K – All style and no substance

There are some anime series that are so stylish, so beautiful, so cool, and so sexy that they cause themselves pain. The mental anguish created by this potent concoction of stylish sexiness makes them want to scream from the rooftops, proclaiming their greatness to the world at large. K is one such series, the way every character constantly swaggers, the ever-present blue/green filter and the entire aesthetic of the series screams coolness from every pore. There are parallels to be found between K and Durarara, Air Gear and in some respects Akira – the setting involving Tokyo street gangs, along with the whole ‘urban-cool’ vibe that K has going for it produce this a strangely beautiful series. However, while Durarara and Air Gear take these aesthetic elements and create an off-kilter, almost ludicrous interpretation of what Tokyo gang culture and inner city life is like, K plays it dead straight. The outlandish levels of lunacy found in the other series are largely gone, with every character acting in a very serious and almost dull manner, and yet K manages to embrace to lunacy and eccentricities of these series while still keeping on the straight and narrow.

In doing so it creates a heady cocktail of style and beauty that draws the viewer in, while simultaneously almost entirely lacking in substance and meaning. The series is trying to embrace counter-culture, using the style and mannerisms of those who glare out of fashion magazines daring anyone to say that they aren’t cool. It’s the kind of style and fashion that everyone has been into at one point or another but cant quite remember when – it is the anime equivalent of a rebellious phase, with K giving the impression that despite what everyone else says, no one truly understands its feelings or knows what it is going through. By setting the story in an alternate world where history has taken a slightly different course, K manages to inject an element of eccentricity while still maintaining the very straight and narrow approach to its characters and setting.

Even though in other series the presence of psychic powers and ‘Seven Kings’ may seem ludicrous, the way it is presented in K produces a feeling of normality. By doing so, the series almost manages to wash over the fact that the entire street gang is oddly attractive. By adding another ‘gang’ full of blue coat wearing-sword carrying men and women who continue the attractive street gang look while adding an element of 18th century style. The series also looks amazing, showing that there is a substantial budget behind it, and arguably, without such a budget K couldn’t pull off the ultra-stylish swagger that it has going on. The colour scheme and blue/green filter gives the series an almost permanent feel of walking through the city at dusk when all the neo signs are turned on. The actions scenes are also well choreographed, with the use of numerous camera angles and settings to follow the action, simulating the hand-held camerawork that so many films now use.

What is curious about the series however is the almost total lack of meaningful dialogue throughout this first episode, with the characters merely existing rather than saying anything. One of the main elements of K was its supreme and hyped voice cast, something that the series wanted to push into its audiences face right at the beginning during the first set of credits. However, despite the clearly well known and talented voice cast, there is little said, and what lines we do have don’t seem to mean much, which might indicate that the entire budget was spent on the skateboard scenes and the swagger. K expects its audience to figure everything out, as it happens, wasting no time in even the most rudimentary explanation. Characters such as Shiro are simply thrown into the action, with the fire gang chasing him for an as yet undisclosed reason. Darker than Black did something similar with how it introduced different characters and settings, while there was some simple narration explaining the appearance of Hell’s Gate, the reason for its existence, along with the appearance of those with psychic powers was left to the audience to work out as the series progressed. In doing so the audience are forced to piece together visual images and markers, along with watching how the characters act and react, almost as if we were piecing together a puzzle.

While being allowed to work out what is happening for ourselves instead of having an ever present narrator explaining every little detail is nice, the direction that K has taken almost seems to be too far. Furthermore there are esoteric signs and signals used throughout the episode, including a reference to the Sword of Damocles, something that most people may not understand. The Sword of Damocles is a metaphor found in classical Greek culture:

Damocles was a courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse. Pandering to his king, Damocles exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority surrounded by magnificence, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius then offered to switch places with Damocles so that he could taste that very fortune first hand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal, thus he sat down on the kinds throne and was surrounded by luxury. But, Dionysius had arranged that a huge sword should hang above the thrown, help at the pommel by a single hair from a horse’s tale. Damocles finally begged Dionysius to switch back with him, because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.

