistent and the good 'ol interwebs suggested that I read the manga for the whole story. I am glad that I did. I also tested out reading the Higurashi series on my new e-reader. I am still waiting for the day when all of my favorite manga is digital, but I will be saving a lot of shelf space in the future.
This year, I am most excited about new Gintama (current streaming hooray!) and Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale (I've got my tickets!)."
I see a lot of good titles on those shelves, and you get double bonus points for owning Space Brothers. Thanks for sharing!
Want to show off your own anime and/or manga collection? This is the place to do it! Send me your photos at [email protected]!
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