Kizumonogatari Tekketsu: SHAFT Ups the Ante for The Silver Screen

When first touching down in Japan in late 2011, the one big theatrical anime I was looking forward to feasting my eyes on was Kizumonogatari–at the time slated for release in Fall of 2012. As the story goes, the promised time would come and go with little more than a few promotional images. Years would pass, and the project would remain dormant as SHAFT embarked on other productions, including adapting other entries in the Monogatari series. While these tales proved to be very satisfying expansions upon the original Bakemonogatari story, the animated version of the highly-lauded prequel remained shrouded in mystery.

Flash forward to now: Apparently while I wasn’t looking, the powers that be decreed the movie’s opening date. Also, apparently it’s a trilogy? All news to me; which goes to show how I gave up on my futile pursuit of scarce information, opting for surprise. Aside from the head-popping-plus-ejaculating promo from 2011, my first encounter with any animated footage from the film was an ad at the Tokyo Metro Akihabara station. As far as surprises go, it was quite pleasant. The new visuals were above and beyond the originals from years ago, and did well to get me adequately pumped. The stars aligned, and I ended up needing to take half day off work to attend to certain business. Naturally, I took advantage of the opportunity to swing by the nearby theater and check out the new film.

The original Bakemonogatari anime from 2009 (!) alludes to Kizumonogatari without a second’s delay, frontloading the series with a delicious teaser of its prequel. While this teaser would prove to be juicy fanservice for fans of the novel, the anime-only crew (me) remained fixed to the screen with drool running down our jaws, wondering if this story would ever see full realization in anime form.

Thankfully in the brave year of 2016, the release of Kizumonogatari: Tekketsu has come to pass.

Being the first of three parts, Tekketsu focuses primarily on setting the stage. The film grants the audience a chance to witness Araragi’s first meetings with Hanekawa Tsukasa, Oshino Meme, and Shinobu–or Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade as she is known in Kizumonogatari. Watching this film is a fond reminder of how great the Monogatari characters are, and seeing their initial encounters proves to add more depth to their relationships, which will most likely grow deeper in subsequent parts. Along with making new friends, Tekketsu also reveals Araragi’s transformation into a vampire–the main focus of the plot.

Bakemonogatari infamously opens with Araragi basking in the glowing display of Hanekawa’s seductive underwear for an extended period of time, a scene this film revisits–turns out it’s how they first meet. Contrary to a typical smack into the stratosphere, Hanekawa smiles, hops a couple of steps towards Araragi, and launches into conversation with him–“When it comes to protection, skirts provide rather low security. A spats firewall is far more effective.”

This line comes following Araragi’s embarrassed and unconvincing “I didn’t see anything…”

After acknowledging each is aware of the other’s existence as “that loner” and “that honor student,” the two embark upon a discussion about the merits and demerits of making friends, performed at Monogatari’s characteristic keen and sharp clip.  Their discussion sheds light on Araragi’s lonelier days alluded to in the Monogatari series, and one gets the feeling that Hanekawa is a little lonely as well. Along with forcing herself into a relationship with Araragi, Hanekawa also speaks of rumors about a stunningly beautiful blond-haired vampire that roams the town at night.

In a somewhat welcome change of pace to my non-native-Japanese ears, all of the dialogue throughout the film is rather straightforward, opting not to focus on complex wordplay. The dialogue is also quite limited–comparatively, for Bakemonogatari–with heavy emphasis on character acting, especially in the opening half. In fact, it can be said that this film is almost the exact opposite of all the Bakemonogatari we’ve gotten to know so far–less talking, more showing. The film does not know how to stand still: Dynamic 3D camerawork, organic facial expressions, and insane body movement are the name of the game in Kizumonogatari. The gust of wind that inverts Hanekawa’s skirt is ferocious, sending characters’ garments and hair flying every which way, and in Hanekawa’s case the audience gets some Dead or Alive action in the chest area. In the film’s more tense moments, Araragi thrashes and contorts when running in fear, and his entire face will move for fierce nervous twitches and giant gasps of breath. Scenes in general are deliberately framed and directed to be very visually arresting. Even in the quirky montages of characters doing stuff overlaid with dialogue–par for the course in Monogatari–every single detail moves and is bursting with life.

The film’s most notable scene is likely the very first. Araragi finds himself in an abandoned cram school (Oshino’s secret hideout in Bakemonogatari) and figures out he’s a vampire by… stepping outside.  The scene probably lasts for roughly five minutes, is completely devoid of dialogue, and driven entirely by strong, striking visuals. The interior of the school Araragi makes his way through is complete with quirky SHAFT touches, such as placing an elevators’ up and down buttons on separate pillars in the middle of a sterile, white room. His movement is lifelike and fluid, with the realization of his situation coming when he makes his first step outside on the roof of the school, which is covered with crows. He immediately bursts into spectacular blaze, vigorously flailing around while screaming, with eyes rendered as white saucers, similar to a member of the Gorillaz.

