Ranking the Best Anime from Studio Triggerby Evan Minto,
At Anime Expo 2017, I sat down in a panel room to wait for the Studio Trigger Industry Panel. All around me, fans were excitedly chattering about their favorite shows, shouting catchphrases every time an A/V tech so much as fiddled with a projector. Eventually the artists arrived, strolling confidently onto the stage and waving to the roaring crowd. Japanese production guests aren't typically greeted like rock stars at US anime cons, but then again, Trigger isn't a typical anime studio.
Trigger's only been around for around six years, but their first TV series, Kill la Kill, was a major hit, quickly establishing their reputation as stylish artists with a love of crass pulp and pop cultural pastiche. Their other big original series, the fantasy adventure Little Witch Academia, made its TV debut last year and revealed a gentler side to the studio. They've also made surreal comedy shorts like Inferno Cop, Ninja Slayer, and Space Patrol Luluco; adapted a light novel (When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace); and even worked with anohana writer Mari Okada (Kiznaiver). This season they're partnering with A-1 Pictures on the slick original mecha series DARLING in the FRANXX - so it seems like the perfect time to discuss our favorite Trigger productions!
First, a little backstory about the studio: I've been following the creative staff at Trigger since before the studio existed, during their time at Gainax. In 2006, co-founder and Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno left the studio. This provided an opportunity for a new generation of artists, who created the bombastic, retro-inspired mecha series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It was the first TV series from director Hiroyuki Imaishi — by then a respected animator who had worked under Anno for years.
Imaishi learned a lot from Anno, but his style was always more manic, hyper-violent, and over-sexed than his mentor's. (You can find its purest expression in his totally bonkers OVA Dead Leaves.) After the huge success of Gurren Lagann, Imaishi's team moved on to Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, an irreverent comedy styled like a raunchy Powerpuff Girls. Not long after, Imaishi abandoned Gainax to co-found Studio Trigger, bringing much of the Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking staff with him.
The first Trigger project is as clear a statement of intent as you could get. Inferno Cop is a series of four-minute comedy episodes animated by a tiny staff and broadcast on YouTube. It's an anime Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the kind of scrappy show that could only have been made under Imaishi. No other studio, not even Gainax, would have even given it a chance.
The creators of Inferno Cop aren't marginal figures either. They're some of the studio's most visible creators: Imaishi's protégé Akira Amemiya, designer Shigeto Koyama (Heroman), and jack-of-all-trades Hiromi Wakabayashi (Panty & Stocking). Koyama and Wakabayashi are staples of US anime cons, where they serve as living monuments to Trigger's mischievous spirit. At Anime Expo, for instance, the pair was shooting Trigger-branded money at the audience out of plastic guns. When Koyama and Wakabayashi talk about Inferno Cop, their eyes light up. It doesn't pay the bills, but it's theirs — not the product of a calculated production committee gamble.
As much as I love Inferno Cop, Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia are the series that made me really fall for Trigger, with their larger than life characters, striking designs, and zany physical comedy. Animation has endless potential for exaggeration and silliness, and Trigger seems to have a unique understanding of how to harness it, whether for the high-flying action of Kill la Kill or the magical antics of Little Witch. And when series like Inferno Cop and Luluco don't have the resources for lush animation, they get creative with their constraints. Other studios and creators might aim for high art, but the folks at Trigger are nothing if not entertainers.
Many of them are huge geeks too, and they seem happiest when riffing on their favorite comics, animation, and movies. Imaishi, Koyama, and Wakabayashi are superhero fans, and some of their most memorable designs in Kill la Kill crib from Spider-Man and Iron Man. Luluco is a cheeky attempt to build a “Trigger Cinematic Universe” connecting all their franchises. Little Witch Academia channels director Yoh Yoshinari's love of Western animation, both the whimsy of classic Disney and the pastel sweetness of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Little Witch animator Takafumi Hori is such a big fan of Steven Universe he even ended up working on an episode of it! Many of the desks at the studio are littered with action figures and toys; Amemiya's desk has so many one wonders how the guy has room to draw anything.
The downside of this passion that the studio's adaptations and partnerships often feel like second-class citizens. When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace has great animation (plus a couple Trigger easter eggs), but not much else. For Ninja Slayer, Amemiya tried to split the difference between Inferno Cop and Kill la Kill, with uneven results. Kiznaiver is technically an original, and is beautifully designed and animated, but it has a meandering, over-dramatic Mari Okada script. When it ran alongside Space Patrol Luluco, almost all the studio's senior staff worked on the latter, leaving the younger staff to animate Kiznaiver. Even DARLING in the FRANXX feels like Trigger-lite so far. It's directed and co-written by Gainax alum Atsushi Nishigori, with mech designs from Koyama and action direction from Imaishi himself, but other than some not-so-subtle sexual metaphors, the first two episodes have mostly stuck to standard giant robot material.
