When you hurt, I hurt. Everybody in the room impacts everybody else in ways we can’t understand. I think someone recently said these profound words. But although his words are salient, it’s all too easy to turn our backs to those in need. When you hurt, I hurt, but perhaps not directly. Perhaps not immediately. Perhaps not enough. So even though I hurt when you hurt, I can probably ignore it. So what are we to do? Kiznaiver thus simplifies the dilemma: when you hurt, I hurt directly, immediately, and equally (for the most part). Does this now work? Eh…. The story selects seven individuals, and bounds them together by their pain. It needs to be emphasized, however, that it seems to only be physical pain that is shared (and even then, residual physical pain is not shared). A significant portion of our suffering is emotional, though. So if the premise is, “Hey, feel my pain, so that you can understand me,” then I can’t help but think that we’ve come up a bit short. In the second episode, six of our seven Kiznaivers must share their deepest, darkest secrets. I bare my heart to you so that you may see me at my most vulnerable. As you might expect, our six protagonists have a hard time with this mission. The execution is just odd. The six kids writhe with pain when Noriko tortures Katsuhira over and over with a taser. But when Hajime breaks down due to his fear of dogs, no one feels his internal anguish. They still have sympathy for him. They offer him words of encouragement: “Being scared of dogs isn’t a big deal.” Nevertheless, I feel like something’s missing. Do I really understand the guy when I can’t feel his abject fear of dogs? Do I really connect with him when he’s in a fetal position with tears streaming down his face? Maybe on an abstract level, but it seems as though Kiznaiver is shooting for something deeper.
The lack of shared emotional pain isn’t the only thing that seems to be missing. The thing is, we’re looking at pain at such a personal level when the premise lends itself to grand ideas. I certainly don’t want to be dismissive of someone’s deep-rooted phobia, but I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when it turns out to be one of the more serious traumas within the group. Niko reveals to everyone that she doesn’t actually believe in fairies. Tsuguhito is deeply ashamed that he used to be fat. Chidori admits she used to love Katsuhira, and probably still does. Okay… well, okay. That’s the problem. It’s just okay. Let’s go back to the beginning: when you hurt, I hurt. That’s a call to action. That’s a strong statement on our duties and responsibilities as members of not just our community, but as citizens of our country, and as inhabitants of this precious planet. When you hurt, I hurt, so let me clothe you, my friend. Let me feed you, my brother. Let me heal you, my sister. That’s what comes to mind when I think of the saying, “When you hurt, I hurt.” On the flip side, I certainly don’t think, “You used to love me, but now I don’t understand you, and you’ve changed… so that kinda sucks?” It does suck. I don’t want to mock Chidori’s feelings, but at the same time, I’m not swept away. If I was a close, personal friend to Chidori, then I would help her every way that I can. But as a detached viewer, I can only sympathize with her on an abstract level, and that’s where Kiznaiver’s first three episodes lose me. As painful as it might be for Chidori to deal with the placid Katsuhira, there are limits to my emotional investment in her suffering. It’s just not very important to me, especially when there’s a bigger picture just ahead. It’s obvious that Kiznaiver has more to offer, so these personal vignettes feel more like obstacles.
The frank truth is that I have greater things to worry about. If you’re someone in Chidori’s shoes, that might suck to hear, but you have to admit you don’t have it that bad. People are starving, poisoned (thanks to inadequate infrastructure), jobless, freezing, living in poor health, so on and so forth. Yes, everyone needs to connect, and everyone needs to understand each other better. Maybe if we do, we’d hurt each other less. We wouldn’t bully each other for our own benefit. We wouldn’t assume that someone we know hardly anything about is a conman just because we’re projecting our insecurities onto the world. We wouldn’t tell others not to worry about us, and as a result, simply push them away when they love us. That’s all fine and dandy. But if this is about achieving an authentic and genuine understanding of each other, it all just seems so… small. As it stands, the current heavy focus our seven Kiznaivers leaves me wanting. Yes, the characters are decently written for who they are, but who they are is not all that interesting. Take, for instance, the childhood friend who’s in love with the oblivious hero… there’s only so many ways you can analyze this dynamic. It’s a dynamic that is oft-repeated in anime. So much so that even if the character interactions here are significantly stronger than in Okada’s other works, it can no longer feel fresh or interesting. This is but one example. The rest of the characters leave little to the imagination. The eccentric, twin-tailed girl, the hot-tempered muscle head, the dishonest playboy, the quiet, bespectacled girl…. To be fair, the first three episodes appear to be a very, very extended setup to a much larger story. There’s something very shady about both the mayor, Sugumori City, and the Kizuna system. And perhaps in later episodes, missions will stop being so personal.
