Kill la Kill (2013)
Episode 01 – 24 + OVA
Welcome to Honnōji Academy!
The unusual title of the anime Kill la Kill, which surprisingly does not refer to the act of ‘killing,’ is not so easy to define. A play on words, having multiple meanings in its translation, the titular ‘kill,’ or ‘kiru’ as pronounced in Japanese, stands for ‘cut,’ ‘slice,’ or ‘wear’ — a three-way pun perhaps — so ‘Kiri ra Kiru,’ or ‘Cut to Wear,’ makes a great deal more sense, logically, especially given the show’s plot and central themes; well there’s that, and the fact that there’s really not a whole lot of ‘killing’ going on in Kill la Kill. The first original television anime project to be produced by relatively new animation house Studio Trigger — founded in August 2011 — Kill la Kill raised several eyebrows when it was teased all the back in March of 2013, then announced in May of that same year. Why all the interest and curiosity, one might ask? Well, it’s not everyday that a fresh, cutting-edge studio emerges, which happens to be made up of ex-Studio Gainax and Studio 4°C members, with the production’s director, Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer, Kazuki Nakashima and lead character designer, Sushio, having in the past, all worked together on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007) — an anime that today still stands as a treasured all time classic, and one of my personal favorites.
An overnight breakthrough sensation, Kill la Kill split audiences upon its initial release; some went on to praise the show for its unruly mix of well-realized characters, hyperactive and loopy shōnen-style action scenes, superb pacing and to-the-point storytelling, told with a whirlwind of scintillating, jaw-dropping visuals. But Kill la Kill wasn’t without its cynics. While the series did fare up rather well amongst critics, many viewers came out of the woodwork claiming that, with its myriad of blatant in-your-face fanservice and gratuitous shots of ‘T&A,’ Kill la Kill was, at its very core, misogynist; an extremely easy argument to make given the show’s rampant sexual objectification, as many of its characters — and even possibly viewers — drool over the half-naked protagonist while she wears — or fails to wear, depending on your perspective — a creepy bloodthirsty ‘rape suit,’ a getup that makes even the most skimpy of female comic book superhero wardrobes seem tame by comparison.
Let’s rewind for a minute, shall we. The plot to Kill la Kill is rather simple and straightforward for the most part, as the series is essentially an age old tale about revenge; it tells the story of the fierce and stubborn 17-year-old schoolgirl Ryūko Matoi, a teenage gal who’d been wandering from place to place, searching for clues, in order to discover the truth behind her father’s untimely passing. Looking for whomever holds the ‘twin’ piece to her red Scissor Blade, a scissor-shaped long-sword — the weapon responsible for taking her father’s life, which Ryūko wields the preliminary part of — the journey leads the vagabond traveler to Honnōji Academy, a fictional high school situated in Tokyo Bay, Japan, on the island of Hannō City.
There, Ryūko, with her piercing blue-eyes — complete with gear shaped pupils — and dark shoulder-length hair — with a distinguishable single left-swept red highlight on one of her bangs — enrolls as a transfer student, and quickly comes to realize that the academy (and the surrounding land too for that matter) is dominated by Satsuki Kiryūin, the fearsome Student Council President, who rules with an iron-fist; even though Satsuki is regarded with reverence by the entire student body, she derides her ‘subjects’ as, ‘pigs in human clothing.’ Along with her loyal underlings, the Elite Four, who are clad in unique outfits called Goku Uniforms, clothing made out of Life Fibres — conscious parasitic organisms of extraterrestrial origin, and the root of all clothing on Earth — enabling the wearer incredible superhuman strength and ability — well, that’s depending on the uniform’s star-rating of course, with these ‘costumes’ ranging from one-star (being the weakest), to three-star (being the strongest), with five-star uniforms being created for testing purposes by the Sewing Club — Satsuki holds absolute totalitarian control over the entire institute, its debilitated staff and ‘civilly enslaved’ students.