The Sword of Damocles is frequently used as a metaphor, epitomising the imminent and ever present peril faced by those in positions of power. In this respect the reference has been used to suggest that when kings fight one shall lose their kingdom. Unfortunately many other anime have tried using references to Ancient Greek Philosophy or elements of the bible to greater or lesser extent, and in doing so create a pseudo-philosophy that can lack its original meaning or significance. This is partly because the way it is used, or the particular piece of philosophy may be unknown to a lot of people, and very often such ideas can turn the series into a dull and pretentious farce, where such elements are used to cover up the lack of meaningful story and character development. My worry is that by starting off in such a fashion K will go along this same route and use esoteric references that in general dont mean all that much. And yet by that same token, the use of such a metaphor is both striking and rather fascinating, seemingly suggesting that there is some sort of unwritten pact or set of rules involved with this psychic war.

K is a ludicrous series, one that takes itself far too seriously, but in doing so allows you to laugh and enjoy an anime that is so full of its own greatness that it has become caught up in its own little world. When deconstructed and pulled apart, K is made up of a serious of annoying and pointless elements that are either over thought or under-thought, however as a whole it produces a beautifully stylised work, which is as visually stunning as it is preposterous. The completely lack of information or distinct plot are however problematic, with the series relying entirely on its visuals to get through. This is not a complete catastrophe though, and I prefer a series that is beautiful and stylish, with excellent use of camera work to one that fills entire episodes with nothing but dialogue and exposition (Hello Fate/Zero in all its dull glory). Being allowed to sit back, watch and work things out for yourself is wonderful, the problem arises when a series is all about style and has no substance. This first episode of K is skirting around that boundary, and while there is clearly a story-taking place, the complete lack of substance is somewhat worrying. My fear is that the series becomes so caught up in its blue/green swaggering style that the story is forgotten about or perhaps nonexistent. However, there are times when a series is so stylish and sexy that there the story is forgotten about in our rush to watch more.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

9 Responses to K – All style and no substance

  1. windyturnip says:

    I always give series like this the benefit of the doubt because it is a lot harder to form a plot without lengthy dialogue. Fate/Zero is a perfect example of an “action” show that ended up talking itself to death. I can’t stand it when a scene pauses so Character A can describe what they’re feeling right now. 80% of the time, this means that the show failed to develop and express the character naturally.

    Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that K is pushing this boundary a bit far, but I commend them for at least making the attempt. I don’t need action throughout an episode, but any dialogue that does occur should be natural, necessary and believable. And I’m putting emphasis on the dialogue; all it takes is one dull monologue to completely ruin an episode for me.

    K might not be the best show, but it’s different. It’s taking a relatively unique approach to anime, and I think K at least deserves credit for that.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I agree with you that having meaningful dialogue that doesn’t dissolve into a 20 minute monologue detailing your life story is important, Fate/Zero is a perfect example of this and I detailed the problems I had with that series in another post. In that case the fighting or any meaningful action simply stopped as you say for the characters to each ave their own in=depth monologue that broke all flow and tension within the scene – there was no movement in that series. There was also no character or story development, with meaningless exposition and philosophical musings used to cover up the fact that Urobuchi Gen hadn’t actually written a particularly interesting story with characters that had any impact on the outcome whatsoever. It is basically a story about various people in trench coats going through their mid-life crisis and happily dragging the whole world into it to share their pain and angst.

      The problem with K is that it essentially goes too far in the other direction, and while I dont want endless exposition telling us everything about the plot, some sort of dialogue would be helpful. It is the almost total absence of any explanation that does worry me slightly, and I wonder if we will get a series that simple shows and doesn’t say. That in itself isn’t so bad considering how brilliantly produced K is, although it has the potential to be the exact opposite of Fate/Zero but be equally as bad, obviously I hope that isn’t the case. K isn’t necessarily a bad anime, in fact I very much enjoyed the first episode, it had enough style and grace to make me curious about what happens next – my fear is that it is all style and no substance like the title suggests. I am certainly not dismissing K, but there is enough there to perhaps make me worry that it is trying to be too subtle and ends up with no meaningful story. This is the first episode though and it has at least piqued my interest enough to keep me watching, so it is obviously doing something right.

      • tsurugiarashix says:

        Fate/Zero just was too grandiose to begin with written like it was western epic poetry. What a nightmare. But that is off topic. We are talking about K.

        Anyway, like Windyturnip, I willing to give it a little more time before dismissing it as just eye candy, but since I had trouble to trying to follow just about everything – I am close to it. I do not mind the visual presentation, I actually liked some of the aesthetic touches, yet if isn’t essential to the story or add to it, I could do without. Plenty of series from seasons past fit that bill already. More interested in the load of characters introduced.

