Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

The Monogatari anime has always stood out as a unique series, for better or for worse. A bizarre blend of character-driven stories, over the top fanservice, and abstract visuals that make for a show that isn't quite like anything else out there. It isn't for everyone, but I've personally always enjoyed the quirks of the series. Yet, I have felt that the formula which once made the show and other studio Shaft works stand out has over time become somewhat mundane. To be fair, my favorite arcs of the Monogatari series have been more recent ones such as Hitagi End and Suruga Devil, but as a whole it has felt as if Shaft had settled into a groove, reusing the same old visual tricks and techniques. This isn't explicitly a bad thing, but it was disappointing to see a studio that once stood out for the inventiveness and experimentation of their visuals and storytelling becoming more and more stagnant over time. And it's partially because of how the latest installment in the Monogatari franchise and first entry in a new film trilogy, Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen, overcomes that stagnation, that I found it so immensely refreshing.

As a bit of background, up until recently the Kizumonogatari anime had essentially become a joke. Despite being the second book in the Monogatari light novel series in terms of release date and the first chronologically, Shaft had indefinitely delayed the anime adaptation, constantly pushing vague release dates further and further down the line year after year. And that's if they even bothered to mention it at all. So at a certain point it became a running gag, "yeah, that'll happen when Kizumonogatari comes out," a phrase which indicates implausibility synonymous with "when pigs fly" or "in your dreams" or "Half Life 3". But then against all expectations they actually announced a concrete release date for it as a film series, and now that first entry is done and released. So other than losing a perfectly good jab at the studio, it does feel strange to have finally seen it, and also to have so much to say about it.

Kizumonogatari takes place before the events of previous Monogatari arcs, following the series' main protagonist, a teenage boy named Araragi, as he becomes wrapped up in the world of apparitions for the first time through a chance encounter with a female vampire named Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade (a character fans of the series would later come to know as Shinobu), and becoming a vampire himself along the way. One of the most fascinating things about Kizumonogatari as a film is how intriguing the story, and Araragi's characterization, is right out of the gate, but not on its own merits. But instead, in hindsight for those who have already watched the other Monogatari anime arcs. To elaborate, I've never been much of a fan of Araragi as a character. In all previous entries Araragi was portrayed as unapologetically altruistic. He devotes himself entirely to helping others at every opportunity, putting his own well being aside for the sake of others, to the point of often ignoring reason or logic to do so. He's reminiscent of countless other ridiculously selfless light novel protagonists, and it can get tiring as the series goes on and on. He comes off as too simple-minded and idealistic, yet he always ends up saving the day anyway. The series has on a few occasions explored why he is this way, and even the consequences that can arise from this sort of attitude, but all in all I've never found him nearly as interesting or complex as the rest of the cast.

So that's why I was caught of guard when Kizumonogatari begins with Araragi essentially making a complete 180 from the person I'd known up until now. The Araragi of Kizumonogatari is a selfish, lonesome, cowardly recluse. He claims to not care about anyone besides himself, even actively avoiding making friends. At one point he says that having friends is dangerous, because when they feel pain or sadness, you end up feeling that in tandem with them, and that having friends therefore weakens you as a person. Instead of striving to help others in every opportunity, trying to carry the burdens of others, this Araragi is terrified of those burdens somehow weighing him down, at least on the surface. And later on in the film, Araragi begins struggling between two viewpoints after being faced with the decision of whether to sacrifice himself for someone else's sake upon encountering Kiss-Shot. For a character who's often so relentlessly straightforward, it was fascinating seeing this new side of him, conflicted over what it was he wants and what kind of person he may become. It's a bizarre situation that, whether intentional or not, his character arc has become more interesting because the series skipped backwards rather than showing this earlier. The context gained through that which fans already know like Owarimonogatari's exploration into why he became so untrusting and belligerent towards other people, and Nekomonogatari's arc on Hanekawa informing us why it is she's interested in Araragi and his isolation, makes the story engaging purely through connecting the dots in how the motivations, backstories, and internal conflicts of the series' other entries interconnect with this one.

Now, with all that put aside, those who aren't long time fans of the series will probably find less to chew on here. Looking at this film as an individual entity, there isn't a whole lot going on so far other than dialogue laying down the seeds of Araragi's development, and making implications of a clash between Kiss-Shot and Vampire Hunters down the line. When it comes down to it this is only the first part of a larger story, making it mostly set up, preparing all the players for events to come. It's very much an incomplete package, and we'll have to wait until the second and third installments eventually come around before seeing how well all these preparations actually pay off in the long run. There's a bit of action, but for the most part this first film is just dialogue driving the characterization, which although interesting, as of now lacks any emotional pay-off. Beyond that, the interactions between characters are also the funniest Monogatari has been in a while. Araragi, Hanekawa, and eventually Kiss-Shot and Oshino play off each other very well, and some cartoony visual humor helps to bring some fun and light heartedness to what is otherwise a fairly dark film. Even the film's one significant case of over-the-top fanservice (an unfortunate Monogatari tradition) manages to be hilarious in how it's presented, and how the characters react to it.

