4 out of 5
Directed by: Hiroyuki Imaishi
‘From the creators of Gurren Lagann‘ does not inspire me with much interest. I had my share of problems with Gurren, and Kill la Kill, inheriting the same writer and director, has some problems as well. But there’s a secret weapon this time: animation studio Trigger. While borne from Lagann’s Gainax studio, Trigger’s work on KlK is immediately inspiring. And maybe admittedly exhausting, as it upped the spirit of director Hiroyuki Imaishi’s and writer Kazuki Nakashima’s style and voice to an extreme of fast cuts, quick-talking characters, one-upping bombasts, and blaring proclamations. While I’m still far from being ‘experienced’ in the breadth of anime, I recognize some of those tricks as having cropped up in many shows hence, and I often don’t like them – a lot of sound and fury without substance – but the animation in Kill la Kill is, firstly, always mindful of establishing some grounding elements before going outlandish, and secondly, paced to perfection. I called it exhausting, but it’s more because the series moves incredibly fast in general – the actual in-episode flow is masterful, shifting between story beats and over the top action at a binge-worthy rhythm, and then doing that desirable thing of actually combining the two quite often. Which leads to the one-upping, as a big part of each episode is pitting lead Ryuko Matoi against any and every obstacle – and whereas Lagann had bigger and bigger drills in subsequent fights, Kill la Kill has, uh, flashier outfits – but it doesn’t feel like it’s just there purely for the sake of it; again the series is mindful of pacing, and knows when to dial back the focus to montage fights, or to add some limiting (plot-driven) factor to Matoi’s abilities to make things more interesting.
And there’s another secret ingredient: comedy. I’ll put this mostly on Trigger’s abilities, but with all of the intensity on screen, the show is never without a spot of humor, often of the laugh-out-loud variety, and often thanks to Matoi’s adoptive family, the Mankanshokus, and especially hyperactive super-best-friend daughter Mataro. There’s definitely a repeated gag of her appearing in a ridiculous series of poses while shouting about her love for Matoi, but it’s deployed in just the right amounts. Elsewhere, flash chibi shots and suddenly minimal, static “animation” is doled out to juxtapose serious moments, or during the fights, and it somehow hits just the right mark to break up the dramaturgy without disrupting the sense of stakes. Rearing in to the final few episodes, I was all in on this.
But that’s to lose sight of some hiccups along the way. While Kill la Kill’s plot is much more thought through and cohesive than Lagann’s (and I’ll summarize it shortly, I promise), it executes a similar “everything has changed” twist at one point, that momentarily sucks all of the air out of things. While the show recovers a couple of episodes later, and does its best to sort of retroactively explain why things happened as they did, it’s still a little cheap, and makes the actions of characters earlier on – their actions almost the entire driving force of the show – hard to justify, and their actions after-the-fact a little happy go lucky. The spirit of the series intervenes to wash over this, but at the moment said twist occurs, it’s still a bit of a blow. And despite the above-mentioned betterment of story, the over-arching theme of Kill la Kill – humanity is great because it’s so flawed! – is copy and paste from Lagann. It’s not nearly as shallow, thankfully, as I think KlK’s characters moreso earn the sentiment through their journey; still, there are less surface ways of exploring that theme than just bald-face stating it when you plunge your super sword into the bad guy.
Lastly, and getting more into the ‘personal taste’ section of criticism – the fan service stuff. I know I should probably get used to this as part of anime, but I really don’t want to. And it’s not really horrible in KlK, as it’s narrowed down to mainly one thing, but I still feel like just stepping a few tip-toes away from this would have strengthened the show immensely into something easily appealing to anyone, without qualifications. Part of Kill la Kill’s setup is having Matoi (and others) transformed by enhanced clothing, and the transformation sequences always strip them down before suiting them up. There are guy bodies to goggle at, sure, and the show maybe flips some of this on its head later on with the inclusion of a clan of nudists, one of which has glowing nipples and naughty bits that are deployed hilariously, but there’s a difference right there: employed for humor. Meanwhile, when Matoi and the females are changed, we get held closeups on butts and crotches, and a money shot of breasts bouncing in the almighty power of the clothes-putting-on. Trigger’s blend of computer and handrawn work, and the sync up of music and action? Wonderful. But the drooling focus still annoyed. Add in some random (and pointless) mother-daughter sexiness later on, and I guess you’ve hit your qualifiers for fan service.
Kill la Kill is about Matoi, seeking vengeance for her murdered father. Is that it? Hardly. Matoi lives in Honnō City, which is apparently completed dominated by Honnouji Academy, a school run by class president Satsuki Kiryuin, and who Matoi suspects of knowing more about what happened to Dad. Kiryuin employs ‘Goku uniforms’ – clothes which embue the wearers with special powers – to sort of section the school and the town into ranked classes, and into haves and have nots. Matoi ends up shacking up with the Mankanshokus in the have-not section of town, and throws herself at Kiryuin (and the various school club presidents, all with Goku uniforms and matching powers) repeatedly, assisted by Senketsu, a living garment that her father left for her, and which essentially can overpower the Goku uniforms, though it has a learning curve for controlling it. This threatens to be a kind of mish-mash of randomness without explanation, but KlK speeds through its setup without much fanfare, focusing instead on Matoi and Senketsu’s bond, and Kiryuin and crew’s evilness, and the Mankanshoku family. So when we actually start to get explanations along the way for the how and why of some things, it functions as extra support to a base of grounding the show had been working to build. Later, when things have gotten appreciably complex, it’s easy to rattle off a full summary of start to finish because of this grounding; a lot of shows just keep throwing things out to keep it interesting, where Kill la Kill ends up investing you in its characters, standing atop this growing world and story.
This is Gurren Lagann, enhanced and improved. And as brought to life by studio Trigger, it’s a whirlwind of hilarious gags and watch-it-on-repeat brawls that marks the show as a modern era classic.