Reviewby Jacob Hope Chapman, Jul 21st 2014
Kill la Kill [Limited Edition]
Ryuko Matoi has traveled for many miles on foot to find Honnouji Academy. The school, built on and smashing down stacks upon stacks of disheveled slums and tenements, is a monolithic dictatorship where students are assigned "star ranks" like military officers, and given uniforms with varying levels of superpowers based on their star number. Ryuko doesn't care about any of that, though. She's here for her own reasons.
She arrives at the towering institution dragging a giant case that holds one half of an enormous pair of scissors. It is a single blade lusting for a partner, and the owner of the scissor's other half will become victim to Ryuko's vengeance, for the murder of her father. As soon as she arrives however, Ryuko falls prey to the tyranny of the system and ends up wearing a uniform that wears her back: a "Kamui" named Senketsu who is sentient and more powerful than any other uniform. He lends her his incredible superpowers in exchange for her blood, but Ryuko isn't crazy about the way he fits, and how little of her body he covers.
Ryuko isn't the only one with a Kamui, and she begins to suspect that another Kamui-wearer, the academy's savage ruler Satsuki Kiryuin, is hiding the scissor blade that killed Ryuko's father somewhere in her towering fortress, along with the truth behind his death. Ryuko doesn't like being forced to use the mouthy Senketsu to achieve her goals, but she's committed to do whatever it takes to see that justice is served, if she can manage not to lose her way in the labyrinth of oppression Satsuki has built to tailor the world to her own ruthless ambitions.
Kill la Kill's first episode begins with an invocation of Nazi imagery and ends with a vow of deadly vengeance from a mostly naked heroine. The minutes in-between are filled with clothing that strips girls down to drink their blood, a giant deep fryer for cooking disobedient students, and cries of "contradiction is truth!" Whatever else this show is, it's not dull, but what that description doesn't convey is that Kill la Kill is largely a comedy. It's a gleeful, lighthearted comedy with not a harsh or mean-spirited bone in its body. There are moments of drama and pulse-pounding action to flesh out the experience, but 90% of Kill la Kill is meant to make the audience clap and cheer.
The mystery of how Kill la Kill turns brash and shocking material into high-energy yet heartwarming entertainment is only one of many fascinating things about the project. This is especially true when so many of its relatives, such as director Hiroyuki Imaishi's prior works like Dead Leaves or Panty and Stocking, have been more extreme and divisive. There's a lot more to Kill la Kill than cartoony laughs, but we have to begin at the beginning, and that's the foot it puts forward.
Aniplex's first boxset release of the series contains just the first 4 episodes of the 24 episode series, and based solely on those, Kill la Kill would seem to be an action comedy holding its drama cards behind its back only to be played much, much, much later. There's slapstick galore, elaborate visual puns, tons of nudity humor, and even a pie-in-the-face gag! (It's a funny pie-in-the-face gag too!) The animation is wild and schizophrenic, and the acting is loud and unrestrained, with even stoic characters savoring each syllable with punctuated rhythm and sharp enunciation. Ryoka Yuzuki's Satsuki seems to roll every vowel around in her mouth for a little longer than normal, and Ami Koshimizu's Ryuko relishes the barks and snarls of her delinquent role. Both actresses seem to be having a ton of fun, and with the addition of the loony toony Mako Mankanshoku, Kill la Kill already has the most exciting and lovable cast of female characters seen in anime for a long time. It's a great asset to have in a show that revolves around women, when so many supposedly girl-heavy anime boil their all-female casts into homogeneous molds so easily forgotten and replaced.
At times, Kill la Kill almost trips over itself in its desperation to entertain, as the show moves at breakneck speed even when it doesn't quite have the budget to keep up with its own ambitions. It's not a bad problem to have, but after Kill la Kill has played its minor budget limitations for laughs a few too many times, it can become a little lame. It's a tiny blemish on what is ultimately a laudable work of art. In fact, Kill la Kill is the most artistically ambitious anime comedy in years, a work so unique it defies categorization, even four episodes in.
The show itself is constructed around three silly puns. 1) The English words "fashion" and "fascism" sound very similar. 2) The Japanese words for "school uniform" and "conquest" are written differently, but pronounced the same: seifuku. 3) Combining the language parallels, "kill" is an english homophone for the Japanese verb "kiru," which means "to wear," turning the title into "Dress to Kill," "Kill to Wear," or however anyone can parse it.
