When anime has such a clear-eyed perspective on the zeitgest, I perk up. Imagine my bemused surprise when a medium so often concerned with appeasing our most questionable wishes, takes a well-timed potshot at itself. Personally, I love it when post-modernism is being used to comment on larger media concerns, and this little gag seemed aimed squarely at fans like me. So when I clicked PLAY on Yasuhiro Yoshiura‘s eight minute short, I was anticipating what Twitter dubbed to be a celebration of classic cinema imagery. What I saw, was the equivalent to a well-executed barside joke.
The Bureau Of Protosociety, takes place in a near nondescript future world where our remaining population lives deep underground. Clearly the result of some vague catastrophe that a clandestine committee continues to mull the cause and effect of. Several members, with screens surrounding them, grant us a window into possible apocalyptic scenarios that have led us to this completely sheltered existence. What ensues from here ranges from war, alien invasion, to plague. All strangely looking familiar while we’re talking about it.
But the references here aren’t what grabbed me most with this. The implication of such a piece, is that in a realm bereft of history, culture is often rendered meaningless. It’s especially biting to discover the nature of the citizenry and the bureau’s concerns over a developing uprising. Almost echoing current political concerns in Japan. A foolish lack of hindsight on the part of a populace, leading to perhaps one of the best summations of the current anime landscape I have seen in some time. (and it doesn’t hurt that the tune at the end brings back many a memory)
Among the many reasons why I have largely enjoyed the Animator Expo series, the ability to play things less commercial and safe remains my favorite. Yoshiura’s reverence for cult, and a bleak sarcasm that could rival bits of Space Dandy, makes this a special standout for those looking for something a little more biting than your usual televised fare. So what if it doesn’t run longer? It’s a nifty little mike drop that deserves your few minutes of snack time. And like all good anime diets, it is crucial that your in-betweens are a greater part of your self-nurturing side.
Well there’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in an age. Looking back at the first piece I slapped together regarding Studio Trigger’s initial leap into the television series gauntlet, I’m pretty sure there was no awareness of what would happen. In fact, one could say that I was a bit of an unabashed naysayer regarding Kill la Kill. On its face it seemed like just another hyper-referential Imaishi noisefest. And while it maintains this facade throughout the 24 episode run, I sincerely didn’t expect to love it as much as I do now. Now, the mental drifting goes back toward his previous works, and it is clear that this is a show that required a few big warmups before happening. This is a refined and wisened Imaishi & Co., taking on roughly 40 years-plus of a medium’s history, and coming up with one of the most satisfyingly warped serial experiences I have ever witnessed. And just because they are wisened, this in no way implies matured. As far as wacky shows go, Kill la Kill is unrepentant, even as it treads classic alpha vs. omega stories with aplomb. (and that is exactly why it works.)
We can talk all day about the show’s referential nature, but to do so would mean to undermine what Imaishi & Nakashima have fashioned here as pastiche. In order to do this, one has to grasp why this is so. When one thinks of not only anime, but film in general over the last several decades, we must consider the role of post-modernist works, and how they succeed beyond the obvious. And to do this, we must think of some of the most effective uses of direct filmic response over this time period. Star Wars, Matrix comes to mind. The point is, it doesn’t matter how referential your show becomes. What matters is if it is in service of a larger story. And this is where KLK pretty much wins across the table. There is an inherent knowing behind all of the creative decisions. One that might not be as clear to some viewers, but it is present throughout the posturing and fighting.
The goal here is one of deceptive restraint. (Yes, I said “restraint” in a Kill la Kill discussion.) This is where we see a visual nod to a classic work of the past carefully embedded in service of the project’s larger themes. Not merely apparent for obvious reasons, but more as a direct symbolic response. And this is but one place where this show succeeds. It rarely to never feels superfluous, nor tacked on merely for nostalgia reasons. There is a more aware, more heightened reason as to why. Confession: upon my initial viewing of Gainax’s Top Wo Nerae! GUNBUSTER in the early 1990s, there was a feeling that something was being missed in my neophyte mind. I earnestly was not aware of all the anime & classic science fiction nods that were happening throughout, and I was taken by it regardless. THIS – is precisely the kind of effect that is happening here. It does not require us to be medium junkies in order to appreciate it. It’s just enough a melange of past and future, that it hardly seems to be issue-worthy.
