The question of “What started this all?” isn’t typically one we focus on a lot when it comes to anime, if not narratives in general. In anime the practice of en media res, or starting a story in the second act of a three act structure, is extremely common because more often than not, this is what we want to see. Starting in the second act doesn’t mean we don’t get to have things like meeting new characters or see our cast grow, instead it plops us where the action is happening or where things are just ramping up in pace, and back in 2009 when Studio SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari aired, this is exactly where we started. We met Hitagi Senjougahara and we were instantly in the meat of the piece with the explanation as to how our lead, Koyomi Araragi, got his powers and who the mysterious Meme Oshino and Shinobu Oshino came from as a quick blurb referred back to as the story progressed, and this worked. However, in early 2011, a film for the prequel to the series, Kizumonogatari, was announced; not until early and mid 2016 as well as early 2017 did we get the entire trilogy of Kizumonogatari films. Without further ado let’s look at what started everything at the very beginning of the Monogatari Series.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Before Koyomi met any of the now main cast of the show, before he had his vampire powers, and before Shinobu Oshino was even called by that name. Instead let’s focus on three characters: Koyomi Araragi, Tsubasa Hanekawa, and Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade. On the spring break before the events of Nekomonogatari Kuro, the friendless Koyomi Araragi meets a girl with a strange interest in him — a beautiful girl who decides that the two are now friends, Tsubasa Hanekawa. When the two meet, Tsubasa tells Koyomi about a rumour going around time, a rumour of a vampire. While in supposed disbelief, what happens when Koyomi runs into the legendary oddity slayer that night kicks everything else that would soon become the Monogatari Series into gear.
More or less, the audience is supposed to know that this is going to happen. While the exact details leading up to Koyomi meeting and saving Kiss-Shot were unknown through the entire series that aired before these movies’ theatrical releases, the audience was expected to know that this was inevitably going to happen because of the existence of the entire series and all of the stories that have already been told and have referenced this being the exact reason Koyomi had vampire abilities.
This is where Kizumonogatari highlights what it’s best at. Instead of glossing over all of the details that have been spilled over the course of the several episodes prior to these movies, it takes what the audience is expected to already know and fill in details to and makes each of those expected scenes brilliantly interesting. It’s a combination of a light bulb moment when the audience realises that this is the scene that Koyomi or Shinobu talked about all those times, and a dash of that Studio SHAFT charm that really makes these scenes more than any others stand out. When Koyomi meets Kiss-Shot and every single bloody detail about what drove her to that point is capitalised on, when Meme Oshino explains what he could do to help Koyomi and Kiss-Shot through the films’ primary conflict, when the conclusion to everything happens and the end that dictates the outcome of the rest of Koyomi’s life plays out, each of those scenes — despite having an audience that’s expected to know the outcome — played extremely well with that in consideration.
Unfortunately for Kizumonogatari, however, you cant fill three hours with fully fleshed out scenes that have been referred to in the past. Where the films fail to a varying degree is whenever it has to balance the old with the new. Each of the scenes that connected each reference and moment that was expected had unusually varying quality. While the problem with the Monogatari Series tends to differ from production to production, rarely enough to the point where there are no immediate examples off the top of my head does the series suffer from a problem where the quality of each scene varied, at the very least to the degree that it did in Kizumonogatari. While sometimes we get interesting looks into secrets that Koyomi couldn’t ever say about the event before in the series due to their context that unfold into brilliantly told scenes, other times what would be expected to follow suit quickly resolved sans large details that the series has become known for.
This overall creates a pacing problem, and one that stood out to me a lot whenever I was watching all three films back to back. The movies end up feeling like Studio SHAFT arguing with itself about whether to treat all three as long episodes of the Monogatari Series, or to treat them as feature length films and ultimately left me feeling like three hours wasn’t long enough to capture everything the production team wanted to do. Rather capture what they could and map out everything so pacing never became an issue, instead it feels like they tried to capture everything and succeeded at some while massively failing at others. Kizumonogatari felt like a rollercoaster not because of the emotional highs and lows it takes but instead because it felt like it was consistently flipping between having my attention wholeheartedly and slowly testing my patience. This is mainly evident when it came to the fights with the three vampire hunters, where the preparation to fight each one was interesting and successfully built up a load of momentum while every fight itself felt rushed and void of much detail. While I suppose the argument that this was done to highlight how surprisingly easy each fight was for Koyomi, it genuinely feels like the scenes weren’t well thought out or well planned when it came to the latter two.
On the other hand, being a character driven narrative mainly focused around dialogue has it’s definite difficulties, and like usual Kizumonogatari excels at making talking for hours interesting. Even though a majority of the points of action fell completely on their faces, every scene of two characters sitting down and talking about what was happening more than made up for those failures. What helps this more than anything is a naturally deep interest in seeing how each of these characters the audience knows go on to have much deeper and more personal connections, come to take those first initial steps towards their eventual relationships. Seeing the cast of three I mentioned before grow closer and further apart through the various high points in the story is more what the production about than it is about helping save Kiss-Shot.
