Kizumonogatari: Interpreting Cinema

The opening of a film is arguably the most important piece of any cinematic experience. This is especially true for certain directors who use the opening sequence to give you their message in a condensed version. This technique of the ‘metaphorical opening’ is something that director Tatsuya Oishi places particular emphasis on, in fact, I would compare him to the likes of Christopher Nolan or Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to the way he chooses to open his films. On top of all this, I would place particular importance on the opening of Tatsuya’s cinematic debut, Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen. Not only is it the opening to a film, but a series of films that are meant to be viewed as one work. As such its opening serves as the opening of all three films, encapsulating the message of all three in just under 6 minutes and 49 seconds. Understanding it is imperative if we are to understand Kizumonogatari.


The use of title cards is nothing new to the Monogatari series. The start of Kizumonogatari tells us exactly what it intends to be through title cards: vampire, tragédie, histoire, 白黒反轉. The first three title cards are in French, a stylistic choice by the auteur, translating to vampire, tragedy, and story (history would be unsuitable given the context). However the last title card is unlike the rest – instead of going for the stylistic French, director Tatsuya Oishi wants to clearly express his message to a native Japanese audience, and so he speaks to them (quite literally) in language they might understand. White 白, Black 黒, and Inverted 反轉. Despite the swap to Japanese, the final card is not stylistically barren. A choice to use the older kanji 轉 over the modern 転 is made, the meaning unchanged, creating an effect akin to the usage of French to English speakers, producing an air of prestige.

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This use of foreign and antiquated language draws attention to itself, it invites us to interpret not just what it says, but how it says it. For those familiar with the series, we understand that the vampire referenced is Araragi, and that the ‘histoire’ is his. None of that information may be new, but what we do learn is that this ‘vampire story’ will not end well. This is made clear in the second slide: ‘tragédie’.

However, what we need to consider is the last slide – that the tragedy may be reversed, or better yet, inverted. White and black, normally considered opposites are inverted with the final statement in Japanese. Black, a color who’s meaning often connotes darkness and death is reversed, while White, a color normally associated with life and the sun is also capsized. And this makes sense given that the film is a vampire tragedy. Stuck in a ‘black’ existence of darkness and undeath, what was light and life is now harmful (a.k.a. the sun).

Before we come to the burning scene that concludes this metaphorical statement, we cut to the opening shot: a slow spiral pan downwards of a large tree. The pan is interrupted several times with shots of Araragi navigating the photo realistic Yamanashi Culture Chamber. It is here that Araragi is introduced, his arrival sharing the same downward motion as he steps off the elevator on the ground floor. Through this parallel editing a comparison is drawn between the two objects: the tree and the youth. It’s a easy parallel when you consider that the kanji for tree (木) is part of Araragi’s name. Adding to that, the tree is often a symbol of self, which is fitting since the trilogy focuses on Araragi’s return to humanity. But in this shot the tree is dead, same as the vampire protagonist. The looming image of the self is contrasted with Arargi’s darting eyes, always looking over his shoulder. He is running from the image of what he is; a dead tree, a dead self. The idea really isn’t so far fetched, especially when you consider the other parallels that are drawn between inanimate objects and Araragi.

kizumonogatari-date

For example, the first image of the film is a date range: 3/26 (dimanche) – 4/07* (vendredi). This is a much more direct reference to Araragi who’s given name is Koyomi (暦) the Japanese word for calendar. Quite literally, the film opens with a visual pun on the main character. Other passing examples include the train, a symbol of Araragi’s libido. As he begins to run, the chugging engine of a train can be heard until the shinkansen comes into view racing beside him. Another would be the car crash when he tries to lie to Hanekawa and fails. “In concrete terms, we cut pretty much all of his monologues from the script,” Oishi states in his section of the Kizu theatrical booklet, opting instead for a visual connection to the emotions and thoughts of Araragi. Without a doubt, this scene is to establish a connection with the tree and the youth – the tree is Araragi, and Araragi is the tree.

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But the slow spiral pan and parallel editing comes to an end, and in the exact moment that is does, Araragi begins to move upward on the famous spiral staircases of the Yamanashi Culture Chamber. Heavy panting and frantic and exaggerated hand motions give the sense of difficulty, depicting the climb as a struggle. Midway on the flight of stairs a yellow door is passed, which comments on this scene through a double usage of homophones:  numbered 4 (四), a homophone for death (死), and yellow (黄) being a homophone for heart/care/emotional center (気). This can be read in a number of ways; Araragi now cares if he dies, or that he is ascending through the emotional center of death – but these readings are also to be questioned. A light comes into view at the top, announced through the use of another title card, the final words before Goethe’s death, “Mehr licht!” or “More light!”, the light right before death. Combining this with the original idea of black and white inversion, black would be life and death would be white. This makes sense when you recall Araragi is now a vampire, light is his death. But death (死), as printed on the door, could also be read as his chance at life. It’s a ‘true contradiction’, a dialetheia, a statement where both it and its opposite have become simultaneously true.

