Today I take a non-stop thrill ride wrought with danger, wide scale violence, and unchecked emotion. No, I’m not going clothes shopping… I’m reviewing anime!
Title: Kill la Kill
Original airing: October 4th, 2013 to March 28th, 2014
Duration: 24 mins per episode
Genres: Action, Comedy, Magical Girl
Where I watched: Netflix (English sub)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
After the murder of her father, Ryuuko Matoi has been wandering the land in search of his killer. Following her only lead—the missing half of his invention, the Scissor Blade—she arrives at the prestigious Honnouji Academy, a high school unlike any other. The academy is ruled by the imposing and cold-hearted student council president Satsuki Kiryuuin alongside her powerful underlings, the Elite Four. In the school’s brutally competitive hierarchy, Satsuki bestows upon those at the top special clothes called “Goku Uniforms,” which grant the wearer unique superhuman abilities.
Thoroughly beaten in a fight against one of the students in uniform, Ryuuko retreats to her razed home where she stumbles across Senketsu, a rare and sentient “Kamui,” or God Clothes. After coming into contact with Ryuuko’s blood, Senketsu awakens, latching onto her and providing her with immense power. Now, armed with Senketsu and the Scissor Blade, Ryuuko makes a stand against the Elite Four, hoping to reach Satsuki and uncover the culprit behind her father’s murder once and for all.
This was another one of those anime that eventually wears down your resistance to watching it. I wasn’t exactly resisting doing so myself, but had put it off as something that I would get around to someday. This tactic became much less feasible when I was bombarded with praise for the series and how it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to anime. While I was sure there was some hyperbole there, I did eventually sit down to watch it. Though I’ve written many words below to convey my thoughts on the series, nothing expresses my reaction more concisely than “Holy sh–.”
Kill la Kill was the brainchild of two former Gainax exployees including Hiroyuki Imaishi – the director of FLCL and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Given how insanely popular and twisted these anime were, I was prepared to be impressed. The best way I can describe this series without spoiling anything is to say that it’s a crazy ride that grabs the viewer’s attention the entire way through. It presents its insane story in an equally absurd way and decides the best way to do so is to go full tilt. In this review I’ll explore whether or not that method translated into good anime.
The story focuses on Ryuko Matoi, an orphaned teenage girl seeking justice for her murdered father. Her only clue is a half pair of giant scissors left broken off in her father’s corpse. Armed with the remaining scissor half, Ryuko’s search for revenge leads her to Honnouji Academy; a totalitarian school regime that looms over the city. The academy is controlled by a dominating student council and their president, Satsuki Kiryuin, who presides over the school like a god. With her blinding Amaterasu-like radiance and an iron will, she commands the complete devotion of the student body. Those that step out of line are swiftly dealt with by the student disciplinary committee, causing students and faculty alike to cower beneath her might. And here you probably thought that student government was boring.
Satsuki claims to know who killed Ryuko’s father, but refuses to disclose any details. Naturally, Ryuko descends upon the school, with the intention of beating the information out of Satsuki, only to encounter something far more than she bargained for.The students are equipped with weaponized Goku school uniforms, constructed with strands of a powerful material known as Life Fibers, which gives the wearer superhuman abilities (strength, agility, etc…).
While Ryuko is easily defeated in the beginning, she soon comes across two key advantages: 1. the scissor half she wields can cut through the Goku uniforms and 2. she finds her very own powerful uniform (made completely out of Life Fibers); which she names Senketsu. Senketsu is not just a super-powered sailor uniform, but a living, breathing creature that survives by feasting upon Ryuko’s blood. Armed with these powerful weapons, Ryuko returns to the school to challenge Satsuki once again. Forced to fight her way up the school’s pecking order, she and Senketsu begin their quest anew to uncover the truth.
