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Anime likes to try different keys on the lock of “world peace.” The inherent goodness of humanity. The many over the few. The postdiluvian utopia. Reincarnation. Giant asteroids. Perhaps the only thing they all have in common is that these “solutions” don’t tend to work. Occasionally, they even end in fire and brimstone.
In Kiznaiver, seven teens are linked by shared pain. Everything from bruising to heartache travels from person-to-person like an electric shock (sometimes literally). Toting the weighty “world peace” clause as its greater good, the nightmarish Kizuna experiment (which ironically means “bond” in Japanese) strips these participants of their freewill and throws them into “do-or-die” scenarios where bonding is a mere by-product of their survival instinct.
Unsurprisingly, the system aims for empathy but hits apathy, and the experiment falls apart after the seven participants grow “close” enough to begin hearing each other’s thoughts. Rather than emphasize the dangers of human omniscience with the ineffectual take-away that some things are truly best left to the imagination, however, Kiznaiver uses the routine to satirize the risks of counterfeit empathy.
Despite its premise, Kiznaiver is not so much about pain as it is human connection. Certainly, pain shapes our personal boundaries, causes us to give the plights of others a double-take, and brings us together when disaster strikes; but to view pain as the “ultimate connection” is to faultily assume that pain is necessary to the human condition and that strife alone is what connects people.
Despite it being a universal phenomenon, pain is a temporary solution to a more permanent problem.
This concept is explored through the protagonist, Katsuhira, whose connection to the experiment at a young age completely detaches him from his sense of pain—and from the rest of his peers as a result. “People can’t find themselves in you,” he is warned, as he continues to absorb the psyches of those around him like a sponge, without mirroring any human response in return. As Katsuhira becomes increasingly reliant on the Kizuna system to know how others around him are feeling, he loses the wherewithal to form genuine connections with others, and his empathy becomes fully reliant on assumptions.
“Please hold me like you held Sonozaki-san,” Honoka, the third-wheel in Katsuhira’s love triangle, begs telepathically. He complies, only to be told by Honoka that he’s cruel for doing so. Katsuhira begins to lose sight of even his closest friend’s heart, instead seeing only the data the system feeds him about her.
In thrusting its characters into obscure mind palaces filled with strobe-lit nightmares, driven by the colourful predictability of an acid trip and backed by an inverted soundtrack, Kiznaiver forces viewers out of their comfort zones and into individual character perspectives that empathy must be tailor-made, rather than bulk-ordered, to fit.
Ironically, in an era where we are more digitally connected with others than ever before, we are perhaps equally as disconnected from our sense of empathy. Media bombardment via social networks, television, and the web have, in many ways, desensitized us to the primal shock of disaster (“Another shooting happened today,” I sigh, as I continue scrolling through my newsfeed). However, I think the greater culprit is not oversaturation, but over-reliance on our own “Kizuna systems” to determine our generic responses to others’ pain.
Systems are useful. Facebook can keep us in touch with our far-away friends, and televised news can make us aware of the struggles of others in our community. Ultimately, however, systems are cold, emotionless things and not well-suited for truly grasping the hearts on the other ends of our screens. Sharing is good. Donating is good. Praying is good. Sometimes it’s the most that we can do. But when we allow systems to usurp the place of personal outreach, we, like Katsuhira, risk losing sight of the fact that each person’s heart is as unique as the pain it feels. Even if we could read minds, or feel the same pain as others, a gap would still exist in our understanding and cause us to misinterpret another person’s feelings without their direct input.
Surrounded by injustice and hatred, we seek the ever-elusive answer that will tie us all together in a convenient little package. Kiznaiver’s Kizuna system chalks up conflict to general misunderstandings and stingy comfort zones, claiming that if we only empathized with others, human strife would come to an end. However, when the final ED rolls, Kiznaiver reaches the conclusion that simply understanding another’s pain is not enough. From the moment our first cries signal our births into the world, pain is a given in life. It’s no great realization that others also hurt. No doubt, in a widespread Kizuna system, somebody would take pleasure in hitting themselves just to make others suffer. Pain does not deter the suicide bomber or the masochist. Being above pain is a dangerously empowering feeling.
The raised double-bridge is one of the many reoccurring symbols in Kiznaiver, metaphorical of yet another system used to connect. Lowering the bridges might imply that relationships function only when people reach out simultaneously. Leaping from one bridge to another might suggest that reaching out first, regardless of personal risk, is the key to connecting. But, in the series finale, Kiznaiver employs a much more personal solution—one that has Katsuhira plummet from the bridge’s apex after his wayward, childhood friend. For once, he ignores the system entirely. And he finally reaches her heart.
Despite its average reception, Kiznaiver succeeded in causing me to reflect. What systems am I over-relying on to connect me with others? Facebook, e-mail, online gaming, iPhones, texting… to name a few. When viewed as nothing more than necessary commodities, even established systems like education or the workplace can systematically obscure the need for genuine dialogue, replacing it with scripted responses and technical jargon.
I believe the mark of true empathy is not whether it is present during crisis, but whether it is present during peacetime, when it is no longer necessary. Slapping a Band-Aid on every “pain” might ease a scrape or blister, but will look contemptuous to a person with a broken arm. Instead, I think that taking the time to reach toward individual pain in unique ways is the most effective thing we can do.
Pain can bring people together, but only love keeps people together. And that’s when the real kizuna begins to form.
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