Series: Kill La Kill
Original Release Date/Run: October 2013 – March 2014
Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Magical Girl, Ecchi
Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Writer: Kazuki Nakashima
Number of Episodes: 24 + 1 OVA
Kill La Kill takes place in Honnō City at a fictional High School called Honnouji Academy. The student council, led by Satsuki Kiryuin, rule over the students of Honnouji Academy with an iron fist. This is until new girl Ryuko Matoi, who wields half scissor blade, appears on a quest for vengeance against the user of the other half scissor blade.
Little does Ryuko realize, is that the student council and members of the school clubs are given special outfits that grant them special enhancements, powers and abilities making them a force to be reckoned with. Each outfit is given a star rating, with one being the lowest and three being the highest, however, there is far more to the materials used to make these outfits that Ryuko comprehends.
Kill La Kill is like that overtly drunk person you run into at a pub or house party or randomly on the street when you're with a group of friends: they’re incoherent and obnoxious, like to ramble and make little to no sense - yet they spend a great deal of time and effort trying to rationalize their story; but they’re sure a lot of fun to watch. Okay. Perhaps that’s a little harsh to say, after all I enjoyed watching Kill La Kill a lot, and contrary to my initial statement, some (not all) of the thematic ideas Kill La Kill explores are consistent with a fulfilling narrative payoff. Overall it is a good series; I stress “good” and not great, as Kill La Kill has some monumental flaws that inhibit its ability to make it a great anime with strong narrative and thematic impact.
In the defense of Kill La Kill, such flaws would otherwise completely destroy any other anime; however, one of the wonderful things that Kill La Kill demonstrates is that a piece of art/animation can redeem itself to an extent by being much stronger in other areas. A lot of what works on Kill La Kill including the well developed thematic ideas, are nicely framed and conveyed to the viewer through good visual storytelling from how characters move and react to each other to the surroundings and character designs. It’s creative, has good characterisation, well implemented and executed comedy, a vibrant colour palette, is well-paced and some of the thematic concepts do work out very well; overall, Kill La Kill is generally a lot of fun.
The plot starts off pretty straight forward and logical both from a narrative and thematic perspective which is very entertaining and leaves plenty open for conceptual, metaphorical and literal interpretation. While some of these thematic concepts are well developed, there are many other ideas Kill La Kill attempts that are not explored sufficiently or are abandoned all together so that the plot and story can go into an obtuse direction. This is usually fine if it’s well set up and foreshadowed; however, on Kill La Kill, when the plot decides to take an abrupt turn in direction, it fails to sufficiently set up or foreshadow most of the later plot threads. The result is that Kill La Kill ends up having to spend a great deal of screen time rationalizing this drastic plot change to the audience with expository info dumps.
It's almost as if a different team of writers came in for the second half of the series, more or less ignored what had been set up so that they could take the story in the direction they wanted to by shoehorning in their "cool" ideas. However, this is not the case; it was the same writers throughout the entire series, which is pretty strange considering the overall execution of the story here.
While this is true and I stand firmly by it, I will also admit the direction it goes in is at least interesting and entertaining and the reason it works in some ways is because of how over the top and outrageous the tone of this show is along with the fact that this change in direction is unpredictable; which is actually pretty fun. It’s at that point it's almost as if the story-line of the show is meant more to serve as a vehicle for all the hysterics the show has to offer as opposed to making perfect or at least close to perfect logical or narrative sense. That’s neither a compliment nor a criticism.
Thematic Concepts: What's it all mean?
Thematically speaking, Kill La Kill has great ideas; however, only a few of those ideas are given the necessary development to grow and mature into a strong resolution while others are merely touched on at a superficial level or are resigned to being utilized as plot devices or even abandoned all together.
This outcome is a direct result of the obtuse plot shift that occurs halfway through the series, which I brought up earlier. It is here that Kill La Kill is severely inconsistent and suffers the most. Thematically it's sloppy and messy with some ideas, while it's tight and consistent with others giving them strong narrative points. It's almost as if someone's playing darts and decides to wear a blind fold for some throws hoping for good results but missing, while throwing others without a blindfold and focusing on their objective with the utmost concentration and therefore hitting the bull's eye.
Granted, while there are only a couple of ideas that are consistently explored throughout the series in an over arcing fashion and are also episodic, it does add some depth to an otherwise silly show. Unfortunately since there are also many other thematic ideas that get choked out, it gets particularly jarring for anyone wanting to do a thematic/narrative analysis of Kill La Kill.
Some of the well-executed ideas are utilized in an episodic fashion making a few of these episodes like their own little self-contained stories. The amazing aspect here is that they contribute to the few consistent overarching themes while also developing the characters as individuals on a mental and emotional level.
