I’ve resolved to begin this review with a statement that will come off as something of a controversial opinion within the anime community: Kill La Kill is functionally superior to Gurren Lagann.
I know. Crazy, right? I didn’t believe it myself, at first. The comparison is a fair one though: Trigger, the company responsible for Kill La Kill, was recently formed by two members of Ginax—both of whom had worked on Gurren Lagann. And it’s not just that, as Hiroyuki Imaishi’s (known for Gurren Lagann, Panty and Stocking, and that episode in Fooly Cooly with all the guns) signature character poses and key frames color the entire production, and easily match the most heart-fluttering moments found in Gurren Lagann. This, in conjunction with a focus on seemingly-vapid action that pole vaults over “over the top” at every turn only to miraculously reveal actual substance, call attention to the similarities.
I realize, though, that this is a big claim to make, one that the world might not be ready to hear. How are we going to back this up? Hyperbole aside, let’s see.
As mentioned earlier, Kill La Kill is somewhat unimpressive at first. Aside from an opening scene that is outstanding by all accounts, the early episodes—albeit entertaining—feel empty and pandering with their generic plot structure and troupe-laden character motivation. The story follows Ryuko Matoi, an angry teenager who wants to fight things because her father went and got himself murdered. Her target is Satsuki Kiryuin, the angry student council president of a high school that serves the dual purpose of being a learning establishment and training angry teenagers to fight things on the side. From here, it seems that our protagonist is going to battle her way up high school, one club president at a time, until her inevitable showdown with Satsuki.
Of course, where would anime be without skimpy battle outfits and school uniforms? Nowhere. So the show offers them in spades; special school uniforms grant combat abilities to students high up enough in the social hierarchy. “This is a Japanese cartoon about angry teenagers wearing next to nothing and beating each other up!” Kill La Kill shouts at the viewer. And you’d be inclined to believe that if you’d seen only the first few episodes. It is worth noting that the set-up is absurd enough to work for the establishing episodes, and the fact that the main character is fighting a high school rather than attending it is amusing. Regardless, the novelty does little to shake the feeling of sameness that usually permeates anime going with the whole “magical battle high school” thing.
More troubling still is some of the risqué content. This goes beyond depictions of women fighting each other with next to nothing on. It’s anime; that’s going to happen sometimes (although the frequency is grating at this point). The issue here is the representation: there are some early scenes that are evocative of sexual assault and that almost threaten to trivialize it. Although how offensive these scenes are will vary from viewer to viewer, they certainly make for some unintentionally uncomfortable moments. Still, men and women alike are given equal opportunity for nudity (which is integral to the plot, interestingly), so it gets points for inclusivity.
At this point, the show doesn’t seem like it’s going to amount to much. But somehow, all the elements harmonize to make something that’s utterly compelling from start to finish. This is helped by the lightning fast pace and satisfying progression present in the high school scenes, although I did find myself enjoying the show in spite of myself during the opening bits. It almost shouldn’t be as fun as it is, with such generic underpinnings. And it wouldn’t be, had Kill La Kill followed the structure that it had set up at the beginning. But it doesn’t; the show breaks its safe, enjoyable yet predictable cocoon just when it seems the end is in sight—which is just about how long it takes for the fun factor to wear thin. Put another way, the novelty is able to carry the premise juuust long enough before viewers lose interest, abandoning its “adrenaline-fuelled-fanservice” façade with perfect timing. It is at this point where it becomes apparent that Kill La Kill is not content with simply wowing its audience with pretty colors, absurd fights, and lots of butts. The plot twists wildly, ridiculous and believable explanations are smeared liberally, and characters reveal dimensions of themselves that were previously imperceptible. And this keeps happening, to a point where the unpredictability becomes just as integral as the unworldly action scenes. The ending of almost every episode elicits a mental “oh daaamn.”
Of course, this means that explaining most of what makes Kill La Kill so good falls under spoiler territory. The action is of course top-notch (we’ll get to that), but what lets the show soar is its misleading structure and—oddly enough—commentary on anime itself. I can say, that despite being advertised as the sort of pandering schlock that is commonplace in the medium, the show goes deeper than that, with explanations that justify the more questionable material, and actually make the problematic opening more enjoyable in hindsight. Although not quite going as far as dismantling the entire genre as Madoka had done, Kill La Kill trots similar ground in its quest to get to the root of “fanservice,” ultimately justifying the use of it in the show by the end.
