Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen
Some time before the events of Bakemonogatari, when Araragi is still just a normal high school student, he runs into a strange women out on the streets. The woman is badly injured, and begs Araragi to save her; faced with a being who seems both less and more than human, Araragi finds himself paralyzed by fear. With blood splattering the walls and fear in his heart, Araragi must make a choice that will change everything for him, for his town, for the world at large. There is danger and violence in this story, and little hope of a happy ending. This is the beginning of the Wound Tale.
Six years ago, it was announced the light novel Kizumonogatari would be receiving an anime adaptation. Following on the heels of the blockbuster success Bakemonogatari, Kizu acted as a prologue for that story, detailing the events that were briefly hinted at in the opening moments of the original series. Tatsuya Oishi, the visionary series director for Bakemonogatari and one of SHAFT's leading lights, was assigned as the film's director, and the stage was set for a climactic followup to an astonishingly successful anime hit.
Six years down the road, Bakemonogatari is now just the opening salvo of an anime series that at this point comprises several seasons, multiple OVAs, and over fifty individual episodes. The film that was slated to be the series' second adaptation is now both slightly overdue and also incidentally three films. Oishi has emerged from hiding as the returning director on a series that has grown from beneath him into a legitimate institution. Along with all the anticipation, it's impossible to enter this film without at least a slight sense of “why did it take so long?”
Given the wonders of this first film, it seems the answer must be “because they wanted to do it right.”
Kizumonogatari is a sharp change of pace from a series that has at this point established a very firm visual/narrative rhythm. Following Oishi's departure, Nisemonogatari and then Second Season in particular settled the series into a consistent style of storytelling. Changing color palettes establish mood and topic shifts; lighting can be used to represent either power or isolation. The camera is often a tool used to convey character interiority, but it can just as easily pull back to frame the on-screen events as a stage play. Visual styles are fluid, but reliable; animation is minimal, but aesthetic is king.
Kizumonogatari does not play by those rules. Visually, the film implies an alternate genealogy of Monogatari, a set of assumptions that started at Oishi's Bakemonogatari, but evolved in a very different direction from the television series. You could very accurately describe the film's visuals as “gorgeous” - you could equally justifiably critique them as “broken.” Either way, you could talk about them all day.
The film opens with a CG tree and the protagonist Araragi's panicked face, eyes shaking and skin stretching as he wanders through some unknown building. The opening minutes are a fine representation of the experience to come; featuring no dialogue at all, the movie proceeds forward at the pacing of Araragi's panicked steps. There's no music here, just Araragi's haggard breath as he wanders through staircases and empty rooms. Outside of occasional unwelcome slips into CG models, Araragi himself is rendered in almost uncomfortably detailed traditional animation; each panicked shake of his limbs is captured by the intimate, line-heavy style. In contrast, the environments Araragi traverses are largely impersonal CG, a glaring shift that makes Araragi seem permanently out of place in his surroundings.
If Shaft's Madoka Rebellion was an experiment in taking Inu Curry's cut-paper stylings to and beyond their logical extreme, Kizumonogatari seems intent on performing similar experiments with melding of evocative traditional animation and cold CG. Cameras twist and turn around Araragi as he climbs stairs into the light, or is captured in one small corner of the frame. He opens a doorway to the roof, and sees the ground is littered with angry crows. Araragi looks up as the clouds part, and his eyes shine in the sun. Araragi bursts into flames.
That's it for the opening sequence, outside of maybe half a minute of screaming and beautifully rendered immolation. From there, the film meanders its slow way into explaining just how and why Araragi got himself into that situation, through a series of strange meetings with suspicious women that end in him gaining one new number in his cellphone and losing the entirety of his blood. There is Araragi, his peculiar classmate Hanekawa, the mysterious apparition hunter Oshino, and the vampire Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade. Kizumonogatari is not one for convoluted storytelling; it is almost entirely a mood piece, and as a mood piece, it soars.
The aforementioned mix of CG and traditional animation is central to its style, but Kizumonogatari is full of all sorts of self-conscious aesthetic trickery. Even when both the characters and backgrounds are traditional drawings, there's an emphasis on the various planes in the frame that makes the film feel obviously fake, like a set of cutout characters traversing an idle background. It's a dramatic shift from the style of Owarimonogatari, where even when the characters are acting like the dramatic weirdoes they are, they still feel like they exist within their own world. Kizumonogatari doesn't seem interested in pretending that's true - as single lines of dialogue are drawn out between full minutes of tension and atmosphere, it embraces the idea of visual storytelling as a kind of song.
