Warning – Kiznaiver and Re:Zero Spoilers Ahead
Kiznaiver was definitely one of the most hyped series coming into the Spring season, and for good reason: Studio Trigger has been making waves since their creation in 2011, including the exceedingly popular and well-received Kill la Kill. The high-octane series was reminiscent of the spirit of another classic, Gurren Lagann, and many wondered what this latest series from Trigger would have to offer. The first two episodes were promising as they introduced a roster of interesting characters that certainly stood out. My first thought was an anime version of “The Breakfast Club” as the different archetypes each of the characters fulfilled fell so neatly into place. (Isaac Akers over at Crunchyroll wrote up a pretty interesting piece on the respective characters designs here)
It definitely slowed down a bit through episodes 3-5, but in the last couple of weeks has recaptured the attention of anime fans with its compelling drama. Even I found myself getting sucked back in after recently admitting to Archmage and some of the other staff here that it’s been one of my “letdowns” this season. Then I got to thinking more about the show and why I was feeling more engaged, and it was because Kiznaiver has recently shifted the narrative beyond physical pain being shared among the reluctant group of friends and has now moved onto sharing “emotional” pain.
Certainly, this would be the natural progression in a program that’s intended to bring people closer together and have some general sense of camaraderie with your fellow man, but what good is dramatic storytelling when the mechanic that links them all together serves as a giant red flag for the viewer?
Let me put it another way: would the impact of these stories be as significant if the entire cast didn’t simultaneously grip their wrist/hearts and verbalize their discomfort? Certainly there’s something unique about this concept, but in a way I find myself wondering if it’s an easy way out of exploring/expressing emotion, and what is lost when there’s no subtlety or nuance in the emotional state of the characters.
For example, the most recent arc in Kiznaiver has centered around the aloof and abrasive Maki as they explore her troubled past; more specifically why she claims to have murdered someone. As the characters discover, Maki is actually still reeling from the death of her middle school friend Ruru. A shy girl afflicted with an incurable disease, she first opened up to Maki when they partnered up to write a manga together. As their manga became more popular and the girls worked together more frequently, Ruru eventually developed romantic feelings for her, but Maki resisted and eventually abandoned their project, and Ruru died shortly afterwards. Maki has always blamed herself as a result and resists letting people close to her for fear of getting hurt like that again.
When Maki is confronted by this past, she has a miniature breakdown, which we can see and also experience through the other characters as they all rush to try and address the issue. Since the characters all can feel her emotional pain, there’s no real mystery in terms of what that pain is like. Rather than trying to understand how Maki is feeling, they then move onto the next logical problem: why she’s feeling that way. So, the group does their research and tries to find a way to address the issue and make Maki their friend, all while frequently commenting on how their hearts hurt and they feel empty, just to make sure the viewer doesn’t forget.
The concept of Kiznaivers just seems like an emotional version of Pavlov’s bell. Their wrist lights up and they grimace – that means you feel something too! I’m sorry, I just think that’s not a compelling way to communicate drama or emotion. You know what was an excellent example of emotional storytelling that aired the exact same week? The most recent episode of Re:Zero.
Following his realization that Ram and Rem reliant on his support and friendship to survive, Subaru literally dives head first off a cliff to reset his life again to the fateful morning a few days before. Putting on a happy face, he works hard at the mansion to try and gain the twins’ trust and friendship. His forced enthusiasm and fake happiness is painful to watch, because the viewer understands what he’s trying to do. As he works tirelessly, smiling and joking throughout the day, it was an amazing parallel to the struggles of depression that many face. Near the end of the episode, Emilia confronts Subaru about his odd behavior, as she can tell that he’s got a heavy burden on his mind and his heart. She doesn’t know what it is, and honestly she doesn’t care. She lies him down on her lap and speaks soothingly to him. “It’s been tough hasn’t it? You’ve been trying hard haven’t you?” Comforting statements, empathetic statements. His voice quakes, it breaks…he shifts uncomfortably, almost into a fetal position, before the tears start flowing freely.
The episode is literally titled “I cried, cried my lungs out, and stopped crying”. The show didn’t have to tell us that Subaru was struggling and was emotionally compromised. It didn’t hold our hand and say “He’s hurting, so you should be hurting too”. No, we felt that pain for him because we’ve all been that sobbing mess in someone’s lap at one point. We don’t have to be Kiznaivers to understand that pain, and to be honest, I prefer it that way.
What do you think? Is Kiznaiver relying on the emotion-sharing mechanic too much? Am I reading way too much into this? Let us know in the comments!