DARLING in the FRANXX was the first of three projects Trigger announced at Anime Expo. The second was SSSS.Gridman, a love letter to the 1994 tokusatsu series from superfan Akira Amemiya. The third was Promare, Imaishi's next series (featuring much of the staff from Kill la Kill and Gurren Lagann). The crowd went wild. In an industry obsessed with adaptations of the latest novels and video games, fans were losing it over two completely original series and a reboot of a forgotten superhero show. I like to think it's because there's something special that comes from artists who love what they do. So many Japanese animators work under grueling conditions on depressingly derivative projects, but here are a bunch of dorks making the cartoons they want to see and enjoying every second of it. I'll take a labor of love from the maniacal weirdos at Trigger over a polished cash-grab any day.
Trigger's a new enough studio that they actually don't have enough projects for me to write a Top 10, so below I've listed my five favorites. I suspect watching them one after another will make most other anime feel drawn-out and uneventful by comparison, so pace yourselves, friends - and don't forget to rank your favorites in the comments!
#5: Sex & Violence with Machspeed
Trigger staff have said that they're not interested in making more Kill la Kill. But when people bring up Panty & Stocking, their enthusiasm is palpable. Unfortunately the rights are stuck with Gainax, but that didn't stop Imaishi from creating its spiritual successor: Sex & Violence with Machspeed. The short, part of Khara's Animator Expo series, is just about the purest strain of Imaishi this side of Dead Leaves, complete with a Hulk lookalike (Imaishi's favorite superhero), a high-speed car chase, and a talking sex doll named… Sex. That should tell you everything you need to know. Unfortunately this one's nearly impossible to get in English ever since Animator Expo stopped streaming it on their official website.
#4: Space Patrol Luluco
It's a sparkling, intergalactic love story, but Space Patrol Luluco is also directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi. And that means characters transforming into guns, arrest warrants for “space shoplifting,” and breakneck comedic pacing. The heroes’ quest through outer space takes them to a series of planets based on Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia, and even Sex & Violence, while Ninja Slayer and Kiznaiver get little nods of their own. And while I won't spoil one very important cameo, let me just say supporting character Chief Overjustice looks awfully familiar. Luluco is unabashedly self-congratulatory, wickedly funny, and surprisingly heartwarming.
#3: Little Witch Academia
Little Witch Academia is directed by animator extraordinaire Yoh Yoshinari, so it's a far cry from the crass chaos of Imaishi. The franchise, which spans two short films and a TV series, is heavily inspired by family-friendly Western entertainment, granting it an appeal that feels very different from its anime contemporaries. The characters — young witches-in-training at a UK magic school that's Totally Not Hogwarts — are all incredibly endearing and funny, and bringing them to life is some of the best animation talent at Trigger. The human movements are springy and vibrant, and the effects have a swirling, pulsing energy to them that calls attention to the magic of animation itself.
#2: Kill la Kill
Trigger's first TV series is still its best. Kill la Kill starts as the story of a delinquent teenage girl duking it out with rival students and transforms into so much more. The characters don super-powered clothing, discover a vast fashion conspiracy, and fight everywhere from classrooms to battleships to outer space. Kill la Kill takes every tired anime trope to its logical extreme, making even a tournament arc feel fresh. Meanwhile, Gurren Lagann’s screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima once again takes an absurd premise and commits to it so forcefully that it somehow becomes believable. Yes, there's a lot of nudity and far too many ogling shots of women's bodies, but in a show with a mixed-gender secret society called Nudist Beach, it's hard to get too angry about anything.
#1: Inferno Cop
You bet I put Inferno Cop at the top of the list. Yes, every episode of the series is vulgar, unfiltered nonsense written by a bunch of superhero nerds in 15 minutes (...after 45 minutes of playing with action figures) and produced by moving cut-out drawings against photo-collage backgrounds. But that stream-of-consciousness style is exactly what makes it so unpredictable. Inferno Cop fights a baby, transforms into a race car, goes back in time, and even confronts Real God, all in the span of roughly 40 minutes. Fans of Pop Team Epic, this is the original “shitty anime.” Inferno Cop is one of the greatest anime comedies of all time and nobody can convince me otherwise.
#0: Turning Girls
Bonus round! Technically it's not credited to Trigger, but I say it counts. If you thought Inferno Cop was weird, get this: Trigger got a bunch of female non-animator staff together and asked them to unofficially create an anime. Those accountants and janitors came up with Turning Girls, the story of four resentful, 20-something single women. There are no flaming skulls or talking clothing, but it's incredibly funny, in large part thanks to Kaerun, the 28-year-old wannabe idol whom everybody in the show despises. Of course, it's barely animated, which is part of the charm. Turning Girls has the brilliant, acerbic wit of lived experience, but all the creators are credited under pseudonyms, so we can never thank them for their service to humanity.
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