This self-awareness is woven into its use of budget as well: like most anime constrained by reality, the scenes that count look phenomenal, but there are parts that are obviously employed to save cash (there’s even a surprising lack of detail in some important scenes). Rather than trying to hide this (which never works), the show is upfront about it, calling attention to the parts were the animators didn’t have the time or money or fucks to expend. Static characters are often dragged unnaturally around the frame, and the use of tweening is often so ugly that it couldn’t have been unintentional. The effect is hilarious, and the fact that this sometimes occurs during serious action sequences goes far in illustrating the point. Kill La Kill laughs in the face of anime that uses these obvious masking techniques non-ironically, and is better off than most for it.
The fact that the show is secretly cooking all this intrigue in the background is stunning, only giving viewers faint whiffs of it here and there until the full banquet is poured onto unsuspecting guests. It’s the way in which the show reveals these twists and hidden implications that’s so interesting. The pace is frantic and allows for a surprising amount of flexibility, but everything arrives just at the right time so that every “ah-hah!” is believable and continues to build on the foundation. Aside from that, though, everything else that makes the series worth checking out are the sort of things that you would expect from the people making it.
Visually, Kill La Kill is a stunner. With a palette consisting mainly of dark, contrasting blues and reds that complement the use of clear yellows and whites, the show displays a colorful beauty that still manages to differentiate itself from the flower bouquet wash given to most modern anime. Character designs have an appreciated novelty to them, and there’s a surprising number of mecha suits. The show also boasts one of the best transformation sequences the medium has seen (next to Panty and Stocking), one that mixes the “magical girl” motif with the fleshy, biological “final form” visuals of sci-fi transformations. The only thing bringing the look down is the occasional but discordant use of 3D character models during some fight scenes. These look nowhere near as impressive as the character illustrations (they never do), though they allow for some more dynamic camera angles in the more hectic battles. And while the budget threatens to weigh it down, it never does, because of its aforementioned intelligent use and strong art style. I also really like the stylized technology, which displays information with a pixelated filter and green hue, and seems to be a peculiar nod to the Game Boy.
The music is superb too, of course. You’ve got the usual triumphant scores that play during the fights, but what’s really interesting is the music found elsewhere. There are clear influences of jazz that make the more innocuous scenes that much more interesting. The theme of the main villain is particularly outstanding, and is perhaps the best track to come from an anime in recent memory.
Also of merit is the character interaction and chemistry. Seeing where the plot ends up and what character combinations occur is enthralling. Though not all that interested in letting its characters grow, the story has moments that range from exciting to subtle. And when Ryuko does go through her inevitable “what have I been fighting for?” arc, it doesn’t drag the pacing, and is handled interestingly. The show is genuinely hilarious as well, something that’s quite sparse in the wasteland of modern anime. The weirdness never ceases to amuse, and every ounce of the show is packed with fun.
Speaking of that, have I talked about how weird this show is? Because Kill La Kill is fucking weird. There’s a sentient school uniform. There’s a tank covered in steaks. There’s a survival of the fittest style tournament in the school called “the naturals election.” There’s a guerrilla army that fights against the clothing hierarchy and goes by the name “Nudist Beach.” Character designs are nonsense: one person’s true form is a sarcophagus with a gag ball. Another’s is a suit covered in computer keys, presumably so he can hack faster. The president of the music club has chicken bones attached to the back of her uniform. Why? Because it looked cool, probably.
And Kill La Kill is cool. So cool. I really have no other way of describing the battle sequences. I’ll say they’re unpredictable and well-choreographed, but everyone knows that at this point. I wanted to take a different approach to this review than the perception that most people have: that Kill La Kill is generally considered good, but mostly because of the humor and ridiculous action scenes. I argue that the show is more than that, however. It’s every bit as creative, jaw-dropping, and intense as Gurren Lagann—perhaps even more so. It is the show’s seamless integration of borderline deconstructionism and mockery that places Kill La Kill above anime that are known almost exclusively for pushing the boundaries of how awesome/absurd/stupid an action sequence can be. Highly recommended.