Four episodes into Kiznaiver it seems a show exceptionally well-pitched for a target audience I am not a part of; it is a series which has a very strongly put across moral message universal in its importance, but expressed in a way that does not satisfy me. The premise is simple and potentially interesting; a group of misfit children, claimed to embody a “new seven deadly sins”, are abducted and given an experimental treatment whereby they all share each others’ pain; whenever one is hurt, they all feel it. From here a conspiracy plot builds, regarding who has done this and why.
The series, on its surface, contains a number of elements I enjoy in the urban/modern supernatural story – for while the trappings are science-fictional in many ways, with unaccountable super-science, it I feel is more like a fantasy or supernatural story; it is an unsubtle morality-tale in which a scientific surgical process serves a “magical” role, providing a rationale for the story to exist which does not need specific explanation. Indeed, the learning of the “rules” of being a “Kiznaiver” is a key part of the story’s moral aspect; the whole process is supposed to be one of improvement (as the conspiracy-plot suggests, towards some common social “good”). Such a series would live or die based on its handling of this moral aspect; its whole basic premise is that flawed people – “sinners” – can only improve by supernaturally forced heightened empathy. This is a bold assertion to stake a series’ opening on, and it is at the same time – once the gloss of the supernatural / super-real is removed – a very simplistic, almost banal one.
A whole science-fictional contrivance of “shared pain”, and a protagonist whose apathy is embodied by his inability to feel pain, is in essence just a fancy expression of the idea that one should do unto others as you would have them do to you. The person who feels no pain, and as a result has no strong opinions about his mistreatment, is the lotus-eater, the Candide-figure. The desire that others should feel the immediate and physical repercussions of their lashing out – used to comic effect with a whole cavalcade of anime knockabout violence backfiring – is a banal, superficial, self-evident truth to an adult audience. Kiznaiver‘s contrivance was a plotline in Red Dwarf, it is a simplistic, physical manifestation of a fundamental philosophy which transcends humanism and spirituality. As a result I find the series a little underwhelming in how heavily it leans on this message; the moral of an early episode is that hiding behind a mask in order to “fit in” leads to trouble, and at the same time that people should be tolerant and welcoming. This is a fine message, and a vital and current one; yet from my perspective it was a little lacking. It is not a new message, and not expressed particularly novelly. It is important, I think, to understand that my response to Kiznaiver is purely my own, and equally important for me to differentiate my own lukewarm response to the quality of the series as a whole. It expresses fine messages in a way that is – when considered apart from my own age, cynicism and wide cultural experience – very accessible and entertaining. I, as a man in my mid-20s who enjoys and has enjoyed a wide array of culture, am not really the audience Kiznaiver is written to reach.
Its cast are primarily school-age children and it is a piece of entertainment pitching its moral message to that audience, with great brio and enthusiasm. Indeed, it is a well-crafted piece of entertainment; I am happily watching and enjoying it despite feeling its message is not for me (what is more, it reminds me of the importance of critical distance – being able to appreciate what something sets out to do while distancing one’s own visceral, immediate reaction from that). And what is more, in redefining a traditionally philosophical question in concrete, science-fictional terms, it raises new questions which are more interesting. “Do unto others” in itself is a somewhat banal philosophy, self-evident in its reasonableness. Important, but hardly novel. Putting it in a technological framework adds themes of online interaction; while the Kiznaivers themselves are physically accountable for their pain, a lot of the pain is caused by offhand, casual violence, the typical physical comedy of the tsundere. This suddenly becomes meaningful; a shared pain makes people think twice before lazily resorting to physical responses, which (I feel) has an interesting parallel with unintended offence. The response of least resistance in physical comedy, violence, suddenly has a physical reminder of the harm it causes, reminding the viewer (as they laugh at the characters smarting in pain) that internalised, normalised comebacks can still sting. Parallels seem obvious with the culture of snark and insult online.
The second secondary theme drawn out by the Kiznaivers is openness, and the importance of admitting that emotion is not a weakness; this is much more vital than the surface-reading about pain. All of the mysteries of the series so far have been about encouraging openness, self-discovery and listening; finding another Kiznaiver among classmates, revealing secrets.The cast – and the blank-slate, apathetic protagonist – are being encouraged to accept that caring about things is good, that listening to others is important. It is a two-way thing; a reaffirmation of the importance of looking out for others’ needs and problems, and also impressing the importance of being open and not hiding one’s true identity for fear of not fitting in. This latter reading may be naïve, but is tempered by the former. Characters like Nico are scared of admitting weakness, but empowered to do so as others are reminded – forcefully – that they should not judge. A simplistic “just be yourself” message would not wash, I feel; it needs the other side, the reminder that tolerance and acceptance is all.
I think that Kiznaiver is a series not written specifically for me, or people like me; on the other hand I think it is a series which is very good at what it does, and pitched well at who it is pitched for. There are issues one can easily point out with its morality, but at the same time when reduced to its fundaments it is a largely valid moral compass to instil. Its apparent heavy-handedness can be forgiven, because it only seems lacking in this way if one watches it with a much greater life experience and cultural knowledge base to compare it to.