Realizing that her Rending Scissors — the scissor sword — is able to cut and slice through Goku Uniforms, Ryūko goes head-to-head with Satsuki, in an attempt to get answers regarding her father’s murderer, suspecting that tall, slim, long-dark-haired beauty knows more than what she’s letting on. Lunging at the tyrannical President, only to be beaten to the ground by the school’s Boxing Club Captain, Takaharu Fukuroda — who uses the power of his two-star Goku Uniform — a shocked and demoralized Ryūko flees the scene in utter defeat. Beaten and humiliated, Ryūko revisits her father’s burnt down home — which is, um, pretty much his grave — where she stumbles upon Senketsu, a sentient sailor uniform known as a Kamui — articles of clothing made up entirely of Life Fibers. With the ability to transform into an extremely powerful and resilient suit of armor, Senketsu, gives the ‘wearer,’ who in this case is Ryūko, super-strength, transforming her into a formidable fighting machine — a slightly over-powered one at that — however, in order for this metamorphosis to occur, Senketsu needs to feed on the user’s, well Ryūko’s, blood; an allegory for female deflowering perhaps?
Okay, just to throw it out there, at first glance, Ryūko’s ‘battle armor’ appears to be, uh, how can I put this, not really made for protection, boasting more titillating flesh and busty curves per square inch — of bare womanly skin that is — than any mainstream anime (outside straight-up erotica) has dared to expose before. While this could all be a metaphor, symbolizing female empowerment, as our heroine is ‘set free’ through humiliation and discomfiture when slipping into Senketsu, most viewers probably won’t perceive it this way, seeing these butts, boobs (more so underboob) and v-shots as blatant forms of exploitation — done in poor taste — shrugging the show off as nothing more that just kinky, exploitative sexual fanboy fantasies; but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Now, using her Scissor Blade in tandem with her new uniform’s unrestrained might — literally cutting away her clothing to master her close-fitting weapon — Ryūko returns to Honnōji Academy, equip and ready to take down Satsuki, or anyone else for that matter, that stands in her way of finding, and bringing to justice, her father’s killer. Is Ryūko’s encountering with Satsuki a mere coincidence or just a simple twist of fate? All is revealed as the epic showdown between these two rivals begins — a conflict that will soon consume the entire school — setting Ryūko down a perilous winding path — one that’s filled with trails and obstacles — a road that will no doubt rewrite the past, and altar her life forever.
Ostensibly, Kill la Kill is centered on more than just one aspect or idea; it’s about a girl’s fight to avenge the death of her father while taking on an overwhelming opponent and an intimidating leader of a massive school; on another, it focuses on dangerous, ‘living and breathing,’ fighter suits and their wearers; it’s also the story of two girls exploring their family binds, and what these blood ties — while bound to blood-guzzling skintight suits — mean to them; but it also comes with no shortage of classic over-the-top retro-style fight sequences; so, no matter what angle one wishes to approach it from, Kill la Kill, without a shadow of doubt, delivers on all fronts. Outrageously funny at times, yet tonally bleak and grim at others, kooky and off-the-wall, downright badass and spectacularly realized — an uncompromising and unyielding vision — Kill la Kill is hands-down one of the best, most engaging and interesting shows to arise from the contemporary anime scene.
Be it in Ryūko’s eccentric, hyperactive classmate and best friend, Mako Mankanshoku — identified by her silly bowl cut hair-style — whose batty family (with the Mankanshoku’s having an obsessive love for food, in particular croquettes) take Ryūko in as an ‘adopted’ daughter of sorts — regarded as one of the most memorable side characters of all time, Mako’s goofy personality, ‘left-field’ words of enlightenment and loyalty to Ryūko have gained her quite the fandom — to Nui Harime, the sadistically perky sociopath and adolescent Grand Couturier of the Revocs Corporation (a heavily influential textile company owned by the Kiryūin conglomerate), who’s demeanor snaps from frivolous and cheerful to aggressive and frantic whenever she finds herself injured or outmatched; Kill la Kill showcases an array of fascinating yet complex and highly multifaceted characters, that range from the likes of commanding and authoritarian, to childish and mischievous, all the way down to just plain sinister, with players constantly shifting sides and forming new alliances throughout, where anything other than treachery, disloyalty and betrayal would be a squander of the show’s astounding potential.
