Last time we examined the past decade of Studio SHAFT to have a better understanding of Tatsuya Oishi’s style and the circumstances that lead to Kizumonogatari’s existence. Time to actually tackle the film.
Right off the bat, Araragi’s anguish and ragged breathing bring to mind the original Kizumonogatari teaser. While some ideas from that short promotional video remain in the movie, all the footage shown in 2011 was entirely scrapped – it’s as if the film wanted to immediately establish its existence as a very troubled production. We can only speculate about why the project struggled so much, but it does feel like Oishi’s approach to the adaptation could be a major reason. The biggest fan of NisiOisiN’s prose is NisiOisiN himself, and so the Monogatari series is renowned for being verbose by both fans and critics. Kizumonogatari is written as the chaotic stream of consciousness of Koyomi Araragi, but Oishi decided to do away with narration and monologues entirely; he took a book that exists inside the mind of a character and tried to make all his feelings explicit and yet portrayed in an unobtrusive way. Not dropping any relevant details without outright stating anything was by all means a crazy idea. And what’s even more outrageous is that he succeeded with his elegant but thoroughly insane solution – eventually at least, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had to redraw his storyboards countless times to achieve it. The Show, Don’t Tell principle has become a bit of a poisonous idea on the internet thanks to reductive fans interpreting it as a rule rather than a powerful approach, but this film pulls it off to an extreme that shouldn’t even be possible. The rich character acting helps a lot, but if something stands out in particular it’s the recurring eye close-ups. Partly because of their abundance – I counted about 60 throughout the one hour runtime, even more if you’re less strict with the criterion – and partly because of how effectively they capture Araragi’s mental state. His eyes are windows to peek inside his mind through the emotional rollercoaster he experienced during the worst week of his life. No two shots are really alike, and you get to feel his awkwardness, anguish and pain very clearly through them. I’m sure you would be able to feel his joy too if this were the kind of movie where he’s allowed to experience that emotion often.
Araragi’s struggle, much like Oishi’s, eventually ends as he reaches the top of the stairs and gazes at the outside world. There’s a murder of crows, drawn as if they were pieces of effects animation to make them feel like a force of nature, and textured in a very familiar manner. Everything that has happened so far built up to an obvious outcome; the vampiric traits being gradually revealed, the flame-like FX flashing in his eyes as he stares at the brighter surroundings, something hiding behind the clouds, and finally a representation of the sun itself. The scene that follows is easily one of the highlights of the entire film, as Araragi is brutally engulfed by beautiful hand drawn flames. Genichiro Abe – the key animator in charge of the sequence – is one of SHAFT’s most valuable assets, but I wasn’t aware he had it in him to animate such beautiful agony; while he’s adept at drawing effects animation, I traditionally associate him with scenes involving complex camerawork, which he regularly gets tasked with since he has great spatial awareness. This is more straightforward but immediately became the most striking scene he’s ever drawn, and makes me wish he gets to animate more expressive character acting, even if it’s in a non-traditional sense like this. Araragi’s torment momentarily ends, with a final match cut bringing us to the solemn opening, where Oishi’s fondness of Buddhist imagery and sculptures in general is made apparent. This tense first scene exemplifies his masterful grasp on tempo and audiovisual editing, and the momentary breather afterwards already feels earned.
The striking in media res intro does a good job at establishing the movie’s visual identity, but it’s even clearer once it properly begins. The more detailed character designs stand out of course, especially when compared to those from the TV series, but I find details like the palette more interesting – if you can even call the fact that the entire film is dyed red a detail. Oishi had used predominant tones before, and his tendency to mute all but one color to make something stand out remains, but he had never applied these techniques to something with a scope this large. Serves to say, a movie about meeting a vampire and offering it your blood being themed around the color red is a self-explanatory decision. It appears like every film within the trilogy will have its own color, since I heard the second one – themed around the night – is all about the blues instead.
When it comes to immediately noticeable elements that differ from any established Monogatari aesthetic though, the elephant in the room is the room itself; the photorealistic CG environments make no effort whatsoever at being inconspicuous, which has been a moderate source of controversy ever since the film came out. And to be fair to the detractors, it’s entirely true that character art and backgrounds don’t coexist harmonically at all. In the past Oishi has joked about using real photography for anything that is too complicated to draw, but there’s obviously more to his continuous attempts at creating striking contrasts. In this case it feels like a desire to emulate Araragi’s feelings of inadequacy – explicit in the book, and understated in this adaptation – as an awkward teenager who feels like he doesn’t quite belong in the world that surrounds him, and ends up in a world that is genuinely alien. These CG backgrounds were already present in the early teaser 5 years ago, so it definitely wasn’t a rushed last-minute decision. Polarizing for sure, but entirely intentional.
But back to the action, where Bakemonogatari’s infamous very first scene is recreated in spectacular fashion. The pages spent in the novel with Araragi freaking out over Tsubasa Hanekawa’s underwear aren’t required, it’s still obvious where he’s concentrating all his energy. 8 minutes into the film, Kizumonogatari remembers the franchise it’s attached to and we hear the first sentence so far. A long and traditionally Monogatari conversation bringing up rumors about a beautiful vampire ensues, and Hanekawa forcefully befriends the socially awkward Araragi. And again, since this is Monogatari his reaction is getting overly excited about his new attractive friend and rushing to buy porn to calm down. He runs through a real train track – old habits die hard – and has no time to bother with unimportant details like doors. Absurd background jokes like this have an actual lasting effect within Oishi’s world, but he never acknowledges their existence. The earlier conversation had a similar incidental gag, as a car crashed offscreen when Araragi’s awkward response failed to work and you could see its wreckage minutes later.