This is another instance where the outcome of the path being taken is known but by witnessing the details that come along the way, something is gained and betters the production. The Monogatari Series in general does an excellent job of only introducing characters when they matter and trying to pack as many individual important snippets into one larger character as to not end up with hundreds that could all be described in a sentence or less. The main cast of Koyomi, Tsubasa, and Kiss-Shot aren’t only a cast that the audience is expected to know, but a cast that even in the first act of the story are fully fleshed out individuals that we slowly get to learn more about and watch as they develop from point zero.
While the main cast does absolutely shine to their highest possible degree, the way the side characters are treated is rather interesting to me. Due to them only being in the spotlight when the production chooses to highlight them, they act as figured in the background and while they don’t have stellar personalities or overflow with development, they do the narrative justice regardless. Meme Oshino feels like a mystery that the Monogatari Series would go on to paint him as in infinitely more shades than Kizumonogatari did, and each of the vampire hunters feel ephemeral in a good way. Where the instantaneous and short nature of each of their fights hurt the production, the little explained about them helps the production by initially making them seem more deadly than they actually were but then served as a way to show how truly insignificant they were when up against Koyomi. The only bad thing I could say about the hunters is that the short one-sentence blurbs that they can each be described with feels almost devaluing after the fact. The ephemeral nature of the hunters does help capitalise on what I strongly felt the production was trying to spell out, but when the characters are demoted to things like “A half-vampire that hates his kind” rather than build on this concept it creates this feeling that the characters aren’t only forgettable and unimportant, but that they aren’t even ways of showing how massively powerful Koyomi is without stepping away for a moment to think about that aspect of them.
The soundtrack for the films helps highlight each moment that they attributed to in near perfect ways. From bossa nova to classical music to synth heavy electronic compositions, each piece while nothing exceptionally special tie to each moment they were played to well. The unfortunate side effect is that each piece can’t really stand alone aside from maybe one or two of the tracks drowned in synths and that likely only stems from personal taste. Sure, the soundtrack fits each moment and does a decent job empowering what needs empowerment. The downside is that because the tracks were created for the scenes in such a strict way, they’re beyond forgettable when they aren’t thought about as the songs from those scenes. The phrase “Kizumonogatari soundtrack” doesn’t bring up any stand out tracks right away, but the phrase “The song from Kizumonogatari‘s first promotional video” gets a very specific tune stuck in your head. Rather than being a complement that can also stand alone while being a part of the film’s personality, the soundtrack are just those songs that play during x scene.
While the film score is nothing particularly interesting, something that does stand out and get stuck in my head when I think about these movies is the ending credits song étoile et toi and étoile et toi édition le blanc performed by French singer Clémentine and singer Ainhoa for the latter of the two songs. The first version falling more under a bossa nova feel and marking the beginning of the end, still fresh with life as it accompanies the end credits for the second film. The second version however is longer is dripping with deep melancholy perfectly fitting to the third film’s conclusion. Despite the individual score of the movies being average at best, these two tracks feel like they have their own personality while still being deeply connected to the character of the productions they’re both from.
Visually, Kizumonogatari stands out in all the best ways. It’s still clear that this is the Monogatari Series but it has this unique visual identity that conveys how old the story is supposed to be, as one told several times throughout the series, while still appearing young. A lot of warm shades are used and some variant of the colour orange is in every scene to make it feel alive and warm. Shinobu in the TV series incorporates a lot of solid colours into her design, often featuring white with very pale skin, where young Kiss-Shot or even Shinobu at the very end of the film have more blended colours making up their design and incorporate a lot more soft shades often highlighted with pink to add warmth. Overall, Kizumonogatari is just warm to look at, even in scenes that have a default look of cold like late at night or during rainstorms.
In addition, there are the usual Studio SHAFT avant-garde set pieces and scene transitions that help the production as much as they always have. Each movie is a combination of real life photography, blank screens with solid colors and single words written in French (where in previous installments in the series blank black cards would have the character 黒, or black, on them, Kizumonogatari has the card with the word noir printed on it), and digitally drawn backgrounds that all seamlessly fit together for anyone used to the way SHAFT productions look. Kizumonogatari just continues having the same stellar visual identity that the Monogatari Series has become known for, albeit this time a bit warmer.
So is Kizumonogatari III movie of the year? Is Kizumonogatari even the best installment in the Monogatari Series so far? I’d argue no. While I did enjoy the movies and I was happy to see them finally out after an announcement such a long time ago, the production overall isn’t anything tremendously special. I’d still easily recommend it like I would the entire rest of the series to anyone ready to experience something rather unique, but ultimately the few flaws the movies have dragged it down not only when I looked back at it for this review, but also when I just initially watched them. Where Monogatari Series: Second Season was able to grab a hold of every single fiber of my attention and didn’t dare slip up while it had them, Kizumonogatari did what almost every other entry in the Monogatari Series has done so far — have a few flaws in unideal places which end up highlighting their presence more than if they had happened in an off scene. The unfortunate side of being a character driven production with a 99% focus on dialogue is that you have very little wiggle room for error. Nonetheless, Kizumonogatari still succeeded to be a film series at least a little bit worth waiting for.
8.19 out of 10
Reviewed by Tsuyuki.
All of the images in this post were from the movies Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen, Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen, and Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen, including the featured image for this post. The films are licensed and available for purchase in Blu-ray from Aniplex USA.