Dissecting Kill la Kill: Part 1
By: Andrew Erickson
I wanted to like Kill la Kill. I really wanted it to be a good show. As someone who enjoyed Little Witch Academia and loved Inferno Cop, Studio Trigger’s announcement of a full TV series left me excited to see what kind of energy and creativity they would bring to the project. It seemed like just the thing to bring much-needed exposure to a promising new studio. Then previews and character designs started to turn up, and the more I saw of the show the more my enthusiasm dropped like the stock market on Black Tuesday. When deciding how to sell their first major production to potential viewers, Trigger went with generic J-rock and fanservice outfits that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Queen’s Blade. By the time Kill la Kill started airing, the best I could hope for was that it would be dumb fun in spite of itself, like Gurren Lagann at its best.
Somehow it managed to duck my already absurdly low expectations, like going to a Rise Against show only to find the band’s been replaced with Linkin Park. So here’s the autopsy: I intend to go episode by episode, breaking down Kill la Kill‘s many failures and showing just where Trigger went wrong. It’s a job too big for one editorial, so this inaugural installment will only cover the first two episodes. Not that I’m going to bother with every episode, necessarily, just the ones I consider important or illustrative in some way. How many that will turn out to be is something I’ll find out along the way. So, without further ado, here’s episode one:
Kill la Kill opens with a school lesson on fascism, followed by an explosion, as if Imaishi was doing his best to ape Evangelion-era Hideaki Anno but got bored. Giant red text (a recurring visual quirk that gets absolutely run into the ground) occupies most of the frame, informing the viewer that the person responsible is the disciplinary committee chairman, who eliminates any doubt by shouting as much. As far as subtlety goes, Kill la Kill ranks somewhere between John Galt’s monologue and a political bumper sticker. Anyway, one of the students steals a school uniform that makes him stronger, but the disciplinary chairman’s uniform has a higher power level and the thief is apprehended without a problem. There are a bunch of panning CGI shots and big dust clouds, setting the bar for action in this series a bit below “SyFy Channel original movie” or possibly “DBZ filler”. The student is then stripped of his uniform, giving us our first instance of nudity less than three minutes in. It’s OK, though, it’s that variety of sanitized anime nudity that’s fine with showing everything as long as the characters have Barbie doll anatomy.
After that display of almost totally contextless violence, the school’s leader appears, wearing a pseudo-military uniform. “Fear is freedom! Subjugation is liberation! Contradiction is truth!” That her first line is a blatant 1984 reference is made even less encouraging by it making absolutely no sense. It tells us nothing about her ethos other than it’s bad. There are more sweeping CGI shots before the bold red text helpfully introduces the audience to the protagonist, Ryuko Matoi. Her first action on-screen is to… bite a lemon. Because she’s sour and doesn’t play by society’s rules about what’s acceptable to eat, I guess. And because she’s kind of dumb. At any rate, this is how the show presents her in the crucial moments where viewers form an initial impression of a character. She then beats up some kids who steal her lemon, prompting them to perform an about-face from threatening her to admiring her strength. Ryuko instantly forgives them and moves on. Apparently, Kill la Kill takes place in a social darwinist world where strength is valued above all else and the weak exist merely so those at the top have something to lord over. Ryuko’s character arc in large part invovles becoming stronger than her opponents so she can lord it over them and get what she wants – I guess the show’s quips about fascism are meant to be taken as an endorsement, since Ryuko doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with the caste-based system the villains have set up.
If it seems like I’m stalling, that’s because the next character the show throws at the viewer is Mako Mankanshoku, the comic relief sidekick who exists primarily so the staff could skimp on costs by animating her at three frames per second. She’s awful and I’m going to mention her as infrequently as I can. Every one of her scenes is the same anyway: Mako shouts a lot and talks quickly while teleporting around the screen. Cue more sweeping shots of scenery, this time with a title card for the school itself: Honnouji Academy.
Ryuko enters the school and takes the dead student’s seat, with it being noted that this sort of thing is fairly common. After another line about fascism, the show cuts to Mako trying to make Ryuko her friend. A song is involved. The show visibly lurches back into drama mode when the disciplinary committe chairman, Gamagoori, shows up, and the school’s hierarchy is explained: the school president at the top, then her four elite subordinates, then a mass of students with weaker uniforms, and finally everyone else. If this sounds like a generic “fight a minion every week” setup, then congratulations on figuring out Kill la Kill. You have no real reason to continue watching unless you have some addiction to bland shounen that can’t be fulfilled by the approximately infinite number of identical shows out there. Not understanding the genre she’s in, Ryuko charges straight for the student president, who she is convinced has stolen the other half of her giant pair of scissors, only to get severely beaten by the head of the boxing club. Also, she has half a giant pair of scissors.
