The Garden of Sinners: Paradox Spiral
My name is Michael and I am from St. Joseph. I like stories...
This week I’m here to unravel the web of connections in Kara no Kyoukai, or, The Garden of Sinners. A series of supernatural semi-horror seinen movies that revolve around a trio of paranormal investigators solving murder mysteries. It’s based on light novels written and set in 1990’s Japan. A visceral, often disturbing series that I feel only truly crosses the line a couple times in its impressive 8 movie length. The 5th movie subtitled, “Paradox Spiral,” I see as the absolute peak of the series and one of the most mature, patient, and rewarding movies I’ve ever seen.
But before we get there, what is The Garden of Sinners really? The main main character is a woman named Ryougi Shiki. She had the misfortune of being born into a family of sorcerers who worked throughout her childhood to cultivate some very peculiar powers within her. The result of this was a split personality, a male personality entirely intent on murder, and a female personality entirely intent on isolation. Through the meddling of an outside sorcerer, or as the series prefers to call them, “magus,” her male personality died and a new power manifested in his place. The Mystic Eyes of Death Perception.
These eyes of hers allow her to see the death of all things. The final end. Shiki could catalyze this power through the use of a blade to kill whatever she set her eyes upon. She worked closely with the enigmatic magus “Tousaka” and her suspiciously normal high school sweetheart “Kokutou Mikiya.” Together they worked to solve mysteries of unnatural deaths at the hand of any ghost, ghoul, curse, or magus. The 5th movie is the roundabout climax of all the movies that come before and after. I say roundabout because the 4 previous movies are not told chronologically which does make piecing the overarching narrative together a bit challenging.
I understand why they told the story this way. Kicking off your ambitious movie series with two fairly slow stories could take the wind out of even the most well-crafted sails. So, be warned, if you are not prepared to pay attention you’ll likely be totally lost in the plot. But, if you are prepared to give a close eye you’ll undoubtedly see why the 5th movie, Paradox Spiral, is certainly the most complex anime movie ever made.
Paradox Spiral fully embraces non-linear storytelling. It jumps back and forth in time while switching character perspectives, sometimes without warning or notice. In a conventional story this would be a big no-no, but it is not done without reason or purpose. In order to explain those reasons I will have to spoil some of the story. Although my retelling will hardly hold a candle to the rollercoaster ride of experiences that coalesce into something thrilling, tragic, and somber.
The beginning is the most important part of any story. It’s like, a point of creation. Only the beginning is something truly new or original. Everything that comes after the beginning is a sort of echo that traces its origins back to the same source. Origin is a very important term within the swaths of occultic language used throughout the series, especially in this movie. It relates especially to the boy Enjou Tomoe. The first scene is him eating a cup strawberry ice cream whilst Shiki slept soundly in her empty apartment.
An odd start, but bear with me. The next scene is Kokutou taking some much needed driving lessons in the 13th car. He turned the key in the ignition, but it doesn’t rev the engine. Instead it’s the sound of a door unlocking. We’re back inside Shiki’s apartment and Tomoe is gone. The key unlocks Shiki from her slumber. She opens her eyes and sits upright. Black and white, yin and yang transition us to the arch-villain of the entire series. Araya Souren, one of if not the most powerful magus. He was the one who worked tirelessly to awaken Shiki’s eyes of Death Perception.
He had need of her.
A knife in his neck spurted fountains of blood as he stood ridged, perfectly still, his arm severed. Tomoe cowered in the corner as he witnessed this abominable magician disgustingly convulse his body to heal from a mortal wound. Blood turned into water, it dripped onto a searing metal frame and the vapors formed into thick white clouds. The clouds spin into a spiral and serpentine up a vent into the rest of the building. We twist through air ducts, through machinery, clockwork, and automation until finally we slip into the room of Enjou Tomoe.
We are through a whirlwind of events in the first minute. We are jumping back and forth in time, we are switching character perspectives, the “camera” is pulling the audience a million different directions. That is the entire point. You’re supposed to be unsettled. You’re supposed to be confused. How will the movie make sense of all these seemingly unrelated things? The narrative hook is telling you to pay close attention, don’t let anything slip through!
It would be impractical for me to do a scene-by-scene analysis of a seriously dense 2 hour movie, so I will focus on how the first minute relates to the next 2 hours. The central device of the movie is Tomoe’s apartment complex. The boy and his parents moved into this new building about 9 months ago. The Enjou family was not in a good situation. The father lost his job after accidentally hitting a kid in his company vehicle. Tomoe, his son, quit the track team and eventually school altogether to work at a moving company to help support his parents.
Due to the stigma of his father, the family was constantly harassed as killers wherever they moved. The father eventually turned to drinking and would beat his wife terribly and waste away any money Tomoe provided. Their constant moving eventually led them to this particular apartment complex. When I say this is the most complex anime movie I mean it as a double entendre, a play on words. The apartment complex is the device by which the complexity is manifest.
