The anime feature film is crumbling under the weight of a terrible creative lull. Just ten years ago anime feature films were enjoying an immense peak in quality, with at least 3 or 4 high profile films being released each year. Nowadays we're getting swamped by slightly upgraded TV shows and Studio Ghibli rip-offs. It should come as no surprise then that my expectations were rather low when I sat down to watch Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen. A mere 64 minutes later I had quite a different story to tell.
Even though originality might be key, the fact is that Kizumonogatari is part of an established franchise. The film is a prequel to Bakamonogatari and Nekomonogatari, both TV series adapted from NisiOisin's books. Other entries in the franchise include Nise-, Hana-, Tsuki-, Koyo- and Owarimonogatari (also TV series), so the film comes with quite a lot of baggage. I must admit that I haven't seen any of the TV material, nor did I read any of the novels. It's hard to say for sure of course, but I feel quite certain that this only increased the effect this first Kizumonogatari film (there are three planned in total) had on me.
It took me a while to get a grip on the film. There are parts that reminded me of Soul Taker, but there's also some of Makoto Shinkai's earlier work in there and even Colorful (the TV short series, not the feature film) passed through my mind a couple of times. I understand that's a rather nonsensical blend of influences, which is why I think this film is probably best compared to FLCL. Not because it shares particular stylistic influences, but the impact of Kizumonogatari somehow matched that of FLCL. It's so different from anything else I've seen, so free and unrestrained yet so very hardcore anime that I think the experience of seeing it for the first time is extremely similar.
If you're looking for any kind of strong, coherent story though, this film probably isn't for you. We follow Araragi, a somewhat reclusive student who one day walks into a vampire (named Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade, go figure) thirsting for blood. Araragi runs away, but retraces his steps and decides to sacrifice himself to save the vampire, because why not. In return, she promises Araragi she'll change him back into his human form, but only after he slays the three vampire hunters that are after her. Shakespeare it is not, but it's a good enough hook for some great fun.
Visually it's a whirlwind of different styles. It's clear that Oishi and Shinbo gathered some of Japan's greatest animation talent to work on Kizumonogatari, but that doesn't mean everything looks slick and lavish. Some of the CG is elemental, cold and lifeless and stands in great contrast to the lively animation. But it's done with a purpose and a clear vision, not just because they lacked the talent or because the budget didn't allow for better CG, because some of the computer work does look amazing. The same goes for the intertitles, which appear almost random, at times feel completely nonsensical, but add a very peculiar, unique flow to the film. The editing too is unique, sometimes staying slightly too long with certain scenes, at other times cutting quickly between different angles. Not everything is logical, but it all makes sense.
The soundtrack is also a strong asset. It's slightly jazzy, with an electronic finish. But more importantly, it's perfectly in sync with the editing. Together with the visuals it creates a strongly rhythmic, almost poetic flow that feels very futuristic. It's a perfect example of how a solid soundtrack can be cut up and applied in such a way that it becomes something more. The voice acting is on par with most high-profile anime features, meaning that it's done well but it comes with a fair amount of anime stereotypes. Then again, it's exactly that weird combo of artistic excellence and anime silliness that defines the atmosphere of the film, so it definitely adds to the appeal of the film.
Kizumonogatari is Oishi and Shinbo's playground. It's a film that is truly defined by the choices of its directors and animation artists, not by plot or characters. Nothing is merely shown or told, every scene is seen as a new opportunity to do something weird, funky or insane. Every single second feels like a counter reaction against the staleness and almost soulless production that is ruining Japanese animation. It's probably a little uneven because of that and those looking for a deep, homogenous and more traditional film experience might be put off, but if you like something different, Kizumonogatari will not disappoint.
You may think 64 minutes is rather short, but it's perfect for a film like this. After a short period of acclimatization (probably depending on how familiar you are with the franchise), the film washes over you like a tornado, constantly throwing you off balance and finding new ways to surprise. The knowledge that two more films will follow helped me to part from this crazy experience. Kizumonogatari is anime the way I like it. It's a directorial tour de force, a film that proves there's still some life left in the Japanese animation scene. It's probably a bit much for some, but if you're into more experimental and weird animation and you don't mind a little silliness, this is definitely one to check out.