Let’s talk about Kill la Kill, Trigger’s first full-length animated series. A warning: there will be SPOILERS in this post. Big, big spoilers. If you haven’t seen the last episode, if god forbid you haven’t seen any of Kill la Kill at all, TURN BACK WHILE YOU STILL CAN YOU FOOL
Okay, are we ready to talk Kill la Kill?
Let’s talk Kill la Kill.
So after Ragyo’s Wedding Dress of Death, a Nui-triggered Clothinstrumentality, a final Gurren Lagann-esque battle in space, what is Kill la Kill really about? Is it a family drama about two sisters born in horrible circumstances rising up to dethrone their tyrannical mother and avenge their father’s death? Is it an extended homage to shonen manga of the 1970s-80s, especially the delinquent epics Sukeban Deka and Otokogumi? Is it an animated satire of old-school Go Nagai exploitation manga? A fetishistic and overly indulgent passion project that pretends to grant its heroines agency only to leer at their breasts? Is it feminist or misogynistic? An extended treatise on bondage? Anime’s “savior” (whatever that means) or typical of all its worst excesses? Or (as the last episode makes clear, tied to the show’s first ED) is it the story of two (or three) young women who fight so that one day they will be able to go out into the city on an honest-to-goodness date without the weight of crushing familial responsibility?
To be honest I would say that the last of those comes the closest to summing up the thematic core of Kill la Kill. From the very beginning, Ryuuko and Satsuki have been cursed to fulfill the roles granted to them by fate’s blood-red threads. Ryuuko must wear Senketsu and challenge her mother because her father engineered her and her talking uniform to serve as humanity’s last defense against his own wife. Satsuki dedicates her entire life from kindergarten on to overthrowing her mother, no matter the personal cost to her health or sanity. In the show’s first ED, a homage to Sukeban Deka, Ryuuko wanders the city by herself staring at the clothes in shop windows. Every time it’s a reminder that so long as Ryuuko must fight, she may wear no other clothes than Senketsu, just as Satsuki must wear Junketsu to overcome her mother even though her body is incompatible with it. At the same time, when Ryuuko sees the wedding dress on a stand it’s an ever-present reminder that she, like Satsuki, is engaged to her fate (which she overcomes only by reclaiming her mother’s kamui Shinra Koketsu, sewn in the shape of a traditional Japanese wedding dress.) In that light, Senketsu’s death is sad, but inevitable – by passing on he frees Ryuuko to wear any kind of clothing she wants. At the end of the series, Ryuuko, Mako and Satsuki are all wearing clothes – but they’re the clothes they want to wear, not Goku uniforms or kamui. They wear clothes on the outside but at heart, as Aikuro or Tsumugu might say, they are Nudist.
Of course, all of this ignores that Senketsu’s final transformation is totally a reference to Daicon IV.
Wait, what’s Daicon IV? Only the sequel to Daicon III, made by Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai and a little-known animator named Hideaki Anno for the eponymous Nihon SF Taikai conventions. Daicon IV was made by twelve people, working long nights while locked inside of a re-purposed studio building owned by a textile union. By all accounts it was a horrifying experience, one that gave those who participated nightmares for years after. But had Daicon III and IV not become successes, Gainax as we know it would not have existed. They even went on to reference it in their OVA FLCL, when Haruko rides on a guitar wearing a bunny suit and shouts “DAICON V!” So it’s fitting that in the last episode of Trigger’s first anime, finished literally hours before the deadline, when the main character powers up for the final time she’s wearing a mash-up of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and the bunny girl outfit. What is this, Daicon VI?!?
