Even if one is unfamiliar with Studio Gainax and its offshoot Studio Trigger, one is more likely than not familiar with at least one of their works, including FLCL, Gurren Lagann, Panty and Stocking, and Kill la Kill. The signature features include bold and extroverted dialogue, bizarre events in the timeline, sharp, angular drawings, and outrageously overblown animation. Each of these properties has a huge fanbase, and is instantly recognizable and iconic by itself. With their prior works having such a gleaming reputation, it was with high hopes that I began watching Studio Trigger’ newest work, the 12-episode “Kiznaiver.”
Unfortunately, I had missed its premiere, which took place during my attendance at Anime Boston and also at Seattle’s Sakuracon. No matter, since this is a series best watched in large chunks, though first impressions come off as a bit cliché. The plot seems simple enough- the main character, Katsuhira Agata, is an apathetic high school student who for some reason feels no physical pain, and thus acts as an apathetic pushover during his frequent encounters with bullies. He, along with several of his classmates, are wrangled together and told they are a part of an elaborate experiment, where marks on each character’s forearm link the pains of each individual so one’s wounds will be divided up equally and felt by all. It is in these characters that one can first sense the cliché feel, as each character is chosen because he or she fits a set of tropes and has a certain “personality type.” These individuals are told to bond with each other through various tasks, such as revealing dark secrets or completing missions, and everything is overseen by Sonozaki Noriko, whose airy and monotone voice is paired with an attitude as apathetic as Katsuhira’s. A few of these secrets do end up getting elaborated to have their own storyline, such as with Honoka Mami. Thus, despite these characters being a bit cliché, there are attempts at trying to inject some substance and fleshing them out, but this is done quickly with a sear and there is little time to have these distinctive aspects marinate into the characters due to “Kiznaiver’s” length and pace. The pace is quick but manageable, with content densely packed in, but a big drawback is that the characters’ distinctive features are only somewhat referenced and utilized as unique points after being revealed. Despite this, however, the chemistry amongst these characters is handled quite well, even if assisted by prior interactions, and there are certain relationships and pairings that do begin to bud.
The development of these relationships begins with Honoka Mami’s backstory, which does provide an adequate segue point into the series’ first shift in focus, from sharing physical pain only to sharing both physical and emotional pain. Now, this transition and development could have gone much deeper and much further than it did, but it was constrained by “Kiznaiver’s” mere 12-episode length. There was so much lost potential here as the plot goes into questions as to what designates friendship and getting to know each other on a much deeper level. Thanks to the excellent dialogue, which, despite each character having his or her own style of communication, it was somehow able to form a most excellent glue when everything was combined together. This allows the pairings that were formed great potential to at least sprout into something moderately serious, with the exception of Katsuhira’s blatantly one-sided pairing with Chidori Takashiro. The giant frustration here is one can see Katsuhira’s apathetic attitude choke and strangle Chidori’s expressed feelings, even if the latter is slightly annoying, and one must actively restrain themself from screaming at Katsuhira’s blatant ignorance. As to the other pairings, again, the most disappointing aspect is lost potential, as these pairings start up and hobble along, but any further development is either snuffed out or left to become fanfiction.
This disappointment is due to “Kiznaiver’s” second shift in focus, where it delves into the experiment’s history. The transition is handled well, but the question then becomes whether this is the best use of time and whether the plot should have gone this way. Sure, backstory is welcome, but it felt like there should have been twice as much time devoted to the second part of the series as the explanation of the experiment’s history. The explanations are simple, but each episode is still information-dense and while the pacing is kept relatively steady, that is the downfall as it is quite fast and doesn’t take a rest, so depth is shallow. Given some more time, the plot depth expansion could have pushed “Kiznaiver” from good to excellent.
Aside from the half-baked plotline, is the rest of “Kiznaiver” up to par with other Gainax/Trigger properties? Well, the character designs, animation, and other drawings are instantly recognizable as Gainax/Trigger though have been slightly toned down. There are still many sharp and angular designs depicting drama and boldness to the characters, though the colors here are a bit more saturated and vibrant. However, this is paired with characters who have less intensive personalities than the typical Gainax/Trigger properties, a direct result of there being so many in the series that there is less time to focus on each of them. The character designs themselves, however, significantly contrast with the backgrounds, which instead of being simply rendered with straight lines and sharp edges instead have a certain degree of curvature and depth to the elements. The coloration also deviates from the Gainax/Trigger tradition of harsh, crude shading and matte colors to quite a lot of gradated shading and complexity in the coloration. The more complex coloring does make “Kiznaiver” feel more upscale, but there is a disconnect and incoherency between the two vastly different designs. The animation is also less abrupt and jerky, instead still going for sharp and straight motions but just rounding out the edges. There is also little music to highlight the mood in the series, and the series relies on character dialogue and on-screen action to hold everything together instead. However, due to the series’ short length, even with dense packing of content, the ending is half-baked. One issue is resolved, but there are many left open and hanging. It’s not twisted into a confusing, mangled mess, but instead subplots just hacked off with a machete. Given more time, things could have gone a lot further.
Nonetheless, what was done was done pretty well, and “Kiznaiver” as a whole can be considered above average when judged as an anime. But when judged as a Gainax/Trigger production alongside its peers, above average merely becomes “average,” and that’s the problem with “Kiznaiver”- it’s good, but it’s not AS good as its peers, and the impact that it leaves on the viewer is much less powerful and not as long-lasting. By all means, watch the series as it’s only 12 episodes and enjoyable by itself, but do manage your expectations.