Kill la Kill
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 3 of
Kill la Kill ?
How would you rate episode 4 of
Kill la Kill ?
So remember when I said that Kill la Kill's first couple episodes set up a clear ladder that Ryuko was going to have to climb to eventually face Satsuki, her main stated goal? Yeah the rip-roaring pace of Studio Trigger just couldn't wait for that, so the third one already sees the Student Council Dictator throw on her ‘Wedding Dress’ for a big day against our hot-blooded heroine. Given the way I gushed about those first two episodes, it's obvious the series didn't really need to work any harder to earn audience trust back in the day, but even then this entry was one hell of a way to make sure they passed the three-episode-test. It also manages the best balancing act yet in dropping backstory and world-building, elaborating on its central themes, and showing off all the animated action.
I'm not such a stickler for in-universe detailing that I personally would have needed a full explanation for how Kill la Kill's life-fiber infused clothes work. But the way the writing effectively weaves the technical details into the more thematic fiber of the story (there's some sewing humor for all of you this time) means I actually came away pretty impressed with it. The percentage of life fibers determining a uniform's strength is some pretty standard anime power-level stuff, but then we're shown that not everyone can handle wearing these stronger superpowered outfits. Thus it's demonstrated that it's not just a case of curried favor that has landed the Student Council members their positions at Satsuki's side- We understand they're wielding the power of their uniforms via their own strength, completing the circuit of the might-makes-right philosophy powering the fascistic metaphor this show is already making obvious. As such, Satsuki's donning of her own Kamui is a specific response to Ryuko's show of power. She must demonstrate that she's on the same level as this instigator or she risks losing the clout of strength that enables her position in the first place.
Dressing in one of the show's signature barely-there battle outfits is certainly an amusingly-subverted approach to an emperor putting down the rumor that they have no clothes, but that's just the setup for the contrasted clash that makes up the spectacle of this episode. Junketsu doesn't just play opposite to Ryuko's uniform with its pure-white color scheme, everything about its debut is reversed from Senketsu's, Satsuki taking it deliberately and then forcing it to be worn by her. That's diametrically-opposed characterization for our current hero and antagonist already: Where Ryuko had power given to her after defeat so she could dismantle the forces responsible, Satsuki instead bends this strong entity to her will as a method for reinforcing her power structure. This thematic gimmick to the storytelling is present pretty much the whole way through this episode, even the overt justification for the fanservice!
I said they would get to that, and indeed, this episode sees the writing of Kill la Kill make some effort at saying something alongside the displays of those iconically saucy outfits. What actually works about it is, again, how it ties into the characterizations of Satsuki and Ryuko. Sure Satsuki's bombastic speech while in the costume can come off ridiculous, but underneath that she makes a chilling point about the nature of fascistic leaders: That they have total disregard for how the rest of the world judges them for how they come across, having no compunction about doing whatever they can, ridiculous or not, in the name of consolidating power. She's absurd, yes, but that's also what makes a leader like her so dangerous. Ryuko, meanwhile, is only able to embrace the full power of her outlandish appearance specifically because she realizes that allies like Mako and Senketsu believe in her. She's proud of the power the appearance gives her because she can use it to fight with and for others. It's still pretty impossible to believe that the Kamui in Kill la Kill were designed for anything but fanservice first, but as a justification worked into the ideas of the story, this shows some pretty respectable skill and effort. Kazuki Nakashima's writing trends very strongly towards tangible thematic structures, and working all these yin-yang aspects into how these girls are pitted against each other, up to why each of them fights while double-cheeked-up, is a standout example of that.
Of course, all that wouldn't work nearly as well if episode 3 wasn't also Kill la Kill at the top of its game, visually. After demonstrating them before, this one goes absolutely nuts on stuff like the 360s and simulated tracking shots. Even in places where it's clearly rationing time and budget for TV animation, Kill la Kill knows how to leverage presentation to make up for it, with those explosive freeze-frames, or clever uses of sliding cels. Even wearing their bombastic outfits, the dueling figures of Ryuko and Satsuki are stylized and contorted from cut to cut in ways to make the battle come off as dynamic and vicious as possible. It's a spectacular culmination of all that thematic legwork in the writing I was praising leading up to it, and even as there's a bit more awkward compositing and CGI than I remembered, it's still all carried by the sheer audacious excess of it all.
Unfortunately, that same praise for the production can not carry over as I pivot to talking about the fourth episode of the series. If you remember this one, you know exactly what I'm talking about: Just after that show-stopping visual feast of a fight, this episode drops a cavalcade of cartoony cutouts on us in such a stark contrast I swear it had to be intentional trolling on some level. Personally I always half-suspected it was an extended homage to Gurren Lagann's own infamously-iffy fourth episode. The cheap-looking nature of everything would shortcut and shortchange things more if this episode's ambitious weren't clearly to just provide something of a slapstick breather after the big show in the previous one. In that respect it's just barely acceptable in moments like when incidental villain Maiko seems to have been laid low by the janky animation itself. Trigger would actually learn to make the most of this kind of budget-conscious effort in later shows like Space Patrol Luluco, but there was clearly a learning process here.
It's too bad, because the actual episode has a pretty fun concept that continues tying into the deeper themes of Kill la Kill. Not only do we see the Honnouji Academy regime using arbitrary deadlines as a way to sabotage and oppress students, their enforcement is the straight power-flexing playbook. They've convinced the rich upper-level class to target Ryuko and stop her from reaching her goal, and there's even a ‘class traitor’ in obvious undercover plant Maiko, endangering Ryuko's efforts to her own selfish ends. Kill la Kill had mostly been playing in thematic allegory up to this point, but this episode is a pretty keen how-to in spotting some of the basic building blocks of fascist rule. I even like the thematic characterization extended to Maiko, who not only concealed her true self from Ryuko and was defeated, but hid her ambitions from the Disciplinary committee only to end up expelled by Gamagoori. As Ryuko and Satsuki proved last episode, you can't get anywhere in this universe unless you loudly lay bare who you are. That makes it all the more pity that episode four looks so rough and uneven, but then perhaps that's to Kill la Kill's credit that it can continue being entertaining even at its most shoestring. It also makes this two-episode review format a bit odd, having to average that out against the frankly outstanding third episode. But in the end I think it shakes out in favor of the show's appeal, that even hot on the heels of one of its best episodes, I was still able to find plenty to like in its most middling.
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