Note: This was originally written on January 16, 2014, before the creation of my WordPress page. It was later transferred here, unedited. As such, the rant mentioned later in the review is included at the end instead of on a separate page.
Kill la Kill is the first full anime series wholly produced by Studio Trigger. The studio was formed by Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Ohtsuka in 2011, after they left Studio Ginax. Many fans have compared this to Studio Bones’ starting point, Bones having spawned as an offshoot of Sunrise Studio. Because of this, as soon as it had been announced, Kill la Kill was being compared to Bones’ first series, Cowboy Bebop.
In early August, two months before the first episode of Kill la Kill aired, Studio Trigger received over $600,000 in donations for a Kickstarter project to fund a second episode of Little Witch Academia. The goal for the campaign was only $150,000.
And finally, Kill la Kill was hyped heavily by referring to the team’s previous work. It is directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi and written by Kazuki Nakashima, the same duo behind the widely liked mecha series, Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagann, produced by Ginax. Also while with Ginax, Hiroyuki directed Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt and Black Rock Shooter, both of which have been successful, but less so then their giant-robot sibling.
With big names behind it, at a time when many anime fans are tired of moe and The Big Three, and with Attack on Titan finished, Kill la Kill was the unavoidable show of the 2013 Fall season. So, let’s take a look at Studio Trigger’s premier work and see if both the show and the company are living up to expectations.
The story of Kill la Kill is simply absurd, and trying to understand the larger world around it would be like trying to explain the economy of the Mushroom Kingdom. You have to open your mind to what’s presented, while closing it to what’s not. With that in mind; Kill la Kill takes place at Honnouji Academy, a dictatorship dressed as a school, where your academic standing determines your family’s social standing. Normal students live in poverty, while club leaders live lavishly. Leading this dictatorship is Satsuki Kiryuin, head of the student council, and with her are four other student council members who each play a different role in managing the school. All of the students at Honnouji wear uniforms –the ones for the common students are perfectly normal, but the ones club leaders and the student council members wear are special Goku Uniforms, which are made with Life Fibers and give the wearer superhuman abilities.
The show’s protagonist, Ryuko Matoi, arrives at the academy, wielding half of the deadly scissor blade, looking for the person who killed her father. It seems the killer is Satsuki, and Ryuko swears vengeance against her in front of the entire student body. And then enrolls as a student. I wonder what her application essay was about.
She soon learns that even with the scissor blade she’s completely outmatched by a two-star Goku Uniform. But, while recovering from a fight, she finds Senketsu, a living sailor suit made from 100% life fibers. Together, Ryuko and Senketsu are able to fight back against Satsuki and her Goku Uniform clad army, while still getting to class on time (there is actually an episode on that).
Sure it’s a crazy plot that no rational human being could or should ever accept, but this is anime, and in anime, this is actually sort of awesome. It has super powers, crazy weapons, is open to any number of fight scenes, and it can strip character naked under a thin pretense of “plot”. It’s a great set up, and if the show stays contained to its own world, it has potential to be quite good. But it doesn’t do this.
Towards the later episodes of the first half, the show begins to expand its world outside of its set location and time period –namely Honnouji Academy following Ryuko’s arrival– and into the larger world around it. It’s hard to continue to suspend disbelief when a story stops asking for it; when a fictional world is expanded beyond its central point, it must either be made believable or it falls apart; a large world can’t ask the viewer to make sense of it, it is the writer’s job to make it make sense. In the case of Kill la Kill, I think it walks a fine line. It doesn’t expand so far as to need a full comprehensive explanation of its world, but it also doesn’t give much explanation either. For the most part it’s fine and works to develop a few characters, but there’s one point where it’s just impossible not to ask, “wait, there’s a functioning society here? Then why are they letting a teenager dominate this city?” And sadly, they have yet to give any kind of answer to this.
The visuals for Kill la Kill are one of the reasons it was picked up by fans so quickly. Between the fan service and art style, Kill la Kill’s look caught a lot of attention early on, however the series manages to be unremarkable on both accounts.
Though the show is made to look dark and gritty, its style is pretty tame. It sets the tone well, and stands out against poplar vibrant art styles in moe and shonen, obviously done to try to distinguish the show. But it’s not any kind of visual statement in and of itself. It actually works pretty well. However, the harsh lines and movements don’t integrate well into a lot of the action scenes, which are mostly just Ryuko rapidly slashing her enemy over and over until they break, with speed lines and panning stills. But this never manages to get repetitive since there aren’t many plain fights in the show; instead, it’s mixed up with a variety of different combat and action scenes, from chases to deadly games of tennis (kinda like Death Note, but with less psychological warfare and more sketchy camera angles).
Kill la Kill doesn’t look like something that’s never been done before, but like something different from what’s done too much, which is refreshing. It’s a shame that more time and detail couldn’t have been put into each fight, but it looks far from bad.