So what we’ve just discussed, factors greatly in why the show ends up becoming as multifaceted, and exciting as it is. As much as a lot of it is TRIGGER’s way of respecting their sempai, and doing good by what they learned from their elders at Gainax, it is also a story of generational strife, and what it often does to families. Threads that find themselves at odds by reinforced beliefs between the generations lies burning at the heart of the show. There is a genuine concern for this tension between parental expectation, economic interests, and independent thinking. Even as the world is at last briefly shown as a complete, naked, and honest entity, the show implies that this is a constant struggle. One far beyond one massive spacebound battle for the soul of humanity. With this playing itself out in the most ridiculous, visually assaultive manner possible, the series kind of gets at the heart of why I love anime in the first place.
Before being whittled down to a calculated series of tropes and ideas ready for market, anime was far more emotional, far more unrestrained & far more surreal than it has been for years. And while many may argue that it is only in the post-1990s that we have come to a place where indeed everything and anything could happen within the form, it has long become something synthesized. And by this, I mean..controlled. Kill la Kill is kind of a kiss off to the current model and is also keeping the best elements of the past slung happily around its shoulders. The legacy of many a young, hungry, intense artist is at the heart of Ryuko Matoi’s battle for familial understanding. And even though we can see the initial episodes as being a perpetuation of oh-so many expectations based on toy and hobby item sales, the remainder goes out of its way to see well past all this to become its own, wild, restless entity. By the end, so many of the show’s more questionable qualities become moot, and the focus becomes resoundingly clear for all anime studios to see. Uniformity as an end goal – quite the terrifying prospect to the heart and soul of this project. It sees what has happened, and is daring more fans and makers to alter course.
This is exciting stuff.
So where to now? Where does one go after such a profoundly crazy ride? I could lie, and say that Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan could serve as a happy methadone for the days and weeks ahead, but seriously. This was a show (let me correct myself, IS..a show) that makes careers and possibly leaves a well-planted mark in the story of anime. Whether one finds personal value in the madness inherent or not is beside the point. As a production, it is all something of a miraculous thing to exist. Like a stubborn weed amongst forests of uniformed concrete, the tale of the Kiryuin family, the Makanshoku family, the Elite Four, Nudist Beach, and others find themselves as singular in a medium landscape that will continue to feel fresh and exciting for a long time to come. If TTGL was a loving appetizer, then KLK is that obstinate, scrappy main course that can make one want to be a punk chef of their very own.
Twists at breakneck speeds, revelations abound, and allegiances reversed. There seems to be no stopping the heartpounding freight train that is Kill La Kill’s final stretch of episodes. Common cause has been unveiled, leaving it a war of nudes versus clothed avatars of shame, and former enemies now aligned with the once thought only rebellion. With many of the principle roles now falling perfectly into what could be considered destined ones, only one element remains dangling precariously; heroine, Ryuko Matoi. Traumatized, distraught, and more than a little angry about the truth of her origin, her rudder is all but completely broken off. Unwilling to see herself as part of any side other than her own, it is up to a most unexpected ally to make a grand leap in hopes of her salvation. (even if it means beating the tar out of her first..)
Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe, it’s often a great pleasure to be wrong. Looking back at twenty episodes of Studio Trigger’s grand kiss-off/GAINAX love-fest, Kill La Kill, one couldn’t truly be faulted for being a tad presumptuous after years of often disheartening material. So what happened to make this jaded naysayer hit the about-face button so violently? Well, the show as it has been thus far owes much of its success to not only understanding the so-called Gainax formula so well, but to how well it eschews so much of what often hobbles many of the mother studio’s shows. More about playing with form, rather than clumsily taping together with function. What Imaishi and company have successfully fashioned, is the first truly post-Gainax series. One that takes everything since Top Wo Nerae!, and amps up the levels to near murderous methedrine levels, complete with hair-raising cliffhangers every week. Honesty time, it has truly been a long, long time since I have felt this way with any show.