Does this all sound absolutely insane? Well, that’s okay because it’s exactly what the writers were intending. Kill la Kill’s plot revolves around slapstick, overzealous fanservice, and clever puns. Arguably the most brilliant pun of the series is represented by the title itself; Kill la Kill (Kiru ra Kiru). The Japanese word ‘kiru’ has several meanings, including the transliterated ‘kill’ and the verbs ‘cut’ and ‘wear.’ So a series about a girl who gains super human abilities, through wearing a special school uniform, and uses them to cut down her enemies = Kiru ra Kiru (ref). Epic, I know.
The pacing of this anime is spot on as well. There is essentially no real filler content, since something important happens in every episode to further progress or shape the plot. The narrative of each episode follows the traditional story arc (known as Freytag’s pyramid). Essentially, an obstacle is introduced, tension builds as the action rises, an explosive climax occurs, the conflict unravels, and is eventually resolved. Examples can be found in lots of anime, including one of the oldest and well known examples of the magical girl genre: Sailor Moon. It is a tried and true story telling method that has been used for centuries to keep viewers entertained.
Kill la Kill not only recognizes the steady pace of their series, but pokes fun at other anime for overusing filler content and recap material. For example, episode 16 begins as a “recap” episode. A little over a minute is dedicated to covering all the content from prior episodes being quickly flashed on the screen along with brief narration that speeds up as it progresses. Then, the opening theme song plays and a new episode is shown. This is how every recap should really be!
One of the strongest areas of Kill la Kill is character development. Several characters are rather complex, with their backgrounds and motives gradually revealed throughout the series. As viewers gather these personal details bit by bit, like pieces of a puzzle, the multi-layered characters begins to take shape. For example, the main protagonist, Ryuko, initially appears aggressive and angry because of her perpetual scowl. Viewers’ first reaction may likely be to mentally prepare themselves for another classic cardboard cutout persona of an enraged anime character seeking revenge. After only a few episodes, however, a more three-dimensional Ryuko begins to emerge. Beneath the standoffish, rebellious attitude lies compassion and sympathy, and these layered feelings end up pulling her in several directions. Apart from her seemingly single minded goal of finding her father’s killer, she must contend with issues of loyalty, responsibility, identity, and her place in the world.
With no one in the world she can recognize as family and only one other person she can regard as a friend (more on this later), Ryuko’s feelings are most often revealed to the viewer through her interactions with an unlikely partner. Appearing to most everyone else as a set of clothing, Senketsu’s function can be thought of as similar to a symbiote from the Spider-Man comics. He augments her power considerably while she provides him the nourishment necessary to create that strength. This two-in-one approach to defining Ryuko’s character gives the story a lot to work with as it explores the bond between them and why they are able to grow stronger.
Several of the characters in Kill la Kill are rather complex. More specifically the characters with some kind of personal connection to Satsuki, like the Elite Four, Ragyo, Nui, and of course Satsuki herself. She serves as Ryuko’s main rival through much of the series and is set up as her natural foil. She stands in a position of power while Ryuko struggles to climb to her level. She is calm and assured compared to Ryuko’s hot blooded fury. Her mostly white and blue clothing gives off a sense of purity when placed against Ryuko’s reds and blacks. This style of contrast, where the antagonist is generally portrayed as clean and refined compared to the protagonist’s rough and unstable look, is always interesting to see. Not unlike the way Trinity Blood pits Abel Nightroad’s demonic form against the regal and angelic Cain, it flips the traditional associations of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Specifically applied to the theme of this series, it places the Ryuko in opposition to not only Satsuki but also the very environment that lets her thrive.
There are a fair number of characters that the series spends time on, which always presents the danger of some of them being underdeveloped. What makes most all of the characters compelling, however, is how naturally they fit into the story. Each one is given a clear motivation and acts in accordance to what you expect their agenda to be. Even in cases where a character’s direction seems to shift, there is a strong plot related reason for it to happen. Just like Ryuko, these characters cast off their initially simplistic depictions as the series progresses. No one is shoehorned or needlessly trivialized, and every bit of the screen time they get is meaningful to their development (even when it’s a character you just love to hate).
