Kill la Kill
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 13 of
Kill la Kill ?
How would you rate episode 14 of
Kill la Kill ?
Wrapping up a big arc as it did in the previous episode means Kill la Kill necessarily finds itself in a transitory phase for its thirteenth. It also finds itself with its own sharp break at the end, meaning discussing this and the fourteenth episode will have to be a more segregated affair than usual. Granted, both episodes are dedicated to bringing us into the next story arc, with Satsuki's forces riding out to forcibly take over the remaining opposing areas of Japan. But the tone and focus are totally different in each half-hour, with one being turned more towards Ryuko's inward struggle, and the other focusing on the outer efforts of all the characters who aren't Ryuko.
Episode 13 is the expected cooldown from Ryuko fighting a whole multi-stage tournament only to turn into a monster and utterly fail to avenge her father at the end. Even putting aside the context that led us here, this is an expected place for a story of Kill la Kill's themes to go: Gaining an understanding of the perils of power and dealing with the fear of it that arises as such. I'd previously pointed out the distinctions that were made between Ryuko and Satsuki's technically similar abilities, the point being that Ryuko chose to fight not just for vengeance but at the behest and defense of her friends. With those allies, specifically Senketsu and Mako, having been hurt in various ways due to her rampage, the question of whether it's right for her to continue to wield that power is what leads to Ryuko's sulking isolation for much of this episode.
Even if we know that she'll eventually put the suit back on and start swordfighting again, it's still a compelling note to have the character contemplate. There's even a bit of misdirection involved in it: Kill la Kill wants the audience to believe that Ryuko may be afraid that Senketsu's power is what transformed her. When it's made clear that Ryuko actually blames her own too-rapid evolution for the monstrous mutation, it's a marker of growth even before she's over her depression-induced immobility. This has been the story of Ryuko learning the nature of power and coming to terms with the responsible risks that must be taken. Yes, she should be wary of power for power's sake, as that's presented as the key difference between how she and Satsuki fight, but the fact that she has that option as a reason to continue opposing the President's rule still places her firmly on the story's sympathetic side of right.
This is contrasted with Satsuki's uncompromising charge to conquest. She seems to favor this particular rule-of-school as it naturally lends itself to an army with specialized squads and the student council Elite Four to lead them. It feels like the ultimate expression of the militarized educational culture of Japan that the series was remarking on way back at the beginning. That said, it's hardly country-specific, as Mako engages with a subplot about wanting to be a member of the Raid Trip simply for the opportunities it would afford her. It's absolutely standard practice for military forces to tempt the less-fortunate in society to join their ranks for the chance to see the world (and subjugate it). That's the control that power-based rule extends to all aspects of the population it lords over, described as well in another installment of Ragyo's gradually expanding appearances. It's not just power: everything these fascistic leaders accumulate for themselves is for its own sake, from controlling dominance of the clothing industry to the defiant act of sin itself. All these components swirl around the setup of Satsuki's raiding party, illustrating for us the sheer scale of her ambitions and where they arose from. That's the tangible structure of Nakashima's writing I've talked about before, building concepts into broad storytelling excess.
All that broad conceptual stuff perhaps makes it too easy to point out the weaker links of this episode, which is to say its actual attempts at a plot. After all that other setup, the introduction of school journalist Nagita might well have been an opportunity to expound on the press's role in helping or hindering a fascist rule. But perhaps the setup just swings too close to Maiko from back in episode 4, because it was always obvious to me, even the first time I watched it, that this kid was up to no good. His declarations don't even affect Ryuko's shifting perspective on her own power as much as those of Senketsu, Mako, and her family in the episode, so the need for his surreptitious presence is questionable. The end result is simply a way for the character to be revealed as Nui in disguise, get the drop on Ryuko, and slice Senketsu off, setting up the next part of the storyline. And for as much of a distraction as this component ultimately turns out to be, I consider that they could have dropped Nui in without this whole song and dance. Also, for all the good thematic stuff, episode 13 has a lot of noticeable animation shortcuts (Nui herself even commenting that Ryuko's fighting is “weaker than last time”), lessening the impact of this laborious twist even more. It's a testament, then, to the show's sense of overall dramatic deployment, that the ultimate cliffhanger, Ryuko defeated and Senketsu sliced to bits, feels like a true breaking point halfway through the show here.
That issue of animation corner-cutting is at least one direct through-line I can draw between the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes. It's possible that having relatively little Ryuko in it meant episode 14 wasn't a priority for action animation, leaving things noticeably stiff and repetitive in a lot of places. The actual artistry is still as sharp and dynamic as ever (including the appearance of Ryuko's motorcycle-riding tracksuit costume, which is her best look in the whole show for my money), and there's certainly a novelty to seeing the setting leave Honnouji for once to branch out to different regional backgrounds. The areas of Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka are colorful and distinctive in ways they need to be, played up as candy-coated caricatures of their real-life inspirations. And there's honestly kind of an amusing art to be observed in the way the crew does more with less, as stylized CGI soldiers slide in sync, or a war of attrition is represented by two single-cel crowds just bumping against each other. But especially coming off the lavish treatment the last two episodes of the Naturals Election arc got, it's still hard not to notice how rough things look across this couple.
There's also the question of just how much plot and thematic importance is being communicated by this episode's entry in the Raid Trip storyline. On the one hand, you can definitely feel Kill la Kill's trademark briskness in its treatment of the material, as each of these instances of the Student Council members taking on regional school leaders would be at least one whole episode of their own in a more ‘typical’ battle-action anime. But fun as watch as they are to watch, the brawls mostly seem to exist to give the Elite Four a much-needed W after their trouncing in the Naturals Election. They need to be built up as the insurmountable bosses they seemed to be at the beginning, so throwing some new enemies at them and having them win without their three-star uniforms is a solid mechanic for doing so.
My problem is that it's a waste at this point to dedicate a whole half-hour of showing off how strong these characters are. In particular, it's frustrating that the regional school leaders are portrayed simply as tertiary antagonists, coming off just as jerkily unsympathetic as their invading aggressors, which somewhat dampens their nominal role of being annexed by a hostile power. They're bystanders, a background element to the rebounding rivalry between the Honnouji crew and Ryuko, and if we've been endeared enough to the Elite Four's quirks at this point that we might conflictingly find ourselves rooting for them here, their enemies don't do a good enough job of actually selling that uncomfortable uncertainty.
At least in this episode, it dampens Kill la Kill's points about the evils of conquering rule. There's something to be said for the seeming argument that any ruling body is inherently self-serving and corrupt, with only an anarchic interloper like Ryuko truly fighting for what's ‘right’. In particular, I enjoy the comparison between Takarada's authority in Osaka being finance-based, as opposed to Satsuki's direct power structure. But it just leads to a showcase of crazy fights against a ‘Both sides are jerks’ backdrop, rather than ever concretely calling out what Satsuki, the main villain of the show so far, is doing. With foreknowledge of where Kill la Kill is going, it noticeably feels like the series is trying to soften us up for more concrete sympathy for these devils. While those later revelations may pan out in the long run, here we're left with a head-scratching installment. It is fun to watch in places, but also disjointed and unpolished to the point of distraction.
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