At the center of this rainbow-tinted spectacle exists the hostility between protagonist Ryūko Matoi and the Kiryūin family, with Satsuki being more or less the main antagonist, and Ryūko’s primary opponent, for the initial portion of the series — though, a face off between Ryūko and Satsuki in episode 3 suggests that there’s certainly larger things at play here. When Lady Satsuki’s high-flying mother, Ragyō Kiryūin — CEO of the Revocs Corporation and a chair holder on Honnōji Academy’s board of directors — crops up at the show’s midway point and is exposed to be the true villain of the piece, the heart of the story becomes clear.
Embarrassed and mortified when slipping into Senketsu, the sharp-witted Ryūko is, in every possible way, a complete juxtaposition to Satsuki, who comes with her very own Kamui named Junketsu (which literally translates to ‘purity’), a militaristic white-and-blue sailor uniform. Unlike Ryūko, who’s plainly forced to don her navy-blue suit, Satsuki willingly gets into Junketsu, a means that allows her to enhance her muscle and boost her combat skill; this, in turn, prompts Ryūko to accept Senketsu without shame. Extrapolating ‘meat’ from this narrative beat, one could assume that Kill la Kill figuratively boasts female ‘empowerment,’ as the show’s women find the inner strength they need to fight out against their oppressors, albeit through the sexualized means of fitting into groping ‘body armor;’ though much of this representation comes with some pretty nasty footing, as characters are revealed to be victims of child abuse and sexual assault — framework that’s turned many viewers away from the series. Needless to say, Kill la Kill’s chief enemy, the cruel and dominating Ragyō, isn’t nearly as humanized as the other foes in the series, and while having a ‘cool’ looking outer shell, with her resplendent multi-colored hair and flaunting glamorous garments, audiences don’t really get to see her as anything other than a ‘monster’ that needs to be destroyed, with Ragyō, steadfast on the insane notion that the alien ‘threads’ consume the planet, lusting for power in order to hand it over to the Life Fibers.
So, while Kill la Kill’s leads are certainly provocative and compelling — evoking interest in their weightiness and conviction — there are accompanied by an abundance of equally stirring second tier personalities, all embedding so much depth and individualism to their respective roles; the members of Elite Four are solid stand-outs within this category. This unstoppable ‘cream of the crop’ party is made up of the following adept individuals, four teenagers who excel within their particular fields; first up, there’s the ‘always serious,’ enormously towering, muscular Ira Gamagōri, who, holding the Disciplinary Committee Chair, works as Satsuki’s enforcer and right-hand man, and bears no tolerance for foolishness or rule-breaking, and is more often than not, seen shouting at the top of his lungs whenever he’s opposed; then there’s the overly confident and self-assured hotshot, dark-green haired Uzu Sanageyama, and, as Athletic Committee Chairman, he deals with recreational sports such as tennis and boxing; which leads us to the Non-Athletic Committee Chair-‘person,’ with the petite, pink-haired dreamboat, Nonon Jakuzure, regulating non-physical activities such as gardening and musical plays — sassy and tantalizing, this small-busted, medium hipped doll (who’s almost always seen wearing a skull-marked hat) is undeniably the most arousing member of this gilt-edged task force; and, rounding up the unrivaled foursome, is the Information and Strategy Committee Chairman, Hōka Inumuta — with his teal-ish hairdo and collar-neck jacket (which, at the neckline, opens whenever he speaks), this sarcastic hacker analyst is in charge of strategics and research, though it’s rather apparent that Inumuta is possibly the most physically restrained student in the assemblage.