The entire building was controlled by Araya Souren. He was using all of the tenants for horrible experiments surrounding their deaths. All the victims he slowly incited to madness and slaughter, forcing them to kill each other. In collaboration with another magus he made fleshly puppets of the tenants and instructed the puppets to act out the final day of every person who lived in the apartments. He made a cycle. A microcosm of the world. The building itself is a spiral. The stairs spiral. The elevator spirals as it ascends. The building twists. The narrative twists.
Absolutely nothing is as it seems in Paradox Spiral. Who is a puppet? Who is real? Araya allowed Tomoe to escape because his true desire was to capture Shiki. He needed her eyes to complete the experiment. Shiki was the one who found Tomoe first. He dropped the key to his home while fleeing from some thugs. Shiki returned the key. Tomoe is the key. Araya was using him as the key to unlock his plan. Shiki never locked her apartment door, but Tomoe made sure she was protected.
Tomoe developed a crush on Shiki. It was never meant to be. That is why when Kokutou turned the key in the ignition Tomoe disappeared. It is also why Shiki woke up. Kokutou, the highschool sweetheart, was the only counter balance to Shiki’s murderous intent. The male personality within Shiki was dead, but his effects still lingered within her. Black and white, yin and yang, male and female, key and lock. All of these opposite forces work together and fight against each other throughout the movie.
Tomoe’s ultimate purpose, or, “origin” is worthlessness. He was ultimately useless. He’s a nobody. A means to Araya’s end. Araya’s origin was stillness which is why, despite being mortally wounded, he did not react. He spoke slowly, deliberately, and incredibly powerfully. The blood was nothing to him because being a magus meant no longer being human. It is a great irony that Tomoe became instrumental in thwarting the experiments. It was also Araya’s hubris that allowed Shiki to escape from his prison, hence, “waking up.”
The blood to water to smoke is symbolic of a humans progression through life to death. The spiral of smoke is like the soul floating up from the basement of jarred disembodied brains which linked to their puppet replacements. The flashes of machinery, clockwork, and automation tell you everything within the building is fake. It’s all illusory. It’s all controlled by the mastermind. The spinning stops at Tomoe who was fueled with nightmares of his own death.
Something I really respect about the series as a whole is how negatively magic is presented. Universally murder is always condemned, but often I see magic shown in a much more favorable light. To be a magus in The Garden of Sinners means you are no longer human. The 3 magus’s within the 5th movie are all despicable characters, even Tousaka, who allied herself with the protagonists, revealed her true ugliness in climactic fashion.
The greatest fascination I had with Paradox Spiral was how it achieved a level of depth within a movie format I’d never seen before. The limits of a 1.5-3 hour time-frame make telling a long complex story functionally impossible. The confines of a standalone movie restrict narrative possibilities, especially for the sake of pacing. You could shove copious amounts of detail into a movie but it is impossible to shake the resulting bloat. Being within a series of movies alleviates this problem.
Yet, Paradox Spiral does not only rely on the surrounding movies to grant this complexity. It has the perfect balance of internal and external reference. It is a functional stand-alone movie and it is made even better by its flashy resolution to every other story within the web. I say all this with one nagging criticism that I have no other place to put but here. It’s a problem with the 7th movie. The 7th I feel squanders its equally long 2 hour runtime with lots of build up to a payoff that contradicts much of what was set up prior and descends into melodramatic obscenity.
I won’t say it is without merit and I have no intention of becoming a professional critic. I don’t want to leave any reader with the impression that the entirety of Kara no Kyoukai is a glowing recommendation or that it doesn’t develop inconsistencies over its runtime. It is a very inaccessible piece of media that I feel pays off exceedingly in the 5th movie. It is so intently weird I couldn’t resist an opportunity to speak about it. It’s not weird in a foreign way, or in a cute silly way. It’s weird because the way the plot unfolds is manic at times.
The space for atmosphere, for mystery, for intrigue, for ambiguity keep you on a straight path with jagged edges. You can trust, for the most part, that the haunted house of somberness will thrill without being wasteful. The brokenness, the hurt, the trials, and greatest of all the temptations make you always cheer for Shiki and her misguided friends. The thrills aren’t cheap, they come at a great price and it takes active effort to realize this.
The tone is what separates Kara no Kyoukai as a whole from the unending heap of supernatural action stories. And of all the positives I haven’t even mentioned the stunning production values that went into the animation itself. For an ardent lover of the 2000’s aesthetic and the work of Ufotable as a studio it’s required viewing for this reason alone. I am always fascinated by niche oddball productions that slip through the cracks of attention. The series, especially this movie, is well-received by those who put forth the effort but for the sake of its vision stays far away from anyone else.