Kill la Kill
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kill la Kill ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Kill la Kill ?
At a little over six years old, Kill la Kill is perhaps still a bit fresh to be considered a ‘Classic’. But given the way their shows have continued to tear it up ever since, maybe any time is a good one to revisit Studio Trigger's television debut. There was a lot of uncertainty amongst all the hype when the show first premiered- Half-joking hopes that the series was expected to ‘save anime’. Given how Kill la Kill has persisted as well-regarded these years later, it's known with hindsight that The House That Imaishi Built did in fact pull it off. The studio seemingly became a household name overnight in the wake of its success. But how was it getting there all the way through the show's run? Let's spend the next few months finding out.
Hiroyuki Imaishi and his Funky Bunch are a crew that have done nothing halfway, ever, in their lives, and that's apparent from the very beginning of Kill la Kill. The statement of intent of style as the substance unforgettably manifests in its opening scene introducing Ira Gamagoori, a character whose body shifts in size and proportion with every cut depending simply on how large the framing wants to make him feel. There's outrageous experimentation like 360-degree camera simulation and integrated 3D elements all here just for the studio to show off; This isn't just a display of Gamagoori's power as he makes an example out of a misbehaving student, this is Studio Trigger's power making an example out of TV animation itself.
The visual ideas of what Kill la Kill is doing art-wise are clear from this beautifully brutal-to-watch beatdown, but the show's complete lack of thematic subtlety is also communicated just in this opening. The show wears its ideas on its sleeve (that's a little clothing-themed humor for you kids), something that was loudly clear back when Imaishi made Gurren Lagann and has continued all the way through Promare. Kill la Kill is about fascism. How do you know? Because literally the first thing we hear is a teacher explaining the rise of the Nazi party. Seconds after a dissenter has been put down by a disciplinary committee member he's bellowing instructions to the students to salute and swear fealty to their uniform-clad leader, Satsuki Kiryuin, who talks down to them as ‘pigs’ that she swears to control with her power. Being subtle would leave less time for outlandish sword fights, and Kill la Kill isn't about that.
I promise I won't spend this whole review just going on about that first scene in the first episode, but it's such an arresting encapsulation setting up the series as a whole that it's easy to see why audiences were captivated by the series from the word go when it premiered. It's why the show continues to be gripping to watch as our actual main character shows up and it settles into a relatively familiar framework amongst visuals that haven't quite yet reached those heights of the opening minutes. We of course know things get decidedly more complicated later, but at this point Ryuko Matoi's quest for revenge is about as bare-bones as it gets: She's deduced Satsuki killed her father, so she's going to sword real good at her in comeuppance. That's where the outlandish sword fights come in.
It's kind of remarkable that, after the tidy thematics of that introduction, the first episode of Kill la Kill is rather light on detailing the point of all this compared to how it races Ryuko through structured combat and the power-ups of the premise. She charges in for revenge, gets humbled, limps away to discover a secret family heirloom that can give her an edge, coming back just in time to save the day and start climbing the ladder to her ultimate foe, one mini-boss at a time. It works because that established direction leaves the whole thing feeling so brisk, and by God does it look cool enough. We weren't quite as familiarized with Imaishi's sense of angular style at this point as I think we are now, but hey, we'd all been blown away by Gurren Lagann years earlier. Kill la Kill was basically that, but Even More, and even as it relies more on slides, pans, and dynamic backgrounds, the painterly freeze-frames and signature giant title text mean this all still has impact even after over eight years of getting used to Trigger's tricks.
Besides, going all-out with that first episode means we're more primed for proper info-dumping once the second one rolls around. (Major benefit to retroactive show-streaming, by the way? Not having to wait a week for the next episode!) In practice that does mean the complete lack of thematic subtlety gets its knob turned up past eleven as much as the visuals already did. Here already we have a segment where Satsuki goes all-in on explaining the militaristic underpinnings of Japanese school uniforms and the fascist implications thereof, or Ryuko's new friend Mako cheerfully detailing the meritocratic economy that separates residents into literal social strata. Compared to the slowly unraveling world-building of the aforementioned Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill here in its academy town sets up a clear, complete system just waiting for Ryuko to cut through it with her scissor. That'll be more important as a vehicle for subversion later, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, but as of now, even as we're watching another ridiculous battle wherein Ryuko plays tennis against a maniacal monocle-wearer, it works just because we think we've got a picture of where she's headed with all this.
Unfortunately, revisiting Kill la Kill from the beginning like this also means taking a critical look at some of its more infamous predilections. The debut project for his new studio obviously means a lot of Imaishi's more expected indulgences are on display, and if you aren't here for his excesses they can provide some awkward hurdles to get over. Ryuko's transformed Senketsu costume launched years of ambitious cosplays (the wearers of which are braver than any US Marine), and can be odd to take in just in these first episodes. It's a ridiculously crass obvious vehicle for fanservice first, and whatever conceptual elements they'll get to with it later second. Sure, Ryuko's flustered reactions to wearing the uncovered uniform make for some odd humor if you're open to it, but it still comes off as overt since we haven't seen her have a reaction beyond being ashamed. It doesn't help that Trigger and Imaishi's reputation for leerier than necessary framing was already on full display here; The second episode in particular has a whole thing about Ryuko waking up to being creeped on by weird older men. And that's without even getting into the non-consensual double-entendres surrounding Senketsu's first fusion with her. Kill la Kill is going to go on to have quite a bit to say later about agency and identity and how that ties in with personal presentation, but you'd probably never guess that from these first two episodes, seeming as it does simply crass humor characteristic of its creators.
But at this point, we already know that going back into Kill la Kill, don't we? It's over-the-top and outrageous in ways both immortal and that have aged poorly, and it wouldn't be this hirstorical first Trigger TV show any other way. These first two episodes are everything our expectations remember from this premiere, living up to a pretty impressive feat: Kill la Kill originally delivered here on the hype leading up to its release. Now a little over six years later, it delivers on the hype of why we remember being so impressed with it.
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