Say what one wishes about previous Imaishi efforts, this is the first truly breakthrough series from a director who’s style has often overridden any semblance of meaning within and without. As great as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan is, there remains a feeling there that is more akin to a dry run at “Hero’s Journey” territory. What KLK offers up, is something both representative of his powers as a stylist, and as a fledgling visual satirist, doling out both incredible energies and sneaking wit beneath oodles of crimson chaos. Even when the show hits an occasional iffy note, more often than not it is countered with something far wilder and more insane that what had come before. Always on the brink of total collapse, the show flirts so often with the bad, and yet it corrects course as if performing a high-wire act, knowing full well that the key to a successful display of showmanship, is the semblance of fallibility. KLK seems to know very well that it’s playing matters quite close to the wire, and yet it never steps away from the edge of that ravine.
And it’s all in the service of some very real concerns regarding the delicate balance not only the young must maintain in life affairs, but everyone. Even as the show has made it alarmingly clear that issues are to be approached in grandiose, broad strokes, it does so with such a deft, visual manner that it almost becomes a moving political mural. A warning, not only to the elder otaku set, but to all passionates that the moral standings we take are often of a musical chairs nature. One of the show’s biggest stylistic triumphs is in how it eschews a lot of the typical muddled anime thematic posturing that bogs most series down, and allows action to dictate more. Even as characters spout out about their requisite viewpoints, it is often within battle that their truest intentions for the world are made clear. Imaishi seems to finally have grand control of his best strengths(visual hyperbole and overt visual metaphors), and is hitting far more than missing this time around. And Nakashima’s story supervision has kept the story developing at such a uniquely effective clip, that one doesn’t mind so much when grand escapes happen, and one is asking questions as to how. This particular story is about the language of action, and what happens when we run so hard against another that we begin seeing the other side’s attributes. That there is more than one justice in the world, and in life we find ourselves dabbling in more than one to see what fits. The origin of community as we strive toward larger goods despite differences. While some of these were indeed explored in TTGL, it feels so much more refined and singular here.
And yes, I realize the absurdity of using “refined” to describe a series that largely consists of largely disrobed teens fighting to the tune of immense collateral damage. But despite all the anarchy and unisex debasement on display, it all seems to be in the name of greater ambitions for anime on television. Even if Kill La Kill’s final stretch turns out to be a typical series flameout, it will no doubt be spectacular. I can’t imagine the staff behind this having it any other way.
(Oh, yes. And I have to remark here that I kind of geeked out about those flashbacks regarding a younger Ragyo & Soichiro Kiryuin. Their hair. Maaaan.)
Doctrines have been questioned, true faces revealed, and all bets are off..
You know the more this viewer wishes to resist the caffiene-injected, nonsensical, and often audacious nature of Kill la Kill, the more it has this pulling effect that is utterly irresistible. Looking back even a few episodes, so much of what has come before has finally paid off as Honnouji’s greater purpose has revealed itself, and the secret of the Life Fibers has come to light. And while the story of Ryuko Matoi has taken on galactic proportion, all of the show’s buildup of the ramparts and players has led to a battle royale over which direction civilization will take in a world dominated by clothing. And by clothing, one could mean an old world based on not greed, or simple corrpution, but by the base motivator- shame. The gravity holding the show together just enough is one of a world up for grabs. A world long dominated by market forces now in disarray as the major players learn the truth, and must eke out a way beyond the conflicts of the past. As exploitation and war no longer seem as viable as they once were, where does humanity’s relationship to shame’s remedy lie?
Just watching the show, one sees a classic “street toughs versus rich kids” play taken to impossible extremes, and that is merely a starting point. And with the focus shifting heavily away from the simpler revenge road plotline, the ground has given way to reveal larger, more potent targets. Most notably the roles that the powerful and proletariat have played over our species’ history, and the potential grand shift that is within our collective grasp. Amidst all the punching, the screaming, and the confusion, change is near, but its never been more dangerous. For all the regional stereotyping, and often garish posturing, KLK has taken full advantage of its advanced length and is offering up an unrepentantly wacky exploration of humankind’s will to be dominant and to be dominated.
