Today, as I strolled to the train station, I found myself impressed with how quickly Japan’s managed to rebuild itself. Less than twenty years ago, Japanese cities were places of lawlessness and corruption: Their streets were stained with mildew and spilled blood, and violent crime was so common in this time that it was no big deal to step over a dead body or two on your way home. The 1990s in Japan were an orgy of decadence and ultra-violence; it’s truly a miracle that the country managed to pull itself together.
Actually, those things never happened. Japan’s economy did crash– quite badly, too– but their whole world didn’t go with it. And yet you would totally believe it did, if you took the setting of Kara no Kyoukai/The Garden of Sinners at face value.
I can’t remember where I read this (if you know, please comment– I’d love to give credit where due), but there was a screening of the first Kara no Kyoukai film in America, and the booklet distributed to audience members described the mid-nineties setting as a crucial point. Japan was at its lowest point since the end of World War II, everything thought to be dependable was crumbling like dust, and old assumptions about how the world worked were turning out to be useless.
And, of course, in the world of the film, magic is 100% real. It seems like an unrelated addition, but I don’t think it is at all.
You could say it’s kind of like a Japanese take on magical realism, even though that isn’t strictly correct. Actually, it’s crucial to realize that the economic collapse of the 90s has been magnified in Kara no Kyoukai to an apocalypse, and that the resulting effect on the characters is collectively post-apocalyptic– that is, it’s post-traumatic.
There’s this fantastic essay by Julie Rauer about Japanese pop art as an expression of the massive trauma engendered by atomic warfare. It’s haunting food for thought (and features a cool anatomical diagram of Gamera, among other things), but I’ll just quote what I consider the most salient part:
“Twenty-two years after the mass obliteration of souls, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and three days later on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, monstrous deformities persisted in the Japanese psyche—tragically splintered by defeat, subjugation, humiliation, and inconceivable horrors—unable to command a return to a unified monolithic persona, the ordered cerebral imperative and societal dignity of pre-nuclear innocence.”
Whether or not it was intentional, I believe the world of Kara no Kyoukai– the dark decade that never was– reflects this same kind of anxiety and fragmentation, or rather it continues those feelings. Whether it’s lives or livelihoods being obliterated, the horror of modern life is in full swing.
And in such a desperate, mad world, the setting asks us, is it not impossible to believe that anything could happen now? Even magic?