Kyoto Animation has achieved a rather illustrious status in the community and could deservedly be called one of the best studios in Japan. Their sparkly and moody teen dramas like A Silent Voice or their melodramatic character studies like Violet Evergarden get no shortage of praise, but Beyond the Boundaryor Kyoukai no Kanatadoesn’t get praised enough.
Most KyoAni fans will know Taichi Ishidate’s most iconic work to date, Violet Evergardenof which he directed the whole series, but fewer talk about his directorial debut with 2013’s Beyond the Boundary. It tells the story of a young girl with the power to control her blood as a weapon, who hunts a boy who is half-monster, only to end up falling in love with him.
The show was received fairly well, being followed up with a recap film and then a second movie that concluded the story, but in the time since it’s been dwarfed by other international successes. What makes this story worthy of appraisal now more than ever is how different it is from the norm for the studio (at least as of late).
A Different KyoAni Spectacle
Kyoto Animation isn’t a studio one associates with lots of action, sword-fighting, or magical battles. This isn’t to say that doesn’t happen and Beyond the Boundary isn’t the only one to exhibit these traits, but it is a comparatively rare sight.
KyoAni only produced Full Metal Panic!‘s second season after it proved itself with a comedy spin-off. Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai had plenty of fights that happened in the characters’ heads. Plus, Clannad had that weirdly well-animated fist fight in that one episode.
The more recent Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid can be action-heavy, but Beyond the Boundary is a special case, in that its artwork is far more in-line with the studio’s trademark style. The lighting effects, the facial animations, the shapes of faces, and the detail of close-ups are all reminiscent of other popular projects Free! or A Silent Voice.
Ever since Free!, the studio has gone above and beyond with animating liquid and lighting effects through a blend of hand-drawn and digital effects work. It’s the kind of quality that lends itself perfectly to an action series with diverse forms of magic, fighting styles, and weapons.
Characters use guns that fire bullets imbued with magic or wield swords and transforming weapons that can eviscerate crowds of Youmu. One of the major characters Hiroomi uses their scarf as a weapon and a conduit for casting magic, while his sister Mitsuki uses a friendly Youmu to fight, herself specializing in defensive magic.
The creativity of the magic and the characters’ signature styles aside, the action is simply gorgeous to behold. It makes sense that Chuunibyou’s animation director (AD), Miku Kadowaki, also contributed to this series. It’s the speed of the action which often impresses most, and the transition between swift but simple choreography and slow-motion keeps the eyes glued to the screen.
Modern Fantasy Romance
In this modern fantasy, “Spirit World Warriors” are trained to hunt Youmu, monsters that are created from negative emotions in the world. Mirai Kuriyama is the last member of a clan that held cursed blood magic. She arrives in town to make a living as a warrior in-between schoolwork, but she’s not quite good at hunting.
She slowly befriends some local warriors and Akihito Kanbara, a human-Youmu half-breed who is immortal. Considering that Mirai spends the first several encounters trying to murder him, it’s not exactly love at first sight. Even as they get closer, she’s constantly calling him “unpleasant,” a recurring jab that becomes more playful as time goes on.
Rarely has a show toed the line between melodramatic teen romance and high-octane fantasy action with such committed treatment to both aspects of the plot. Both protagonists grapple with conflicted feelings about who they are because of the powers they have, and the ways they deal with that stress is very different.
The show’s action is not exhaustive and doesn’t take away from the character drama, nor does it ever feel like a distraction from it. On the contrary, the character moments and episodes dedicated to these relationships are what strengthen the whole of this story.
Aki’s friends Mitsuki and Hiroomi Nase, siblings who are part of one of the most powerful Spirit World Warrior clans, play a huge role in the story. While they are friends with Aki, there is added context to their friendship that makes the story darker. Every character seems to have ulterior reasons for being involved with the main characters.
As the curtain is lifted on the characters’ secrets and the competing motivations of those in power begin to interfere with these kids’ lives, this romance becomes much more complicated. And a big reason this blend of genres works is because Beyond the Boundary has a rich and interesting world.
Spectacular World Building
Early on, when the nature of Youmu and how to defeat them are explained, it is explained through showing more than telling. As Youmu are secret from everyday normal people, mechanics are put in place to keep citizens from stumbling into trouble.
There are unique talismans and devices for creating barriers or warding off outsiders and not only is it effective at explaining, everything just looks cool. Making a show cool goes beyond making cool fights; the story itself has to present cool ideas and often, preferably at the beginning when everything is being introduced to the audience.
Secret societies with knowledge about magic and other threats to the world are popular in fiction for a reason. Having groups powerful enough to keep these things secret is inherently cool and so long as the chaos doesn’t make it too unbelievable that things are being covered up, it can be super effective.
A Love Story
When the dust clears and the battles are over, this show is ultimately a love story, one that rises to a crescendo in its final episodes that only truly reaches its climax in the final movie. With the benefit of hindsight, the show and film can be enjoyed together, though previously the wait was torture.
Beyond the Boundary is an occasionally dark romance that lightens the mood with humor that can be hit or miss depending on the person. But when it lands, it lands hard, with some of the best visual gags to come from KyoAni. It’s moments like the bizarre filler episode halfway through, that help endear the audience to these characters.
What results is a conclusion that seems especially dire and without a clear path forward. Mirai and Aki are far from one another and the buildup relentlessly makes their happy ending seem increasingly unlikely. The playful animosity at the beginning of their friendship aside, their romance blooms graciously over the course of the series.
Many of the winning qualities of this show have been done in other Kyoto Animation properties, but very few if any have been told the way that Beyond the Boundary tells it. Its individual components can be found elsewhere but combined its something that scratches an itch few will realize was there, to begin with.
Beyond the Boundary is available to own through Sentai Filmworks and available for streaming through HiDIVE.
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