Even as the show threatens to completely derail itself, there is always this sense of greater purpose that keeps the show from succumbing to style. For example, Ryuko’s initial reaction to the truth about herself, her father, and the role Senketsu has to play in the grander scheme is both unclear, and hastily resolved. As grand as things have been throughout, there is often a feeling that Nakashima and Imaishi have been trying to reign each other in before tipping the show’s hand out too far. One can even see places where cost-saving has become important in order to make sure the animation in certain scenes can be fulfilled. But as a balancing act between style and thought, KLK often barely hangs on by mere virtue of staying true to purpose. While it can never for a moment be seen as a bastion of subtlety, there is enough happening in between the battles that offers up this notion that not only Japan is in this grand flux, but so is the world. Where philosophies for all on both sides of the pole may need to reconsider the shape of the world they once believed was certain.
And in keeping with that uncertainty, the show remains a tonal rollercoaster. Unwilling to play simple and fair, the cast and crew have made it imperative that KLK seeks its own voice. One that is equal parts serious, and unerringly silly. It is anime getting sick on itself and gleefully puking all over the dancefloor in a colorful splatter of joy and concern. Not quite Dead Kennedys, and not quite Black Flag, this show is an unruly mosh pit with purpose. In the world of KLK, the center cannot AND will not hold, so dance to your heart’s content and rejoice that this is no simple beat-em up anime. As classic as some of the turns in this story are, we have never seen anything quite like this. Sure, fisticuffs cannot solve the world’s greater problems, but it sure is a cool vessel for what is an important conversation. It is both a celebration and a yearning.
All that really matters now, is the kind of world we want.
Perhaps it is time to up and say that all this fighting and stripping might represent a shift in personal priorities. Not so much in the minds of those behind Kill la Kill per sé, but rather in my own. There was indeed a time when anime excess was something I could wholeheartedly get behind. “The more bugnuts insane, the better!”, I often thought. After all, there is something about the pure gut nature of the medium that is both dangerous and alluring to many admirers. But as one grows older, often it is depth of context that wins out over visual chutzpah. After all, what good is an experience without that element of thoughtfulness? What good is spectacle without a set of human conversations bursting out around the noise?
Make no mistake. Kill la Kill is on its face a tremendously dopey show. But don’t let that fool you for a second.
Now that we have come to the mid-point of Ryuko Matoi’s ultimate challenge within Honnouji’s grueling Natural’s Election gauntlet, it felt right to finally fess up and come to terms with this series’ paradoxical nature. And while I cannot pretend to pinpoint every fragment and crumb of the mad cacophony of symbolism that is this show, one can at least deduce that it is not as clear-cut as some might have surmised early on. The battling has been pretty nonstop, and our heroine continues to impress with her graceless, yet effective wins against the totalitarian academy’s Elite Four. On top of all this, the mystery behind Matoi’s scientist father’s demise, and the ultimate aim of school leader, Satsuki continue to remain foggy. But for all the hyper-simplicity of Kill la Kill’s storytelling battery, the sheer carnival of absurd battles in between is what offers up the most meat for viewers to gnaw. In here, the action is not a pretext for ideas brewing on the sidelines- the text is in the action.
And while we can definitely chart the last several episodes, and pilfer out a talk of recap for this post, it seems a whole lot more interesting to just dive headlong into the central conflicts and seek out just what the hell Imaishi & Nakashima seem to be making noise about. Looking back to my initial impressions, not much has changed since declaring the show a hyperactive savant’s half-hearted attempt at feminine empowerment. And even as some of the most devastating action moments from this show come at the hands of the female characters of the show, it’s often with this all-too-omnipresent streak of middle-school level lasciviousness. It’s pretty safe to say that the acts of the characters often say more than their words as each side of the conflict spout out virtue after virtue of their respective philosophies. And as on-the-sleeve as action comedies like this go, Kill la Kill offers up some effectively satirical sucker punches.