Midway through the film, Araragi finds a badly injured Kiss-Shot in a wonderfully minimalist, vast, and engrossing subway station; her huge pools of blood shimmering, beautifully splashed in violent curves against the white tile floor. The severity and fear in both Araragi and Shinobu’s expressions is gut-wrenching, with Araragi’s over-the-top gasps of terror ever so convincing. There is also Oshino’s first entrance: A stunning exhibit of quick, stylish and well-rendered action animation. The film even splashes its pizzazz on the goofy scenes: Returning home upon seeing Hanekawa’s panties, Araragi sits in his room, frustrated. To attend to his needs, he heads into to town to buy an “Exciting Magazine” (as written on the cover). The train ride into town is characterized by our leading man running against stop-motion photos of train tracks, matched to steam engine sounds. Final cut: He overtakes a Shinkansen. It’s bonkers.

Visually, the film makes a somewhat unconscious and very appealing callback to older anime films of the 1990s–a period where a number of films and OVAs deliberately existed in a different visual universe from their TV counterparts. This typically came about because the production staff had more money and time to handle more ornate and complex designs differing from those in the original TV airing. Such examples include Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, Nadesico: The Prince of Darkness, and the Ruroni Kenshin OVA. To a more extreme degree, franchises like Tenchi Muyou would have similar-but-different/completely  different designs, each series taking place in alternative universes. Even in the same universe, Tenchi would go crazy with the designs depending on the occasion.

Compared to the TV series, the visuals in Kizumonogatari are strikingly different, high animation quality aside. Character designs are most certainly Watanabe Akio, but there’s a classic contour and complexity to them, likely due to collaboration with 90s anime stalwart Morioka Hideyuki. The cram school receives a makeover to appear as colder, bigger and more imposing, while Araragi’s home is a completely different building, receiving a chic modern Japanese redesign, the likes of which one sees in Omotesando. This old-school approach of not sticking strictly to canon and creating new visual expressions is a great departure from modern-day anime that play it relatively safe when making the transition to the big screen, and is part of what makes Kizumonogatari a very exciting film.

The entire world the characters occupy is a wild mix of modern and classic architecture. While Araragi’s house and the train station exhibit a distinctly smart, modern and minimal aesthetic, the cram school is a strong, gray and functional structure that looks like something from the 1970s. The city the characters live in is redone to be a retro Showa wonderland, a fact that is played upon in one of the film’s few call-backs to classic anime, in which Araragi’s shadow is seen approaching the train station marching like Tetsujin 28 with music to match. Other stylistic notes: The series’ interstitial title cards are written in French, not in English or Japanese, and the film’s overall color-scheme is black and white with splashes of bold color–essentially, the perfect package for your pretentious Japanese anime art film.

Background music also makes diverse callbacks to genres old and new. While the film opens with Monogatari’s defining layered and atmospheric electronic tones, which return at a number of moments through out the film, a great portion film’s music draws inspiration from 1960s lounge music and Bossa Nova, the likes of Henry Mancini or Brasil ’66. This very deliberate stylistic choice is yet another manner in which the film establishes a very distinct tone, placing Kizumonogatari’s modern pop-culture tale in the contrasting retro context of the 1960s. The film also has beautiful orchestral swells, the standout moment coming when Araragi offers Kiss-Shot his blood, backed to a luscious performance via the studio orchestra’s string section. It is the sort of piece that plays at that moment in a classic film when the main couple kisses for the first time, and is a beautiful example of how the film blends a classic sensibility with its modern-day vampire story, putting a new twist on it.

The opening credits are another departure from the rest of the film both visually and musically, blending newspaper-style monochrome photographs, Buddhist imagery, and Kiss-Shot’s sword, underscored by a profound Taiko performance. I realize there is no political agenda to the scene at all, but the overall atmosphere got me expecting either Mishima Yukio or the Seppuku Pistols to bust out of the screen halfway through the sequence. It has this stern and traditional Japanese vibe that provides another intriguing stylistic tone within the film’s already varied pallet.

It would of course be remiss to not mention the voice acting, with the entire cast reprised for some bang-up performances. Araragi probably experiences the widest range of emotions throughout the film, effectively resulting in Kamiya Hiroshi stealing the show. Horie Yui puts on a grade-A performance during her one scene, maintaining her chipper inflection while shifting between being serious, playful and critical.

As is the case with most SHAFT works, Kizumonogatari: Tekketsu lays down the stylistic flair thick and heavy. With the opportunity to do Bakemonogatari on the big screen, SHAFT courageously rose to the occasion to produce one of their most slick and visually engrossing works yet. That said, the unique aesthetic touches are made to compliment the typical Monogatari-brand of quirkiness that is inherent in the original work, and both work hand-in-hand to create something genuinely compelling.

I can say it: Kizumonogatari was worth the wait. Now all hopes are on the next part actually being completed in time for its planned summer release.

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