Who the Hell do you Think I Am?!?; Impressions of Kill la Kill

kill la kill ep1

Let’s talk about Kill la Kill, one of the most anticipated anime of the year. Does it measure up to expectations?

wendeego: To sum up: this is Gurren Lagann with the brakes off. Now if you haven’t seen the episode, boot up Crunchyroll or Daisuki or Hulu or whatever and watch this episode immediately. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it but this is something that deserves to be seen before you know anything about it.

If you’ve seen the episode…that was something, huh?

I don’t know what I was expecting heading into Kill la Kill. Obviously director Hiroyuki Imaishi is a fantastic animator, writer Kazuki Nakashima’s turned out consistently good work in every field he’s worked in, Sushio draws great characters and is a fantastic animator in his own right and Studio Trigger have been raring to prove themselves since putting out Little Witch Academia and  raising hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter to make its sequel. On the other hand, Ryuko’s transforming uniform in the promos was pretty skeevy, and Imaishi’s directorial work ranges from excellent (Gurren Lagann) to spastic (Dead Leaves) to half-and-half (Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.Kill la Kill would almost certainly be memorable, but it could just as easily be a mess. Was the show destined to SAVE ANIME or herald the medium’s immanent death?

My first thought after finishing Kill la Kill‘s first episode actually wasn’t “Kill la Kill just saved anime!” or “Kill la Kill is a huge disappointment, oh my god!” It was “oh jeez, there are some people who are going to hate this show.” This show is completely uncompromising. You have the feeling that Imaishi and his friends at Studio Trigger literally took everything they had, ranging from one-shot cartoon gags to sex jokes to German history to crazy fight-scenes, and jammed them all into twenty-four packed minutes. Something is happening almost every second, whether it be characters talking or flying around or punching each other or literally anything else. The camera soars around and every important scene is punctuated by BIG RED TEXT spelling out character’s names or positions in the student government. For many this is absolutely exhilarating, but I can imagine how some would find this show exhausting. At least in the first episode, Kill la Kill does not take breaks. You either submit to the current or drown. I’m almost certain there will be some people who watch the first episode and just bounce off; who say “this show has ADD!” or “this show is like a little yapping dog” or “this show is anxiety-inducing.” A refrain that I am sure will come up at some point is that Imaishi and co. are trying too hard. That in trying to create the craziest anime of all time they overreached and the places where they strained are showing through.

This is where I would disagree. Setting aside the fact that Trigger has been obsessively marketing this series from the very beginning, that it may as well be a catastrophic failure for them if the series doesn’t sell, I think Imaishi and Nakashima and the rest of the staff legitimately do not care what we think of them. They do not care that some might find their series too ridiculous to take seriously. Kill la Kill is obviously a blockbuster, a shit-kicking adventure story paying homage to old 80s high school battle manga (and maybe Go Nagai as well?) but it’s also an auteur work. No kidding, aside from Nagahama’s work on this year’s Flowers of Evil this show might be the most distinctive of the year so far. It’s a product bursting from the seams with a unique vision, suffused with a devil-may-care attitude and busy doing whatever the hell it wants. It’s a show that’s even less restrained than Gurren Lagann, and the ensuing contraption spins and spins and spins so quickly that it looks more than a little dangerous. There are moments in this episode (such as talking uniform Senketsu “forcing” himself on Ryuko) that threaten to overturn the whole production. But then there are others that restore the balance. Despite Ryuko’s ridiculous transforming outfit, she never really loses the steel in her heart, and when she takes on the champion of the Boxing Club and literally blows his clothes off it’s almost impossible to rise up and cheer if you’re caught up in it.

This is an awful lot of talk about the grand underpinnings of the show rather than the stuff you probably care about, so: just about everything else in this series plays second fiddle to Imaishi and Nakashima’s aesthetic, but all of that is thankfully solid. The soundtrack, by Hiroyuki Sawano (who also worked on Guilty Crown and Attack on Titan) doesn’t immediately stand out, but I was certainly sold on it by the end of the episode. It might have been interesting to see Taku Iwasaki contribute, considering that he scored Gurren Lagann, but between Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Gatchaman Crowds I could use a break from his style. Similarly, while the show is less consistent-looking than Gurren Lagann (which had the full weight of Gainax backing it) it’s still much prettier than I was expecting. The action scenes in particular could easily register as major turning point sequences in any other anime; it says something about Imaishi and Nakashima’s ambitions with Kill la Kill that this is only the starting point. In addition, the visual emphasis on stars and obsessive emphasis of certain motifs leads me to expect the show’s just as tightly linked to a central conceit as Gurren Lagann was to spirals, from drills to DNA to tornadoes. Otherwise, Ryuko’s proved to be a fantastic protagonist so far, Satsuki is a sufficiently menacing antagonist and just about every other character in the series is given at least some love, from the charismatic Elite Four to the lowly head of the Boxing Club who loses his uniform at the end of the episode. Mako threatens to become irritating if she keeps talking and talking and talking and talking but hopefully the series knows what to do with her. Usually in these shows the hero or heroine seems like an asshole for rejecting the best friend character out of hand, but Mako in this case is both a force of nature and more than a little worrying. It could go either way but frankly, I trust Nakashima.