On the topic of visuals, to simply say Kizumonogatari is by far the best the series has ever looked wouldn't be doing it justice. The film is an absolutely gorgeous work in its own right. The incredibly high bar the film sets for itself right out of the gate, with a gorgeously animated scene of incredible effects animation is somehow constantly met throughout. From my experience at least, no previous studio Shaft production has ever had consistent, masterful movement of this caliber from start to finish. The film hardly ever focused on purely still characters, as faces, bodies, and even hair were constantly moving with immense attention to detail. It came off as some sort of all-star gathering of talented animators showing off just what they're capable of when given the time and resources. I could write an entire separate piece simply on the animation of the film, from the vibrant and erratic fire animation of the opening scene, to the amazing fluidity of Araragi and Hanekawa's hair blowing in the wind. It's not just on another level from previous Monogatari iterations in terms of animation, it's in a completely different galaxy. The amount of style, vigor, and passion put into nearly every drawing shows, and makes the impact of those scenes all the more memorable and powerful.

Even outside of the animation, Kizumonogatari manages to look excellent visually in nearly every aspect. The use of color, framing, lighting, and art direction help to make what are fairly mundane locales (a street, a subway station, an abandoned cram school) striking, pulling me into the bizarre, creepy world the film creates. This also shows in how the film is directed. Bakemonogatari director Tatsuya Oishi returning to the helm not only brings back his unique, uncanny style of storyboarding, but pushes forward with ideas introduced in the original TV series (Bakemonogatari) in terms of tone. Some scenes are presented in a way that almost comes off as less drama and more horror. The film is often genuinely unsettling, a direction the series hasn't gone in for a long time, and never to this extent. The atmosphere of the world the film creates is surreal and barren, while also strangely beautiful. And while it certainly features plenty of Monogatari-patented dialogue dumps, it also has some powerful instances of silent, purely visual storytelling. The way these pieces all come together is best exemplified in the scene when Araragi first encounters Kiss-Shot, brought there in complete silence, his face expressively animated with intense terror, every part of the environment displaying the fear and inescapability he felt, from the red lights throughout the room, to all the escalators in the station moving down towards him as if trapping him, as he encounters the mangled vampire, her red blood clashing with the pure white floor. All these ingredients joining together make for gripping scenes that evoke emotion through animation as a visual medium wonderfully.

Another area where Kizumonogatari sets itself apart from previous Monogatari entries was in its heavy use of CG, albeit with mixed results. The most detrimental case of CG in the film is the use of CG character models. It isn't a glaring issue, but every once and a while in distant shots, when the character's motion is harder to make out, characters will suddenly be animated in CG rather than 2D animation. It's not especially common in the film, and one could likely miss it if they weren't paying close attention, but once I noticed it I had difficulty not being bothered by it. It doesn't seem at all necessary, it stands out like a sore thumb, and they're just ugly and stiffly animated. Plus, it comes off like a cheap tactic to avoid doing certain cuts at unusual, typically far off angles, expecting no one to notice.

Kizumonogatari's CG backgrounds, however, I actually quite liked. My favorite uses of CG in 2D anime is when it's used to accomplish that not possible with 2D animation, and the film's backgrounds are an excellent example of that. The "camera" of Kizumonogatari is constantly moving, swooping around characters as they move, rising, falling, and spinning, allowing for greater freedom of movement in the film's cinematography than ever possible in the series' past. And it makes for some really cool shots, following around characters as they walk or rotating around characters or backgrounds for dramatic effect. The backgrounds are jarring at first, as they often contrast noticeably with the chracters. I do feel that disparity between the characters and world does serve the tone of the film in a way, the world around Araragi being so unnatural and separated does fit with the film's already surreal and unsettling aesthetic, along with Araragi's mental state, being dragged into an unknown world he doesn't understand. But still, it could have been integrated better as it still comes off as awkward the way flat characters appear to glide along 3-dimensional spaces.

When it comes down to it, Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen is only the first step in a larger story, carefully setting up the pieces, but not fully utilizing any of its major plot threads just yet. But even then, this first entry in this three part series is still a fun, intriguing, and even thrilling experience that has revitalized the inventiveness of the Monogatari series for the first time in a long time. It boasts incredible animation far beyond any of the series' previous iterations, and a bold new direction for the series in terms of tone and visual storytelling. In addition, long time fans of the series will get a kick out of all the new insights into established series characters, seeing how these earlier forms of their personalities contextualize later conflicts and arcs. Despite its short runtime, the film feels gratifying, while still leaving me wanting more. If you already couldn't stand the Monogatari series' tongue-in-cheek fanservice or heavy focus on dialogue, this entry may not change your mind. But still, it sets itself apart from the series' past in some significant ways while still staying true to what made it work in the first place. So for fans, or anyone up for something weird and different, Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen is a one-of-a-kind blend of horror, comedy, and character-driven dialogue that sets the trilogy of films off to a promising start.


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