My heart has belonged to Kyoto Animation for a long time. And their shows have always looked good – that’s not even a faintly nuanced observation. The 2010s was the advent of an in-house style that helped forge their identity without ever feeling like a stagnant or limiting trait of the production house. Be it the character work by Miku Kadowaki, Futoshi Nishiya, or others, the character art is something that hasn’t quite been matched by another studio.
Even before their in-house style became synonymous with their identity, their artwork was rarely a sore spot in the final product. However, how well do we regard the actual “animation” of Kyo Ani’s works?
Pretty well as a matter of fact. Consistently. From Liz and the Blue Bird to Silent Voice, I’ve praised the subtle character movements and facial twitches that create the small reveries of human pathos. Occasionally, these dramas or slice-of-life comedies might even present an action scene. Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid had ridiculously bombastic action and even Clannad had a pretty dope fight scene. However, I get the feeling that when people say that Kyoto Animation has great animation, they actually mean “great artwork.” It’s worth distinguishing between the two.
I don’t think any show from the studio has consistently reminded me of how great their animation talent is more than one particular show. If you would permit the generalization, the average viewer may not stray close to offering a critique of actual animation outside of shows or genres that incentivize consistent motion in their presentation. Hence why most people, regardless of their inclination to media criticism, often praise the animation of the hottest shonen/action series.
Following that line of logic, this week’s review is an action show with plenty to gush over. Beyond the Boundary – Taichi Ishidate’s directorial debut – is one of my favorite works by Kyoto Animation, and what I believe to be their best-looking show. Or rather, it is the most consistently upfront with what the studio is capable of, both in TV and film.
But first, the story…
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Akihito Kanbara is a dorky guy with a fetish for girls who wear glasses. So when he sees a short-haired bespectacled girl on top of his school looking like she’s about to jump, he rushes to convince her not to end her life because he loves girls with glasses. She repays this kind yet strangely executed gesture by leaping towards him and stabbing him through the chest with a sword made of her blood.
I’m allowing you to recoil from what I can only approximate to be a phenomenon known as “synopsis whiplash.” This is a common occurrence when reading a summary that quickly and cleanly describes details that are accurate while being quite a lot to take in. For a textbook example of this phenomenon, read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia summary of the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog (Trigger Warning). I tend to start my reviews with a bit about the plot and when gathering my thoughts, I realized just how funny the beginning of this show sounds.
In the world of Beyond the Boundary, there are creatures known as Youmu, semi-spectral lifeforms that can possess humans or otherwise do them hard. Outside of the big bads, we don’t see them attack normal humans, but I suppose their competition is just that good at killing them. After all, Youmu are invisible to normal humans, but superpowered individuals known as Spirit World Warriors are trained to hunt Youmu, dispatching them and cashing in the stones left behind to make a living.
Mirai Kuriyama, the girl who stabs Akihito, is a Spirit World Warrior herself, and the descendant of a cursed clan that can manipulate their blood to fight. However, not even her strength is enough to kill Akihito, who is half-Youmu. He is a rare breed who is practically immortal. While the mechanics of immortality related to his Youmu half isn’t quite clear, all is explained as the series goes on.
Mirai is low on cash but is also hesitant to kill Youmu out of fear of her powers and the stigma that comes with her past. So instead, she cruelly practices killing Akihito, seeing him as an opponent. It’s morbid but amusing as the first episode skips ahead after a presumed assortment of other attempts on his life. However, once he’s finally able to convince her not to attack him, the two slowly start to become friends.
A common thread between the two leads is the idea of being “cursed.” Mirai’s bloodline is presented as a limiting factor towards her relationships and her ability to fit into normal life and her work as a warrior. She both craves connection and yet at her most serious moments, pushes people like Aki away because they “don’t understand.”
Of course, that’s nonsense. He obviously understands, and not just because he spent the negative space in between episode one getting impaled by a cute girl’s sword. The two characters come closer together as they begin to understand each other’s “curses” and find comfort in one another. It’s a love story about two people who think very little of themselves and likely put everything else before their wellbeing in the darkest times.
It works so well because whichever one of them is self-destructive, the other will always be close behind, ready to give them hell about how dumb and selfish they’re being. Fans of Violet Evergarden, Ishidate’s most popular work by far, will feel a similar direction in the drama between the two characters, especially later on.
In fact, I praised this show’s emotional pathos briefly in that review of Evergarden back in 2018. To elaborate, I think that Ishidate directs scenes of both subtle emotional dialog and melodramatic expressions of the heart very well. This being a fantasy show centered around characters with dangerous powers, the latter melodrama is done to great effect.
To be precise, Beyond the Boundary is a modern fantasy with elements of action and romance. The title is in reference to an ominous threat known as “Beyond the Boundary” that is eluded and built up to throughout the whole show. However, the real meat of the plot comes from the world and the conspiracy brewing behind the scenes.
Surprise, surprise! I love the world-building in this beautiful-looking modern fantasy show. Come on, though, Kyoto Animation’s work in bringing it to life is astonishing. The mechanics behind how Warriors get Youmu stones appraised or how they avoid drawing attention from normal humans are just small things that add a lot of depth to the world.
Rounding out the cast is Hiroomi and Mitsuki Nase. They are the middle brother and little sister of the Nase family, headed by big sis Izumi Nase. This family is presented as the ones in control of the region of Japan where the story takes place. They have lots of power in almost every aspect of the business, making them a constant presence in the story.
Mitsuki and Hiroomi both are friends with Akihito, the former constantly teasing him while trying to be the voice of reason in his complicated relationship with Mirai. The latter, Hiroomi, has a sister complex which is his primary joke but also compensates by being generally charming and a badass fighter.
