What does Hiroshi Kobayashi bring to the table with his directorial debut at TRIGGER?
When one thinks of ambitious original anime projects, Studio Trigger is not the first name that immediately comes to mind. Although possessing no shortage of colorful, expressive anime, a great deal of the studio’s output has been homogenized by the creative direction of Hiroyuki Imaishi. This stands to reason, as Imaishi as a creator is very much a domineering force – his projects are all high-octane, self-aware cartoony romps with an explosive touch of 80’s camp. Kill la Kill, Inferno Cop and even parts of Space Patrol Luluco all pay homage to the madcap, lowbrow style of action-comedy found in 80’s OVAs such as Project A-ko and Birth. However, because of Imaishi primarily assuming the directive helm at Trigger, the studio hasn’t had the opportunity to branch out beyond his artistic vision – that is, until KIZNAIVER.
Enter Hiroshi Kobayashi, a name that would only start gaining recognition with his directorial debut. Prior to KIZNAIVER, Kobayashi directed and storyboarded episodes 5 and 18 of Kill la Kill as well as a few loose episodes outside of Trigger (some notable titles including Kyousogiga and Yozakura Quartet). In short, Kobayashi was fairly green in the seat of a first time series director, especially given the bold proposal of KIZNAIVER.
In an interview with Kobayashi, he states that KIZNAIVER was intended to be a work unlike “typical Trigger” – that is, a project far removed from the whims of Imaishi or even Yoh Yoshinari (another Ex-GAINAX member who served as head director for Little Witch Academia). Unlike previous Trigger works, KIZNAIVER was conceived with a clear ideological basis in mind: the isolation of youth in contemporary Japanese society and the struggle to break those barriers between people – whether naturally or artificially. Additionally, Kobayashi collaborated on KIZNAIVER with writer Mari Okada, who has written anime dealing with similar interpersonal issues such as Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day. However, Okada is a wildcard, as often times her stories fail to convey their intended emotions – making her a very polarizing writer in the eyes of many.
Given all the uncertainty resting on Kobayashi’s shoulders with the project, I was pleasantly surprised to see how cohesive and evocative KIZNAIVER was. While some of the romantic developments towards its end were abrupt and ultimately unsatisfying (most likely due to Okada’s intervention), Kobayashi’s core thematic vision was well-preserved throughout. KIZNAIVER may have lacked narrative polish around its edges, but it was one of the most visually poignant pieces of commercial anime to come out of the industry in the past couple of years.
To start, it’s important to understand the premise of KIZNAIVER and how key aspects of it have their roots firmly planted in the interpersonal issues surrounding contemporary Japanese society. KIZNAIVER is set in a fictional Japanese city called Sugomori City that is mostly isolated from the rest of the country – with its only point of exit being a single suspension drawbridge. Sugomori City was built as a remote town in order for its government to secretly conduct a large-scale experiment called the “Kizna System”. The purpose of the Kizna System was to solve the problem of secluded individuality by connecting people through their shared pain and suffering. To do so, the government surgically implanted the Kizna System into a group of children and performed tests to determine that if one child felt physical or emotional pain, it would be equally divided amongst the others.
At a glance, the Kizna System suggests a certain degree of artificial intervention on the part of the older generation. The adults feel as though their society has strayed from the core Japanese values of community and family as people have become too wrapped up in their individual selves. As a result, the youth face difficulties emphasizing with others and cannot express themselves without crafting false personas to hide their anxieties from the world. In many respects, the central conflict between the older and younger generations in KIZNAIVER is a reflection of the ideological see-sawing between community and individualism in Japan’s post-World War II society. The tragedy that the country faced as a whole following the war created a divide between its people that they were never able to repair. Along with the wave of American cultural influence and the age of materialism that followed, people’s concept of a personal identity shifted away from the previous communal binding – perhaps for better and worse.
In KIZNAIVER, the main cast are all adolescents who have their individualized personas taken to the extreme. In fact, Kobayashi imparts a humorous seven deadly sins motif with a contemporary spin to describe each of them: The Jock (Tenga), The Try hard Normal (Yuta), The High-and-Mighty (Maki), The Goody-Two-Shoes (Chidori), The False Eccentric (Nico), The Masochist (Hisomu), and The Insensitive Imbecile (Katsuhira).
Whether it’s to stand out from the crowd or superficially fit in, the aforementioned characters in KIZNAIVER all experience difficulties connecting with others – and as a result are forcefully made into test subjects (KIZNAIVER) of the Kizna System. Throughout KIZNAIVER, the characters are constantly grappling with the fact that they can feel each other’s physical and emotional pain and question whether such an artificial connection can truly allow them to understand one another. This is the primary dramatic narrative of the show, and while it’s intriguing in and of itself, it’s really Kobayashi’s thoughtful directing and clever use of visual symbolism that elevates the themes in KIZNAIVER.