Of course, those who have seen the series will be quick to point out one character where this doesn’t completely hold true. Mako Mankanshoku is the first friend that Ryuko makes at Honnouji Academy, and is one of the best friends that anyone can ask for. Many fans find her somewhat annoying, but a greater number feel quite the opposite. Her humor is in line with the rest of the series and her motivational monologues are one of the most anticipated moments in any given episode. As a character, however, she is less than compelling in the sense that her development is stunted. She is essentially the exact same person through the series (with one notable exception), but that same fact is what makes her an important part of the story. While everything else in the world can turn upside down, Ryuko and the others can always count on Mako to be Mako.
Using what they learned from Gurren Lagann and the somewhat simplistic animation style seen there, Studio Trigger was able to achieve some important feats. The first is that the animation never ‘breaks.’ A common aspect of anime is limited animation frames which allows scenes to be done cheaply by reusing art when possible. It then becomes natural to see the quality suffer when many more frames are needed to portray action. Thankfully Kill la Kill is drawn consistently throughout its 24 episode run, and maintains its level of quality even when the action is dialed up to 11.
This can be done in a variety of ways. Some shows will use plenty of still images, along with quick flashes or moving background effects to make it look good enough without extending the animation budget. Others might stifle the action scenes by focusing on closeup facial shots that favor dialogue. Though it still employs these techniques in a limited capacity, Kill la Kill seems to throw such constraints out the window along with any other sensibilities you can think of. The action scenes feature loose clothing fluttering at high speed, characters moving, and …body parts… bouncing.
This is a good time to talk about the most noticeable aspect of the animation – its fanservice. There is no denying that it’s over the top and in your face. Like everything else it does, this series doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing off as gratuitously as possible. While it may be hard to believe at first, there is a good plot related reason for the skimpiness of Ryuko’s battle outfit (but not the deliberate rear and chest shots). It’s not the most plausible explanation, but it does kind of work. What is more noteworthy is that the fanservice doesn’t show off only the female form. There is more than enough man-service for anyone who is into that sort of thing. Some of it is done comically, but most of it is also for a specific plot reason. In either case, it’s done so much that viewers can become desensitized. Like an a frequent visitor to a topless beach, when they see it enough, it’s no longer distracting.
Even with all this, the series still manages to catch the viewers’ attention in more legitimate ways. Though much of the shock value is done with the story telling, Kill la Kill constantly surprises with how wacky some of the visuals get. Just when the viewer thinks they have reached the ceiling of animated craziness, a girl’s band uniform turns into a mechanized death machine or a city turns into a flying fortress. The action scales like this throughout the series until it literally blasts into orbit. The only time where this consistency falters is not in the quality, but rather the character depictions. For various reasons size and scale are fluid concepts with this series, though I sometimes can’t tell if 17 year old Ira Gamagori is supposed to be the size of 13 people or just 3.
Referring back to the beginning of this section, where I claim the animation style is somewhat simplistic, I’m not implying that it is bad by any means. It simply lacks the detail found in other action heavy anime like Attack on Titan. A quick look at the screenshots used in this review is assurance enough that you won’t be looking at bad art, but don’t expect something on the level of Guilty Crown.
OP1: Sirius by Eir Aoi
ED1: Gomen ne, Iiko ja Irarenai (Sorry, I’m Done Being a Good Kid) by Miku Sawai.
OP2: ambiguous by Garnidelia
ED2: Shin Sekai Kōkyōgaku (New World Symphony) by Sayonara Ponytail.
Just like the series itself, the openings are full of memorable moments that pump up the viewer and prepare them for the excitement ahead. Sirius may be the more beloved song, but ambiguous is exactly the sort of song that appeals to my tastes, with its sweeping vocals and melodic instrumental tones. Hearing it during a battle late in the series definitely gave it an epic feel as the story accelerated toward its conclusion. Of all the songs in this bunch, the last one resonated with me the least. New World Symphony is rather light and happy. Compared with the other heavier, dramatic songs, it jut doesn’t fit well with the overall tone of the series.