The Nase siblings get caught between their responsibilities as members of their elite family and their feelings for Akihito and Mirai, whose actions and lives are being constantly observed by higher powers acting from behind the scenes. Their big sis, Izumi, is acting suspiciously and a representative from the Society of Spirit World Warriors, Miroku Fujima, is all kinds of suspicious.
Peppered throughout this stacked plot is an assortment of some of the cleanest looking action animation I’ve ever seen. This show is the reason that I want Kyo Ani to do more action shows. Imagine the sparkly lighting, particle, and fluid effects the studio is known for. Now imagine that same attention to detail applied to snappy sword fights and monster battles.
That is honestly the reason this is the best-looking Kyo Ani show to me. I’m a simple man: I love action sakuga and fight scenes. Even more impressive is that this show’s animation was produced mostly by newcomer animators from Kyoto Animation’s very own animator school. Unfortunately, because of how new they were, there are tons of gorgeous cuts that haven’t been identified to a particular artist. Nevertheless, the quality speaks for itself.
Beyond the Boundary builds up to a big “fate of the world” kind of threat, and passes the time with intriguing internal politics that repeatedly challenges or helps stimulate an already compelling romance between two lovable leads. Altogether, the story is a big hit. On the downside? Well, there is episode six, a filler episode, of all things, in the middle of a 12-episode show. Yet, even so, that episode is funny enough that I recommend giving it a watch, even if I admittedly skipped it last time I binged the series.
I also should mention that the comedy didn’t always land in the beginning. It got funnier as the story continued, but I think certain tropes or lines just felt lazy to me. Akihito’s glasses fetish and some of his early-show dialog didn’t necessarily amuse me or make his character that interesting. If anything, he seemed generic. This is a story that I think gets better as it goes along.
Even past the first few episodes, there are blemishes on this otherwise stellar show’s report card. For one thing, the ending of the show – and I mean the very ending – felt like a copout. You’ll likely find yourself thinking “that’s nice, but literally how?” The answer comes in the sequel film.
After a recap film, Beyond the Boundary: I’ll Be Here – Kako-hen, a conclusion was made called I’ll Be Here – Mirai-hen, or, Future. It picks up soon after the show’s surprising end and… I’m sorry I’m realizing as I’m writing this that they didn’t necessarily explain the ending in the movie either. Well, whatever, once the movie gets going you’ll probably just go with it if you’re anything like me.
Instead, the movie offers a new character conflict, namely that Mirai has lost her memories, which is extremely funny for reasons I’ll explain below. Anyway, in the time since the end of the series, things have changed. Characters like Hiroomi have risen the ranks in their family and have more responsibilities. A new threat has appeared and is putting pressure on the Nase family. All the while, Akihito is despairing that Mirai has lost her memories.
[SPOILERS AHEAD (SKIP IF YOU CARE): Okay, so the last episode of the TV series shows Mirai showing up on the roof just like in episode one. She’s all smiley and looks at Akihito like she knows him. A person who doesn’t know someone else would not be that elated, even if they were just trying to be polite. So for the film to just come out and say that she had amnesia feels like the direction of the show’s finale was an oversight.]
The story feels exactly like what you would expect from a movie sequel to a TV series. Maybe I’m just saying that because the “lost memories” trope feels like a classic movie spinoff premise, but I’m not even saying this as a bad thing. I love this movie. For one thing, the dilemma of lost memories doesn’t exactly end the way you’d expect and there are some major reveals.
There are little bits of backstory offered for both leads that while not needed during the show proper, feel appreciable for further deepening these characters. Notably, we get to see the kind of torment that Mirai and her family were subjected to because of their cursed blood.
The film might just be the epitome of the heart-tugging drama touched upon so well in the show. Akihito and Mirai have always had flaws that caused them to push the other away because of either fear of themselves or a belief that the other would be happier without them. With the film’s premise being that Mirai no longer remembers herself, Akihito thinks that – just maybe – that might be for the best. And that borderline between selfishness and selflessness made the film’s climax unbelievably heartbreaking and sincere.
The performances by Risa Taneda and KENN (Kenichirou Oohashi) are what help carry this story’s most emotional moments to true greatness. I’d be tempted to call this a beauty and the beast love story, but it’s more accurately just a love story about “beasts” in general. It’s a label more than anything else and the story preaches that overcoming the label is different and more important discarding it.
There’s also the matter of music. Masumi Itou composed the score under the name Hikaru Nanase (a pseudonym). The music felt fantastical during it’s calmer moments, on-brand with the stranger elements of the world. During the action, I was delighted by the intensity of the score. There were several tracks whose tunes got stuck in my head for days on end after watching the fights. It’s no surprise Itoh can handle action soundtracks well. After all, they scored Masahiro Ando’s action series Canaan back in 2009.
Beyond the Boundary lacks the consistency of its contemporaries, most of them narrative triumphs in the realm of film drama. It’s flaws, most of which prominent early on, may mark it as a lesser product than the studio’s classics. Despite that, the sum of its parts presents a spectacular romance conveyed through melodrama and gorgeous action. It is a sign that the lowest points of Kyoto Animation still reach great heights.
And here’s to even greater heights to come.
Beyond the Boundary is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll. It’s also available on Blu-ray through Sentai Filmworks.
What are your thoughts on Beyond the Boundary? Leave a comment below and tell me what you think the best-looking Kyoto Animation show is.
Thank you for reading! I hope you all had a safe holiday season and I wish you a wonderful 2021. Stay healthy, stay safe, and as always, I’ll see you next time!