Introduction

When I first watched The Garden of Sinners (Kara no Kyoukai), I loved the animation and the soundtrack, but thought the themes and storytelling were an incoherent mess.

Yet I could not stop thinking about the movies. Something about the premise kept drawing me back. I thought there must have been something that I missed: some deep meaning to uncover, some symbolism to analyze, some character journey to unravel and prove The Garden of Sinners’s literary merit.

So I scoured the internet for analysis, but nothing satisfied me. Nothing I could find gave meaning to the story as a whole. Nothing made me care about it.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated by the show’s double title. The Japanese title, Kara no Kyoukai, translates to “the Boundary of Emptiness”, which is entirely different from the English title The Garden of Sinners. The former seemed to evoke Eastern, Buddhist concepts of Emptiness, in contrast to the latter’s Western, Abrahamic religious imagery. As I organized my thoughts on the meaning of each word in the titles, I had my epiphany: The Garden of Sinners is a story of tragedies and struggles at both grand and personal levels, and these ideas are captured in the titles.

Mandatory spoiler warning: this piece assumes familiarity with the light novel or movie series, so spoilers will be unmarked.

Part I: Kara no Kyoukai (空の境界—the Boundary of Emptiness)

Kara (空—emptiness) uses the same Kanji as the Buddhist concept of Emptiness, so I thought it had a deep philosophical meaning. I was disappointed. In Buddhism, the idea of Emptiness has many interpretations depending on the school (see Wikipedia), while in Kara no Kyoukai it refers to the protagonist Shiki’s loneliness and loss of direction and identity. Although the author loves to remind us that it can also refer to Shiki’s third personality as “the Void from which Everything Originates”, that is only trivia from world-building—not what I’m interested in.

More compelling, however, is the word Kyoukai (境界—boundary). It represents a liminal state at the border between civilization and savagery, where many of the characters precariously balance. The antagonists of the individual movies all struggle at fringes of society: Fujou Kirie due to illness, Asagami Fujino due to her father and to the gang that abused her, and Shirazumi Lio due to his descent into madness following Shiki’s rejection. The protagonist, Ryougi Shiki, faces the same problem, and her story too is a struggle to remain within civilization. Born with a double personality whose primary instinct is murder, Shiki tries her best to suppress her alter ego, to at least appear harmless if not normal. Her insecurities become obvious when she begins to get close to her classmate Mikiya, as she wonders “what will he think when he finds out there’s another Shiki within me?”. Yet, when this alter ego is lost after a traffic accident, Shiki finds herself more than ever in a liminal state: although the other personality is gone, its murder drive remains, along with a newfound loss of memory and identity. As she wanders directionless in life, Shiki is tempted (hold that thought) by forces tugging her away from civilization—metaphorically by the antagonists who nourish her murder instincts, and literally by the spirits that try to possess her in movie 4.

Evil spirits trying to take advantage of Shiki's "emptiness"
Evil spirits trying to take advantage of Shiki’s “emptiness”

But while the antagonists fail to regain their humanity (except Asagami who is forgiven—again, hold that thought), Shiki succeeds. Despite her lingering murder drive, her loneliness, her loss of direction and identity, she is able to hold on to her humanity thanks to Mikiya, the one friend who doesn’t mind her quirks and believes in her capacity for goodness. For anyone who has ever felt a loss of direction in life, Shiki’s journey from “the Boundary of Emptiness” is filled with relatable struggles, and makes a compelling narrative.

Part II: the Garden of Sinners

“Sinners” is fairly straightforward. For a tale so concerned with murder, “sinners” undoubtedly refers to the many murderers and would-be murderers in the story. But there’s more to explore. Closely tied to the concept of sin, at least in Christianity, is the concept of forgiveness. Let’s look at Asagami Fujino’s case. She appears in movie 3 as a telekinetic killer whose bloodthirst was awakened by a gang that abused her. After a series of murders that only further fuel her bloodlust, she is defeated by Shiki. Yet, Shiki spares her: an act of forgiveness for others. However, the real emotional payoff of Asagami’s arc is self-forgiveness. In an extra scene, we see Asagami having struggled through and overcome her guilt, and actually teaching self-forgiveness to a fellow classmate. For anyone who struggles with self-acceptance, this is a powerful message.

“The Garden” is harder to understand. The world of The Garden of Sinners is a maze of abandoned buildings and dark alleyways: hardly an idyllic Eden. Yet, this title makes sense if we consider it to refer to temptation and a tragic fall.

Who is the tempter, then? And who is the fallen angel? It is Araya Souren, the original tempter, the antagonist of the fifth movie who created all the other antagonists.

Araya Souren, saddened by desolation
Araya Souren, saddened by desolation

At first, Araya’s intentions are noble enough. Saddened by the meaningless deaths of a war-torn feudal Japan, he sets out searching for some sort of salvation for humankind. What follows is a tragic descent into immorality. Araya’s goals soon become twisted, from “finding salvation for humankind”, to “recording all of humankind’s deaths until the end of time, to find meaning in their lives”, to “seizing the power of the Origin of All Knowledge, and using it to achieve my goals”. Thus, he embarks on a god-defying mission to reach the Origin, by whatever means necessary. He builds an apartment complex, reminiscent of a Tower of Babel, and subtly manipulates its inhabitants to murder each other as he records their deaths. He tempts the other antagonists in their vulnerability at the fringes of society, and uses their fall from civilization (almost like an expulsion from paradise) to further his machinations*. Although Araya ultimately fails, his grand, impossible ideals, along with his tragic loss of humanity, render his story ultimately sympathetic.

Conclusion

Having mused over the titles, I think I’ve made my peace with The Garden of Sinners. The animation and soundtrack are still amazing, and the dialogue and storytelling remain a mess**. There’s nothing deep about the story either: it’s a straightforward tale of identity and self-acceptance, with a tragic story of good intentions gone wrong. Nevertheless, these themes and ideas were compelling, even if their execution was subpar. And even if the author never intended for the titles to be interpreted this way, that’s fine with me. Having mused over the titles, I’ve found my personal meaning in The Garden of Sinners, and that’s all I can ask for.

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*Araya’s plan is a long story of luring Shiki to him so that he can access the Origin through her. Details are beyond the scope of this analysis and can be easily found online.

**Details of my complaints about the storytelling are beyond the scope of this analysis. In short: Aozaki Touko spouting inane philosophy, the thematic purpose of the 6th movie and Azaka’s character, Kokutou Mikiya’s cringe-inducing dialogue and seeming perfection, among others.