White haired and vacant, Katsuhira “Kacchon” Agata lives a half-life, neither fully present or entirely withdrawn, numb to the sting of experience and physical sensation. Pain is the one true universal language, and without having this evolutionary mechanism in place, he is immune to anxiety, attracting the fear of others and leaving him bullied since childhood. Fear is the first instinct, written into our DNA, and so being unable to feel and express that is to exist as non-human.
The inability to feel pain is based on the rare real-life condition known as congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) where a person cannot, and has never felt, physical pain. While it’s easy to grasp pain as a concept, it truly needs to be experienced in order to be understood, and being unable to feel even a pinprick leaves you a stranger in your own skin. This is Kacchon’s plight, mourning the sense of pain he can no longer recall and trying to staunch an emotional loss that left no wound. By rediscovering that lost part of his existence, he can again relate to others and reclaim his diminished humanity.
In Buddhism, pain is a path to transcendence, a necessary boundary to overcome in order to achieve enlightenment. Though most of us will be familiar with walking across hot coals, the connection goes deeper still. The Four Noble Truths are the distillation of Buddha’s teachings, and the first upon his awakening. They are the ‘truth of suffering’, ‘the truth of the cause of suffering’, ‘the truth of the end of suffering’, and ‘the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering’. Among these teachings is the parable of the two arrows which, simply put, claims that physical pain is like being shot with a single arrow. The person who does not resist physical pain feels one arrow alone, but the average unenlightened person who experiences pain also adds a layer of emotional suffering. Anguishing over pain, the Buddha claimed, is like being shot with a second arrow. But what of the individual who welcomes that first arrow, begs for it even?
Aside from Kacchon in his painlessness, there is only one member of the group who experiences the single arrow and not the constant sting of both. After being linked together and clearing their first mission to develop a deeper inner understanding of one another, the group are tasked with discovering and confronting their seventh member – the only willing participant of the Kizna experiment. Having not attended school all year, Yoshiharu is something of an enigma and tracking him down proves difficult. A greater challenge is convincing him to become a part of their group. Despite being bound together via the experiment, Yoshiharu claims that connections aren’t so easily formed. Despondent and lonely, he is covered in bandages, and is a frequent patient at the hospital. More than any of the others, Yoshiharu is a mirror image of Kacchon, and for that reason he feels the desire to connect with him. While Kacchon wants his pain back, Yoshiharu desires the feeling of being alive. To demonstrate the profundity of their connection, Kacchon throws himself from a bridge and into traffic, with the group splitting the pain seven ways and Yoshiharu left experiencing an orgasmic sensation. In opposition to Kacchon’s inability to feel pain, we have Yoshiharu’s masochism.
Masochistic individuals seek out pain in the pursuit of pleasure, though this is often conflated with sexuality. Kiznaiver goes to great lengths to satisfy these two definitions, with Yoshiharu proclaiming on multiple occasions that this is less about sex and more about the sudden shock of pain to remind him he’s alive. However, masochism, for many, forms a keystone of sexuality, whether it’s deriving pleasure from experiencing pain or humiliation, or a sexual masochism disorder which means an individual can only achieve sexual gratification through pain.
Yoshiharu’s reaction is better described as a positive drug experience. On first seeing his reaction to extreme pain, the group note that he’s “blissing out”. Later, after they are able to experience each other’s emotional pain, he says he’s no longer content with the tingle of the physical now that’s he’s experienced the deeper, more personal pain of emotional wounds. He is on the cusp of learning that there are far deeper rewards to life and its connections than base pleasure through physical pain.
Empathy is the central thesis of the show, with the original intention of the Kizna programme being to connect emotions. The first experiment, which involved linking together nineteen children, including Kacchon himself, failed, with negative emotions found to be easier to connect, and love and happiness proving elusive. Behind these negative emotions was pain, and so the experiment became about connecting wounds, sharing pain to such a point that it was diluted and no longer stressed the participants’ bodies.
The present experiment culminated with the group being able to share and experience one another’s emotional hurts. Kacchon’s reintroduction to feeling wasn’t through physical experience, but a deeper wound, one which pierced his heart and soul. Nearing the climax of the story, and in extreme emotional distress, they begin to hear one another’s thoughts. Even after their Kizna connection was severed, they could feel the lingering sensation of one another, and the echo of each other’s emotional suffering.
Having undergone the experiment and come out the other side, the revelation was that life is an equilibrium of emotional and physical pain, and that the Kizna system was only ever a catalyst and not a crutch. At the series’ end, Kacchon has regained his ability to feel pain and emotions, with the rest of the group more emotionally in tune with themselves and one another, having discovered a new-found level of maturity. Although the experiment endeavoured to usher in world peace, it became a metaphor for growing up. Kiznaivers can only be created before the ego develops, during puberty or in childhood. And so for the group it became a rude awakening, a way of forcing them to confront their own inner turmoil and that of others, and cross the threshold into adulthood.