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Why The Garden of Sinners is a Modern Classic

by Gabriella Ekens,

On a rain slicked night, the pavement is streaked crimson. The source, a dismembered body, has already been tucked into a corner of the drenched city. A murder has taken place, but by whose hand? Meanwhile, a girl walks the streets. Clad in a kimono and red leather jacket, she casts her gaze down to obscure eyes overflowing with killing intent. A knife rests easily – too easily – in her hands. Will the boy find her before sunup, when the world wakes to begin investigating the events of this night? Or will she be lost to the darkness first, her hands soaked red, her face smeared with the blood that has always been her destiny?

These are the images that dominate The Garden of Sinners, ufotable's epic seven-part film series from the late 2000s. Based on light novels penned by Kinoku Nasu (of Fate/stay night fame), this was the beginning of the studio's ongoing working relationship with Type-Moon. This collaboration is also what put ufotable on the map as a major player in anime production. While they'd made a few shows before this, they're largely forgotten in the wake of how Garden of Sinners changed their output. Most of their subsequent properties, (including Type-Moon's Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works) were either big hits, highly anticipated, or both. Now, it's an otaku event for one group of fans or another (Tales fans and Touken Ranbu lovers most recently) whenever ufotable puts something out around twice a year. So on the tenth anniversary of the first Garden of Sinners film (and in anticipation of ufotable's second major film series, an adaptation of Fate/stay night's Heaven's Feel route), I've decided to take a look back on these films that started it all.

The Garden of Sinners (titled Kara no Kyōkai or "Boundary of Emptiness" in the original Japanese) is the story of Shiki, a young woman with a murderous split personality, and Kokutou, the boy who loves her. Their narrative is presented out of chronology over seven films, forcing viewers to piece out the puzzle of their relationship over time. The first film, Overlooking View, serves as a cold open to the series – it thrusts us into Shiki and Kokutou's relationship at a fairly late juncture and does little to explain the conflicts they're currently embroiled in. It does, however, demonstrate Shiki's abilities, as well as excite the viewer with the standout action and gothic atmosphere that constitute the series' major hooks. You see, Shiki possesses an ability that makes her uniquely suited to combat the supernatural beasts that terrorize her town – her Mystic Eyes of Death Perception allow her to see the “lines of death” permeating everything in existence. Via contact with these lines, Shiki can kill anything, from people to objects to even phenomena like sounds or magic itself. But in spite of her good deeds, what if she has become one of those beasts herself?

Shiki possesses a split personality, SHIKI, who desires nothing more than murder. A hereditary trait passed down by her family, this bifurcation of the personality – one male, one female – serves to concentrate a person's power and authority. Shiki is the first in this line to have been born with a dominant female personality, which complicates her status as the family's future head. The whole thing has left her with some psychological issues, which are only compounded by the fact that she keeps finding herself at the site of grisly murders. This perception of herself as a serial killer has caused her to isolate herself from others – that is, except for Kokutou. As Shiki's former classmate, Kokutou has maintained an ironclad faith in Shiki's inherent goodness since their school days. He is her anchor to the human world in an environment that seeks to amplify her inhumanity. Shiki's own perception of him is more ambivalent, though no less intense – she's torn between a desire to kill him and a desire to never let him go. The reconciliation of these two desires serves as the emotional through-line for The Garden of Sinners as a whole.

For all of its complicated plotting, The Garden of Sinners is a love story at its heart. That's not to say that it's particularly complex in terms of romance (Kokutou in particular is static as a character), but rather that it's very well articulated over the course of its seven-film runtime. Their personality traits – like Kokutou's patience and kindness or Shiki's vulnerability contrasted with harshness – are rendered palpable by the production's great sense of body language and atmosphere.

To me, Shiki and Kokutou deserve a spot on the list of anime's greatest romances – though their wider recognition may be hampered by the accessibility issues surrounding these films. For a long time, you could only watch The Garden of Sinners via a limited edition set put out by Aniplex for $400 at least. ($600 for the Blu-Ray version, which is what you want considering the sheer visual spectacle of these films.) Recently, however, the movies were put up on Anime Strike for streaming, allowing anime fans the chance to actually watch the damn thing legally for the first time.

But I digress. Shiki and Kokutou are a great central pair, and it's heartwarming to see Shiki develop a sense of self on the bedrock of Kokutou's influence. Most importantly, Kokutou never overshadows his beloved – this is Shiki's story first and foremost, and she remains in the spotlight throughout. Thematically, I read their romance as coming to terms with the opposite gender roles that they occupy in their relationship. Kokutou is a man who's totally comfortable with occupying a typically female-coded supportive role for Shiki, while Shiki needs to resolve the gendered chasm in her personality before she can become entirely herself. While I don't personally subscribe to these theories of personality development (which are taken from Carl Jung's theories of the anima and animus), Shiki's journey is still emotionally impactful working within her world's internal logic.

As an entry in the Nasuverse, these films are rife with that franchise's trademark systematic synthesis of occult, philosophical, and religious concepts. While technically existing in an alternate universe relative to most other Type-Moon stuff, Garden of Sinners does feature recurring characters such as Touko Aozaki, the sister of Mahou Tsukai no Yoru's Aoko Aozaki. Shiki's adventures also see her fighting off mages from the Clock Tower, as well as other individuals with abilities granted to them via connection to the “origin.” This is a recurring concept in the Nasuverse, where individuals have a single “concept” at the core of their being which grants them specialized powers once they access it. Outside forces take an interest in Shiki's origin, which is rooted in the taiji, or yin and yang. While most of this conceptual stuff is just there for flavor, it develops into a pretty rad cosmological synthesis of Taoism, Buddhism, and certain strains of psychology. If you're going to shove mysticism into your story just for the cool factor, this is a good way to do it. It fuels a ton of great spectacle and does tie somewhat into the story's main emotional hook too.

And of course, the whole project just oozes style. This series is where ufotable really invented the “house aesthetic” that now dominates most of their projects, a look characterized by high-contrast color schemes, heavy use of gradients, lush animation, and emphasis on background atmosphere.

My biggest quibble with these movies is that you can tell ufotable hadn't quite figured out how to adapt Takeshi Takeuchi's style to motion yet – he has a unique way of drawing faces that scrunch into something uncanny if not drawn precisely right. It's fun to compare The Garden of Sinners to more recent works, like Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, where they really got those down pat; that's not to say that this isn't an impressive production and gorgeous pretty much throughout. While each film features some moment of action setpiece, they do vary in their capacity to be appreciated standalone. However, the best standalone film – the fifth, Paradox Spiral – is one of the best thrillers I've seen in anime period, featuring a complex and thrilling story structure as well as some truly freaky horror imagery. The seventh and final film also features the only anime fight scene I know of that takes place on a pot farm. Maybe that's what the title is referring to?

Ten years out from its initial release, The Garden of Sinners still stands as a towering achievement in animated storytelling. While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, it's far more accessible than its daunting story structure (and once-galling price tag) might imply. Much like the Fate franchise, it's surprising simplicity can be deceptive. The plot only briefly veers into the world-ending territory generally associated with sweeping epics, but for the most part, the narrative revolves around a single relationship, along with Shiki's battle for her own soul. As an articulation of those emotional struggles, The Garden of Sinners remains exquisite.

So what do you think of ufotable's first foray into the Nasuverse 10 years later? Share your thoughts with us in the forums!

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