Kill la Kill
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 17 of
Kill la Kill ?
How would you rate episode 18 of
Kill la Kill ?
"Something that was just a brawl turned into some grand battle full of crazy crap I don't understand.” Nakashima just be like that sometimes, Ryuko. That sense of imminent escalation continues in the episodes of Kill la Kill I visited this week, moving soundly into what I consider the “Things just keep happening” zone of Trigger shows. The series has almost never been uneventful, of course, but these episodes here contain such an absurd mess of revelations and status quo shifts that they guarantee the sense of a continuous, linear plot we've been covering since about the Naturals Election arc isn't losing any speed from now on. And yes, of course episode 18 feels like another finale-level showing slotted into the middle of the show. But that's the kind of thing we keep coming back to Kill la Kill for.
The bounce-back isn't solely on account of the action picking up again, however. Episode 17 is in fact largely another ‘calm before the storm’ entry of tension-building timing. What's most remarkable about this is how it comes right on the heels of that 16th episode, and just represents a better version of what that one tried to do. It actually repeats a lot of the world-building plot-twists from the previous episode but reframes them in a way to make them feel more urgent to our characters' quests. And it's careful to keep it reflected in how they've grown as people and how we know this knowledge affected them. I love seeing here how Ryuko and Senketsu can just casually open up and talk to each other now. The presentation also seems to have improved even in the face of relatively little going on, exemplified by the hilarious amount of resources and attention to detail put into the scene where Mako's family confronts Gamagoori. It just feels like Studio Trigger is giving all aspects of the episode their attention, instead of focusing all their efforts on, say, a gratuitous bath scene.
In fact, now that they're not mining deeply uncomfortable character depths with bad-touch bathtime, Satsuki and Ragyo get to engage in recollections which further the thematics of Kill la Kill in ways that have gotten lost in all that suddenly revealed space travel. Satsuki is mostly a lot of portents, her shifty setups making clear even if you didn't know what was coming that she might be less than loyal to her mother (and after that last episode, can you blame her?), down to a hilariously pointed line supposedly referring to tea about her ‘enduring the bitterness’ during her childhood up to this point. Ragyo, however, actually brings back some ideological speculation that you'd be forgiven for fearing would fall by the wayside. It's borne out of her recitation of her and Satsuki's plan up to now: That a specific angle of Honnouji Academy was neutralizing teenagers' apparent natural resistance to the controlling influence of Life Fibers by getting them hooked on the clothes' power instead.
At this stage that's a shockingly frank demonstration of how fascist ideologies work their way into a youth element. Indeed, teenagers specifically are colloquially known for their propensity towards rebellion, with the energy and direction to revolutionize against a status quo, no matter how power-enforced it is. So it goes that it's very easy and common to see, across eras and cultures, oppressive ideologies reach out to sway them with their worldview instead. Much like Ragyo's controlling interest in the fashion industry, it's good business as well, spawning hate-clicks from those easily swayed to angry disenfranchisement and misguided culture wars. The fresh ideas of youth could change everyone's world for the better by reaching out with their resources, so the powers-that-be better cloak the status in an empowering aesthetic, solidifying that “Us vs Them” philosophy that lets you direct their attack-dog energy towards your own enemies.
That's heady stuff for a few minutes of somewhat informative monologuing from Ragyo, but that speaks to how strongly suited Kill la Kill's concepts and energy are at provoking thought about this kind of thing. It even wraps back around to make the aliens bit work for the moment, the idea that the person-enveloping COVERS actually rob their victims of their humanity. It's the uniform ideology on a grander, grosser scale, and it means we get an idea of what parts of this story necessitated the revelation of this enemy being truly inhuman. And the striking contrast is evident when Ragyo's plan is activated, sold to us by the eerie silence she revels in (even her theme music stops!). That itself is in service of getting us to hold our breath just long enough for the real shock at the end of the episode. Satsuki betraying her mother and sabotaging her plan? Sure, we could guess something like that was coming. Satsuki immediately, unflinchingly stabbing her mother in the back? Gets me every time!
That might be another reason I think episode 17 works better than 16, because it actually comes with a ridiculously rewarding payoff in the form of this eighteenth episode! This is what happens when you go two whole episodes without a fight in Kill la Kill, all hell breaks loose as the whole cast just turns their swords inward. They even forgo the opening theme to really cement that faux-finale flair. There are some stumbles in getting here, admittedly, which are my only complaints about the episode. As I've alluded to, the turn of Satsuki and the Elite Four comes with the major question of what exactly we're supposed to think of their methods until now. It's easy to want to believe all the President's actions up to now were a ruse, given how cool it is to see her and the Council go to work. But the rule she impressed on her school and city absolutely came across as fascistic employments she genuinely believed in, regardless of the ‘good’ they were meant to do in deposing Ragyo in the end. To the writing's credit, Satsuki articulates her awareness that she's still a villain, but this still slips in the potential argument of the ends justifying the means in terms of power-based quashing of freedom, and that can undercut the loud absolutes Kill la Kill seemed to emphatically articulate previously.
Fortunately, that's mostly background noise to worry about later at this point, since the show this one puts on is so dazzling on its own. The artistic merits of Kill la Kill apply to all its components at one point or another, and in episode 18 it's the layouts and storyboards that really stand out, in my opinion. The show has reveled in positioning characters above and below one another for symbolic value from the first episode, and with multiple sides now carving their way out in a giant battle royale, we get various versions of that trick throughout, shifting between Ryuko, Satsuki, and Ragyo. Characters appear on giant background screens to deliver exposition for the convenience of us and the heroes, and even parts like Sanageyama and Nui's rematch, which lack a lot of the fluid action of other fights, get by on dynamic positioning and kinetic direction. The art plays with itself in different ways this episode as well; it's easy to take the washed-out brain-exposed look of the mind-stitched students as mere artistic visual symbolism, but then Ryuko, being a Hiroyuki Imaishi character, has no trouble with reaching in and directly interacting with the design as her method of breaking free. It's those moment-to-moment mini-delights that help carry the aforementioned “Things just keep happening” effect.
The other part of that, though, is the plot twists themselves. There was a point that the infodump of episode 16, comprehensive as it claimed to be, was still leaving several corners of the story unlit. While there are contentious points with Satsuki's switching of sides that occur this episode, the personal backstory we get behind it, I think, does land. We already knew Ragyo was bad news, the raw moment of callousness of dropping her own presumed-killed infant daughter down a garbage chute is perfectly timed to communicate how far gone she really is. It's appropriate that this is the same point we get to see that she's now a literal monster made of regenerating Life Fibers. And for those issues with Satsuki's methods, there is an air of sweetness that the whole exercise was at least partially motivated by wanting to get revenge for her baby sister.
There's a lot of explaining Kill la Kill still has to do, but when it's really on like this, getting the emotional beats right is what's most important, and it absolutely does that here thanks to the direction not letting up at all. I love impactful moments like Satsuki's failure being immortalized in her being smashed into the same position as that hapless mook from way back in episode 1. Or the way the episode goes into one of Imaishi's beloved freeze-frames to make us think the episode's going to end there, only to unfreeze just to deliver one more game-changing reveal in the form of Ryuko's true nature and real relationship with Ragyo and Satsuki. Like some of the turns this episode, it's a bit jarring in the grand scheme of things (to say nothing of how it then cuts directly to that adorable Mako-centric ending theme), but works because it keeps the episode's insane momentum going up to its very last frame. Besides, remember that originally, we got a whole week to just sit there and absorb all this after it happened, before the next episode.
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