Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Kill la Kill [Limited Edition]
Satsuki's three-pronged assault on the high schools of Japan reaches its conclusion, as Ryuko strives to pick up Senketsu's scattered pieces and stitch their relationship back together. The two Kamui-wearers are bound to clash in the process, but their rivalry has long since evolved past its "kill or be killed" roots, and both Ryuko and Satsuki find themselves at an impasse. They don't know it yet, but these two warrior women are bound by a deeper thread of fate, and only the shadowy organizations that loom behind it all know the shocking truth behind the girls' bond.
So while Ryuko digests the reality behind her father's research at Nudist Beach, Satsuki reconvenes with her mother Ragyo at the REVOCS Corporation to cement their final plans for humanity's future. Unfortunately for Ragyo, she and her daughter may not be cut from the same cloth after all, and unfortunately for Ryuko, not even the full support of the Mankanshoku family, Nudist Beach, and Senketsu can prepare her for the real battle ahead. The fate of the world now lies in Ryuko and Satsuki's hands, but their roles in this war are so far away from where they started, they may never find their way back to their true selves.
The high-flying cartoon antics of Kill la Kill reached their zenith in the show's Raid Trip episodes, which means it's time for that missile's nose to curve back down as it comes crashing to earth for an explosive nine-episode final act. While the series tries to maintain its good-natured glee, it's hard to deny the dark clouds that have moved in over these characters in the show's twilight. Reveals and twists are dropped one after the other with little breathing room between them. Once packed with jokes, Kill la Kill now struggles to squeeze one or two laughs into heated scenes starved for levity. Senketsu has a tragic backstory. Tsumugu has a tragic backstory. Satsuki has a tragic backstory. The transition into drama is steep as all the show's greatest secrets come to light in a furious flurry.
Wait, Kill la Kill had "great secrets" to begin with? Yes, it turns out there was an insane master plan behind KLK's simple student conquest story. It's a conspiracy that spans the entirety of human evolution, which means life fibers are not only woven into the core of human history, but also the fates of our red-and-blue heroines, stitched into their destinies from the day they were born. It's definitely a surprise, but whether it's a pleasant surprise or not comes down to very personal and in-the-moment tastes and expectations. This is a hairpin turn in tone and focus for the series, with pros and cons almost completely reversed from the show's first half. Depending on the viewer's perspective, Kill la Kill is about to get either much better or much worse, if the whiplash isn't too forceful to shake viewers loose before they can settle on how to feel at all.
The timing of the show's descent into seriousness is oddly perfect. Volume 4 covers by far the talkiest episodes of Kill la Kill, and while the story is definitely intensifying around all those dramatic monologues, the animation quality has started slipping. Repeated shots from earlier episodes pop up again in new environments. The goofy character cut-outs employed for comedy in past episodes get tagged in for action and dramatic scenes as well. Stills and pans under heavy narration are at an all-time high for the show. Fortunately, there's so much going on in the plot that you don't have time to notice all these shortcuts, and chances are this was deliberate on Trigger's part, choosing to overextend themselves narratively at the exact point they're forced to slow down artistically. (The creative team's prior hit Gurren Lagann underwent a similar transition at this point in its run, with a drastic seven year time jump. It was also met with love-or-hate audience reactions.) The prescient decision to mount Kill la Kill's stakes through dramatic monologues, montages, and tense conversations keeps interest high even when the onscreen action has gotten sloppier or downright nonexistent. Director Imaishi seems to either loathe or fear boredom so fiercely that he found a way to make what should be the show's most reserved material some of its most striking and intense instead. He succeeded in keeping this dark shift from being boring, so the real issue is whether it's emotionally effective or not. That's where things get sticky.
The show's trademark humor is sorely missed in these episodes, but so is much of the artistry that dominated the first half of the show. It may be because we've been spoiled rotten by frequent shifts in locale, wardrobe, and some truly wacky visual ideas up to this point, but no story-shattering twist can make the flat gray hole-in-the-earth of Nudist Beach HQ feel like anything but a step down. Not even the entrance of the heavily foreshadowed supervillain Ragyo, dolled up like an Elizabethan rainbow couture monster, can compensate for all those tiring repeat shots of the Honnouji Academy stadium. If the Student Council battles were the closest Kill la Kill has come to feeling like a shonen tournament series in the best way, the REVOCS Reveal battles are the closest it's come to that world in all the wrong ways, as dramatic speeches and passive audience member commentary fill time in between false climaxes.