Here’s why this matters: Kill la Kill‘s greatest strength (and its greatest weakness) is that director and writer Imaishi and Nakashima are deeply indebted to the classics. Every episode of the series is loaded with homages and visual gags, from the first episode’s riffs on Ashita no Joe to the last episode’s Clothinstrumentality being a clear (and perhaps inevitable) reference to End of Evangelion. Imaishi and Nakashima made it clear at the very beginning in interviews that the whole series started as a set of gender-swapped illustrations of characters from Otokogumi. Hell, according to some mashing together the names of Otokogumi‘s protagonist and his girlfriend gets you Ryuuko Matoi. The extent to which Imaishi and Nakashima try to fit in everything they can into their little project can verge on incoherency. Of course Kill la Kill has to have a tournament arc, what kind of shounen manga wouldn’t have one? Who would even consider skipping over a school trip arc when the opportunity’s right there? It’s enough to make the viewer lament “All of this has already been done!” which is precisely the point. All of it has already been done, Trigger’s just repurposing it in order to create an anything-goes universe in which all this pop-culture detritus from across the past few decades fits together logically. It’s the same trick they pulled in their 2007 classic Gurren Lagann, though that show had a much higher budget and probably a tighter focus on its central character.
Seen in that light it’s not hard to make a parallel between Trigger’s struggle to make Kill la Kill and Ryuuko and Satsuki’s struggle to defeat their mother and save the world. Ryuuko’s a vagrant transfer student with only a ragged talking uniform for company, assisted by social rejects the Makanshokus and suave but borderline useless organization Nudist Beach; Satsuki’s co-opting her mother’s wealth in order to fund a private army to challenge the rule of clothing and save the human race. Meanwhile, Ragyo’s corporation REVOCS (an anagram for the alien forces of COVERS) threatens to transmute the world not just into clothing, but into a vast sphere of inter-connected sameness, an Absolute Terror Field in which there is no room for individual self-expression. When Ryuuko flies into space to challenge her mother, she is wearing not a uniform slavishly produced over multiple weeks by a brainwashed army and a talented/armless couturier, but an amalgam of super-powered uniforms scraped together from her friends and family. Ryuuko starts the series as a loner, but at the end of it everyone has put their trust in her, even her sister and former rival. The end result takes a great deal of pain and suffering to engineer, but it’s ultimately far more effective even than Ryuuko’s combined scissor blades. It’s Studio Trigger’s Daicon IV.
In the end Kill la Kill is just like Senketsu’s final transformation in that it’s cobbled together from both countless anime and manga and from whatever resources Trigger could get their hands on. The final result is at times uneven, not as well animated as you would expect from someone as talented as Imaishi and his veteran crew of animators. Gurren Lagann is more polished, made as it was with the full weight of Gainax’s funding and expertise. But there’s a scrappy heart to Kill la Kill that I can’t help but find endearing. Trigger came at this project with everything they had, and man it shows. The last episode of the series must have been hell to produce (according to Twitter most of the creative staff are taking a day off today) but they did it anyway, and they did it because despite the fact Trigger’s next project will be one of those run-of-the-mill light novel adaptations all the other studios are doing, despite the fact that to be an animator in Japan pays just slightly better than working at a fast-food restaurant, they did it because they love it and because they wanted to make an impression in a field well into creative stagnation. It’s that vein of seat-of-the-pants artistic creation coupled with unabashed love for fandom that defines old Gainax at its best, and I’m glad that they decided to carry the legacy on into the modern day.
In the end, Kill la Kill is this: love, sex, violence, animation, bondage, porn, the pursuit of freedom against seemingly impossible odds. It’s been a wild ride and I’m glad that Trigger was allowed the opportunity to give the world a glimpse into their mad, mad head for twenty-four episodes. Until next time, don’t lose your way, in your mind, we have to be as one…
- I promised a friend that I wouldn’t neglect Gamagoori, so here’s a picture of him destroying a giant condom with the power of his face.
- For another look at the last episode that goes into stuff I didn’t even touch, go read ABCBTom’s post over at the Hungry Bug Diner. tl;dr cut the bonds of matrimony with your scissors, polyamorous relationships are the way to go! (though it is interesting that Ryuuko absorbs, rather than cuts, Shinra Koketsu.)
- Additionally, Katriel (Kit) hit on a similar topic as I did but published it earlier and said it way more concisely than I could have managed. Check it out!
- Writing about this show’s probably the most consistent blogging I’ve done recently, so. Thanks for reading! I hope you had as much fun watching this show as I did, and if you’re one of those people who despises it than I hope these posts were at least somewhat entertaining. Either way I hope this show allows Trigger to make bigger and more successful projects in the future because they definitely deserve it.