Kill la Kill [Review]

Anime Info

  • Genre: Action / Comedy / Super Power
  • Producer: Trigger
  • Format: TV
  • Episodes: 24
  • Original Run: October 3, 2013 - March 27, 2014

This is my first ever anime review, and it’s a case of “perfect timing”. For a long time, I hadn’t actively followed anime, and whatever I would watch every now and then would usually not be those in the current season. When I decided to write anime reviews for the first time as a personal challenge, this was one of the first new shows that I ended up viewing, and I’m glad that I came in at the right time as watching Kill la Kill was indeed a blast.

Kill la Kill was produced by Trigger, which was founded by former Gainax employees Masahiko Otsuka and Hiroyuki Imaishi, the former being the director of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (PSG). That explains this show’s art and animation style, which takes a lot from the style that came after the angst of Gainax’s Evangelion era.

NOTE: As this review serves as analysis of the entire series, it contains A LOT OF SPOILERS. You have been warned.

Story

Ryuko Matoi is the new transfer student in Honnouji Academy, and she is on a mission to find her father’s killer, who possesses the other half of the scissor blade that she wields. Her mission puts her directly up against Satsuki Kiryuin, the revered and almighty president of Honnouji’s student council. Most of this is shown in the first episode, which is one of the best first episodes I’ve seen in any show for quite a while.

The first half of Episode 1 introduced the premise, most of the major characters, the bold presentation style, and the batshit insane pacing in one fell swoop. The second half then sets the tone for how she would fight throughout the whole show, which is the classic “fail only to come back stronger” method that is common in shounen manga. Ryuko’s strength and resolve are tested immediately, which is a good way of showing that the show won’t be pulling its punches.

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Like its Gainax predecessors, Kill la Kill takes the henshin trope to yet another level. This time, its more on clothes and fashion, which sounds a bit like Final Fantasy X-2. The whole fashion and “pigs in human clothing” bit made it sort of awkward for me to get into at first, but the show made it work in a big way. It pulls no punches with the way it presents its narrative amidst all the in-your-face action.

Due to its breakneck pacing, most of the details in the lore are done through exposition, which is another trope in shounen manga. A lot of it though gets lost as the narrative bullet train chugs along, and it rarely takes a rest to let the audience have enough room to breathe and process whatever is going on. If it does take a break, it stops so abruptly as to cause narrative whiplash.

It’s mostly alright if you watch each episode in a sizable interval, like during its original run. But if you marathon it, you better brace yourself and be prepared for warp speed as it can get fairly exhausting. It must be said though that it is the only way Kill la Kill could have been paced as that kept it from growing stale.

Kill la Kill’s greatest strength is how it built up such a great momentum and was able to maintain it until the end, so there’s always something to be excited about with each upcoming episode. A lot of other series tend to jump the shark and peter out after a while, but Kill la Kill doesn’t do that. It’s also what keeps the show fresh as its predictability is offset by the sudden twists and turns.

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There’s a shift of focus from the first half of the series to the second half, which some may find to be too abrupt and overpowering. In the first half of the series, Ryuko and Satsuki are adversaries with no love lost between them. But with the arrival of Revocs and Satsuki’s turnaround, the focus shifted from Satsuki to Ragyo and Nui as the villains. The same thing was done in Gurren Lagann with Lordgenome being the main antagonist in the first half, but then siding with his former adversaries in the second half.

In Episode 22, Ryuko sought to test Satsuki’s resolve by hitting her full force while in Kamui; Satsuki can fight alongside her if she stayed standing. The Elite Four kept taking the blows for their leader, and that was when Ryuko realized that she and Satsuki are similar in having loyal friends fighting with them, which smoothed out whatever differences they may have had. That scene is well-done and crucial to justify Satsuki’s face turn.

That shift did serve to overshadow a lot of the supporting characters (more on that in the Characters section below), but it could also be argued that it was when they all stood up against the greater evil, and them becoming ineffectual as individuals did serve to strengthen them as a unit.

The final episode is quite strange as while it felt rushed at the end, it also topped off the series well enough. The final fight was short and not as epic as first throught, but the denouement had Satsuki scrambling to catch freefalling Ryuko, and the result of all their struggles come to a head when they finally saw each other as sisters.