As for the fanservice (and yes this is still worth talking about in 2014, because studios still seem unable to believe anyone will actually watch what they make if it doesn’t meet a panty-shot quota in 2014), it’s nothing to get worked up over. Not that Trigger is at all subtle about it, in fact they put right in your face, as if to say “Can you see it now? How about now?!” It makes me wonder if flashers think that showing strangers their genitalia in a mall parking lot makes a good first impression, because Trigger certainly seems to think that. Remind me never to shop at the places as Hiroyuki Imaishi.
It only tries a handful of suspicious camera angles and there’s an ecchi transformation sequence, but they get reused over and over again. A few episodes in it gets to be like living next to an airport; you notice the disturbance when it’s there, but you get over it immediately after, and can’t recall it was ever there. In the long run, it doesn’t hold back the show.
The characters are where I found Kill la Kill the most troubling, in a bitter sweat way. The quality of any form of governance is determined by the person or people in power; their character, skill, dedication, ect. Even a dictatorship could be pleasant to live in given the right dictator. And Satsuki, really isn’t that bad.
Satsuki and her elite four (they specialize in fighting, psychic, fairy, and steel types) get the most interesting characterization, not entirely by the depth of their characters but also by their types of personalities. What they run at the school is certainly a dictatorship, but not a corrupt tyrannical dystopia, and Satsuki herself and her elite four are not power hungry aggressors who take advantage of the masses.
All five of them have very different, very human, and often very noble reasons for what they do. Satsuki herself rules because she thinks people need a ruled; she believes she’s helping them. The rest of the student council members each have different reasons from working with her. Some follow her for her, that is, they respect or admire her and pledge their loyalty to her. Others work with her for their own benefit, primarily the perk of their Goku Uniform.
There are only so many notable characters here, but among them, these five stand out as the most interesting and are the ones who can actually get away with a little monologue.
Ryuko herself is a very generic protagonist, being tough, hotheaded and short-tempered, brave yet foolish and impatient, and motivated by a mix of righteousness and personal vendetta, both of which being the murder of her father. She’s set up as a perfect opposite to Satsuki, hating the way she rule, being something of an anarchist, and demonstrating that people can be good without being forced into it. Her only real area of growth in this first half revolves around how she manages her temper, which is helped a lot by Mako Mankanshoku.
Mako is a very energetic, sincere, and honest no-star student at Honnouji Academy. Her family is very poor yet generally cheerful and care very much for family, with Mako exemplifying this trait. When Ryuko shows up, Mako is quick to make friends with her and even gives her a home among the Mankanshokus. Ryuko initially sees her as more of a nuisance than a friend, but over time Mako and her kind energetic sincerity become a much-needed calming agent for Ryuko. Mako herself gets minimal depth outside of one episode. Other than that she’s basically comic relief that’s not really that funny.
Like I said earlier, Satsuki isn’t a bad dictator by any means. She genuinely wants to make Honnouji the best it could be, and has the talent, knowledge, and discipline to do it; the only problem is her vision (and for people who have watched the show, talent, knowledge, discipline, and blindness; what could symbolize those things? Also, who did the blinding?). There’re so many ways the writers could have gone with this, so many conflicts between her and Ryuko that would actually be intellectually engaging (episode 7 actually has one of these). But they just don’t, and instead the climax of the first half is something so trite that until watching episode thirteen just now, two months after the fact, I was certain that it was just buildup. There’s a lot more I want to say on this, but it doesn’t really suit a review, so if you want to read that, I’ll put a link to it at the end.
On it’s surface, Kill la Kill, so far, is exactly what it set out to be and what fans wanted it to be, a cross between Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking; essentially, another Ginax series. It looks pretty good, and is just fun to watch. It’s story occasionally gets a little too crazy to be taken seriously, even by anime standards, and has some pacing issues, but works well enough to keep you watching. The characters work well where you don’t expect them to, but it takes some time for it to show. There’s a lot that just wasn’t followed through on and I’m hoping the second half picks that up, but it’s unlikely. Kill la Kill is not a great anime, but it’s good, and worth checking out.
As I was saying in my review of the show, there were so many ways Trigger could have actually challenged the audience’s beliefs in ways that Hollywood wouldn’t even dare to. That’s what I love about anime, that’s why Ghost in the Shell is my favorite movie, because it has guts; because there’re no investor conscious committees, or self-censoring cowards, watering down every bit of challenging material that might scare away the average idiot. At least, that’s what I thought. Despite what it looked like at first, by the end of the first half Kill la Kill seems to have fled from whatever point it could have made. I don’t think it’s that Trigger wasn’t smart enough to have something in mind –in my review I pointed out how the elite four represent different traits of a good dictator, and how Satsuki’s primary fault was blinding herself; these aren’t things the just happen, it was clearly done that way because the show was trying to say something– it just got scared that people might not handle a smarter story well. To not have enough respect for your fans to think they’d get bored without a few panty-shots is one thing, but to suppose so little of them as to avoid making them think, I refuse to take that insult. For a shonen, a genre literally defined by testosterone, a genre that endlessly worships “manliness”, to not have the guts to say what it wants is a loathsome kind of hypocrisy. And I, as a proud Ginax fan, ask: what would Kamina say?