Of the few thematic ideas that are consistent and well executed, the most consistent thematic idea that encapsulates most of the concepts Kill La Kill explores is the idea of staying focused. Not losing sight of who one is. Not losing their way. Don't lose your way as the song goes.
This becomes far more evident when Kill La Kill deals with the idea of family bonds, friendship, togetherness and unity making it possibly the strongest thematic thread of the entire show. What allows for this is that there are some good smaller, more episode based ideas that feed into it. One perfect example is the episode where the Mako and her family, are confronted with gaining status. This alters their behavior; the way they interact with others, their incessant materialism and as a result, they lose their way. It is at this point they're ultimately faced with their family morals being put to the test.
This is one of the better episodes, not only because of the character interaction but how its conclusion reinforces some good thematic ideas while setting up some plot and character motives. This episode also provides some great world building and social commentary on various levels with the sociological hierarchy of the setting by exploring its structure in greater detail. The reason this works is that Kill La Kill establishes elements of this thematic idea early on in the series quite well by using visuals with something as simple as repeatedly showing the structure of the town Kill La Kill takes place in; it’s literally set up as social pyramid with the wealthiest high status population on top and the poor on the bottom.
Kill La Kill also deals with the concept of vengeance and power when Ryuko's acquisition of power throughout the series allow her to enact her vengeance. It is during these scenes when Ryuko is confronted with vengeance and the emotional toll it takes. As a result, Ryoko at various times during the course of Kill La Kill, literally and figuratively becomes drunk on power and thus, the very monster she set out to fight. She loses her way; and it's her friends and family that are able to save her.
This brings me to one of the most compelling and consistent thematic ideas that Kill La Kill explores which is the idea of friends and family. There's a great deal of screen time establishing the family Ryuko stays with as well as time fleshing out and developing the characters and their dynamic with each other.
Ryuko deals with the fact that her family is gone and is seeking vengeance, and as explained earlier, this does more harm than good. One of the toxic results of Ryuko's quest for vengeance is her reluctance to get close to anyone early in the show. It's not until she decides to open up and let these people into her life that she's able to gradually let go of her thirst for revenge. It's from here that her friends help her find her humanity; this is particularly apparent when she's overtaken by hatred and the need for vengeance.
It's Ryuko's acquisition of true friendship that ultimately allows her to overcome external threats and her internal conflict. In doing so, she becomes part of a surrogate family made up of close friends even discovering that she does have blood relatives that she can have a relationship with.
Now, there are some other good, well thought out episodes that do this where the thematic idea is more character and situation based and works as a stand alone episode since the idea is resolved; however, the issue with some of the other themes that come up in a similar fashion go unresolved and they’re never revisited. That brings me to the thematic problems that infect Kill La Kill; I see there are some ideas that begin to develop, but are either just lip service, or they’re not developed to the extent the narrative demands or they get abandoned all together.
As an example, one of the thematic motifs Kill La Kill attempts to implement is fate; the show presents and loosely explores, but ultimately fails to fully develop the thematic idea of fate to the level it should have. It’s really sad too because there are some great opportunities here where this thematic idea could’ve been integrated into some of the other ideas and character arcs. There’s the red thread of fate motif and the scissor blades cutting that thread that could be seen as a metaphor for free will allowing one to cut and weave their own destiny. This is where I become conflicted with this particular concept because of the plot and execution.
With Ryuko showing up with a scissor blade to change the course of fate and how she literally shreds life fibers with her scissor, she's cutting the very fabric of fate forging her own destiny. That works well for the first half of the show and isn't overly heavy handed, however; when it goes in a different direction for the second half of the series, it seems as though the thematic idea isn't given any more depth and almost feels abandoned in a way. Sure there's some decent to great imagery put in there once in a while, but it’s not followed up thematically nor is it integrated into the well developed thematic ideas as it should’ve been.
Instead, the theme of fate becomes subordinated to being used as a plot device as opposed to a thematic one. The result here is that instead of using the thematic idea of fate to really analyse its own philosophies or exploring the characters’ perspectives, it exists as a means to rationalize the convoluted plot.
One more thematic example that I feel needs to be addressed to better illustrate where Kill La Kill runs into problems is during the second half with the clothing motif. This is a great motif during the first half of the series brimming with thematic potential. Not only does Kill La Kill start off by conveying this idea that clothing is a way for people to express themselves, but it presents how clothing becomes an extension of an individual's personality and how different clothes brings out different aspects of an individual's personality.
It doesn't stop there either; it utilizes this motif to illustrate how people internalize their hobbies and what they do and how their clothes are a reflection of that. The way this motif can be related to real world interpretation is practically boundless; use your imagination here. It even connects to one of the main ideas of "don't lose your way" with how this theme relates to status and the social hierarchy.