It’s weird since finales are usually either well-balanced and satisfying or lackluster and disappointing; this one has a bit of both. Trigger is most likely looking to patch this up with the Goodbye Again OVA on September 2014, so here is to hoping that they succeed in really closing the series off.

Characters

Kill la Kill both shines and falters in this criterion. Focusing on positives first, the unique character designs set this anime apart from the rest and makes it a prime contender for being one of 2014’s best. Most of Masahiko Otsuka’s directorial work in Gainax resulted in some of the memorable characters in anime, and he continues that streak here.

Design of Main Characters

There is brilliance in the character designs of the main characters. Ryuko has that characteristic red highlight on her bangs that makes her stand out, and the red left glove adds to it as well. As for Satsuki, it’s her long hair with a fringe, her impeccably white garb, and her regal posture (as well as her eyebrows and perpetual scowl).

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Both Ryuko and Satsuki are fighters who grow stronger with each battle (I like to call this the Saiyan Effect) and they both command respect (especially Satsuki). They also have their own tsundere streaks about them, which add to their charm. They’re both likable characters for the most part, from their appearances to their demeanor and how they interact with each other (especially during the latter parts of the series).

Supporting Characters

Most of the other characters who get considerable screen time are quirky and entertaining. Aikuro Mikisugi is a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure character on cocaine, while Ira Gamagoori is one on speed. Nonon Jakuzure is cute and loyal, despite her arrogance and obnoxiousness. Mako is awesome as comic relief and her loyalty to Ryuko is endearing, although she can be annoying at times. Supporting characters have their own positive traits that make them fairly memorable.

Unfortunately, while there is much to be praised regarding character design, there are faults with the characterization. While the story does dig into a lot throughout all the episodes, many of the characters remained underdeveloped due to the blistering pace of the narrative, like a race car leaving skid marks on the asphalt.

Please note that the following assessments are made for the purposes of analysis. It’s understood that such an action-focused show can’t possibly develop all of its characters to a considerable degree in such a short time. Also, read the explanation in the Story section above.

For instance, the Nudist Beach figureheads, Aikuro Mikisugi and Tsumugu Kinagase, were introduced as characters with a lot more to give than they first seemed. Aikuro was in disguise and in the background at first, and then revealed to be a capable leader with hidden talents; Tsumugu was introduced as a complete badass who could go toe-to-toe with anyone in a Goku Uniform or even a Kamui.

Unfortunately, they then suffered a bit of what I’d like to call “The Kame House Syndrome” (taken from Dragon Ball Z), wherein the main characters become so powerful so fast that supporting characters suddenly got sidelined. The silver lining in this though is that while Nudist Beach were just in the background in the first arc, they became more active as Honnouji Academy soon came to their side after Satsuki’s sudden turnaround, so they weren’t totally ineffectual.

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Honnouji’s Elite Four doesn’t suffer that as much since their admirable loyalty to their Lady Satsuki was shown to a considerable extent. They also became more powerful with each iteration of their Goku Uniforms, so they put up more of a fight, with all four of them combined being like a sentai team that poses before every battle. However, two of them are considerably weaker in characterization. While Ira Gamagoori has been the unflappable juggernaut since the first episode and Uzu Sanageyama is a samurai with incredible capacity for self-sacrifice, Houka Inumuta and Nonon Jakuzure don’t have as much depth, even though their backstories were told to some extent.

Inumuta is shown as some bishie with leet hacker skills and an obsession with data, but there wasn’t much to him beyond that and he shares that role with Sewing Club president Shiro Iori. As for Nonon, while she is cute and all, she didn’t get fleshed out as much as she should have. We could gather that she is temperamental and treats her comrades roughly, and she knew Satsuki for the longest time. But despite that status, she’s still pretty much a lackey who is loyal to a fault.

Sanageyama sew his eyes shut to show his resolve in avenging his loss to Ryuko, but he then doesn’t get another good crack at her. It would have been awesome to have seen a samurai moment with him challenging Ryuko to a final fight, and perhaps Trigger will have that in the OVA if they have some sense in them. He became such a badass by the end of Episode 6, but then seemingly hit a glass ceiling as the first arc was reaching its climax.