        The “story” worries me too, but since I seen plenty of series that started off in a similar manner and came back strong (like Zegapain that didn’t really explain a darn thing until episode 5) I am not too worried. Just worried if K will turn out to be one of those series, lol.

        • illogicalzen says:

          Yes, I am currently willing to let things like story pass me by because I very much enjoyed the aesthetic of K – there were elements that reminded me of 90s skateboarding videos for example. And as I mentioned in the post I would much rather have an incredibly stylish anime series without much explanation like K than a series that is so dialogue and exposition heavy like Fate/Zero that nothing ever happens. While the blue/green filter doesn’t necessarily bother me, I feel that the series may have looked better without it, although I feel that it was added to try and simulate the idea of moving around an inner-city area with neon lights and so on.

          My main worry as I and others have pointed out is the story or lack thereof – I am not expecting to have my hand held while we are given a heavy exposition dump explaining absolutely everything, but it is the almost complete lack of anything until very late on in the episode that could potentially be worrying. But like you I have watched plenty of series that have been light on the explanation until later on – series such as Rahxephon and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, along with as you mentioned Zegapain and a few examples. While the visuals and aesthetic of the series drew me in and made me want to watch more, my worry is that the story wont go anywhere and it will turn into something similar to Guilty Crown with lots of stunning visuals but a complete lack of story and characterisation.

  2. just1pommop says:

    The level of detail in the art and camera angles amazed me right away. The first episode was very well layed out, and i think that the lack of substance in it was just due to the fact they were going for shock value. Hopefully the start to develop a story in the next couple of episodes. I’ve been taking a film theory class as an elective, and one thing that i found interesting is that they do a textbook example of proper lighting and camera angles to symbolize the situation. Just something to look for.

    • illogicalzen says:

      I do like the use of camera angles and lighting in the series, it is a highly stylised and very stylish anime that essentially overloads your senses at the very beginning. There were element that reminded me of other inner-city anime such as Air Gear, Ghost in the Shell (not quite inner city, but there are still elements), obvious elements of Durarara and so on. I very much enjoyed the creative use of camera angles, and even the fish eye effet during the skateboard scenes that is reminiscent of 90s skateboard videos. It is a visual style that very few anime manage to pull off and work with, although it did mean that there was almost no dialogue – perhaps they ran out of budget before they got to recording the lines or something.

  3. Oasis says:

    Yeah same here..the animation they put into this show is wonderful..what i really like its a new idea.. i mean its some thing new not base of a novel/game. i really like that idea =D

    the lighting and camera angles is what sold me as well.=D

  4. Aleris says:

    Haha instead of it having ‘no substance’, i’d rather like to think that the producers don’t want to give away anything yet, to enshroud this anime in mystery first so that people will be curious for more details. After all, explaining things is too mainstream and K wants to be… different. Cooler. xD I really enjoyed the anime because there were really good visuals and the little dialogue that was present was interesting. And of course the action scenes were just plain awesome. Overall, it was great and i’m definitely waiting to watch more 🙂

    • illogicalzen says:

      There is a big difference between letting people work things out for themselves and simply not saying anything – in the case of K I would say that it is clearly the latter at this point in time. All series need some sort of exposition, the really good series manage to pull it off without it feeling clunky, so that it melds seamlessly with the rest of the series. Other series such as Fate/Zero do the opposite and become so bogged down in exposition that they become unwatchable, the problem with K is that it has rejected exposition and arguably even meaningful dialogue in its entirety. At the moment we have a wonderful looking series with an excellent aesthetic and stylised feel, but that is merely a thin venere, if we peel away the style and blue/green ‘cool’ look there is very little underneath. There is a certain semblance of a story, but that is all, there is nothing to say what is happening and why – I am not expecting a sudden 25 minute dissertation of the laws of the universe and how it pertains to the psychic war in K, but something would be nice.

      After two episodes I am still none the wiser, and if as you suggest the producers want the audience to work out what is going on they are doing a pretty poor job of it. Certain elements are obvious, but what is the story behind all of this, why should I care about the main character, and why does one gang swagger like they are trying to enter the swagger olympics? I feel like I am watching an extended advert for something, what I am not sure, but it better be very cool and covered in diamonds or something. I do enjoy watching the series, but I shall tick with my original point, it is currently a triumph of style over substance, nothing more, nothing less. It is utterly reliant on its visuals, because, once they are gone, there is nothing – I do hope it succeeds though, although I get the feeling that there will be an M. Night Shaymalan style twist and we will find out that there was never any story to begin with.

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