Kara no Kyoukai (The Garden of Sinners): A Dark, Philosophical Hidden Gem

With their sleek combination of hand-drawn and CGI animation, Studio Ufotable has highly influenced the aesthetic and “feel” of modern action anime. Every weeb knows their hits, the Fate series and Demon Slayer, but the supernatural mystery film series Kara no Kyoukai is what first put them on the map. Written by Kinoko Nasu of Fate fame, it combines that series’ urban fantasy setting and deep lore with a storyline that explores the deepest and darkest parts of human nature. It might not be for everyone, but it’s a brilliant series and deserves more love in the fandom!

Unfortunately for newbies, this is also like Fate in that the watch order is a bit screwy. Kara no Kyoukai is a series of seven main movies (plus three epilogue OVAs), most of which are about an hour long, and were released in non-chronological order. The first film, Thanatos, is actually fourth in the timeline! The whole series is about the same length as a 25-episode anime (chronological order is 2, 4, 3, 1, 5, 6, 7). But we generally expect movies to stand on their own, and each Kara no Kyoukai film is just a small part of a gradually evolving story. You’ll probably have no clue what’s going on watching the first movie, but just be patient – things will slowly come together as you get closer to the end.

Our hero, if you can call her that, is a moody teenage girl named Ryougi Shiki. Shiki was raised by a Yakuza family that used magic to give her a split personality: one male, and one female. But the violent male personality was destroyed in an accident, and in its place Shiki received the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception. When her eyes start glowing, she can see the lifespan of anything and kill it instantly with her knife – not just people, but magic, supernatural creatures, and possibly the entire fabric of reality itself. Super Saiyan God Goku got nothing on Ryougi Shiki!

The Grim Reaper as an anime girl

Shiki works with her soft-spoken crush Mikiya and effortlessly cool boss Touko to solve supernatural murders that all seem to connect to a much greater conspiracy below the surface. But the story is just as much about Shiki’s inner conflict – her loss of identity, her struggle to act against her killer instincts, and her unique personal morality. It could even be viewed as a love story, between an ordinary boy and an extraordinarily damaged girl. This series tackles lots of heavy issues, like murder, rape, mental illness, and what it means to be human, without relying on shock value or gratuitous fanservice to sell it.

Touko is kinda hot though…

The pacing is generally slow and dialogue-heavy, but the dark atmosphere sucks you in. Taking place in the 90’s when Japan’s economy was struggling, the bloody streets and claustrophobic back alleys give the show a grungier vibe than most modern anime. Action scenes are short but gorgeously animated, with the all the dynamic CGI camera effects that ufotable became famous for. And the soundtrack is by my goddess of music, Yuki Kajiura, so of course it’s amazing!

My favorite scene

The only major bone I have to pick with Kara no Kyoukai is it’s villains. With the exception of Asagami Fujino in the third film, all them are generic mustache-twirling baddies with little motivation or depth. It felt like Nasu wanted to make the morally ambiguous Shiki look good by comparison, but I’d prefer more complex and nuanced characters. All the fights against these guys are incredible, but I always found Shiki’s conflict within herself to be much more interesting.

Fuck this guy in particular

But all the mysteries, the brilliant character writing, and the jaw-dropping animation and OST kept me in all the way. It’s a mature and thoughtful anime, but it still has great action and even some dark humor here and there. There’s so much more I want to say about it, but part of the appeal is figuring everything out as you go. If you’re a fan of supernatural thriller anime like Death Note and The Promised Neverland, you’ll probably love Kara no Kyoukai. I’ll admit I was hella confused at first, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks.

2 thoughts on “Kara no Kyoukai (The Garden of Sinners): A Dark, Philosophical Hidden Gem

  1. Fred (Au Natural) August 8, 2020 / 6:38 pm

    It would be difficult to overstate how much I loved this anime! It is moody and dark interspersed with brilliant bursts of action. When the humor does take place, it stands out in contrast to the dark background. Yet in the end I find an optimistic and even uplifting message.

    Liked by 1 person

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