Kill la Kill Retrospective | Flash Anime-tion
No clever opening. I’m just kinda starting to notice that Trigger is pretty indisputably better when left to their own devices.
After the murder of her father, Ryuuko Matoi has been wandering the land in search of his killer. Following her only lead—the missing half of his invention, the Scissor Blade—she arrives at the prestigious Honnouji Academy, a high school unlike any other. The academy is ruled by the imposing and cold-hearted student council president Satsuki Kiryuuin alongside her powerful underlings, the Elite Four. In the school’s brutally competitive hierarchy, Satsuki bestows upon those at the top special clothes called “Goku Uniforms,” which grant the wearer unique superhuman abilities. -MAL
With the amount of buzz that almost always surrounds a project by Studio Trigger, it can be easy to overlook exactly how small their library of work is – at least technically – since breaking off from Gainax. I’ve made it no secret that I adore Trigger when they’re at their best. But they were a part of Gainax, at one point, and that also gives me cause to be quite leery of them. While I also like Gainax, a fair number of their projects wind up rubbing me the wrong way, by the end. And that’s not something unique to me. The term “Gainax Ending” exists for a reason, though I find that, usually, this hits me well before the ending, somewhere around the second half – Gurren Lagann…) Trigger comes with that worry built-in. But when they’re in top form, we get gems like the subject of the day – Kill la Kill.
I really enjoyed Little Witch Academia and Space Patrol Luluco. Buuut, I am not a fan of Darling in the FranXX and I’ve heard rather unflattering things about Kiznaiver. I’m still on the fence about SSSS.Gridman, at the moment. But easily my favorite thing that Trigger has been a part of is Kill la Kill. As I find that, of the things I’ve seen from them, it pretty much captures everything I love about them as a studio – Style, Creativity, and Big Fun. I’ll put it more plainly. Trigger’s not subtle. They’ve never been subtle. Absolutely nothing they’ve ever done has been subtle. When they’ve tried to do subtle, it backfired. But Kill la Kill has no such machinations. It charges headlong into everything with the hot blood of a Shounen series and earnestness of a Magical Girl anime.
But that seems like a strange thing to praise, right? A lack of subtlety? Well, no. Many series are better served by just unabashedly being what they are. That isn’t to say the series doesn’t explore a lot of complicated ideas, of course. There’s plenty. Lots and lots of theory around the relationship between people and what we wear, for one. How we use clothing to represent ourselves is perhaps the most noteworthy example. But even that is treated with the reserve of a ballistic missile through the “Goku Uniforms” (Though it’s played up the most with the Elite Four, and we’ll be coming back to them).
There’s other stuff. The expected themes about doing your thing and not letting the opinions of “the masses” shame you into submission, is a pretty prominent one, especially early on with the idea of shaming people for being into clothing (and probably anime and media, let’s be honest) that’s more risque. Also, I think themes of female empowerment and liberation through proudly wearing whatever the hell you want and not being ashamed of your body? I dunno if that one’s a stretch or not. It seemed like that might’ve been in there, but I may be overthinking it. Then there’s all the obvious, nigh-Orwellian imagery and whatnot going on until something like the two-thirds mark of the show. Also a lot of commentary on what I’ll call rampant consumerism, as well.
What I’m getting at is that there’s plenty of stuff in there and all of it is pretty much out in the open from jump. But I’m just gonna leave the dissection of those things to my betters. Or at least more in-depth articles on the individual subjects, later. People smarter than me – or the me in a less lazy timeline – could probably write full essays on all the themes and theory that actually went into this anime. The point I’m making is that while this show is in absolutely no way subtle, one thing it isn’t is dumb. It’s actually very, very smart. However, while all that stuff is super interesting. None of that is what kept me watching. No. Let’s all be honest. We kept watching… because of the “dumb” stuff that Trigger is so amazingly good at.
Kill la Kill looks amazing. It’s not the same really crisp, gorgeous polish that Little Witch Academia has. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The sketchy quality of a lot of it gives it this really grungy aesthetic that’s still incredibly visually striking when combined with an absolutely ridiculous color pallet that really offsets it and the sleek character designs one expects from Trigger. The fights, of course, are big, bombastic spectacles of vibrant effects and creative use of proportions, janky perspectives, camera angles. The causality in this series is really awesome. By that, I mean the result of when a character lands a hit or when two characters clash. Not only does the sound design make damn sure you feel that hit, but the destruction of the scenery around the fight just adds to the scale. It’s one of those series that sort of inspires my own creative endeavors when I write an action scene.
The show’s other visual angles are really cool as well. I like the weird little animation choices of certain scenes that just kinda drop any and all semblance of effort, entirely on purpose for style points. (Yes, yes, budget constraints. But there are definitely other ways around those) Things like Mako’s little speeches and pretty much any time Nui fights or… does anything, really, until Ryuko cuts her arms off and she loses her mind completely. It suits her character that she’s not taking things seriously at all, so the animation of her fighting and dodging and whatnot isn’t taken seriously at all, usually coming down to her being a 2D image, just reversing itself and whatnot. The almost Looney Tune-esque quality to her animation, in general, was just really fun to watch whenever she was on screen. Though I get how her character could certainly be grating to some.