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Plenty of other minor characters could have used a bit more fleshing out, like the Tennis Club president Omiko Hakodate, Maiko Ogure (who was expelled by Gamagoori just like that, so maybe she’ll take revenge in the OVA), Mitsuzo Soroi the butler, and Rei Hououmaru. There were a whole lot of possibilities with these characters that were left unrealized, which is a bit of a waste.

Mankanshoku Family

They did give the Mankanshoku a good bit of screen time since they took Ryuko in, and they turned out to be the most developed of all the supporting cast. They were given a spotlight in Episode 7, which also showed a facet of Ryuko’s personality through her yearning for a family to belong in.

Mako herself is quite an interesting character. Her most notable trait is her propensity to disrupt tense situations with her comedic Hallelujah routine. When a situation is starting to get serious, she comes in and mixes things up so real dramatic tension is never achieved. Maybe that was the intention in the first place to keep the show from becoming too serious.

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But that raises the question on whether that “dramatic depth” would have been effective or merely dampen what the show is good at. Drama does serve to slow down pacing, and perhaps Mako helps diffuse whatever keeps the audience pent up at that moment and let them relax so they could go on with the rest of the show. Maybe keeping the drama half-assed helps in making the action stand out more.

The only thing that keeps her from being reviled through all of this is her earnest dedication in keeping Ryuko’s spirits up, and she plays that cheerleader role very well. There is also the interesting dynamic between Gamagoori and Mako that could hopefully be touched on more in the OVA.

Ryuko Matoi

But perhaps the biggest fault is in the protagonist herself. I have mixed feelings with Ryuko Matoi as her character development is all over the place. Her most prominent traits are her toughness and headstrong attitude, which let her overcome seemingly insurmountable odds with sheer willpower. Aside from that, all we know is that she is angry and impulsive, but she also has her soft spots. While it be seen as excusable since she fits the typical shounen hero(ine) archetype, her actions in Episode 19 made her look stupid even by those standards.

It could be justified that it was due to the shock of the revelation in Episode 18, but to come out and say that she will no longer wear Senketsu out of the blue is quite a jump. A bit after that, she wears Junketsu and seemingly sides with the bad guys for no other reason that “blargh, insanity”. It later works out in the end with her deus-ex-machina willpower letting her break out of that state and prevailing in the end, as if to show that it didn’t matter that she was such a hot mess and she was forgiven anyway.

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Her impulsive behavior results in more epiphany and reward, but it’s far from the lines of believability. Perhaps it’s foolish to say that believability should be maintained in such a fantastical setting, but the fact that Trigger tried to incorporate human drama here is more than enough to scrutinize it in such a way. Most people though may give it a pass simply because she’s a pretty face (and maybe that’s Trigger’s intention after all).

It’s always good to see protagonists go through conflict and hardship in order to highlight their heroic qualities, but there needs to be a firm reasoning behind how they bounce back and not just put it up to some Rocky Balboa moment. The Japanese seem to have a love affair with the shounen manga trope of shouting nonsensical things and recalling key memories in order to momentarily gain super strength to overcome adversity. The sentiment is nice, but it also boils down to lazy writing.

Senketsu

Senketsu is an interesting character that serves as both the protagonist’s conscience and MacGuffin-slash-Deus-Ex-Machina. He plays a fairly good “straight man”, despite (or because of) being a sentient school girl uniform with superpowers fueled by blood. It’s a bit comical seeing a monster-looking anthropomorphic article of clothing participate in a serious scene.

However, while Ryuko’s bond with Senketsu may have a sentimental value that gets mentioned in the story from time to time (especially in Episode 5 when cornered by Tsumugu), Senketsu was put up to being a token sidekick rather quickly. At least Trigger gave their relationship some further development in the few quiet moments of the series that are few and far between.

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He comes off as a bit dry though, but that’s just par for course of playing the straight man. Despite that dryness, his “death” in Episode 13 was a shock, then his survival in Episode 14 provided relief. It’s a wonder though whether it’s because he’s a good character or because he’s the source of Ryuko’s strength. That does transition well enough though, with Ryuko breaching the wall between the relationship of necessity (Ryuko needs him for revenge, Senketsu’s purpose is to be worn by her) to a close friendship.