The aspect of Kobayashi’s directing that immediately caught my attention was his brilliant visual connection between the artificialness of the Kizna System and the architecture of Sugomori City. In the first episode of KIZNAIVER, Kobayashi employs a match cut between a pedestrian crossing sign that depicts a handshake and an X-shaped crosswalk. Following these images, he cuts to a lateral shot of Sugomori City’s drawbridge as the message “One for all, all for one” plays over an intercom. Although there was no word for word explanation given, it was immediately apparent to me that Kobayashi was using these shots of mechanical, man-made structures that features crosses to reinforce the communal values of Sugomori City. To me, this was a clear and effective association that immediately set the stage for KIZNAIVER’s drama to unfold.
Additionally, the drawbridge that I previously described is a piece of recurring imagery throughout KIZNAIVER – and it appears at least once in every episode that Kobayashi storyboarded. While the drawbridge could represent many different things in KIZNAIVER, I personally felt Kobayashi used it as a set piece to represent the idea of the characters (excuse the bad pun) bridging the gap between each other.
Kobayashi’s most evident usage of the drawbridge in KIZNAIVER occurs during the opening scene of episode 6 – a flashback from the perspective of Maki. The sequence depicts a younger Maki walking alongside the riverbank with her female friend and fellow manga artist, Ruru. The two girls are initially walking a fair distance apart as they exchange some playful banter regarding their manga circle’s ridiculous name. As Maki shows signs of closing herself off from the conversation, Kobayashi briefly cuts to the lateral shot of the drawbridge – both beams are perfectly levelled. As Ruru senses Maki’s emotional distance, she teases her by pretending to jump into the river but Maki quickly pulls her back in an act of genuine concern. Kobayashi immediately cuts to the lateral shot of the drawbridge once again, except this time both beams are raised and form an “X” when viewed from this angle. The scene then shifts back to Ruru and Maki, now on top of each other after the fall. As Ruru laughs and Maki – taken back from the physical closeness – realizes she has romantic feelings for her friend, the crossing of the drawbridge beams symbolizes the girls’ hearts coming together; their differences are now water under the bridge.
Aside from the drawbridge, another recurring piece of imagery that Kobayashi uses throughout KIZNAIVER is a playground set. This playground set is very central to the psyche of Noriko Sonozaki, and primarily appears during flashbacks of her childhood.
In Sonozaki’s case, she was one of the tragic victims of the Kizna Systems’ first run. When the system malfunctioned, the researchers made a desperate attempt to remove the Kizna from each of the children, but as a result their pain was concentrated into Sonozaki. This caused all of the children, including Katsuhira, to lose their emotions and ability to feel of pain – while Sonozaki became the sole bearer of it. As a result, she requires constant medication to numb her sensation of pain and has entered a semi-sedated state.
Throughout KIZNAIVER, Sonozaki is in charge of bringing Katsuhira and the six KIZNAIVERs together. However, it is through watching them struggle, fight, laugh and ultimately grow closer that she begins to reminisce about the time when she, Katsuhira and the other children participating in the Kizna experiment were able to experience happy and sad moments together.
What’s interesting about Sonozaki’s character is that while she begins to rebel against the mayor’s orders to perpetuate the Kizna System, she is ultimately just as trapped in the past as the older generation is. Sonozaki’s romanticized memories of her childhood slowly begin to dictate more and more of her actions and it becomes increasingly evident that she wants to break the barriers of individualism and return to her warm and serene communal garden. To convey this thread visually, Kobayashi constructs these dreamlike flashback sequences of a younger version of Sonozaki sitting atop or in the middle of a playground cage. For Sonozaki, the playground represents her image of peace and tranquility that she desperately wants to recapture.
These are Sonozaki’s old ideals and in the final episode of KIZNAIVER, she attempts to achieve them by releasing the Kizna System to the world and taking in everyone’s pain. It is only through the help of Katsuhira and the other KIZNAIVER that she is able to come to her senses and abandon her ploy. In what can be considered the climax of the series, Kobayashi features one final scene of the child Sonozaki sitting inside the playground structure as it beings to crumble – thus representing the figurative destruction of her old ideals.
So what to make of this? In my view, I feel Kobayashi’s ultimate stance in KIZNAIVER is ultimately one that embraces aspects of both community and individualism. The climax of KIZNAIVER would suggest that breaking free from one’s past is a necessary step to move forward. However, a great deal of the show implies that the bonds we form with each other (whether through natural or artificial means) are just as valuable.
Regardless of one’s interpretation, KIZNAIVER is a very refreshing title in Studio Trigger’s portfolio that isn’t afraid to tackle some of the touchier issues in contemporary Japanese society. Here’s hoping that Hiroshi Kobayashi will have more directing roles in the future as his cinematic vision brings a lot to the table for commercial anime as a whole.
Let us know what you thought of KIZNAIVER’s themes and messages in the comments below!