Afterward, there is a scene introducing each of the “elite four.” Nothing notable occurs here, though I feel I have to mention that one of them has a voice that sounds like two balloons being rubbed together. I would say she’s Mako’s strongest competition for the title of worst character, but that’d ignore later developments. At any rate, their personalities fall into a handful of simplistic stereotypes: arrogant, aloof, arrogant, and loud. They doubled up on arrogance because we’re just over halfway through the episode and either Imaishi or head writer Kazuki Nakashima wanted to get to the big action scene already.
Skulking from her defeat, Ryuko stumbles across an abandoned uniform storeroom and accidentally activates one of the uniforms with her blood. The uniform, which can think and speak for itself, forces her to wear it in a bit that’s framed unsettlingly like a rape scene even though it’s played for laughs. As we later learn, it was created by her father, making the whole affair worse in hindsight. But I’m sure he had a valid reason for making a rapist schoolgirl outfit and leaving it lying around somewhere (spoiler: he didn’t). She then returns to the school for a rematch before the boxing club can dunk Mako into boiling oil. Partway through the fight, it’s revealed that Ryuko’s uniform has transformed into some kind of stripper outfit for no good reason. Oh, sure, the show supplies an explanation in a later episode, but it’s obviously a paper-thin excuse for fanservice. The fight mercifully ends when Ryuko slices the clothes off her opponent’s body and absorbs a “life fiber” to make her own uniform stronger before launching him into the sky. “Did she just murder someone she’d already disarmed?” I ask myself. Probably!
I really don’t like this Shadow the Hedgehog redesign.
School president Satsuki calls off the rest of her minions because unlike Ryuko, she does realize the sort of show she’s in. Roll credits.
As an introduction to the characters and story, this episode technically does its job. That neither of those things is remotely interesting or entertaining is unfortunate. Now, a lot of shows have a rough first episode, but they usually have something to draw the viewer in and convince them to continue watching. So far, none of Kill la Kill’s cast is likeable, all of their motivations could fit on a fortune cookie slip, the villains aren’t menacing, the fanservice is intrusive and unnecessary, the animation is already noticeably shoddy in what should be one of the more visually impressive episodes, the giant blocks of red text that are supposed to lend the visual design a distinctive flair are instead overused and annoying, the show can barely decide what genre it wants to be, and the humor simply isn’t funny. It only gets worse from here, and the closer I look the more there is wrong with this show.
Let’s move on to episode two!
The first episode of a series can throw a lot of things at the viewer and then dial it back a bit in the follow-up, setting a standard so that everyone knows what to expect. And right after the opening theme finishes, the second episode of Kill la Kill gives us a group of boys drooling over a passed-out Ryuko, who was exhausted after the events of the previous episode and escaping from Honnouji. She wakes up to find Mako’s father practically humping her, because someone on the writing staff apparently thought that rape imagery is the height of comedy. It’s all passed off as a wacky misunderstanding, of course – whatever scenario comes up, it’s a safe bet that it will be resolved in the hackiest, least interesting way, right down to the blood spurting out of Mako’s father’s nose (he has a name, but as his role in the story is strictly limited to “sleazy fat man,” I feel comfortable not devoting even the minimum effort to remembering it). The rest of Mako’s family is introduced as well, though the only part that caught my interest was that her dog enters by opening a sliding door, and the leg it uses to do so doesn’t move at all. As nitpicky as it sounds – the moment only lasts a fraction of a second, after all – it’s one of many, many things that pile up cumulatively until even the people who enjoy the show have to admit that it was clearly done on the cheap. It’s no Musashi Gundoh, I’ll admit… that series was at least fun to watch.
This is followed by some generic villain talk from Satsuki, as well as another nude shot thrown in to give the audience something attention-grabbing. People are swine, she has a master plan with a vaguely ominous title, and an upcoming tennis match is somehow integral to her conquest of Japan. The scene also introduces a character who looks like nothing if not a female version of Viral from Gurren Lagann, and her purpose in the story is broadly similar: a loyal underling who receives a special upgrade (in this case, a more powerful uniform) from the villain, so as to trick viewers into thinking it’s impressive when she gets smacked around by the protagonist. Unlike Viral, she promptly disappears after one episode, making her pretty pointless in retrospect.
I initially included this for Ryuko’s nonplussed expression. Now I’m including it for Mako’s fucked up feet.
