After four episodes, what kind of show is Trigger’s Kill la Kill, anyway? (warning: there’s at least one image tucked away in here that is not safe for work.)
I ask this question because nobody seems to agree. Some people love it, other people hate it, a select few despise it. In the spirit of reaching consensus, I thought it would be worthwhile to take stock of a few different ways you can read the show, and some different things you can get out of it if you so choose. You may have heard some of these before! Anyway, let’s begin:
1. Kill la Kill is an anime series by upcoming Studio Trigger. The director and screenwriter formerly worked on Gurren Lagann, also known as the last consistently good show famous/infamous Studio Gainax ever made (its follow-up Panty and Stocking was fantastic in parts but otherwise not quite as good.) A significant portion of Trigger’s staff left Gainax years ago, and so it is fair to say that there were great expectations for the studio’s first televised series.
2. Kill la Kill is the spiritual sequel to Gurren Lagann, except that the central motifs seem to be stars and clothing rather than spirals. The series is equally as obsessed with referencing and reworking earlier anime (more on that later.) The opening song is a pretty obvious homage to Gurren Lagann’s opening song except not really as memorable.
3. Kill la Kill is an action-packed blockbuster about a Blazing Transfer Student who takes on the Student Council President of a school in the middle of a post-apocalyptic world. There is sword-fighting, magical uniforms, long and complicated speeches and copious amounts of fanservice. It’s a guaranteed hit!
4. Kill la Kill is deliberately alienating and so over-the-top it verges on TOO over-the-top. The pace in each episode is relentless, the action is literally explosive and the fanservice is so persistent and in-your-face it has already turned off many people in the western anime fandom. Either you submit to the show’s cartoon logic and Giant Floating Red Letters or you drown under the stylistic excess. Gurren Lagann was pretty great but obviously Imaishi and Nakashima are trying too hard to recapture past magic.
5. Imaishi and Nakashima are not trying too hard. Rather, they made a decision that for a small studio like Trigger that badly needs a success seems like corporate suicide. Realizing they had almost unparalleled creative freedom, they made exactly the kind of show they wanted to make. Whether this show happens to line up with the show you wanted them to make is the question.
6. Kill la Kill is a lot of fun but also incredibly misogynistic. Not only is the main character forced to constantly wear skimpy, ridiculous-looking clothing, but everyone else in the cast constantly judges her for it! Her rival Satsuki is similarly forced to wear stupid-looking skimpy clothing, robbing her of any dignity she possessed. Couldn’t the staff have been nice enough to give the two of them a little more covering?
7. Yeah, but that’s only because Kill la Kill is also a show about female adolescence in the same way that FLCL was about male adolescence and Gurren Lagann (most importantly) is about masculinity. The ungainliness and skimpiness of the god uniforms in Kill la Kill is meant to reflect the awkwardness of female adolescence! Also the fact that heroine Ryuko’s uniform is named “Senketsu” (fresh blood) and Satsuki’s is named Junketsu (purity,) coupled w/ the visuals during their respective transformations, is definitely meant to reference menstruation.
8. Still doesn’t make up for the fact that there have been at least three or four rape jokes in the first four episodes. Why do they keep shaming Ryuko for something she can’t even control? If the series is supposed to critique anime’s treatment of women, why does it rely so obsessively on male gaze?
9. But the characters stand up to the male gaze! Ryuko decides in the third episode that she won’t let herself be defined by what others think of what she wears anymore. Satsuki dominates her uniform and takes its powers for herself rather than the other way around. Also in an entertainment sphere where female characters are often defined more by checklists of quirks rather than actual personalities, isn’t it great to have the show’s two heroines register as actual people rather than databases?
10. Doesn’t change the fact that Utena proved you could write a story about objectification without resorting to the male gaze once. Also considering the staff of the show made the decision to consistently shame their protagonist for the outfit they make her wear it looks more and more like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too.
11. …you might have a point there
12. Kill la Kill isn’t about female adolescence or the male gaze at all! It’s really about clothing, the fact that “uniform” and “domination” come out the same way and that “fashion” and “fascism” are written similarly. By “getting naked,” Ryuko is rejecting the restricting societal function of the uniforms worn by the academy and transcending the limitations of humanity. It has nothing to do with objectification, by the camera or otherwise.
13. Doesn’t the obsessive focus on menstruation imagery and wedding dresses seem a little too coincidental for that to be the case?
14. Scratch that, Kill la Kill is really about what it means to be an otaku! To be a true fan means abandoning all pretenses and throwing oneself heart and soul into the fandom, just like donning a god uniform and fucking things up with a giant scissor (thanks ghostlightning!)
15. Actually Kill la Kill is just an extended series of references to earlier anime. The first episode references Ashita no Joe, Mako invokes the Ideon Gauge, the school looks eerily similar to Utena’s…even the ending is a giant homage to the credits roll of the Sukeban Deka television series (a.k.a. the one about the yoyo-wielding detective/delinquent student.) Not to mention that every episode title is named after a j-pop song from the 70s.
16. Why are we reading all of this into Kill la Kill in the first place? Gurren Lagann was just a bunch of random craziness, obviously Kill la Kill is too. God forbid there’s anything actually meaningful in this crap.
17. Watch Gurren Lagann again and keep track of every form of spiral that appears. Can you come back and honestly say the show was just a bunch of random craziness?
18. More than anything though Kill la Kill is a cartoon. Did you see that fourth episode?
19. To be honest, I agree with some of these points and disagree with others. I’m sure you do too. The truth, though, is that Kill la Kill may be all of these things at once.
20. In the long run, it might also be none of them.
21. There’s a lot going on in Kill la Kill. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, some parts are fascinating and some parts problematic. For a culture used to zeroing in on what they like or dislike, it might be easy to pick out aspects that may either sell the show to them or ruin it entirely. But while Kill la Kill isn’t rocket science (or as dense or infuriating as a Mawaru Penguindrum) it definitely rewards examination from multiple angles: whether as blockbuster, auteur work, pseudo-feminist text, grindhouse picture, statement of intent and perhaps even total (and tonal) misfire. We likely won’t know for sure which angle suits the show best until it airs in its entirety. But until then, to immediately peg the show for being only one of these things rather than all of them (often simultaneously) would be far less than it deserves. For better or worse, Imaishi and Nakashima have concocted something potent here, and whether it succeeds or fails it deserves our full consideration.
BONUS: Mako is secretly the main character of Kill la Kill. The series tracks her rise to power until she DESTROYS THE WORLD