In conclusion Kill la Kill is pretty much exactly the show I thought it would be, with the exception that it’s even crazier than I was expecting. If you like the series, great! If it aggravates you, if the pacing is so relentless you can’t get on with it, I can’t say you’re in the wrong. But in a medium that seems to be aspiring to less and less with every passing year, where series that try for something legitimately different and uncomfortable are punished by their audience for daring to step out of line, I’m glad that Imaishi, Nakashima and Studio Trigger itself are daring to cross the line. Kill la Kill is one of the most “anime” series I can think of, yet it’s the first pilot of an anime series I’ve seen since Mawaru Penguindrum I’ve felt compelled to repeatedly come back to. Take that as you will.

Further reactions from the writers of Isn’t it Electrifying may be contributed below this point. Check back for updates!

illegenes: When someone mentions Kill la Kill to me today, the first thing that flashes into my mind is this.

FEAR IS FREEDOM!
SUBJUGATION IS LIBERATION!
CONTRADICTION IS TRUTH!

I took the liberty of marathoning Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann a couple of days ago in order to prepare myself for the hype that was Kill la Kill. Was it successful? I think so! In settling comfortably down with TTGL‘s vibes, I managed to be at ease with Kill la Kill‘s over the top and ridiculous style. I sat through the fanservice kind of shaking my head but enjoying it at the same time, you know? It was much more like a warm welcome back into Nakashima’s blazing arms. “THIS IS ANIME,” Kill la Kill and TTGL scream. And frankly, yeah, it kind of is! But there’s more to the excitement and explosion that are in both series, and my point here isn’t to say that Kill la Kill is just another version of TTGL, because it’s not. There’s a lot more going under the surface that isn’t about human revolution or the indomitable spirit of mankind. Rather, Kill la Kill seems to take a look at the social forces and harsh ideas behind that spirit, in the form of autonomy. Dictatorship and enforced peace. And in terms of anime, fanservice and violence.

Take those three lines, for instance. They sound awfully like some of the famous lines in George Orwell‘s 1984, no? WAR IS PEACE! FREEDOM IS SLAVERY!  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH! Big Brother here is no figurehead of the government – it is the government. Satsuki dominates the entire atmosphere, in terms of stance, visuals, and speech. Instead of being stratified based on personal talent, here, the students are categorized by uniform – Zero Star uniforms to the ultimate 3 Star Goku Uniforms, worn by the Elite Four (who are in turn, similar to 1984‘s Ministries of Peace, Love, and Plenty).  Students must obey orders without fail and respect the above figures by bowing down whenever they walk by.  The entire setting of the Academy itself is like a prison rather than a school – a towering figure, enclosed by thick and tall walls. Hell, Kill la Kill itself opens up with a history lesson of world domination led by people like Hitler and the socioeconomic ideology of Fascism. This is only just the start, but I’m sure there’s more about this that’s to come!

So when authoritarianism is oozing out of every jaw-dropping detail of Kill la Kill, of course it is a rural girl like Ryuko with a blazing attitude to break down those walls, figuratively and literally. She is the perfect mix of Sono from C3bu and Kamina from TTGL, except here, it’s not just about stubbornness or pride. This is blood-driven revenge, and while Kill la Kill retains the Gainax feeling of theatrics and dramatical events, it makes no attempts to romanticize the harshness of life. Take for instance, how Ryuko enters the Academy. There’s no warm welcome except the hung up body of a student who was punished severely for going against the rules. He is battered, bruised, and bloody. When Ryuko makes her escape after her defeat, the Academy has no problems using Mako as a victim to lure out Ryuko and make her fight again. The outside of the Academy is a crowded town that borders on slum-like life, with kids pickpocketing to live and gambling on their life through fights and dares.  And just as Mako says with ease – “This kind of stuff is normal!” – you feel shivers down your back, because honestly? None of it is normal at all. Kill la Kill definitely pushes what it means to be anime by taking it to the extreme, but that also means shedding light on some of the more uncomfortable parts we see glorified in anime, and that’s the uncompromising harshness of reality and fanservice, as shown with Ryuko’s own Sailor Suit (which was thrown on through assault).

All in all? We have a chockfull of stuff going on in here – some excellent, most good, a little uneasy.  Will I say that Kill la Kill will pierce its way through the heavens with its own drill and change anime forever? Nah. But it’s here to make a lasting impression, and the first episode has done that exactly. I’m looking forward to the brutal and powerful world that both Imaishi and Nakashima are going to share with us for the next months – it may as well have been worth the wait.  As George Orwell himself said, “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

What bloody path lies ahead? I guess we’ll just have to sit tight and wait….

gallifreyians: If this was a paper, my thesis would be “Kill la Kill is a punch in the face”. From the very first moments of the episode it really delivers. We open in a classroom going through a history lesson, but the show rapidly departs from this normalcy in both subject matter as well as in style. A disciplinary officer arrives on the scene, breaking through the iron-clad, submarine-style door and accusing one of the students of espionage against the school. A chase then ensues between the treasonous student and the disciplinary officer, showing off the architecture of the building as well as the wacky style of animation. This chase culminates in a spectacular fight scene that Imashi uses as an excuse to throw a little exposition about Goku Uniforms at us.

