My Review of Kill La Kill

There’s an old saying, that ‘clothes make the man.’ At Honnouji Academy, however, clothes make more than just the man… They make the warrior, they make the authority, and they separate the powerful from the weak. You see, at this school, classes are more than just those things you struggle to stay awake through while fantasizing about the dreamy classmate a few seats over… They’re the things you’re bound by, as part of an ironclad caste system. Depending on your level in that caste system, you may or may not be given a Goku uniform, which are special school uniforms that amplify the natural abilities and club-related interests of their respective wearers. The more powerful the uniform, the more stars you’re granted, from one to three… With the very top position occupied by the stone-faced, cold-hearted Satsuki Kiryuin, the Student Council President who runs the school as if it’s her own personal dictatorship. She lords over her school, which itself lords over the town, with no living being opposing her rule.

Enter Ryuko Matoi, a teenage nomad with a chip on her shoulder and one half of a giant pair of scissors by her side, looking for answers regarding the mysterious death of her father and taking no prisoners in her quest for those answers. With a unique sentient Goku uniform named Senketsu by her side, a hyperactive best friend giving her a place to stay, and a shady teacher constantly trying to convince her to get naked(for surprisingly non-rapey reasons), will this loudmouthed punk have what it takes to raze Satsuki’s rubric regime, or is she facing a literal uphill battle that she can’t possibly win?

For those of you who haven’t read my April reviews, I like to describe Studio Gainax’s animation quality as being ‘inconsistent.’ Considering how abundant this problem is, I would expect the same from any animation studio that could ever spin off from Gainax… And yet, Studio Trigger has proven me wrong. Trigger was founded by two of Gainax’s former members, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Ohtsuka, as they left the company in 2011. Yes, this studio is only four years old, with only a few titles under their belt, and yet they produced one of the most unique visual wonders of that time period.

I have never seen an anime that looked quite like Kill La Kill before. It seems to take the fast paced frenetic action of Gurren Lagann and combine it with the smooth, western character and art design of Panty and Stocking, effectively taking the best aspects of both shows while cancelling out the ugly shortcuts that originally plagued them. This makes it look more like a Looney Toons project than anything you’d naturally expect from the anime medium. Only, you know, with boobs instead of rabbits. It completely avoids the awkward frame rate drops that normally occur whenever the action speeds up in a Gainax show, and which is normally my biggest complaint about their animation, managing to look smooth even through it’s more demanding shots.

Of course, whether it’s able to do this because they have a relatively high budget or because they’re extremely good at managing an average budget, I honestly can’t tell. It uses a lot of your classic moneysaving shortcuts, such as items and people moving as though they’ve just been cut out of the screen via photoshop, but they’re used so deliberately and so stylistically that it’s difficult to tell whether or not it was ever done out of necessity. Even when the characters have been reduced to frozen talking heads, there will almost always be something else moving on screen, whether it’s the clouds in the background, someone’s hair in the wind, or even just the design on their uniform. This is a really good line to blur, and it keeps up really well with the breakneck pace of the series.

Of course, the outstanding art direction and exquisitely detailed backgrounds don’t hurt, either. There was a lot of great care taken with the visual aspect of this series, from the memorable character designs that tell you volumes about the students and soldiers they correspond to before you even hear them speaking, to the CG art that somehow looks natural, even when it shares screen time with the two-dimensional aesthetic of the characters. The soundtrack is surprisingly subtle, being one of the only aspects of Kill La Kill that comes even close to that word. I don’t even really want to call it background music, as it’s never wasted on scenes that don’t need it… It’s more like support music, used to amplify the effectiveness of action scenes and emotional climaxes, or just as tonally appropriate themes for the central characters. The two most memorable tracks… Aside from the awesome opening and closing themes… are the chilling theme music that heralds the terrifying villain Nui Harime, and the blood pumping Before My Body is Dry, which kicks in with the scream “Don’t lose your way” every time Ryuko turns the tide in battle. And as for the canon in-story music? You know your soundtrack is going to be awesome when one of your primary villains uses a marching band for a weapon.

If I had seen the English dub by this time last year, it would have instantly had a guaranteed spot on my “Favorite Anime Dubs” post, and for pretty much the same reasons that Toradora made it in. Hell, this dub is so perfect that the two shows probably would have tied for second place, which isn’t surprising since they were released by the same company at around the same time. Fledgling voice actor Erica Mendez, who got her start only a few years ago by playing the voice of Rainbow Dash in several Brony videos, proves her mettle as the tough, gravelly voiced Ryuko, having no trouble navigating this probably throat-destroyingly intense role through all of it’s complexity. Christine Marie Cabanos shows us once again how awesome she can be when used properly, keeping up admirably in her role as the fast-talking Looney Toon Mako.