Now, everyone knows that the one thing that’s paramount to me in any story is the characters. I seldom care much (at all, really) about the plot, as long as it’s coherent. The ratio of plot-to-character in this series, though, is actually about even. Because the plot involves so many secrets being kept from the main character and, by extension, the audience, the plot is a little more paramount. Leading to a few twists throughout the runtime. That said, none of those twists are especially hard to see coming. Why? Say it with me again, kids. Trigger isn’t subtle. But the predictability of the plot doesn’t exactly hurt it. Or maybe that’s just my lack of care talking. Because, for all intents and purposes, I rather liked these elements.
The plot wasn’t especially convoluted. A bit silly, in the second half, but simple. It centered around two major reveals and one narrative-shifting reversal that turns the plot completely in a different direction. If I’m to be honest, I did like the first half of the story a bit more, plot-wise. I’ve always been a sucker for any representation of the Four Heavenly Kings (AKA “The Elite Four”) in media – anime, in particular. And the idea of Ryuko battling her way up through the school until being able to face that is something especially nostalgic for me because… well… Pokemon. When the plot goes really off the rails in the second half, it’s still good, and actually does much better character work with Ryuko by exploring her on a deeper level through not one, but two completely separate existential crises that see her really come into her own and mature in what I think is a really satisfying personal arc, even if not everything external is particularly satisfied.
Satsuki is a character I also really liked. I guessed, from Day 1, that she wasn’t going to turn out to be the main villain. They were building her and her followers to be much too sympathetic and most of the people in the city she basically ran to be the opposite – selfish, depraved, and lacking in any kind of ambition. True to that prediction, she turned out not to be a villain. But that “Magnificent Bastard” quality of hers winds up getting put rather thoroughly to the test, over the course of things. And through it all, she actually goes through a pretty gratifying personal arc of self-discovery for herself. One that runs parallel to Ryuko and I think addresses the overall flaws in her own attitude, rather than mindlessly praising her for being “right.” Good intentions mean nothing, after all, if they blind you to your own actions in achieving them.
The rest of the characters, while not nearly as deep, are a blast. Mako is honestly one of very few characters I think pull off the “lovable idiot” thing well. That character type is a hard-sell for me because I am not someone who suffers fools lightly. I don’t find stupidity charming. But the thing about Mako is that the stupidity, while certainly played for a gag, isn’t what makes her charming. She’s charming because she’s the heart of the show. She’s sweet, she’s highly empathetic, oh. And her idiocy is explained away as her being lazy. Ergo, she’s actually not that much of a moron. She can certainly do it if she tries. Then come four other characters who snag the spotlight.
The Elite Four are all great, if a bit stock. They definitely work best as an ensemble, rather than individually. Gamagoori and Sanageyama do stand out the most, individually. But that’s really just because they’re given a little more time than the other two. Nonon is actually my favorite among them, though, just because of the sarcastic wit and how amusingly petty she is. It is an art form, making that level of pettiness entertaining, really. Also, I like her design the most. The marching band aesthetic is cool. Oh. And she fittingly has the best solo theme outside of Ryuko, and maybe Ragyo.
Speaking of music, actually, the music in this series is amazing. Before My Body Is Dry is an awesome piece. And the instrumental variant of it that acts as Ryuko’s theme has been my ringtone for… I dunno, something like 2 or 3 years, now. The chorus version is also really good and has a certain power to it that gets you stoked for when stuff starts getting good. And that’s not even mentioning any of the music that’s used for the emotional low points, whenever Ryuko’s feeling beaten down by something (often literally). Again, I’m not big on music and can only really half-play one instrument, but there’s something about the acoustic guitar that carries this natural tone of sadness. Maybe because the instrument, itself, is hollow, so it’s good at capturing the sort of emptiness one feels when depressed. I dunno. Point is, when the show wants you to feel sad, the music does its darnedest to make sure you get the memo. Also, can I just say that I really love the second OP? The song, anyway.
“So, what don’t you like about this series?”
Honestly? Not much. I would’ve liked it if they’d let Ryuko just have a win, maybe? She gets straight up clowned for quite a while. Every time she did manage to win, it was almost immediately walked back or something wound up happening that made her take two steps backwards. She was honestly a cosmic plaything for a while and what few chances we did get to breathe usually had this dour mood looming over them. She certainly won fights, throughout the run, but the ones she won didn’t really feel like they mattered until the very end. Also, Ragyo wasn’t the most interesting villain. But I didn’t dislike her. She just didn’t stack up to Satsuki in interest or Nui in entertainment value. She was a raving, psychopathic zealot, and that was that. But seriously. Her theme is great. Chilling and eerie music with dark vocals, but still kinda catchy, in a way.
Overall, Kill la Kill isn’t something I think I can really simplify, the way I normally do, and still do it justice. It has a style that can only belong to Trigger. It’s intelligent, for those who like to think about their anime a little more. But the surface level story is exactly what someone who just wants to have fun with it would enjoy. It’s stupidly brilliant and brilliantly stupid, all at once. It’s a uniquely visceral experience we only really get every blue moon. And I’m happy to count it – my favorite of Trigger’s works – among the select few in my catalog of World’s Finest. Love it.
So, what are your thoughts on Kill la Kill? Is anyone else excited for the videogame, coming up with Satsuki as the main character? Let me know, down below. That’s all I’ve got for ya here. As always, thanks for reading, folks. Keep up the Awesome.