I don’t intend to just reiterate the story of the episode to you, needless to say it only gets more explosive from there on out. The pure sense of abandon that Kill la Kill has for normalcy, convention, and sanity is a pure delight — and when you combine this with the heavily stylized and heavily distorted animation brings me back to FLCL.The parallels between Kill la Kill and FLCL are biggest in episodes five and six (“Brittle Bullet” and “FLClimax”). If you want action that brings back fond childhood memories of shounen anime, Kill la Kill has that.

FLCL isn’t the only anime “classic” that Kill la Kill seems to draw from either, as I sense a lot of the same aspects in KlK as there are in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Ikuhara spent a lot of time working on his gem of a show, and one of the things that he did was create a unique style of neo-classical architecture that evokes surrealism through a lack of distinct structural features. I certainly don’t think that Kill la Kill is aiming for neo-classicism — here it is more of an industrial military architectural style reminiscent of Revolution-era star forts and heavily evoking World War II-era battleships1 — but it most definitely keeps the surrealism of Ikuhara’s architecture in Utena.

As someone who has studied art history, the visual similarities are too similar here to be accidental.

Here one can clearly see the surreal architecture I was talking about. The way in which the school is designed isn’t visually ridiculous or outrageous, but from a structural standpoint it would collapse almost immediately.

Kill la Kill parallels Utena again their shared use of the “All-Powerful Student Council” trope2 with a new student’s appearance upsetting the power structure already in place at the school. The next episode preview shows that Ryuuko, much like Utena, is going to take the student council on one-by-one as the show goes on. A final similarity, which I think is really just a similarity, is the emphasis placed on uniforms by the two shows. Both main characters are seemingly allowed to wear uniforms that break the dress code without any sort of reason, as does the student council. It is interesting as well to note that both shows use uniform changes to denote power. In Utena, it is only those who have been chosen by The End of the World or Mikage Souji that get to wear those special uniforms which represent their ability to participate in the Rose Bride Wars.

The All-Powerful Student Councils of Honnouji Academy and Ohtori Academy

The importance difference however is that in Utena the uniforms are merely symbols of power while in Kill la Kill uniforms are a source of power; it is not the powerful who are granted Goku uniforms to ensure their loyalty, but the loyal that are granted Goku uniforms to give them power. Adam and Natasha have disagreed with me about the similarities between KlK and Utena, Adam claiming that it is more similar to earlier fight school manga and Natasha claiming that it is more similar to Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagann. While obviously I think that it does draw from those places in terms of where these tropes come from, I think the fact that Utena and KlK are using the same tropes and handling them differently is incredibly important and can help highlight what makes Kill la Kill a unique anime.

And boy do I think that Kill la Kill is quite unique. It does have its issues — namely with how creepy and rape-like the uniform was when it forced itself on Ryuuko — but they hardly detracted from my enjoyment of the show. We are definitely far off from knowing whether Kill la Kill is going to be a new classic or just another throwaway anime, but this premiere is quite promising!

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3 responses to “Who the Hell do you Think I Am?!?; Impressions of Kill la Kill

  1. Does anyone know, if Kill la Kill was flop or a succes resp. did it make enough money to make a sequel, anytime? (even if Trigger’s next project seem’s to be something else..)

  2. Between parts of FLCL, Gurren Lagann, and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (less so than the other two, but I still love it), Imaishi has pretty much won me over. I really, really liked the first episode of this show, but at the same time I can’t help but feel nervous watching it. I want Trigger to succeed and continue to make anime really badly, and even though I love all of Imaishi’s anime, it’s not hard at all for me to see where people who don’t are coming from. I hope this turns out closer to Gurren Lagann than PSG for Trigger’s sake, although either will make me very happy.

    • If it’s any comfort, I think the most “balanced” stuff I’ve seen Imaishi direct has definitely been in conjunction with Nakashima, who worked with him on Gurren Lagann. Kill la Kill brings the two of them together again, and so while it’s definitely a lot crazier than their earlier work I’m hoping it will hold together better than Panty and Stocking (which had both parts I loved and parts I was eh on.)

      I share your nervousness about the future of Trigger though. They’re definitely putting everything they have into Kill la Kill, and the recent LWA sequel Kickstarter must have helped morale. But they definitely didn’t pick an easy first project and considering this show’s LESS accessible than Gurren Lagann, I’m worried people might be turned off. I think this show could still go either way at this point but right now it’s definitely a series that people CAN’T ignore. Maybe I’d be more optimistic if people hadn’t already consciously rejected series this year that tried to defy the status quo! (*cough*FLOWERS OF EVIL*cough*)

      That said, when it comes down to it Kill la Kill is about a cute girl in skimpy clothing who fights another cute girl in a high school while crazy music plays so maybe it stands a chance of being a hit

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