It’s difficult to pick a standout performance in a dub where everyone is so perfect in general, but if I had to choose a favorite, there are two that come to mind, and they’re both supplied by veteran voice actors with some serious clout in their resumes. The first one is Carrie Keranen, who’s probably most well known for playing Casca in Berserk, and in Kill La Kill, she plays the duplicitous school dictator Lady Satsuki. Her voice is very strong and powerful throughout the series, making for some rousing speeches, with a sense of restraint at other times that hides the duality of her character. The other one is Stephanie Sheh, who is known for regularly getting typecast as high-pitched girly-girl characters, and then stunning the crap out of people whenever she breaks away from that mewling moe mold. She has a lot more talent than people give her credit for, and it’s never been more apparent than in her portrayal of Nui Harime, who doesn’t come into the series until an Earth-shattering reveal at the halfway point. Her voice is sweet, high pitched, and overly-affectionate, yet Sheh’s performance is still dripping with malice and cruelty below the surface. Over-all, the dub is just as good as the sub, so you should be able to watch either track without complaint.

If you’re watching Kill La Kill for the first time, it is perfectly understandable to go through a case of some sensory overload. This series hits the ground running, assaulting you with it’s ridiculous premise, it’s complicated plot, slapstick, stylized violence and constant, gratuitous, unapologetic fan service from both genders. It can become confusing very early on, and what’s worse, it might even lose your interest by the end of disk one. It’s a lot to take in, and it doesn’t bother easing you into it, so you’re going to have to really trust me when I tell you that everything about it… Yes, literally everything… Makes perfect sense by the end, in either an on-the-surface or metaphorical way.

The main plot, for example, may seem like a random collection of excuses to see the cast as close to naked as Japanese TV standards will allow, what with the skin-baring Kamui uniforms, the instant stripping of anybody who’s defeated in battle, and a violent clash of philosophies about whether or not clothing is necessary or evil. As we uncover more of this bizarre world’s backstory, and the plot twists begin to unravel before us, you’ll find that the entire scenario is surprisingly believable, as ridiculous as it all might be. I won’t go into too much details… Spoilers and all, you know… But what I will do is compare it to Gurren Lagann, who’s second half seemed to rely on the idea that if the world’s population reaches a certain number, the moon will crash into it, despite no attempt at explaining why or how this stipulation came to be. Kill La Kill is a lot more thorough than that, and doesn’t rely on the stupidity of the audience to sell it’s ideas.

Which doesn’t explain the weird nature of Ryuko’s powers. Her weapon is an article of clothing that leaves virtually nothing to the imagination, while stealing blood from it’s host and magical threads from it’s defeated enemies. Believe it or not, this isn’t just some random battle outfit that was deliberately designed to be as pervy as possible… Although that kind of thing is hardly uncommon in any medium, so I can’t blame you for thinking it. It’s much more than that. I can explain this, and the good news is that it’s not a spoiler!

As I mentioned earlier, Trigger is an apple that fell from the tree of Studio Gainax. Gainax has a long history of exploring the theme of growing up, in terms of coming of age and puberty. The problem with that is that, if all the drills in Gurren Lagann didn’t tip you off, they tend to focus on the male side of this. What Trigger did with Kill La Kill, possibly intentionally, was infuse it with a FEMALE puberty metaphor. In the first half of the series alone, you’ve got her developing her powers by making an occasional blood exchange (Getting her period), collecting fibers (Growing the pewbz) and becoming comfortable with her body. The metaphor even goes as far as to suggest that after losing too much blood, she can turn into an uncontrollable rage monster, and all this complicated symbolism about her budding sexuality only feeds into Kill La Kill’s deeper metaphors.

Yes, you heard me right, there are deeper metaphors in Kill La Kill. I’ve heard a lot of reviewers say that it doesn’t have any real depth, but that it’s okay, because it doesn’t need depth, which I respectfully disagree with. As any anime fan who prefers the original FMA series over Brotherhood will tell you, even when depth isn’t necessary, it’s still highly appreciated and can elevate a good show into a great show. With Kill La Kill, you just have to know what you’re looking for, and once you start to notice it, a bunch of light bulbs WILL start going off in your head as you start to piece it together. To give you as unspoilery a taste as I can, Kill La Kill has a lot to say about the subject of conformity.

Now, when you hear the word conformity, your mind will almost certainly give you an image of a fifties style American family… Two parents, two children, a dog, a white picket fence, and the smiling mother doing all the chores for her smarmy bucktoothed son. Basically, the kind of world that Pleasantville deconstructed. But the truth is that conformity in Japan is much more involved than it ever was here. Not only is it far more widespread, but it’s still a major part of their culture to this day. From what I’ve heard from a few people I know who’ve traveled there, conformity in Japan is so bad that when businessman go out for a job-related meal, everybody will order the exact same thing that their boss ordered in an attempt to impress him. It’s that bad.