The pacing and artistry of the series have definitely taken a hit in this lead up to the finale, but on the plus side, the drama at its center is compelling enough to make up the difference. As with its spiritual predecessor Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill has always taken its characters feelings very seriously, even when the world and story around them is completely ludicrous. The previous dozen episodes have done the legwork in establishing these strong character relationships, and now that the show has time to breathe, the cast's more tender bonds are allowed to speak for themselves. There's a genuine weight to Ryuko's heartfelt apology to Senketsu, or Gamagori and Mako's battlefield confrontation, even though these character relationships were largely built up through comedy. The audience may have seen these characters grow together through sillier circumstances, but their relationships always came from a place of honest emotion, so the transition into harsher conflict feels natural somehow. Tonal shifts of this magnitude are always a balancing act, but these characters haven't changed even as the world around them grows darker, giving their fans a rock-solid dramatic foundation for the cast's new struggles.
With less going on visually, Kill la Kill's fantastic score takes center stage, as many of the show's best leitmotifs mix and match with new standout pieces to put these episodes at the zenith of the series' aural experience. Now more than ever, the music absolutely makes the show, driving home each giant twist and heartfelt moment perfectly through many eclectic shades of sound. Ragyo's long-awaited entrance would not be the same without “Blumenkranz,” the crown jewel of the soundtrack, accompanying her intense stiletto clacks down Honnouji's runway. The song's driving beat and German lyrics communicate a power and unwavering conviction that makes Ragyo instantly threatening, along with excellent voice performances for the villainess in both the Japanese and English dubs. Trigger gave themselves a real challenge by spending so many episodes building up an antagonist that could exercise control over characters as strong as Satsuki and Nui Harime, and they conquered it through Ragyo's fashionably alien design and characterization. Unfortunately, Ragyo is also the one place where Kill la Kill's shift to drama oversteps its bounds.
Ragyo is obsessed with not only the perfection of her own appearance, but the perfection of her daughter's body as well, which leads to a couple infamous “Mommy Dearest” scenes where Ragyo attempts to connect with Satsuki on a too-intimate level. In the first scene, she bathes Satsuki and opens her body to life fiber synchronization through some uncomfortable and salacious stroking. Several episodes later, Satsuki is imprisoned naked (“stripped” of the power of her Kamui) and hung from the dungeon's ceiling, where Ragyo spanks her daughter's bare backside while taunting her for her failure. For some audiences, these ploys to make Ragyo as alien as possible are just that, and might not elicit more than an eyeroll and a sigh at their gratuity. For others, these scenes may be genuinely shocking as portrayals of sexual abuse by a parent in a series with no business employing imagery that harsh. The only silver lining is that these scenes were clearly not meant to dehumanize or victimize Satsuki, but the show could have easily found a better way to depict her mother's obsession with beautiful human flesh. Due to the unnecessarily sexual framing of these scenes, they are at best a melodramatic misfire and at worst distressing for some audiences, so viewer discretion is advised for those episodes. In most other regards, Kill la Kill's transition into drama is surprisingly graceful given its silly beginnings.
Extras on this set include part two of Trigger's making-of special, which follows the production team through stressful QC crunch time, the process of creating cel-look CG animation, and the conscious effort to make Kill la Kill as much like a Showa-era anime as possible through techniques like the “Kanada Light,” “Obari Pose” and “Dezaki Harmony.” That's all for on-disc extras, but the set comes with the requisite postcards and double-sided poster as well.
These episodes mark the dusk of Kill la Kill's story, and the sun may be going down on this once lighthearted story too quickly for some audiences to bear. While the series continues to use its production limitations to their absolute maximum potential, it's become a little clearer that they're stretching assets thin in preparation for the real finale. Even when this transition isn't 100% successful, the 120% effort behind it is firmly felt, and the show's enthusiasm for itself hasn't dampened one bit. From its self-aware “recap episode” that takes up less than five minutes at the beginning of a real episode, to a fantastic Showa-style “end credits freezeframe" depicting a major character's death that dissolves to reveal a fakeout as the episode continues, Kill la Kill's devotion to honoring its roots while breaking straight past them hasn't lessened, even as its curtain begins to fall.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A+
+ Kill La Kill transitions into "taking itself seriously" with surprising grace, melodramatic twists succeed thanks to successful character investment, Ragyo is a fantastic villain
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