Kekkai Sensen – 7/10
Kekkai Sensen is the psychedelic journey of Leonard Watch in the upside-down world of a monster-infested New York. Being sane gets you nowhere in this little corner of the world(s), leaving Leonardo (and the audience) to constantly to wonder what will happen next. With a bit of action, a bit of drama, and a bit of comedy Kekkai Sensen is quite the ride.
Note: unlike usual, I will be using the character design plates when linking a picture of the person in question. I do this because of the series' exceptional visual design is crucial, and random scenes are not as effective at conveying this.
The visual design of Kekkai Sensen is one of its most striking, and strongest, elements. The world it is set in is absurd, and the style matches this perfectly. But it is more than simply being extreme or over-the-top: there is a great deal of love put into the details which craft the atmosphere.
First, any listing of Kekkai Sensen's visuals would be remiss if it didn't include the opening and closing songs:
An impressively long shot as the sun slowly dawns over the city, smoothly transitioning into a collage of pictures making up the otherworldly cloud that hangs over the city. This quickly transmits a sense of scale and detail to the setting - that it is a vast city made of many individual stories, an impression reinforced by the subsequent scenes of the main characters walking through the vast and varied crowds. While the latter parts were a bit more standard fare, I still greatly enjoyed this OP.
The ending credits take a somewhat different approach, focusing more exclusively on the myriad characters that make up the show. What is impressive is how effectively the nature and relationships of the characters are expressed in such a short time. From Klaus's stodgy clapping to Chain's reflexive punches at Zapp, it takes only a second to give us an immediate idea of the personalities involved. What is particularly telling are the scenes in which Libra attempts to dance together. Despite their best efforts they're all just a bit too individualistic to work in synchrony, but they get along just the same.
This strategy of efficient visual demonstration extends to the individual characters as well. From Leo's pedestrian street clothes to Chain's plain suit to Klaus's gentlemanly jacket you can immediately assess the characters just on how they look. Backing these visuals, each character is idiosyncratic, with a well-crafted set of quirks that easily identify them. This extends even to minor characters such as Don Arlelelle Eurca Felgouche, who despite only featuring in a singe episode, is memorable. When it comes to establishing characters through appearance and mannerisms, Kekkai Sensen is second to none.
To round out this section, I want to end with a discussion of a few of my favorites from the series, if simply because of how much I enjoyed watching them:
- White: White was a joy to have on screen. The attractive simplicity of her design combined with the smooth mixture of humor and seriousness in her personality produced a wonderful female lead. What is even more shocking is that she is anime-original. Usually when a character is introduced in this fashion they stand out painfully from the surroundings, a blistering sore on the series. That White was so effortlessly integrated is a testament to her character. I will genuinely miss her.
- Klaus von Reinherz: My other favorite of the series, Klaus is the definition of "indomitable." Typically in trying to demonstrate an unbreakable spirit a character is shown to go through predictable cycles of self-doubt, fear, and final desperate success by believing in themselves. Klaus would have none of that. He struggles (as in the “chess” episode), can be worried about the outcome (as when the barrier threatens to break), and can even lose (as against Black). But each time he gathers his resolve quietly and steps forward again to do what must be done. He was a perfect choice for the leader of Libra, a rock that everyone else could count on.
- Chain Sumeragi: Chain is unusual in that despite her early introduction, she remains in the background for most of the series. In spite of this, her essence is transmitted clearly. Her attire is professional, her visage composed. She is always there when needed but doesn't stick around for extra duty. She isn't into heroics if she sees help is useless. Yet another testament to Kekkai Sensen's ability to craft unique characters with limited cues.
- Dog Hummer and Deldro Brody: I found these two genuinely entertaining, with just enough exposure that they didn’t wear out their welcome. There isn't much more to say on them, except that their story was morbidly funny and their interactions bafflingly effective.
Above I praised the series' ability to match its tone with the general incoherence of the world it represents. Unfortunately, this extended into the presentation of the plot as well. In the beginning, when the series is primarily episodic, this wasn't an issue; why things were happening didn't really matter, and it was wrapped up every episode anyways. Then the Blood Born are introduced, and in one episode go from being non-entities to the Big Evil that Libra has apparently opposing up until now. This sudden shift is handled poorly, and what is otherwise a serviceable plot is confused by messy implementation.
The other major weakness of Kekkai Sensen was the inexplicable failure to extend its virtuoso character building to key players. The worst offenders are Steven and K.K. Like all members of the cast, they have detailed designs that convey their basic nature: Steven is a professional while K.K. is more exotic. Both are clearly experienced, exhibited by their scars and casual demeanor. Beyond this they never receive more explanation.
For many characters, this wouldn't be a problem; there are plenty of supporting members who are little more than an eccentric face. But as the series draws to a conclusion these two receive screen time equal to the primary characters, yet we have nothing to go on. I can't remember the first episodes they are featured in, their personalities, or their motivations. Everybody else has blood powers, why are Steven's based on ice? And where was K.K. for most of the series? She acts familiar with the entire team, yet we never see her outside crucial plot scenes. Nowhere are these defects more damaging than in the first encounter with the Blood Born, in which Steven and K.K. fight a desperate losing battle. These two are humanity's first responders, giving valorous speeches and demonstrating their resolve in the face of this evil scourge. But just as the introduction of the Blood Born was muddled by its abruptness, the heroics are weakened coming from characters we do not know.
To complete the litany of semi-pointless characters, Femt, King of Depravity, must also be mentioned. He is the first villain we are introduced to in the series. His escapades are clearly sadistic. His background indicates that he is a criminal mastermind with resources, connections, and an audience hungry for more. Surely he is to play a major role as the excessively-demented antagonist? Well, I am sorry to notify you of Femt's untimely demise from the script. He becomes nothing more than a commentator on William's actions. The complete mismatch between his initial presentation and ultimate impact was dismal.
I was also disappointed in the lack of world-building detail. Kekkai Sensen's setting is expansive, with a plethora of questions waiting to be answered. Often a series can get away with leaving these ends open, allowing the audience to use their imaginations to create their own stories. But in Kekkai Sensen we aren't even give enough to dream on. There is no exposition of the magic system, the different guilds that operate within the city, the levels of reality, or the other Kings that rule them. The final sensation is one of frayed ends rather than being elegantly unresolved.
In conclusion, Kekkai Sensen is an enjoyable, if flawed, series. It was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of its plot or message, but made up for this in spades with its exuberant visuals, quirky humor and detailed character design. A solid choice for when you just want something fun and entertaining without having to worry too much about the point of it all.