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Araragi reaches a second door at the top of the stairs, beads of sweat dripping off his face. As he leans against it to catch his breath, the ‘true contradiction’ is perfectly punctuated by a point of view shot, a plaque with the number 8 bolted onto the inside of the door. It is 4 +4, black and white inverted, the door between life and death, a merging of opposites. The door opens to the sight of a thousand crows, which creates another visual metaphor through wordplay. The kanji for 8 () can be read a yattsu while the word for crow () is karasu, the two together form the name of the three-legged crow deity Yatagaratsu (八咫烏), god of the sun, rebirth, and rejuvenation. Again, the inversion of black and white come into play, the pitch-black crows and the burning white sun. But this also needs to be read with the idea of the tree as a metaphor for Araragi. While a tree without leaves may be termed dead, it has not truly ceased to live; it will grow leaves again come Spring, right around the date range that was used to refer to Koyomi, 3/26 (dimanche) – 4/07* (vendredi).

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Japan’s national flag, the Hinomaru, makes an appearance several times as Arargi steps outside. It is the rising sun, the symbol of Japan, and the death of a vampire. As the true sun comes into view, Araragi bursts into flames; what has been long regarded as a source of light and life is his death. Now we understand the true meaning behind Oishi’s inversion. In a phenomenal display of animation, Araragi transforms into a burning stampede against the backdrop of industrial Japan.

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What is really interesting is Oishi’s view of the ‘Two Japans’. It’s a schism that Oishi grew up in: post-war reconstruction clashing with established values of a bygone era. In an effort to reclaim its power, Japan beat its swords into plowshares, samurai into salarymen, reforging its military strength into an economic one. Office buildings were erected, overshadowing shires hundred of years their elder (as is the case in Nagoya, capitol of Oishi’s home prefecture where Nagoya Station towers over Nagoya Castle), serving as a physical representation of shifting social values. It stands as a society that had modernized without experiencing a Renaissance. Against this backdrop, Oishi  establishes a visual language of iconography, juxtaposing images of the Buddha with heavy machinery and towers of steel as the opening credits roll. But this is an idea that permeates throughout the work, as seen by the inclusion of other Shinto elements such as Yatagarasu.

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But Oishi does not retreat into ideas of the distant past for solutions. Kizumonogatari is really a noir tale with all the elements in place: the investigator of relative morality can be found in Arargi, the femme fatale in Kisshot who also doubles as the murder victim, her limbs the stolen Maltese Falcon. Hanekawa is the second ‘good’ woman in Araragi’s life, while the trio of vampire hunters fall into the role of villains. Scenes are shot and resolved out of order with the explicit idea of preserving and encapsulating emotion. Like all good noir, questions of humanity are obstructed by objects in the foreground against the backdrop of a complex and moody lit cityscape. While Araragi may not have the vices of tobacco or alcohol, he does have vices nonetheless. Tonally, it manages to be both serious and tongue-in-cheek in the right moment, showing no issue of moving between the two. And of course, the allusion to a tragic ending. All this culminates into an experience that can be described as an anime noir. When thought about in this light (or lack of light as noir would have it), Oishi’s direction couldn’t become more clear.

7 Comments

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  1. Hm…I’ll have to find time to rewatch Tekketsu whilst taking this in paragraph by paragraph (or rather, shot by shot)…

    Just quickly though, isn’t this:

    3/26 (dimanche) – 4/07* (vendredi)

    Koyomi’s spring break? Spring break (for school children) in Japan is typically the last week of March to the first week of April.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That it is! Funny thing is, this date won’t be until next year.

    Like

  3. I had the impression that the Buddha images also referenced the concept of 捨身 (shashin) – throwing away one’s own life in order to save another. It obviously fits very well with the story since Koyomi does just that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d also consider (in addition to your analysis) that this being a Noir is, in fact, a joke. Consider how inner-monologue heavy the Noir genre typically is, and how inner-monologue-free the Kizumonogatari anime is.

    Liked by 1 person

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