So. Kill la Kill.
Alright, I guess we gotta start this one right at the beginning. Kill la Kill is the first full-length production by Studio Trigger, a new studio whose claim to fame is sucking Gainax dry of all the talent they had left during the Gurren Lagann/Panty and Stocking era. Or, well, at least the one piece of talent most closely associated with that era – Hiroyuki Imaishi, the director of both those shows. Imaishi’s style, frenetic and impressionistic and somewhat uniquely indebted to western cartoons, is really friggin’ popular – Gurren Lagann in particular is one of the most beloved shows in the western fandom, and in spite of its recent mud-dragging, the Gainax name still conveys nostalgia and magic for a lot of fans.
So Kill la Kill came out of the gate with some pretty heavy expectations on its shoulders. With the writer and director of Gurren Lagann reunited for a show that gave every indication of being as hot-blooded and stylish as its predecessor, it’d be difficult for any show to really please everyone.
Fortunately, Kill la Kill is extremely good at pleasing people.
Imaishi and his team of animators seem primarily responsible for that one – Kill la Kill’s visual aesthetic is fantastic. As with his previous works, it combines classic anime influences from the 70s and 80s (Go Nagai, Osamu Dezaki, and many others I know diddly about) with both a bit of Gainax’s post-Eva style and a deep debt to Looney Tunes-esque western animation. This often results in what seems like several different art styles being represented on-screen at once – something that might normally damage the immersive nature of the show, but something that actually works to Kill la Kill’s benefit for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. And influences aside, almost every big shot in the show is designed to astonish – dynamic angles, composition brimming with busyness and excitement, a great eye for framing everything to emphasize tension and beauty. The color work also helps here – backgrounds are painted in gorgeous arrays of colors, outfits clash against each other with all sorts of bright contrasts and symmetries, and basically every shot exhibits a greater, starker range of color than most other shows out there. And finally, the show’s constant arranging of its shots into many layers of light and color contribute greatly to both the visual depth and the atmosphere of the production. Kill la Kill looks great.
The direction and pacing never slouch, either. Kill la Kill jumps from shot to shot with a kinetic energy few shows can match, and seems as excited to tell its story as anybody. The first episode in particular is a tour de force of dynamic pacing and tone-juggling, but highlights pop up all throughout its run – the first confrontation with one of the Elite Four in episode six, and the climactic battle with Ragyo in seventeen and eighteen are also both breathless, stellar feats of in-episode pacing, all of which are bolstered by Kill la Kill’s fantastic soundtrack. Even the more inherently ridiculous episodes demonstrate how Kill la Kill’s understanding of timing is also reflected in its sense of humor – personally, I’d say the overtly absurd episodes like four and seven are actually some of the strongest in the series.
Kill la Kill’s visual aesthetics aren’t just energetic, though – the show also deliberately plays with perspective and the 2D frame in a variety of interesting ways. From “spinning” flat characters to demonstrate surprise or unbalance, to the bold character-announcing letters that repeatedly prove they actually exist in Kill la Kill’s world, to characters even reaching across split-screens to poke their adversaries, Kill la Kill delights in breaking the fourth wall and overtly demonstrating its own cartoon nature. As I mentioned before, things like this would generally tend to break the viewer’s sense of immersion… but Kill la Kill counters this by not really caring if it breaks your immersion. Kill la Kill’s here to have fun, and by completely discarding any sense of grounded reality, Kill la Kill allows itself access to some actually surprisingly effective tricks of visual presentation.
Ultimately, it’s clear that Kill la Kill’s production lacked in animators, time, or whatever else is necessary to ensure high quality animation – the show looks pretty damn cheap, and still frames abound. But through its strong visual aesthetic, playful sense of reality, and many creative visual shortcuts, Kill la Kill practically turns that lack of polish into a strength. It’s almost a kind of “animation minimalism,” which is kind of an absurd thing to say in a show where everything is as loud and huge as possible, but there it is.
So yeah, at a glance, Kill la Kill is a pretty beautiful piece of work. That’s important, honestly… because the writing is significantly less strong. So I guess it’s probably time to talk about what Kill la Kill’s actually about.
Wait, let’s not do that. First, let’s talk about Grounded Conflict.
Grounded conflict (synonymous, in my mind, with good conflict) is conflict with definable stakes – conflict where you understand the forces, tensions, and powers at play, and thus can cheer or gasp appropriately as the conflict progresses. In general, I tend to see grounded conflicts fall into two broad categories – rules-based conflict and emotional/thematic conflict.
Rules-based conflict is simple – you’re invested in what’s happening because you understand exactly what’s happening, and the back-and-forth of the forces involved is inherently compelling. Rules-based conflict is the larger part of why sports attract spectators – it’s fun to see an interesting contest between people with roughly equal tools, or even imbalanced tools, as long as you can understand what those tools are. Most sports shows also fall into this category, along with scattered other shows like Hunter x Hunter. The fun comes from knowing all the pieces that are on the board, and thus wondering how those pieces will be thrown at each other, and what schemes your heroes or villains might come up with given the tools at play. You know something’s exciting because it’s not what you expected given those tools, or it uses them in an interesting or compelling way. Things are risky, devious, or surprising because they exist relative to a playing field that’s actually been established. Rules-based conflict is basically Game As Conflict, and is a staple of sports shows, action shows, and thrillers, and actually tends to show up in a variety of small ways in pretty much any genre.