Sound direction came from Hiroyuki Sawano, known for his work in other musically striking anime like Attack on Titan and Guilty Crown. Even with so much else going for it, a subpar soundtrack could have made a big impact given how actively the series tries to engage the viewer. But just like everything else it sets out to do, Kill la Kill delivers a phenomenal score. Ironically some of its best BGMs are the ones that blast into the foreground with vocal choruses. Until my Body is Dry is Ryuko’s theme, featuring a strong guitar and lyrics that constantly warn her “Don’t lose your way!” (Something she does over and over) as it plays frequently during the series. This song is so prevalent that many fans might associate it with the series more strongly than they do the openings or endings. The other song that really caught my attention was another character theme, but this time for a villain. Blumenkranz, thanks to its its heavy beat, syncopated melody, and fantastic vocals, got me excited whenever Ragyo Kiryuin made an appearance; even if I despised her character.
While I watched this series in Japanese (as the vast majority of the puns don’t make sense in English), I wish I had watched some of it in English before now to be able to review Erica Mendez’ performance. I am familiar with her portrayal of two very different characters (Tsubaki in Your lie in April and Aladdin in Magi), so it would have been very interesting to see her take on Ryuko. Still, I greatly enjoyed watching Ami Koshimizu’s (Kallen Stadtfeld of Code Geass and Sailor Jupiter of Sailor Moon Cyrstal) take on Ryuko. Voicing the one character that was aware of all the wackiness in the series, Koshimizu brought a lot of emotional range to the dynamic protagonist.
Supporting voice work was equally memorable. Ryouka Yuzuki is allowed a much more confident and powerful presence as Satsuki than she was with Ino Yamanaka in Naruto, but she seems to take to it naturally all the same. Satsuki sounds wonderfully haughty at times, both infuriating and inspiring those beneath her. Similarly, Toshihiko Seki brings a more sagely wise man performance as Senketsu than he did as Iruka sensei in Naruto. Lastly, though I personally hadn’t heard Aya Suzaki‘s work in any other series, her portrayal as Mako seemed spot on. I’m certain her performance was a big part of what made Mako break from the archetype of the annoying sidekick to become one of the series most loved characters.
Where do I even begin? There are just so many things about this series that makes it enjoyable but a good many things that make it difficult to initially approach as well. A series like this reinforces the wisdom of the three episode strategy (in this case, perhaps four). The first three episodes are rather similar, and introduce very few new concepts to hook the viewer into going forward. If the basic premise of the show wasn’t appealing, dropping the show before this point would not be an uncommon occurrence. Those that wait it out can likely find something about it that intrigues them.
While I covered it before already, the extreme amount of fanservice can be a big deterrent to some. I had mentioned that much of it is plot related, crucially even, but many of the instances that aren’t are still lampshaded to poke fun at the fact that so many anime feature such gratuity. Ryuko’s status as the only sensible character shows her disgusted by her own indecency and annoyed by the attention it garners. She eventually comes to understand it, but only reluctantly accepts the reasons. Sometimes though, fanservice is just fanservice, and it seems Imaishi isn’t above using it that way. For sensitive audiences, the best outcome would be for the viewer to grit their teeth through it until repeated exposure leaves them numb.
The other weakness of the series is its ability to appeal to a wide audience in its initial stages. As I mentioned before, the ‘revenge via repeated single combat’ premise that the show starts with can be a little tedious if the viewer wasn’t initially drawn in by that theme. Even after the first four episodes this basic formula continues up through episode 12. For a viewer to stick with this series until then, they would need to catch the small clues that hint at the much deeper story at the heart of it.