So let’s look at what we do know about the world of Honnouji, and the conflict that has made up most to all of KlK’s running time
On its surface, the tale of delinquent schoolgirl, Ryuko Matoi’s two-fisted war to defeat Kiryuin’s regime of “uniformity” has been largely one of escalation. Starting off with merely her trusty, yet still mysterious half-scissor, Matoi’s reputation as something of a scrappy, yet devastating quantity has launched us directly into the caustic final circle. While it would be easy to just see the story as a simple good versus evil tale (something even Imaishi & Nakashima’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan played safely with), there is a surprising twist to our heroine’s rise that may be central to the series as a whole. Despite what we already know about her and her bond with the sentient “Kamui” seifuku known as Senketsu, there are still questions lingering as to what it is, and its true goals. Not to mention the fact that there are still those on the periphery who clearly also wish to see the tables turned, often masquerading as simple allies. And as a result, the battles have become increasingly taxing on nearly everyone.
Even as Ryuko has shown her mettle against theoretically hundreds of bizarre and desperate club members, little of this wouldn’t have come to pass without a lot of mutual exploitation. Movement in the series seems to be constantly at the whims of those willing to use others for their standing in the current order. While Ryuko uses Senketsu, her elder informant in turncoat teacher, Mikisugi (and his clandestine group of rebels, “Nudist Beach”!!) seems poised to use the duo for his own ends. Add this to nearly every major move Satsuki has made since frame one, and you have a culture of exploitation where both the unstoppable forces and immovable objects are in a constant state of strategic puppetry. It’s a sly thematic addition that undercuts a great deal of the show. Within the harsh, pyramid-like structure they are scrapping in, noone seems capable of coming off without looking a little parasitic.
The need to exploit in order to maintain the status-quo (or break it) is high in this series as Honnouji almost plays like the ultimate parody of otaku servitude. While we are indeed watching a show supposedly set in a high school, there are tons of potshots being fired at fictions the young must endure in the name of societal idealism. Be it by use of status, and name dropping as a means to get ahead, rig a game, or just plain circumvent it by way of hyperbolic fisticuffs, Kill la Kill seems eager to bite numerous feeding hands. Even the show’s initial conceit of having Ryuko and various other characters reduced to compromising half-nudity (or is it really “most nudity”?) hints at the exploitation anime companies have been forced to employ in hopes of maintaining what remains of an audience. One only need look at our hero’s reactions to all of this and imagine the animation staff feeling the same “are you kidding me?” manner as projects grow more and more desperate. Everything is at the edge of collapse, and this show’s landscape never lets us forget it.
We can see numerous shades of Japan’s competitive societal norms being lambasted by way of the show’s action and often unsubtle gag barrage. What really sends it all home is in how the aforementioned culture of exploitation makes itself so well known in what has become my favorite episode in #7. Without spoiling anything, this single episode parodies virtually every “perils of success” moral tale imaginable, culminating in one of the most satisfying fights in recent anime history. By making all characters fallible to the illusory nature of success on the bruised backs of the ordinary, we are given a critique on Japanese competitiveness that even rivals the work of one Takami Koshun. (It’s perhaps no accident that Ryuko’s proto-yankii nature is reminiscent of many 1980s stereotypes of working class teens.) Even her adversaries represent different shades of Japan’s “ganbare”/”shogannai” culture, complete with self-flagellating samurai spirits, and a need to mold the youth into the perfect infrastructural ideal. Even our heroine’s often bullish nature isn’t given a romantic treatment. She is often portrayed as inefficient, and ever rash about her strategies. But as adversaries grow increasingly intimidating, it is her openness to unorthodox thinking that often works. It is in her relationship with the scene stealing Mako and the rest of the Makenshoku family, that we are granted some semblance of an emotional core. Perhaps the bastion of faith she stands on in order to face the system on its own playing field. They are the everypeople of the series, doing their best in the maelstrom called their reality.