The next morning, Ryuko accompanies Mako to school as a transfer student. And I have to wonder, was this really something that had to be made? Was it essential that Ryuko be a high school student? She doesn’t know any of the other students (no, Mako doesn’t count). She doesn’t care about the school except for whatever information Satsuki can give her that will help her quest for revenge, so what exactly does it add to the story for her to listen to lectures about fascism and share Mako’s bento box? This is when the show is supposed to be establishing its story and tone. By setting the central conflict to take place within the most cliche, overused anime setting and then doing precious little to differentiate it from the hundreds of other shows that use very similar imagery and tropes, the only thing Kill la Kill is establishing is the production crew’s incredible laziness. And no, portraying petty school club politics as literal fights doesn’t count as a novel approach.
Ryuko meets the tennis club leader, Omiko, who throws her into a sewer immediately adjacent to the tennis court. Ryuko passes out and on waking up finds herself being watched by an older man who sexually harasses her, because once again it’s almost halfway through the episode and the writers were getting tired. He tells her how to make her uniform transform, bringing us up to two characters who have some idea what’s going on. Meanwhile, Mako has been tied up by club members for missing practice and Ryuko has to save her. Again. There are ’80s sitcoms less formulaic than this.
Before the action kicks off, though, we’re treated to a scene that I think is supposed to be comedic because it features a bunch of still frames and repeated animation of Mako yammering about nothing. Studio Trigger employs a lot of limited animation to comedic effect in its shows, but Kill la Kill is far more awkward about it than the others. Part of the reason is that, say, Inferno Cop and Space Patrol Luluco are straight-up comedies, while Kill la Kill is an action-oriented revenge drama with comedic elements. Kill la Kill‘s visuals are much closer to a mainstream action anime than Trigger’s comedic works, so the transition from its usual style to limited animation humor is awkward at best. Compare to Space Patrol Luluco (also directed by Imaishi), which deliberately uses different animation styles and plays up the dissonance in service of a joke; unlike the rest of the cast, Luluco’s boss, Over Justice, is almost always represented by a static drawing. Regardless of where he is or what’s happening around him, he remains seated at his desk, which multiple characters call attention to with jeers like “You wanna go, you flaming statue?” When he does finally do something, Luluco is gobsmacked that “the chief stood up!” The animators even lazily skew Over Justice when the camera isn’t facing him head-on instead of redrawing him. It works because the unabashed cheapness perfectly fits the tone of the show. That kind of corner-cutting, however, doesn’t impress me when it’s used in a straightforward action series.
Also, he’s part Inferno Cop.
The rest of the episode centers around a tennis match between Ryuko and Omiko that is almost worth watching for the absurd contrast between lovingly rendered fanservice closeups of Ryuko and the sub-Newgrounds animation applied to every other character; at one point, Omiko has to turn around, so the animators simply flip her like a Paper Mario character. You know, it took Evangelion almost 20 episodes to completely blow its budget, and I was kind of hoping Kill la Kill would last at least that long before giving up. The fight’s resolved just as you’d expect, which is to say Ryuko’s leitmotif plays, there’s some giant red text, Omiko’s uniform is destroyed, Satsuki calls off her minions when they want to finish off Ryuko… We’ve only been through this song and dance twice and it’s already getting old.
The overwhelming unoriginality of the episode makes it difficult to come up with any closing comments. Nothing with a runtime under half an hour should reuse the same scene transitions and character introductions so blatantly, especially when it’s the second episode in a 24-episode series. The poor writing can’t even be excused by claiming that Kill la Kill is supposed to be about the spectacle, since it’s as lacking in style as it is in substance. The tennis match that takes up such a large chunk of the episode manages to be one-sided both ways, with Ryuko’s rackets breaking until she uses her scissors instead and instantly wins. The stakes are low, Ryuko’s opponent is a one-note non-entity who’s introduced and disappears forever within the span of the same episode, the animation is more of a suggestion than a depiction of what’s happening, and when it’s all over Satsuki sends sumo wrestlers to the tournament instead of tennis players, so even within the context of the show nobody particularly cares about any of this.
At this point I’d like to preempt the most common defense of this show, that even granting that the story, characters, etc. are bad, it’s still fun and entertaining. That’s a facile argument that people fall back on when they know there’s nothing to support their opinion. One of my reasons for breaking down individual episodes instead of reviewing the entire series in one go is that I wanted to show, in depth, how completely Kill la Kill lacks redeeming features and how it only continues to unravel as it progresses. Liking something in spite of its flaws is fine if someone is able to offer some support for why they feel that way. But Kill la Kill simply falls short by any metric. In a word, it’s bad.
To expand on that point: Kill la Kill is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. And, moreover, bad. If anything can sway a fan of this show, it should be dull repetition. And if not, well, there’s always next time. Until then, go watch Inferno Cop. Or Luluco. Hell, even Turning Girls. Just as long as it isn’t this.