Viewers that stuck though this much, at least, get something well worth the time they invested. This series could have easily been a one note series had it not changed gears and expanded into a story that enveloped much more than Ryuko’s personal issues. Whereas I criticized the directional shift that some anime take in some of my other reviews, Kill la Kill shows how effective it can be in crafting an intriguing plot. By moving the focus away from Ryuko’s revenge, but not forgetting it completely, the series is able to explore the motivations of the other characters and how they tie into the main story. To use an analogy from the series, it’s like weaving several individual threads together to create a brilliant tapestry.
In essence, just as it was with the various story threads, Kill la Kill is more than the sum of its already incredible parts. From the premise to the animation and wide reaching scope, the series makes maximum use of everything it presents. This is done in such a cohesive way that it makes it easy for even critics of the series to see how intelligent and carefully crafted it really is. To answer the question I posed in the intro, as to whether or not this method paid off, I think this review leaves no surprise that my answer is a resounding “yes.”
Summary and Recommendations
Kill la Kill is a bold step in the genre of Magical Girl anime. Rather than subverting the genre the way Puella Magi Madoka Magica does, it remains true to the genre’s basic tenets but applies unconventional thematic elements to deliver a story that is both wacky and wonderful at the same time.
The series is deliberately insane in its story and character designs, using its over the top style to grab the viewer’s attention and never let go. Despite its aggressive methods, there are plenty of poignant moments that help with character development and allow enough of a lull that the hyped up action feels exciting once it appears again.
The series does have a few hurdles for viewers to get over in the beginning. The premise may sound bland at first glance to those wanting a more involved plot. Several of the episodes appear to be very similar, but are shown to fit when the series it taken as a whole. The plot itself quickly becomes epic for those patient enough to experience it.
A simplistic animation style helps keep the quality consistent throughout and allows for plenty of action. With a lot of symbolism and hidden references, viewers can have fun spotting all the small details or simply enjoy the zany spectacle that the series portrays. The series has tons of fanservice, but most all of it is for an important plot related reason. The lack of detail and use of clever angle/lighting tricks helps keep things tame even in scenes that feature full nudity.
Kill la Kill breaks from any notion of subtlety or grace, choosing instead to portray itself as directly as it can. By going all out with its story direction, character designs, and musical score, this anime is abound with energy. It can take a bit of getting used to for someone unfamiliar with this style, but those who are open to enjoying it are in for a wild ride.
Watch if you:
Like stories which steadily build to an epic scale
Love comedy strewn action anime
Enjoy seeing popular anime tropes lampooned
Don’t watch if you:
Simply can’t stand fanservice/nudity
Dislike slapstick comedy
Want a low-key anime
Delivering solidly on its technical merits, Kill la Kill is also incredibly fun to watch. I rate it at a full 5/5 Ryukos.
There is something to be said about how effective Kill la Kill was at telling the story it did. On the surface, I think few people would have been able to predict its massive success and widespread following, with perhaps only those familiar with the creative team having a good indication as to what they could do. Not being one of those people, my surprise over how an anime as silly as this one could leave me wanting more after every episode got me thinking about what really makes a good anime – or good entertainment of any kind.
Cohesion and a solid sense of direction are vital. I mentioned in my last review how a lack of these things made what could have been a fascinating story into something quite average. I critiqued Sword Art Online for many of the same reasons. Being able to tie all the elements of an anime together does more than distinguish a 5 star review from a 4 star. It’s what creates a lasting impression in your mind and causes you to chase that feeling you had when you watched it the first time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the passion of the creators plays a huge part in the delivery of a work as well. Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima felt they had created something incredible with Gurren Lagann and wanted to capture that magic again. In Kill la Kill you could see with every episode how much this production meant to these two. Choosing to tell this story as the studio’s first original project was a daunting task, but the boldness with which the series is presented shows that they didn’t hold back at all. Like the characters themselves, the series bares everything in order to show the world what it truly is. It’s an object lesson in the merits of being unafraid to let your passion shine through.
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