In contrast to rules-based conflict, there is emotional/thematic conflict. This conflict doesn’t require the rules of the game to be articulated – it can fly by the seat of its pants, and make stuff up as it goes along. What invests the viewer in emotional conflict is the emotional arc being articulated. It’s someone realizing something they should have known all along, and thus gaining power from the support of their friends. It’s someone admitting they actually love someone else, and thereby freeing their tortured mind to find a solution that hadn’t previously occurred to them. Emotional conflict still has definable stakes, but instead of being tied to the overt rules of the conflict it hand, they are tied to the emotional or thematic journey that conflict is being used to articulate. You might not be able to invest in the action on-screen as dramatically effective sport, but you hopefully already are invested in the emotional turn or thematic revelation that drama is becoming a visual articulation for.
These styles of conflict are important, because they are why audiences care about what’s happening. Audiences don’t necessarily care about explosions and Final Forms in the abstract – for drama to be effective, overtly dramatic events have to be tied to systems the viewer can invest in, be they either understandable overt frameworks or emotional/thematic cornerstones of the narrative. Without grounded conflict, actions scenes are just so much Stuff Happening. Without grounded conflict, spectacle is boring.
Alright. We were talking about Kill la Kill, right? Let’s do that.
Kill la Kill is the story of Ryuuko Matoi, an angry, thick-headed girl determined to exact revenge upon her father’s killer. Throughout the course of the narrative, she makes friends, clashes with the imperious Satsuki Kiryuuin, and has all sorts of crazy, hot-blooded, occasionally silly adventures. By the end of the story, Ryuuko will learn to control her anger, discover her father’s killer, and ultimately realize she didn’t really want revenge at all – what she wanted was a family, and in fact, she already has one.
Wait, did I say “by the end of the story?” I meant by the halfway point.
The rest of Kill la Kill is a whooole lot of Stuff Happening.
It’s a little more complicated than that, but… well, actually no, not really. The show builds somewhat consistently towards a dramatic conflict in the first half – Ryuuko’s character learns to trust Senketsu (her talking exploitation battle-suit), and to rely on the adopted family of classmate Mako Mankanshoku. Satsuki is set up in direct contrast to Ryuuko, calculating and reserved where Ryuuko is brash and emotional – even their color schemes are direct mirrors. And all of this leads up to a conflict where her father’s killer is revealed, Ryuuko goes berserk, and Mako talks her down with a speech on the importance of finding family where you can… and then things just continue. Senketsu is destroyed one episode, and gathered back together the next. Ryuuko actually un-learns to trust Senketsu and rely on Mako, forcing a direct repeat of Mako’s earlier rescue. Satsuki remains imperious but pragmatic until the last couple episodes, where she’s “forced” to discard a pride the show never really portrayed as a weakness in the first place.
On a character level, the second half lacks both focus and consistency – the characters feel like entertaining tools, not people. And on a narrative level, the show actually dithers too much to really maintain momentum – it’s kind of unfortunate the show draws attention to its own pacing, because while the show is busy, the fundamental conflicts actually move at a very slow pace. The grounded conflict can’t come from the definable stakes of the fights themselves – Kill la Kill establishes itself from the start as a show where things happen Because They’re Awesome, and characters develop new powers for “must get stronger!” reasons basically at random. It can’t come from investment in the character arcs, because they’re either inconsistent or essentially static. Additionally, the show directly baits and then subsequently mocks the threat of character death all throughout its run, meaning there’s no real fear of lasting consequences. So… does the grounding come from the show’s thematic arc?
Man, I don’t even want to talk about Kill la Kill’s themes. Kill la Kill treats thematic points the same way it treats any other interesting ideas – as fun toys to play with for maybe an episode or two before dropping them and scampering off to the next thing. There’s a bit about controlling your representation at the start, which initially seems almost like a direct addressing of the show’s absurd, campy fanservice (which, along with the show’s cavalier treatment of rape, makes it kind of an awkward recommendation). That essentially turns out to be just a personal articulation of Satsuki’s philosophy, because the issue is largely dropped until it suddenly emerges again in the last episode.
There’s a consistent “performance” motif throughout, which is actually pretty interesting, and lines up nicely with the show’s playful breaking of the fourth wall – but outside of “performance is power,” that idea isn’t really explored any further, and doesn’t tie directly into the main conflict in such a way that it could drive investment. And then there’s issues of family, which, as I said, are largely resolved at the end of the first half, until they aren’t any more and the show becomes about escaping the shadow of your parents’ legacies. That might be the show’s strongest consistent thread, and most of the show’s emotionally effective moments do hang on the bonds developed between the strange extended family of its cast. But even that is far from consistently portrayed, and there’s just so much thematic noise clouding the signal that ultimately I kind of side with Ryuuko – this is a show about incomprehensible people doing incomprehensible things.
Which is fine! As I said at the beginning, the show has a fantastic way with spectacle, and really does work as pure popcorn. I certainly wish I was more invested in that spectacle, and am less fond of the show overall as a result, but I still enjoyed my time with it. And the show having various thematic threads that I don’t think are coherently articulated doesn’t mean the show really is meaningless – there are a bunch of fantastic interpretations of Kill la Kill out there. Frankly, I think the internet is a lot better at writing Kill la Kill than Kill la Kill is. So for me, in the end, Kill la Kill is a shiny bauble – it pleases and entertains, but it’s not filling, and its lack of a stable emotional/thematic core undercuts the kind of investment that would elevate it to the upper echelons of popcorn shows. Without grounding, its conflicts lack tension or dramatic weight, and even pure spectacle needs somebody holding the wheel. Beautiful and energetic but ultimately too scattershot to promote genuine investment, I award Kill la Kill a 6/10.