There are numerous times Satsuki mentions this out loud with how clothing doesn't make the person who they are and how it's important to be confident as an individual. This is also evident in how she refers to people as "pigs in human clothing." This is something Ryuoko learns early on in the series that kicks off some of her character development.
Unfortunately, this great thematic motif suffers the same fate as some of the other thematic ideas I had discussed earlier. It's abandoned due to the series taking a completely different direction with its story. Understand, I'm doing everything within my ability to give Kill La Kill the benefit of the doubt here. With the direction the story takes during the second half of Kill La Kill, I'm pondering, even trying to rationalize, how it connects thematically to what had been established with this motif earlier in the series.
I feel that even if I look at this from a deeper metaphorical level, it could be interpreted that ultimately clothes wear people. That individuals put so much of their identity in their clothing they forget and lose who they are and become obsessed with status or the materialism of having clothes, and as a result they cease to be individuals. While I do feel that's a solid interpretation, I also feel that I'm really reaching out on that one. While this is a fair assessment of this theme during the second half of the series, it still feels ambiguous and murky. This is why I strongly feel that this motif should've been articulated better during the second half, particularly in connecting it to the thematic idea about clothing in the earlier episodes.
Ultimately, art is subjective; meaning it's open to interpretation. However, I also feel there's some confirmation bias on my part here, as I'm trying to give Kill La Kill the benefit of the doubt going as far as to rationalize what it's doing with this particular thematic thread. I suppose in all fairness someone else may see it as a good interpretation; which I'm also fine with. I guess it varies from person to person, as it should.
I feel that Kill La Kill has a lot of great thematic ideas that could’ve been put to good use, from something as simple as doing more with the gritty aesthetic of the series contrasted with the lighthearted comedy, to the tyranny and oppression motif complete with 1984 references and high school life. At the same time, Kill La Kill does manage to have some well-implemented and well-executed core thematic ideas that are consistent throughout the series.
Despite how harsh I’ve been to Kill La Kill, I still like the series and have plenty of good to say about it. One of those areas is the characterization and because of how it’s executed, it’s practically the glue that holds the series together. The characterization is very efficient with how it goes about fleshing out and developing characters. Everyone in the main ensemble cast is given a good backstory of who they are, how they met each other and where they fit into the story without eating up too much screen time.
Then there’s some strong implicit fleshing out and development of the characters with how they’re presented visually, framed and how their actions, motives and behaviours convey their place in the story thematically. While some of this can get repetitive, I find that it reinforces a particular character’s goal thematically and how it affects them as a person.
As an example, one of the things Kill La Kill does well with its characterisation is the framing and how body language is utilized. Something as simple as the visual gag earlier in the show of when Ryuko dodges or avoids Mako's (sometimes aggressive) adoration conveying to the viewer that she hasn't opened up. However, as the series progresses, Ryuko allows Mako to get closer and accepts a hug from her illustrating her development as a character.
This adds a strong dynamic to the already interesting and enjoyable ensemble cast, and while that’s a fine thing, like any good art/entertainment that has an ensemble cast, it ensures narrative stability by anchoring the main story line to two primary characters. This is one of the definitive strengths of Kill La Kill that allows it some redemption over its flaws.
I also find that from a character perspective is where some of the smaller thematic ideas and overarching ones work. These ideas are well executed in a functional and thematic sense, not only in how they’re integral to some of the growth and development the characters undergo, but they also give the characters' experience more validity.
A perfect example of a well-implemented and well-executed character arc on Kill La Kill is the episode that focuses on Uzu Sanageyama's character arc earlier in the series. What makes it such a great episode is the thematic integration and use of imagery coupled with Uzu's character development as well as the frame composition and overall structure of the episode. Aside from the way Uzu's story arc on this episode links to the show's primary themes, it develops him as a character along with his relation and dynamic with Satsuki leading to an amazing resolution.
The vast majority of comedy on Kill La Kill is well-executed and creative. The way the animation, visuals, dialogue and music are utilized, contribute to the strong execution of humor while also providing something relatively fresh, unique and effective.
Kill La Kill pokes fun at a lot of different things with variety of jokes. The humor is well-executed with how a joke is introduced and revisited throughout the series. What particularly works here is the gradual escalation of a joke as the series progresses. The humor is even effective at times for foreshadowing and reinforcing some of the thematic ideas on Kill La Kill.
Out of all the jokes in the series, I’d say there’s only one that I really have an issue with and that’s mostly due to my personal experiences, understand, it’s how the scene is handled; how the joke was executed with its content and framing that bothered me. Aside from that one issue I have with the humor, if everything else in this series was as consistent, effective and well executed as the comedy, it would be a phenomenal show; however, my prior criticisms still stand.