With each ‘part’ of this ‘elite’ group having a significant role to play within the school system, the bombastic Elite Four are experienced, gifted and make for one hell of an adversary; it’s simply superb observing this unstoppable quartet as they grow into a stronger unit through their failures and understandings, with their brilliant evolution, which transpires over the course of the series, being an out-and-out thrill to watch unfold. A particular Elite Four highlight takes place during the Naturals Election King-of-the-Hill challenge, where each of the four takes on Ryūko, in a one-on-one ‘affair of honor,’ to determine the strongest amongst the academy’s most able-bodied. Clad in their three-star Goku Uniforms, which are upgraded and revamped throughout proceedings and match up with each character’s distinct ‘skill set’ or ‘specialty,’ this overblown tour de force is equally as attractive, strictly from a design standpoint. Jakuzure’s outfit, her Symphony Regalia Grave for instance (with Jakuzure heading the school marching band) takes the form of a colossal, heart-shaped ‘Long Range Acoustic Device’ equipped with immense woofers that fire waves of reverberating bass and ‘piercingly sharp’ musical knives … I mean, notes, while Inumuta’s Probe Regalia, containing keyboards and other such software components, works kinda like a ‘wearable’ computer with optical camouflage ability, enabling Inumuta to store and process data during battle, aligning nicely with his scientific manner and analytical mind.
Boasting some exceptional artistry, that’s nothing short of mind-blowing, Kill la Kill is a certified sensory marvel, overflowing with brimful style and multihued flair; with its breakneck animation, radical character designs, psychedelic sounds and hard-hitting traditional shōnen-manga-inspired battle royals, this spectacle is a certified knockout. Borrowing visual cues from its predecessors, in particular Studio Gainax’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill does share major similarities with the aforementioned; but hey, this isn’t necessary a bad thing. Referencing numerous classic shōnen-manga poses and design elements, while overflowing with homage’s to iconic magical girl transformations, which give off pseudo-magical girl vibes, Kill la Kill’s stylized illustrations — bursting with ‘strong superhero stances’ that defy physical reality, where female boobs and butts are constantly showing — truly add to the narrative pull, drawing audiences into this topsy-turvy ‘kill-or-be-killed’ world. From the cutesy, sapphire blue-eyed Nui Harime, boasting a richly adorned pink Lolita-type dress and long blond hair, styled in drill-like pigtails, to the two differing Kamui’s — Senketsu with his midriff exposing ‘mouth’ and tattered eye patch, and Junketsu identified by his lofty collar, golden shoulder epaulets, shinny trimmings, and two flaming red eyes, located on the uniform’s neck lapel (even though everyone refers to the Kamui with male pronouns, they’re ‘technically’ agender entities) — every character in Kill la Kill has been brought to life in such a comprehensive and conceivable way; the drawings themselves are extremely expressive, strikingly self-evident and stand to be unmatched, leaving me with no option other than to recommend the show on its artwork alone.
On top of all this, Kill la Kill has been ingeniously infused with an abundance of references to Eastern and Western entertainment and culture, paying respect to the likes of modern and time-honored anime, manga, video-games, movies and comic books; even brands and historic names/ events get a nod. There are so many hints to pre-existing material here, making it next to impossible for any one person to single-handedly point them all out; although, there is a comprehensive list available online (compiled from many sources) if anyone happens to be interested in checking these out.
Equally as impressive is Kill la Kill’s diverse soundtrack, an exuberant synthesis of western hard rock fused with Japanese bubble-pop that corresponds well with the kookiness ensuing on screen. Noteworthy tunes include, Kill la Kill’s unofficial anthem, ‘Before My Body is Dry’ — otherwise known as ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ — performed by Mika Kobayashi, a song that’s become synonymous with Ryuko’s epically ferocious Kamui duels; and my personal fave, Hiroyuki Sawano’s hauntingly alluring ‘Blumenkranz,’ with vocals provided by Cyua, which, when translated into English, stands for ‘Floral Wreath,’ and plays as the song of choice during Ragyō Kiryūin’s subsequent appearances, a track that comes with major fascism undertones inscribed in its lyrics.
