Takashi Miike once made a film, for which I seem to be a fandom of one, called Izo, where the embodiments of great impersonal forces in the universe strive to keep a renegade figure from destroying time and space and causality. Kyōsōgiga has the same cosmic-scale ambitions — it's about nothing less than god and the universe and the balance of all things, but it's delivered by way of a frenzied mashup of Buddhist lore, supernatural slapstick action, and domestic drama in the vein of The Eccentric Family. There's nothing like it, in the best possible way.

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© TOEI ANIMATION CO. LTD./ Kyōsōgiga Project
The family life that birthed little Koto.

Once (and twice) upon a time...

Kyōsōgiga opens some thousand-plus years ago, when high priest Myōe discovers he has the power to bring drawings to life. In seclusion, he creates a little world to inhabit, Kyōtō (spelled here with the characters "Mirror Capitol"). A world of his own isn't much without other inhabitants, and so he draws himself a wife, Lady Koto. She's brought to life by way of some Buddhist miracle-working, and they adopt a son, a young priest named Yakushimaru, rescued from death by his own hand when his real parents are murdered. They "have" (that is, draw) two more children, the priestly Kurama, and the half-sweet/half-demonic Yase.

Then they bear one more child — a girl, also named Koto. This act costs Lady Koto her existence in this world, as she was only here by the grace of the bodhisattva who struck a deal with her. Myōe himself also departs, leaving a grieving Yakushimaru with his prayer beads and a promise someday he'll returning "with the beginning and the end".

Time go by, centuries possibly. Yakushimaru — now bearing the adult name Myōe — Yase, and Kurama form the "Council Of Three," who watch over the Mirror Capitol. One day everything's thrown into a turmoil: Koto the Younger appears. She's literally smashed her way into the Mirror Capitol by way of a pan-dimensional sledgehammer, and she's on a mission to find her missing mother. Since three of her siblings are here in the Mirror Capitol, it stands to reason Lady Koto isn't far away either. Little Koto is an absolute firecracker of a character, the Beast That Shouted Yup At The Heart Of The World, just the sort of thing to shake up the stasis that may be preventing the denizens of the Mirror Capitol from understanding what they're up against and why.

Because, as it turns out, some bends sinister are in effect. After Koto the Younger's family broke apart, she was trusted to "the Shrine", a sort of cosmic ruling body that enforces the balance between all twelve worlds. She had a big-brotherish figure to watch over her, Inari, a fox-masked young man, but she long suspected there was some connection between him and her mother, and so struck out on her own to learn the truth. And now the Shrine has decided to make use of Koto the Younger's quest to eliminate the Mirror Capitol and rebalance the state of things — because, after all, something like the Mirror Capitol can't exist without throwing the rest of the universe out of whack.

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© TOEI ANIMATION CO. LTD./ Kyōsōgiga Project
The Mirror Capitol, where Koto faces her brother Myōe and searches for her now-missing mother.

A stylistic learning curve

I suspect most people's first encounter with Kyōsōgiga is going to be much like mine: first you're confused and frustrated, then you're fascinated, and then finally you're even a little bit moved and awed. But it's getting over that first hump that may prove toughest. This isn't helped by the show's format: it was originally conceived as a series of short animations for the web (the "ONA"), then reworked into a full-blown TV series of ten episodes. What's more, if you pop in the DVD/Blu-ray Disc reissue of the series, the ONA is presented as the "zeroth episode" of the show — and it isn't likely to make an ounce of sense unless you watch the rest of the show first. Sum of comment: skip episode 0, you're not missing anything.

Then there's the show's non-linear, stream-of-consciousness storytelling to grapple with. I actually think this is one of the lower barriers to entry for the show, if only because we've reached a point culturally where nonlinearity in our media is almost a given. Much of what we need to know is not explained immediately; it's hinted at in context, or filled in as backstory over the course of an episode. Normally I cluck my tongue at this sort of thing as being a mere indulgence, but for a story that's about a multiverse where reality, the flow of time, and causality are all somewhat plastic, it fits.

And then there's the imagery. I always like it when animation starts from the premise that it doesn't have to be true to real life, that it can create a reality from whole cloth and sell us on it. That's more or less the premise of Kyōsōgiga in the first place, so form is just following function — the wild floods of digital color; the surreal visual shorthand — e.g., the way crowds of people are represented by forests of computer-generated geometric figures; the call-and-response patterns used in the framing, blocking, and editing of sequences. (Kunihiko Ikuhara is fond of such patterns as well.)

One way the show keeps its narrative and stylistic wildness from spinning out of control is by managing to keep all of the most visible details of its story hooked back into things most any audience can relate to. At one point the Mirror Capitol has a kind of trash festival, where everyone's useless junk floats off and is taken to the train station for disposal (an allegorical version of the real-life spring cleaning that takes place once a year in Japanese neighborhoods, I believe). The premise is used not just for trippy visuals, but to hook into the way Yase can't let go of anything that reminds her of Lady Koto, out of the hope that maybe the way back for her is through such things.

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© TOEI ANIMATION CO. LTD./ Kyōsōgiga Project
Mother and daughter; father and adoptive son.

Family and feeling come first

I don't have a problem with a project where the whole thing is the visuals and nothing but. I'd scarcely have as much affection for Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg, for instance, if I held such a view. My problem is when there's a bait-and-switch — when we're first importuned with the feeling we ought to invest ourselves emotionally in what's about to happen, and then the material in question goes "Never mind!" Every episode of Kyōsōgiga opens with a bumper reminding us this is about a family, and everything eventually loops back to that sentiment in some form. So what might happen when a god-the-father feels he can't live up to the promises he made to his creation-children, and decides they have to pick up where he elects to leave off whether they like it or not? (Go see it and find out.)

I mentioned two points of reference atop this piece. One was the magnificent The Eccentric Family, another story about a family of supernatural circumstance existing in a fantasyland city. In some ways Eccentric Family works as a 100-level introduction to the kinds of things Kyōsōgiga attempts; it's loopy and surreal, but also a little less anarchic in its construction, and thus easier to get a grip on out of the gate. Because while Kyōsōgiga is also only ten episodes to Eccentric Family's two-cour, it's far more compressed and demanding — if also rewarding — viewing. If you like one, you'll like the other, as they both represent some of the finest and most boundary-pushing work in anime out there.

The other thing I mentioned, Miike's Izo, brought back to mind William S. Burroughs, author of the infamous Naked Lunch. He spent several of his novels — Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine -- creating what could be called a mythology for the space and information age. Avatars of impersonal forces like addiction, control, and power slugged it out with the survival of the human race in the cosmos at stake. Heady stuff, but also all but impenetrable, and way too detached from everyday human concerns to be for any but the most self-selecting. Kyōsōgiga has the same cosmic-scale ambitions, but not at the cost of being thoroughly unapproachable. It always comes back to simple things: Where's Mom? Why did she go? Why can't she come back? Why are you stopping me from finding her?

"In art as in life," once wrote critic and novelist Dale Peck, "people admire the idea of individuality, of newness, more than they admire the new and individual thing itself." Reason being the new and individual thing itself is often a total pain in the ass to grapple with. It frustrates as many as it enchants, it baffles as many as it enlightens. Kyōsōgiga can frustrate and baffle, but it doesn't forget to enlighten and enchant, and finally also endear. It helps to have as many of the above as possible.

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© TOEI ANIMATION CO. LTD./ Kyōsōgiga Project
What's a little violated causality and disrupted universal balance between family members?
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.