The animation, visuals and aesthetic contribute well to the humor, characterization and the thematic ideas whether they undergo development or not. The series has an inviting aesthetic to it and does a great job of establishing the tone of any given scene. It’s also pretty cool to see a slightly unique character design style come up. There’s also some great framing which supports the humor, characterization and even some of the dramatic scenes and thematic ideas the series brings up. Overall, this is where the show’s creativity and unique style really shine and compliment a lot of what it does well.
This adds a lot to many of the fast paced, intricate action sequences that occur on Kill La Kill which makes them a lot of fun to watch. What I really enjoyed here is how the animation is utilized, from how some action scenes are framed with how there’s a 360 view to how and when close up shots are executed. The action, like the characterization and comedy, is a definitive strong point of this series.
That said, the animation gets pretty inconsistent at times; while there are some breathtaking, intricate, fast moving action and comedy scenes that are ridiculously well animated as well as some great establishing shots, there are times where the illusion crumbles. What I mean is that there are times where it’s easy to tell when a key frame is being manipulated around or enlarged to create movement. The issue here is that while many anime put this style of animation to good use and hide it in plain sight making it almost unnoticeable, Kill La Kill actually tries harder to hide it and as a result, it becomes more obvious and somewhat cheap looking at times.
Ecchi Fan Service
The only other aspect to bring up regarding the visual presentation is that Kill La Kill does consist of some ecchi fan service scenes such as the salacious magical girl transformation, the occasional bath scene and naked men and women charging into battle.
While the majority of the ecchi fan service is meant for comedic and thematic purposes, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s ecchi material. I’ve heard people rationalize the fan service here as “lamp shading” or “parodying” actual ecchi stuff, which is fine. However, I disagree with this interpretation of it considering how gratuitous and explicit it gets sometimes, regardless of whether it’s meant to make a thematic point or it’s done to parody ecchi in anime or that it's an aesthetic choice in that it adds another layer to the tone and style of the series. Character designs, whether people want to admit it or not, from how their bodies and faces are shaped to how they're colored to what they wear (or not wear) is a component of the aesthetic of a given animation; this is true of Western animation as well. To deny this is not only reductionist, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the art and enjoyment of animation.
Anyways, the point about the ecchi content in Kill La Kill or any other show that has it, is that there are people that enjoy anime who find such content alienating for numerous reasons regardless of its context and reasoning; and that’s fine. It’s also fine if you’re cool with it. I’m not trying to discourage people from watching it, by all means, if you want to try it, go ahead, I’m just letting you know it’s there.
The music is amazing, Hiroyuki Sawano, who also composed a solid score for Attack on Titan, composed the music for Kill La Kill which consists of a variety of melodies that complement and enhance any scene in how; from something comedic, to dramatic to suspenseful action; it helps to convey the tone of a scene. A cool example is the use of exotic scales during some of the comedic parts, particularly something that sounds like the harmonic minor that complements scenes where Mako does these frantic monologues. These parts are funny on their own because of their energy, content, and visuals, but it’s the music that completes the execution of these scenes.
I watched Kill La Kill in English as I do most of the time with anime and for the most part it’s done very well. All the actors do a great job on this show and I feel they fit the characters they play very well. The only real issue with the English dub are the first couple episodes with the character Ryuko. It’s pretty easy to tell that the voice actor playing her is not as experienced as the rest of the cast and is getting into the groove on those first couple episodes. Even Erica Mendez, who plays Ryuko has admitted to wanting to redo those first couple episodes because she feels her performance is lacking there.
Despite that particular issue, Erica Mendez does find her bearings and is able to settle into the role nicely and even on those earlier episodes where the performance is a little shaky, the timbre and texture of her voice still fits the character like a glove. Erica Mendez is perfect as Ryuko even on the first few episodes.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Kill La Kill is messy and inconsistent when it comes to some of its plot and themes, but makes up for this with its creative approach to its animation and visuals, well executed comedy, fast paced and suspenseful action, its colorful cast of characters and the thematic ideas that work. Overall, this is one occasion where the style, fun and rule of cool on Kill La Kill is enough to carry the series despite its inconsistent and at times, incoherent substance.
If you as an individual want a fun, entertaining and action packed ride with amazing characters and you don't mind some ecchi fan service here and there, I feel I can confidently recommend this to you.
Special thanks to @Shannon Apple, @Tonto-banchou, @Kuze and @KT Samurai for their extensive feedback and useful suggestions.
Anime Review: Kill la Kill
A review of the highly controversial fan-service heavy meta-comedy, action show animated by studio Trigger: KILL LA KILL
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