How do we achieve a “smiley, happy town for everyone?” You almost have to be suspicious when the state poses such a question, huh? The expectation is almost always followed by what individuals can do, and hardly what the state can do better. You see hints of the larger problem at the start to the first episode. We see shots after shots of Sugumori City’s high-rise apartments. These shots are not random. They are visions of an isolated and atomized society; they are echos of the social alienation that is the byproduct of Japan’s massive urbanization. The apartments illustrate individuals can live so closely together, and yet there exists a high degree of social isolation between individuals. It’s a well-known fact that Katsuhira’s parents are away on business trips. They are likely proud that their hard work allows Katsuhira to live in such a nice home and go to such a nice school, but nevertheless, when’s the last time he talked to either of them? Furthermore, he and Chidori live next door to each other, but there’s still a substantial gap between them, both spatially and on an interpersonal level. She admits that she no longer understands him; she hesitates when he asks if they should speak in person even though they have known each other for so long. Hajime humorously tries to bridge this gap, but ends up failing and falling several stories. Yoshiharu also lives in one of these high rise apartments. His mailbox is jam-packed with mail, which suggests quite a bit. For instance, the mailperson has to have noticed the mess, but chose to do nothing about it. It reveals the degree to which we can see the problem and yet continue to ignore it. The outside of Yoshiharu’s apartment is littered with junk, but it’s doubtful if his neighbors even care. Again, we live closely together, but there is no community.
Sugumori City also lacks culture. It lacks a certain human warmth to it. It is pristine and orderly, which is a far cry from the fact that it used to be a landfill. Nevertheless, Sugumori City is cold and austere, devoid of any humanity. We see, for instance, a wall littered with the mayor’s benign face. It’s as if government propaganda is the only statement that the city has to make. You learn almost nothing of Sugumori City’s citizens, and their core values. A playground is fittingly decorated with a colorful mural, which belies the true face of its “smiley, happy town.” The mural suggests that this is a safe zone for kids, but our hero finds himself being picked on by two bullies with no repercussions from any adults. So even here, the art is a facade, and Sugumori City lacks any real culture. The closest thing it has to a culture are the Gomorins, but it’s hard to see these mascots as anything more than yet another incarnation of authority cuteness, i.e. a way for the state to infantilize its image and thereby appear less threatening to its people. Take the mass kidnappings of our main characters. What if it had been a bunch of government men in suits kidnapping the kids in broad daylight? But instead, we see some goofy cartoon characters do the dirty deed instead. When Katsuhira is being rolled through the hospital on a gurney, it is reminiscent of that infamous hospital scene in Jacob’s Ladder. When you’re surrounded by the cute Gomorins, and illuminated by a pink strobe light, it’s hard to feel as though something sinister is about to occur. Yes, we have you completely strapped down like some deranged patient, but isn’t this all just so silly and absurd? At the school, there’s a stained glass window that serves as a pretty backdrop to an important scene in the anime, but it seemingly exists in isolation from its surroundings, distinct from the rest of the architecture around it.
To take stock, I’m intrigued by Kiznaiver’s potential, but I’m currently disengaged by its antics. The narrative may have convinced these characters to care for each other, but it hasn’t convinced me. The latest addition to the cast exacerbates the problem as I just can’t find myself taking Yoshiharu’s masochism seriously. The heavy and clumsy amount of exposition in the first three episodes certainly suggest that we’re still in the initial stages of the story. We’re still setting the stage, i.e. learning how the whole Kiznaiver thing works, developing the characters and their personalities, and fleshing out this insidiously sinister world of Sugumori City. There are plenty of unanswered questions for the rest of the series to explore. There are still characters that still need to come into the picture. For instance, their homeroom teacher and the school counselor having practically no role to play at the moment even though they are obviously involved. It’s just this penchant, however, for anime series to start from zero, then boldly proclaim that they can make something out of that zero. And by zero, I’m obviously referring to the characters. Like most shows, Kiznaiver indulges itself in basic anime archetypes, then deigns to add a twist to them. I’ve been let down by so many emotionless, low-energy protagonists, though. As a result, you’ll have to forgive me if I just can’t put much faith in Trigger to make something out of Katsuhira. Considering how he’s the primary protagonist of the story, that’s a bit worrisome. But for what it’s worth, the rest of the show has some ambition, and that’s a lot more than you can say for 90% of any given season’s offerings. So while Mari Okada’s writing may continue to be deeply flawed, and time can only tell if Kiznaiver suffers the same fate, at least she’s got a little more guts this time. And if nothing, at least the show is somewhat pretty to look at.