The "joke" in all three cases is secondary to the impact of the concept itself, and that is the secret to the show's amicable impact. Kill la Kill works as a crazy comedy because it's already more than a crazy comedy, before any serious drama has even taken root. Every moment there isn't a silly joke about butts or bad food, there's a striking image in its place, and often the two tones coexist. The composition of Satsuki's statuesque stance atop her tower, sword caned against the floor, confident but inert, against Ryuko's wide stance in the ghetto below, scissor-blade jackknifing upward, threatening but impotent, is a powerful image without being a challenging one. It's easy to understand what Kill la Kill wants to say in every moment because its ideas are simple, but conveyed in ways never quite seen before, and its healthy splashes of humor grow out of its thematic ideas rather than combating them.
The best example of this comes when Ryuko is confronted by her teacher Mikisugi, who is secretly the leader of a mysterious rebellion force. His faction rejects the tyranny of Honnouji's clothing, so of course revealing his secret means taking his clothes off, which the squeamish Ryuko can't handle. His coaxing for Ryuko to join their cause is also couched in language that suggests a sexual liaison between them, which puts him at the end of her scissor-blade. "It's a joke," he reassures her. She doesn't see it that way, but Ryuko's rejection of conformity, yet discomfort with the opposition (nudity) is a large part of her character arc and the story's developing themes. At the same time it's just a funny scene, because men dramatically getting naked is funny.
Or is it? Humor is one of the most subjective elements of entertainment, and Kill la Kill's comedy is distinctly playground fare, from puns to slapstick to childish sexual references. The juvenile goofiness combined with the frenzied pace and style of the content is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and if it doesn't reel you right in hard, it's probably going to actively repel you. Kill la Kill's joyous presentation of its content keeps its violence-and-sex-soaked ideas from becoming truly offensive, but it might be just too much for many viewers. The show immediately reads as a nearly uncompromised vision, and this is bound to compromise anyone who doesn't see what the artists who created it saw. It's an insane anime best indulged with caution, and you'll know right away if it suits you or just doesn't fit.
Of course, audiences aren't being given much to work with thanks to Aniplex's limited episode release. It's a high price point for four episodes, and only diehard fans are likely to see the show through this release thanks to the sticker shock. The set comes with a small double-sided poster, a set of postcards, a CD with insert songs from the series both voiced and instrumental, and an English dub. Kill la Kill has strong, eclectic music, so the CD is nice, although we don't hear much more than the understated power ballad "Before My Body is Dry" in the first four episodes.
The real star feature of the set is the English dub, which is so solidly cast and true to the spirit of the show, it's stunning. Kill la Kill is not an easy anime to dub. It's a comedy, it has tons of Japanese puns and language-specific vocal archetypes, and its energy and tempo is through the roof. Bang Zoom's treatment of the material holds nothing back, delivering ludicrous, high-octane performances more in line with American cartoon delivery than the metered rhythm and pure timbres associated with anime. It keeps the comedy funny, and more importantly, the script walks a perfect line between faithfulness and natural delivery. Gamagoori's laugh and bullhorn barking sound the same, but his dialogue is more direct, divorced from the passive formalism that could become awkward in a more literal translation. Mako's "Hallelujah Chorus interludes" seem on their face un-dubbable, but they came out wonderfully in English thanks to smart scripting, as does Christine Marie Cabanos' hilarious Mako. Disputably, the outlying performance is Ryuko's, who seems more restrained and unsteady than her peers, but given the arc of self-confidence her character must undergo before she can fully express herself, this was probably intentional. Her braggadocio should sound a little false, even if more brassy overacting seems like it would be "funnier." The dub reminds us that Ryuko is in many ways the straight man in a mad world, and less is more. It will be interesting to see how Erica Mendez pushes her performance more as Ryuko pushes herself, but it's the most restrained up front, and fans may react to that in different ways. Overall, the dub is a challenge well-conquered. Episode 4 in particular is so funny it's hard to breathe while watching it, and it's nice to have the language barrier removed so the jokes can all be appreciated with pointed timing.
Kill la Kill is first and foremost an artistic and conceptual triumph, an explosion of creativity with a strong form underneath that stitches its wild patterns together cohesively. It is silliness married with significance to create a serious work of art that doesn't take itself too seriously. Love it or hate it, this is a confident creation fueled by the blood of artists with a vast array of ideas to share, threaded down into a story simple enough for anyone to understand, and fitted in a way they've never seen before. "Contradiction is truth" indeed.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Tour de force of artistic and narrative creativity, sharp and confident comic timing, unique and diverse female-centric cast, packs every second with pure exuberant fun, great dub
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