In Kill La Kill, all you need to keep in mind is that clothing… Specifically school uniforms, and especially the Goku uniforms… Represent conformity to traditional values. Nudity, or even the simple act of wearing your own street clothes, represents individuality and self expression. As proof of this, Satsuki’s kamui is referred to several times as her ‘wedding dress,’ despite the fact that she is at no point in the story given anything close to a love interest. This is because marriage is also a huge part of Japanese conformity… It’s extremely difficult to get a job if you’re single, and if you’re a woman, you lose a huge chunk of your individual rights the moment you say “I do.” On top of this, the main villain of the series is at one point shown crucified, in an obvious reference to Christianity… Not because she’s a martyr, but because she represents morality and the very same repressive traditional values that the series is cautioning us against.

But even if you ignore all that, Kill La Kill is still notable for it’s progressive representation of gender roles. Not only is the fanservice split between both genders, but the male characters have little to no effect on the ambitions and arcs of the female stars. They have no love interests to comment on them not being ladylike(Are you taking notes, Type Moon?), nor are any of them fighting or striving for somebody’s affection, or being saved by a stronger male when the going gets too tough. This is rarer than you might think, as even Sailor Moon and Misaka Mikoto need a man by their side at some point or another. It’s also not uncommon for female characters to be designed so that you’ll root for them to survive rather than to succeed(Or, in video games, you wind up playing them for the sake of protecting them). With Ryuko, you root for her for the same reasons that you root for Goku or Yusuke… Because she’s awesome, she kicks ass, and you want to see her tear down the school and put it’s authority in it’s place.

Even her ultra-revealing battle outfit has some nuance to it. In the beginning, it’s an incredibly awkward and embarrassing look for her, and this hampers her ability to fight the much more convicted Satsuki. The audience at this point will presumably have the same reaction her male onlookers have, ranging from ‘that’s hot’ too ‘that’s sick and shameful.’ But as she becomes more comfortable with it, a strange thing happens… People around her gradually begin to forget about the skin she’s showing, and focus on the fact that she’s one of the toughest and most intimidating fighters they’ve ever seen. The eroticism also wears off for the viewer, for as Ryuko develops as a character, you’ll stop seeing her Kamui as an exploitation of nubile underaged flesh, and you’ll start seeing it the same way you see the outfits of heroes like Superman, Batman and Ironman… When the costume comes on, the gloves come off, and you’re excited to know that somebody’s about to get their shit kicked in. Throw in an adorable pooch and a few cautionary tales about not forgetting where you’re from, and you’ve got a recipe for a Killer of a good time.

Kill La Kill is available from Aniplex of America. They knew they had a bankable title on their hands, and they’ve priced it as such. It was released stateside as five individual discs, ranging in price for thirty dollars per DVD to sixty dollars per Blu-ray, to eighty dollars per Blu-Ray/DVD special edition combo pack. That’s a hefty price, so if you’re able to find a good deal, take it. I personally considered it a steal when I got the whole series on DVD for eighty, but for those of you who’s pockets aren’t that deep, it’s available for legal streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll.

I’ve criticized certain titles in the past for having depth, but being too inaccessible to casual viewers who won’t be willing or able to understand it. With Kill La Kill, this really isn’t an issue. The depth in it enhances the story, but never holds it back. Even if you’re watching it with your brain turned off, it’s still a big, loud, over-the-top action series with great production values, a lot of heart and a lot of great characters. It succeeds at almost everything it tries to do, and it just gets better and better every time I watch it. That’s not to say it’s perfect, of course…  The pacing can sometimes be way too fast, and the first few episodes can be incredibly abrasive for some viewers.  Hell, my first time through, I didn’t even really get into it until episode five, but once it had me, I never wanted it to let me go.  I give Kill La Kill a 9/10.

  1. In terms of visuals, I think Kill La Kill is an example of how you can make something look good without a huge budget.

    Love this show, but I doubt I will ever own it on DVD. Aniplex are greedy with their pricing and I refuse to support their business model.

  2. I can’t say I blame you. True Story: I found a seller on Ebay who was selling the DVD portions of his bluray/DVD combo packs as a bundle to recoup some lost money, so I bought those for fifty bucks along with DVD five from Rightstuff on sale for 30 bucks. All I had to do was transfer the slip-cover of DVD 5 to a 6-disk case, and voila, the series was mine!

    But if you can’t pull off something like that, I honestly can’t recommend the purchase.

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