Kill la Kill
Episodes 21-22

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 21 of
Kill la Kill ?

How would you rate episode 22 of
Kill la Kill ?

I appreciated the novelty of the effort, but it was just harder for me to get enthused about the more subdued, somber styles of the Kill la Kill episodes I covered last week. But you can't count out the show's abilities to craft an arc, and these next two episodes deliver on all that pent-up stress and set-up. These are the ones where Ryuko and Satsuki duel in their swapped Kamui. This is the one that ends with the triumphant return of Fight Club Mako. This has the part where Ryuko cuts Nui's arms off! It's not just pure eventfulness either, as so many of the various memorable moments of these episodes feel like they mean something in terms of motifs and thematics that have been built up on this show for so long now.

Take that unforgettable centerpiece fight between Ryuko and Satsuki in Episode 21. There's plenty to appreciate on a technical level, of course, like the clever choreography of Ryuko's first blow being brought down by her standing on top of a toppling piece of debris, or even their artistically-clever conservation of resources this late in the show's run. I love those cut-in panels of the two of them talking layering over each other repeatedly, even including multiple angles of Ryuko speaking at one point. It impresses me even as I can see the production straining and stalling. But the costume-swapped combat also represents the apex of the methodological clash the series has been trading on since the beginning. Satsuki's win-at-any-cost nature is fully finalized in her gambit here, taking on the weapon of her rival that she can't even properly use in an effort to take down Ryuko, who now exists as an extension of the tyranny of the mother she swore to end. It's a symbolic explanation of the extent of Satsuki's ruthless practicality, even before she offers that in dialogue by the end of this duo of episodes: she can't understand Senketsu, but she'll still allow herself to work with him towards a strongly-shared common goal. It's not unlike the new alliance between the former Student Council and Nudist Beach, an expression of the utilitarian utilization of power Satsuki has always espoused.

Ryuko's side of the fight, to me, feels less about her for most of it and more about the ultimate methods of fascism as employed by Ragyo. Sure, there's contention to be taken with Kill la Kill again using overtly sapphic expressions of affection as a sign of things being bad and wrong, but it also speaks to the empty promises of being enveloped by this power: in the warped and controlling embraces of Ragyo and Nui, Ryuko feels the love and comfort (familial or otherwise) that she felt she must have previously been lacking in life. It plots a direct through-line between abusively controlling parental relationships and domineering leadership. “You can feel good and safe here, just as long as you do whatever I tell you to.” That's ‘the bliss of slavery’ that gets described, and at one's lowest point it can feel comforting compared to the terrifying freedom that counters it, seen here in the form of Satsuki jumping into a life-or-death battle, barely covered by weaponized clothes she can't even understand.

You can almost feel Kill la Kill congratulating itself perhaps a bit overtly for all this symbolic setup. It comes alongside the dialogue just spelling out the motifs embodied by Satsuki's split Bakuzan sword, or reiterating the supposed meaningful mechanics of the Kamui's skin-baring style. "You should call it human genius" indeed. But as usual with this show, it's easy to digest when this confidence it has is on display so earnestly. This is presented as the last place for the series to get in one more Ryuko/Satsuki duel, and by god are Imaishi and Nakashima going to make it count. It's a pointed turnaround right before they unite to start working together for real, and that necessitates some impressing of their philosophies on each other. It's why this is ultimately not just a battle between power and freedom, but also between individuality and uniformity. For both their parts in these episodes we hear Satsuki and Ryuko articulate how coming to appreciate the distinctively distinguished existences of other people motivates them to fight for their freedom. For Ryuko it's about understanding that even if she can't validate her own being, the fact that she has friends and allies who will fight for her means more than any single-minded goal. The ‘love’ from Ragyo and Nui that she had previously been swayed by was self-serving to them, manipulating Ryuko as a tool. But the love that Senketsu and Mako express for her is selfless on their part: they fight for Ryuko herself. That same personal investment is expressed by the Elite Four in their own defense of Satsuki apart from her previous material goals of conquest and subjugation. Which prompts the last bit of ideological turnaround for Satsuki, and also means her own motivations finally have to be discussed.

The question of what Satsuki hoped to accomplish by fascistically constructing her own cruelly-controlled social hierarchy has hung like a specter over the narrative ever since it was revealed to be a ruse for a seemingly-noble long-term goal. ‘The ends justify the means’ has been, in general, a theme woven through her characterization since the beginning, but with everyone finally on the same side here, the writing still knew she would have to break this down. But in the end, Satsuki simply cops to the fact that she was wrong in her dehumanizing of others in pursuit of destroying the particular evil of Ragyo. It feels shortchanged after all the build-up and utilization of Satsuki to illustrate angles of fascistic rule. They have made us like Satsuki, especially at the end of this little sub-story, but it's also easily my biggest quibble that her ultimate lesson was “it's bad to do a fascism when you're fighting fascism”. He who fights with monsters, and all that, or to put it in the simpler parlance of Kill la Kill itself, Don't Lose Your Way.

It's probably unfair to take the series to task too much for a lack of complexity in its ideas apart from simply shouting ideologies in the most outlandish way possible, especially when it's putting on one hell of a show like this. Ryuko's triumphant return is heralded with a spectacularly animated 'Gattai!' sequence of Senketsu being put back on her and a terrific take-down of Nui, who's been cemented at this point as someone we love to hate. One amusing detail here is how the crew have just committed to ‘cheap’-styled animation effects as one of Nui's hallmarks, as she slides and flips around like a Paper Mario character. Even the pivotal scene of Ryuko disarming her is presented as a stiffly-timed gag followed up with a silly super-deformed argument.

And that ‘shouting ideologies’ element means that even with the half-assed turnaround for Satsuki's motivations, Kill la Kill can still pull its own themes off. For as iffy as the episode itself was, the ballad of Fight Club Mako has come back in several meaningful ways, and towards the end of this one, it's those dang croquettes of her mom's. They symbolized the true beauty of their family bond then, and here they're shared between all these new allies as a mark of the ideal humanity: a riot of parts cut from completely different sources that nonetheless come together to create something wonderful. It's Satsuki humbly sitting down to this meal, more than her roundabout justification for the error of her ways, that completes her turn, in my eyes. Nakashima's thoroughly tangible motifs work wonders when he deploys them like that. Few things are perfect, least of all a couple select episodes of television. But like Satsuki's apologizing techniques commented on by Ryuko, the parts that work in these entries are turned up to 11. That compensates plenty for the low points, and makes for an unforgettably entertaining hour of anime.


Kill la Kill is currently streaming on Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Hulu.

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