But furthering this theory, is in what motivates alpha and omega as the story draws toward what should be a finale that could rival Gurren Lagaan’s mammoth climax. When looking closer at what society under Satsuki wants, versus others, plenty comes into focus. Where Satsuki sees solutions in plots within plots, all often in the name of fabric-like consistency, all Ryuko wants is some semblance of closure by way of the truth. She may have gained something of a new family through Mako’s simple-living clan, but it is in this need for understanding that all this crazy is endlessly unleashed upon her. And even as many fight and claw to gain stature within the world model that has been in place since Satsuki took power, there is often a question of what manner of world do others wish to create. So many here are well entrenched, and will do anything to climb the ladder that is dangling before them, whereas Ryuko would sooner break it into splinters. Not unlike the student council of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, a world unmade is hinted at if not explicitly stated. Both poles of this war seem to originate from homes with fragmented families, and yet could not be more different in approach. Micro versus Macro.
And while I am sure that Kill la Kill is not terribly interested in positing alternatives to this world of panic and wayward id, it is at the very least enamored with the idea that things are on the cusp of great change. Much like how I look at anime now versus a decade ago when more seemed to be better. One does not always have to play the game to win. And even when Imaishi seems poised toward making fans choke on a medium’s more cheeky natures, perhaps that is the real goal. The whole thing is like a gauntlet of frustration made manifest in an orgy of silly. While the show revels in its excesses like a junkie’s last great binge, there are fragments of a more pointed mind stewing beneath. A presence doing its best to keep the whole thing from going off a bridge in flames.
Never imagined a show featuring so much underboob would have so much to say about the current state of affairs, but there it is, diary. Now that the canvas has just been widened by the entrance of those likely behind Satsuki’s deep seated disdain for unbridled ambition, I seriously cannot help but wonder where the hell all of this leads.
Having traveled far, with a small hill of defeated enemies behind her, sailor fuku sporting toughie, Ryuki Matoi may very well have found those responsible for the death of her father in the brutal regime known as Honnoji Academy. With the net abuzz post pilot episode, it looks very well like the spirit of Ryoko Ikeda is alive and kicking with a perverse blood transfusion via Studio Trigger’s Kill La Kill. The latest series directed and written by the same team responsible for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima. A project that retains much of the predecessor’s warped yen for riff, with production to spare. And what the pilot episode seems to give off, is in many ways a return to Gainax’s classic formula where tried and true staples of the past is given an often hyperbolic, occasionally hypersexed sheen.
As for whether this debut works or not, perhaps it’s best to admit that outside of style, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal beyond the expected wild imagery and occasionally awkward sexualization of action tropes. While it is everything one would expect from Imaishi and crew, there is not a great deal more here beyond the establishment of the lone fighter versus the totalitarian school and their gallery of student council weirdos. Yes. There is certainly a masculine Utena at work here as posturing is fiery, and bold text is whooshing across the screen. The presentation is brutal and vibrant, but there is something clearly already missing from the proceedings. While one can be considered grateful that the scatological fetishism of Dead Leaves remain long gone, there remains an ever present “why”, in regards to making jokes at the expense of a character being assaulted. There is no good reason, outside of some strange aim to be humorous- which is tricky to get behind.
With a “boyish” attitude, and readiness to take on a seemingly invincible army of single-minded stormtroopers in strength enhancing uniforms, the show’s apparent bent comes at the latter half of the episode when Ryuko stumbles upon, and is accosted by a talking, animated (!!) seifuku known as Senketsu. And what ensues, is best described as an attempt at a humorous rape scene, which ends with our heroine becoming near-invincible. (again, interpret as you will) And while one can also see the episode’s remaining minutes as something of a sideeye to such a creative choice, as Ryuko seems to maintain her aim as unyielding avenger, it is pretty hard to shake off. Also in the choice’s defense, is a reminder that a lot of Gurren Lagaan’s more playful subtext involved the occasional homoeroticism that tipped the balance in a fun sort of manner. And it isn’t hard to see how this is element is going to play out with the first episode’s head baddie in masculine-dressed student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin. Not sure how to feel about that one.
So for what it’s all worth, Kill La Kill debuts with a great deal of the expected immature machismo & penchant for bending the classics. Will I be able to weather it’s storm of usual suspects throughlines, as well as its clear “clothing is weakness” trajectory? Only a few more courtesy viewings may tell.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that Ryuko wields an extra large half of a pair of red scissors?