Speaking of songs, Kizu's soundtrack is also a big shift from the television series, and a very compelling one. In place of the series' staple electronic melodies, the music here is mostly a variety of understated jazz tunes. There are chirping songs with upbeat vocal tracks for Araragi's first meeting with Hanekawa, and dramatic piano-led tracks for his slow march towards meeting Kiss-shot. There's often barely any music at all; many scenes use purely incidental noise, like the ringing bell of an approaching train, to create a kind of anxious in-universe music. When Araragi can't get the thought of Hanekawa's body out of his mind, the soundtrack becomes a constant whir of his ticking clock. When he's trapped by the choice of possibly sacrificing himself to save another, his constricted breath is all we hear.
The self-conscious focus on aesthetics as emotive tool extends to Kizumonogatari's animation, which is as impressive as it is inconsistent. Kizumonogatari doesn't settle for a level quality of animation; scenes explode with staggered key frames like chalk outlines, while lesser conversations are relegated to those ugly CG models. A later sequence catches Kiss-shot resplendent in gorgeous flames as she plummets like a phoenix from a high tower, while early scenes find an easy playfulness in Hanekawa's personality that the television series' limited animation can rarely match. There is character animation to spare in this film; Hanekawa and Kiss-shot are given far more personality through their body language than their few words, and even if Araragi is still a bit of a cipher, the dramatic evocations of his panic at least feel perfectly real.
As a story, it's almost impossible to evaluate this film by itself. It is undoubtedly just the first act of a larger tale, and does not even try to have anything resembling a self-contained arc. Its characters are also largely abstractions so far; in spite of being inside Araragi's head, we are mostly clued into his feelings as a purely visceral experience, and only Kiss-shot has enough time to establish a strong personality. The film's later scenes, where an extended discussion between three characters sets up the conflict for the coming films, actually comes across as one of the film's slowest stretches. What story is here is almost textural, seemingly less important as a narrative than as a tapestry on which Kizu can paint its emotional and visual concerns. Araragi fighting people is less important than the felt sensation of panic as a threat approaches. Araragi discussing his future is secondary to the consistent ways the film contrasts the cold machines of mankind with the vivid danger of the supernatural, from the opening credits' shots of buddhas and machinery through the CG/animation aesthetic war and on to the finale's dramatic clash among steam and wires. What was originally a novel heavy on internal voice has been transformed into an experience inexpressible through words. Nearly everything that Kizumonogatari says, it says in silence.
Kizumonogatari comes in a beautifully understated cardboard case. The box actually feels a bit sturdier than the usual Monogatari boxes, though there aren't really any visual differences outside of the unique art style. That box houses the blu-ray case and a handful of physical extras. There's the usual art booklet, but instead of focusing solely on the story and character designs, this one includes an interview with Nisio Isin and Akiyuki Shinbo, along with some key frame breakdowns of critical scenes.
That interview is full of great insights for the dedicated Monogatari fan. On Shinbo's side, there are a variety of interesting details about the films themselves. He mentions how splitting the film into a trilogy was precisely why they were able to get away with sequences like Araragi walking silently for several minutes straight, and also says that Hanekawa has always been the hardest character for him to pin down. Isin offers more insight into the creation of the franchise overall, like the reveal that he'd originally intended for the story to be composed of just Hitagi Crab, Tsubasa Cat, and Kizumonogatari, but that he'd had so much fun writing about Senjougahara that he decided to keep going forward. He also offers a variety of his own thoughts on Hanekawa, making for a thoroughly rewarding read for anyone who's already been ensnared by the series.
As usual, the collection also includes a series of postcards, featuring character art of the film's various key players. On-disc extras are limited to some brief promotional videos, but overall, this is still a beautiful, high-quality collection. It essentially splits the difference between matching the franchise's usual release style and adopting its own aesthetic, making for a stylish addition to any shelf. Between the solid release and the dynamite film, Kizumonogatari feels essential for any fan of the franchise, and of serious interest to those who simply want to see the idiosyncratic far ends what anime films can be.
Kizumonogatari: Tekketsu-hen might be the first third of a masterpiece. It is already a breathtaking experience.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Incredible personality and creativity, strong mix of art and sound design make it a profoundly visceral experience
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