On the topic of fascism, autocracy is just one of the many themes explored within Kill la Kill’s multi-layered makeup. Backtracking for just a moment, Kill la Kill’s primary concern is certainly one of ‘fashion,’ commenting on ‘popular’ social trends and crazes, where the literal ‘weapon’ of femininity has become, or is, clothing itself, or lack there of; girls are forced to strip down to virtually nothing in order to fight, mastering the displays of sexuality demanded by fashion. And, within the series, this idea cleverly affiliates itself with goals of fascism — all perhaps a playful sense of irony — as Honnōji Academy operates much more like a national police force in training rather than an actual learning facility, where students wear military-styled uniforms, spy on one another using sophisticated surveillance technology and are even seen studying the rise of Hitler; coincidental? I think not. With the suppressive Satsuki, head of the school regime, governing with slogans like, ‘Fear is Freedom! Subjugation is Liberation!’ and dividing the academy into a meritocracy — where underachievers and the mentally handicapped are considered social outcasts — while dressed in an erotic suit, Kill la Kill is subtly equating the sexual ‘purity’ of the outfit to the dangerous ideals of dictatorship.
Furthermore, these deadly and unstable garbs are so treacherous, that certain civilians have taken it upon themselves to form a rebel organization, whose primary objective is to actively confront and overthrow these ‘visitors,’ thwarting their plans of world domination; the outpost’s name? Nudist Beach, a nudist colony that has broken away from the social principles of the fascist rule … and away from clothing itself altogether. The guerrilla community’s leader, the enigmatic Aikurō Mikisugi, is really one for the ladies folks. Ryūko and Mako’s dull and easily flustered homeroom teacher, Aikurō eventually reveals his true motives as an undercover informant working at the school as a spy for Nudist Beach; this middle-aged man, bent back and unsteady, exposes his genuine identity when he removes his glasses and sweeps back his blue scruffy hair, unveiling himself to be, in fact, a young, handsome and flamboyant man. Funnily, with a tendency to strip down to his state of nature, laying bare his chiseled torso and shimmering ‘privates’ — where his nipples, rear and groin area occasionally give off a rosy glow — this sparkling specimen does supply some eye-candy for female patrons, who may be a little tired of seeing scantily clad, shapely babes flaunt their ‘thang.’
And the thematic extent of Kill la Kill doesn’t stop there, as, within one of its episodic goings-on — an episode named ‘A Loser I Can’t Hate’— notions of social class are brought to light, where Mako ‘upgrades’ the poverty-stricken Mankanshoku family to a life of luxury … which comes at a ‘costly’ price. Also be sure to check out the wild OVA, titled ‘Goodbye Again,’ which works as a prologue to the series and focuses on Ragyō’s dark-skinned female secretary, Rei Hōōmaru (who pretty much disappears at the midpoint of Kill la Kill’s heart-pounding finale) and takes place in the midst of our hero’s graduation ceremony, held at a reduced-to-rubble Honnōji Academy.
Standing to be a first-rate supercharged extravaganza, served with a shot of pure adrenaline — sorta like a twisted magical girl anime high on hallucinogenics — Kill la Kill is unfettered insanity and animation at its absolute finest, a present-day reminder of just how fun, thought-provoking, and creative the platform can honestly be. Ultimately, it’s difficult to write Kill la Kill off as just another ‘sexist contribution’ to the wide world of Japanese animation, as, with its stunning yet bawdy design, unregulated energy and inventively daring premise, that’s topped off with mounds of layered subtext — symbolism that allows for numerous readings of the show — Kill la Kill is a series that deserves to be seen. Trash or treasure? Go watch Studio Trigger’s masterpiece and decide for yourself.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner
Kill la Kill is released through Madman Entertainment Australia