Araragi’s questionable plans are thwarted by his own curiosity, since he can’t stop himself from following an increasingly ominous trail of blood. A noble vampire – Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade – stands at the end of it, neither noble nor standing. Her wounds are so severe they would require him to sacrifice his life to heal, a request that he understandably declines. The scene that follows entirely justifies Yuuya Geshi’s special credit as one of the film’s Main Animators – a very emotionally charged sequence where the proud vampire pathetically begs for help and eventually causes Araragi to panic and run away. The palpable desperation of the supposedly immortal creature trying to escape death makes this sequence delightfully hard to watch; there’s nothing graceful about her dismembered body crawling for help and splashing blood everywhere. And Araragi’s reaction doesn’t pale in comparison. The chaotic lines and colors spilling everywhere couldn’t portray his desperation in a more striking fashion. As extreme as his terror was though, it can’t overpower the image of Kiss-Shot crying like a baby. Araragi eventually backtracks and offers the vampire the life he wasn’t happy with. She drinks his blood in a beautiful sequence animated by the veteran Yasuomi Umetsu; the scene is framed romantically like in many vampire stories, despite the circumstances being so atypically crude.
Our protagonist does a notoriously poor job at dying after this, and he wakes up days later with a way smaller yet more whole vampire. His poor life decisions continue, as he decides to go outside to explore and we finally arrive at the intro – which means he’s once again burning alive in agony. Kou “Aninari” Yoshinari rose to the challenge of drawing a scene as impressive as Abe’s work; whether you believe he bested him or not, it’s undeniable that this is another high point of the film. Unlike Abe’s clean drawings focusing on body horror, Aninari’s sequence is an impressionistic spectacle that emphasizes the beauty of the fire swallowing him. Kiss-Shot becomes an animated painting that has no business in commercial anime as she leaps to save him, surrounded by his usual 3DCG-like smoke. I always find it awkward to talk about Aninari, because the overarching theme of his output is animation that shouldn’t even be possible. He does more work than a key animator is supposed to – since he values coloring and postprocessing highly – and draws things no one else in his field does, so it’s pointless to even compare him to his peers. One day he will have to return to his home planet, so let’s keep on enjoying his inhuman work in the meanwhile.
Araragi is admonished for his foolishness, having walked under the sun after being reborn as a creature of the night – Kiss-Shot’s new servant. He learns that her missing limbs have been replaced by hollow replicas, and that she had lost them in an ambush by three vampire slayers she didn’t take seriously enough. He’s tasked with defeating them to recover her original limbs and restore her full power, which conveniently would allow her to turn him back into a human being. Attracting the vampire slayers after inheriting Kiss-Shot’s powers turns out to be easy, but the careless mistake in her plan makes itself obvious – if she was defeated by the three of them, her servant would stand no chance by attacking before isolating the slayers. Araragi is resigned to dying – again? – but Meme Oshino’s arrival saves him; the most charismatic character in the series, animated by Monogatari’s most charismatic key animator Ryo Imamura. It feels refreshing to be able to say he didn’t quite draw the most impressive scene, considering his tyrannical domination during Bakemonogatari. The scene is impressive nonetheless – Imamura’s drawings are the most traditional-looking in the film, dirty pencil that feels entirely at odds with the clean CG surroundings. Noticeable thick lines and impact frames you won’t see anywhere else in the movie make his introduction as memorable as it’s meant to be, as Oshino easily stops and dissuades the attackers.
Our unlucky protagonist follows his shady savior back to their hiding place, which as it turns out was suggested to the vampire by Oshino himself. During this final meeting he offers his services as mediator in the conflict between the slayers and the vampire – who is revealed to be an Oddity Slayer herself, a unique being capable of erasing other monsters. Oshino wants to preserve the balance between the two sides – factions? Worlds? – but also asks for monetary compensation, which Araragi ends up accepting. The handful of long conversations like this are sprinkled with life. Previously, Kiss-Shot and Araragi briefly became an amusing cartoon under the pen of the younger Yoshinari brother – who I mentioned last time as one of Oishi’s long time acquaintances from Gainax. Now, Oshino loses his features and folds into nothingness after Kiss-Shot deems him not important enough to be remembered. No scene is allowed to become stale.
And now this write-up is going to end, just as abruptly as Kizumonogatari Part 1 does – the most glaring issue with the film. A holistic look at it is impossible since it’s in no way self-contained. Not following a traditional narrative arc wouldn’t be much of an issue in and of itself, as this is not a standard movie to begin with. But it’s hard to even call the ending anticlimactic, it’s more like a sudden cut born from production feasibility rather than creative reasons. If anything it resembles an overly long episode of TV anime, a format with almost inherent structure issues. It has been confirmed that Oishi storyboarded the entirety of the trilogy by himself, which will end up amounting to about 3 hours and a half of footage. It’s kind of a miracle that a project ridiculous on so many levels exists at all, so I will gladly accept this unfortunate split release if that’s what allowed it to finally happen. I wouldn’t rush to watch the first part of the trilogy for now if you haven’t seen it yet. An exhausting marathon of all 3 films might be the ideal experience.
I’m still not sure if Oishi’s story will have a happy end unlike the vampire’s. But I can say with confidence that Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen is the most elegant crudely cut piece of a film about a teenager whose adventures started by getting horny after a beautiful classmate briefly talked with him. Not the most popular category perhaps, but this left a high bar.
Support us on Patreon so that we can keep producing content like this, and move the entirety of Sakugabooru to an independent server. Those who contribute $20 a month or more will also be able to suggest some titles for us to extensively talk about like this!