Let’s talk about Kill la Kill, subject self-explanatory! Probably relatively safe-for-work compared to other posts on the show, but there’s one or two pics of Ryuuko in her kamui outfit so use your best judgement.
There’s a scene in the first episode of Kill la Kill that really sold me on the show. Ryuuko’s standing in her ridiculous-looking uniform, her first opponent comes at her with a giant spiked boxing glove, and…the glove smashes into pieces! The crowd roars, Ryuuko shouts “IT’S MY TURN” and as the music kicks in, her uniform belches exhaust. It’s an image that on one hand is everything iffy about the show in a nutshell: how fetishized it is, how her already skimpy uniform tightens as it lets off steam, and how even the camera angles objectify her throughout. At the same time, though, the kamui letting off exhaust is kinda brilliant. Not only is it a striking image, but it’s a great means of punctuation throughout the series’s intense fights. The fact that in the first episode, Ryuuko wastes no time after letting off steam to give her opponent a complete and utter beatdown helps as well.
In the tennis match that serves as the second episode’s climax, just as things are getting really serious, we see Ryuuko’s uniform letting off steam again! The odds are against her, everything is on the line, but in that moment we gear ourselves up for yet another amazing knockout. Ryuuko raises her racket to serve…and then her racket is literally shattered by her own strength. She loses the point. What the viewer has come to interpret at this point as a confirmation of victory turns out to be nothing more than a punchline set up by the writers. “O ho!” they say. “You didn’t think it would be this easy, did you?”
This is just many ways in which Trigger play with repetition throughout Kill la Kill. At first glance, the show is loaded with it: a fight scene every episode, stock transformation scenes, signature attacks marked by freeze frames and large red lettering. As ajthefourth has pointed out, Mako even serves as Greek chorus throughout the show, encapsulating the messages of most weeks in brief comic interludes set aside from the action. More than the presence of an evil student council or a cage-like high school, it is elements like this that are really most reminiscent of Utena, the comparison that almost every person has been making since the first episode. Honestly, this comparison is almost certainly fueled by the fact that nobody in the Western fandom actually recognizes any of the older, often Japan-only anime/manga of the 70s and 80s that Kill la Kill constantly pays homage to (this is a series, after all, where the episode titles are all taken from the names of 70s Japanese pop songs!) But here’s a way in which this comparison bears definite fruit: like Utena, Kill la Kill plays elaborate games with repetition. It’s just much less patient.
An example is the aforementioned stock footage and transformation scenes. In the first three episodes, whenever a Kamui transformation is depicted in its entirety the camera is shockingly perverse, bordering (if not right infringing) on exploitative. But while Ryuuko technically transforms multiple times throughout the first three episodes, we only see the full length of Ryuuko and Satsuki’s kamui transformations once. From that point forth the staff plays havoc with their stock footage, either annotating it (most episodes,) deliberately fast-forwarding to indicate the need for hurry (episode 4) or simply skipping over it entirely to convey the importance of the situation (episode 5.) Transforming becomes exhibitionism, and choosing to show the sequence in its entirety rather than skip through it evidence that the characters are trying to make a big impression on their audience. When Sanageyama undergoes his full transformation into his three-star uniform’s ultimate form, Ryuuko responds that as he was kind enough to expose himself to her she, too, should do the same. It’s reminiscent of a scene in an episode of Imaishi’s earlier Gainax experiment Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, where after the title characters undergo their extremely raunchy magical girl pole-dancing transformation sequence (don’t ask,) their arch-enemies (demonic beings obsessed with rules) reveal that they, too, have their own extremely raunchy magical girl pole-dancing transformation sequence! With their own theme song!
Another way in which the show plays with repetition is in how the story is structured. Kill la Kill models itself at least in part on old-fashioned shounen manga, a genre famed for long and drawn-out fight scenes and story arcs that become increasingly repetitious as the associated mangaka runs out of ideas and succumbs to editorial pressures. There are elements that appear almost without fail in each episode of Kill la Kill: a barely clothed lecture by Ryuuko’s homeroom teacher, one of Mako’s signature speeches and at least one fight scene. But like in Imaishi and Nakashima’s earlier work, Gurren Lagann, the series quickly escalates in scale and intensity. In the second episode, seemingly the most formulaic of the lot, Satsuki (seemingly the ultimate villain) challenges Ryuuko to a duel. In the third episode Satsuki releases her full power against Ryuuko, and by the end not only have both become personally invested in the other’s demise but they both stand on equal ground as opponents. The fourth takes a break from the continuing plot to deliver a one-off homage to classic Looney Tunes comedy. The fifth takes things up a notch: instead of a single club captain challenging Ryuuko, there are suddenly three clubs attacking her at once! She isn’t even their target! And so on. By the seventh episode, Ryuuko has essentially defeated so many club heads that she’s effectively purged the student government of undesirables: an opportunity that Satsuki takes full advantage of.
The secret is that while Kill la Kill pays homage to older shounen anime and manga, it is secretly updating what made them great for the modern era. Imaishi and Nakashima did something similar in Gurren Lagann: the series was an enormous love letter to older giant robot shows, but rather than preserve those stories the way they were they chose to throw away all the baggage, excise the crap necessitated by budgeting and in-show toy advertising, and tell a story that had the essence of the classics while ultimately being more consistently written than any of them. Similarly, Kill la Kill draws from the conventions of shounen narrative, but rather than blindly adhering to them it carefully integrates them into the narrative. Like Gurren Lagann, the universe of Kill la Kill is completely implausible, yet constructed so that everything that happens within it is feasible according to its own rules (fundamentally problematic as those rules may sometimes be.)
One last example of how Kill la Kill toys with the shonen paradigm: the character of Sanageyama, and what happens to him in the sixth episode. From the viewer’s perspective, Sanageyama is the villain, a dangerous enemy standing in the way of Ryuuko who must be defeated. But at its end, one could easily make the argument that Sanageyama was himself the protagonist of the episode. A man with great ability and confidence who comes up against a difficult enemy, utterly fails, and through careful training is able to best what was previously impossible: a storyline so well-worn that by this point in time it has become cliche, even though it constantly resurfaces throughout shounen manga. But in the sixth episode it is Sanageyama, rather than Ryuuko, who undergoes this transformation. Sanageyama who is sorely tested, Sanageyama who sacrifices his greatest strength to attain enlightenment and Sanageyama who is ultimately victorious. He even wins a moment of sympathy at the end when he reveals that his training has made him incapable of drinking hot tea; for the rest of his life, he may never be able to take Satsuki up on her offer and have tea with her. To shine a light on the villain of the piece and reveal a secret tragedy that endears you to them is one of shounen manga’s erstwhile secret weapons. It is Kill la Kill’s genius, then, that these cliches are acknowledged, turned on themselves and then consumed into the greater whole. If the series is really a “character drama” rather than a straight-up series of battles, as Nakashima has said earlier in interviews, it is moments like this that make the best argument for it.