While Mako acts as a cheerleader for Ryuko, Senketsu is more of a guidance counselor who talks her through her problems and insecurities. He doesn’t always get through her, but their bond prevails later on when they get past their crises.

Satsuki Kiryuin

Satsuki seems to have had better character development as she was given a lot more dimension. In the first arc, she proved to be such an effective villain with her imposing ojou-sama status and inspiring confidence with a stern look and her chin up high. But in the later arc, she does an about-face and Ragyo took her place as the main antagonist.

She had the proverbial cold shoulder, with speeches and one-liners that hit like hammers on nails. She called ordinary people “Pigs in Human Clothing” and seemed to have people rolling red carpets and throwing down flower petals the path she walked upon. Her dictatorship in Honnouji Academy set the tone for the first half of the series, and her turnaround later on shed that image.

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Her admission to using methods similar to her mother’s was the send-off for the villainous side of Satsuki. She hoped to gain a powerful ally in Ryuko for the fight against Revocs, but doing so through deceit was no different from Ragyo’s manipulative ways. Her revelation is a humbling one, showing that she is a character who could learn from mistakes.

In the very end though, we see Satsuki with short hair, and that just about everything changed with her. Whether it’s yet another dimension to her character or a change too far, it’s safe to say that she’s no longer the same Satsuki as seen back in the first arc of the series. Whether she may still have that holier-than-thou viciousness about her or not, it won’t have the same effect as before. A girl cutting her hair is a massive change, not just with appearance but also with her whole attitude.

Even if it’s a warranted change, they put it up at the very end of the series, so it really is about hype for the OVA. Short-haired Satsuki is definitely the most anticipated part of that OVA, so Trigger better not disappoint in fleshing out this new character variation.

Revocs Corporation

Ragyo Kiryuin is Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada with superpowers. She is like an exaggerated Lady Gaga version of her daughter, but with much less moral restraint. Both Ragyo and Satsuki utilize the same brand of leadership, and they both command the same kind of respect and intimidation, but the difference in scale is significant.

While people immediately scamper away and bow if they see Satsuki walking towards them, they would make plans and position themselves submissively in advance before Ragyo even arrives. While Satsuki has people painting the grass green in her wake, the ground this glorious bitch walks upon instantly turns into hallowed ground. Her appearance constituted a paradigm shift in the narrative, and she never has to overuse her “muahahahaha”. But while Ragyo is both despicable and grandiose as a main antagonist, she is somewhat overshadowed by her second-in-command.

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Nui Harime stole the show as a potent villain, being deceptively strong and annoying as all hell. Her appearance heralded the coming of something bigger in the plot, and she then grows to be such a cute yet deplorable aberration. Her fate though doesn’t suit that amount of revilement as it would have been better to see her meet a sudden and violent end rather than slowly fade away.

Some say that Nui is a yandere, but the only thing she’s yandere about is seeing others in pain. She’s like the Regenerador in Resident Evil 4, but much more pink. What makes this villain effective is not merely the amount of power she yields, but also how she could outsmart the opposition, then taunt and insult them for failing with a disconcerting smile and innocent look on her face.

When she lost her arms in Episode 22, that’s when the full extent of her psychotic potential came out. But she then became a bit less of what made her such a memorable character, which was that irritating smugness. It did show the extent of her resilience though as she remained a threat until the very end.

Direction

Kill la Kill is similar in boldness to Gurren Lagann, and there are also tons of references to other past Gainax works that fans can appreciate. Almost everything in Kill la Kill has a whiff of its predecessors, yet still has its originality. It’s a refinement of the pre-Trigger Gainax formula, which has now been taken to a higher level.

Visuals and Animation

The striking visual and animation style makes a strong first impression. It’s an amalgamation of old and new, then gives it a twist that is of their own (kind of like the Bruce Lee way of animating). From various stylistic choices that Trigger made like the prodigious use of Super Deformed (SD) to balance out the seriousness with visual comedy, as well as very fast tracking shots, use of bright colors and lighting, and so on

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But despite the use of these so-called gimmicks, the animation itself is still quite smooth. Perhaps due to the nature of the style, there may have been some tricks and shortcuts employed (like less-defined backgrounds, etc.), but they look neither too tacky nor lazy.

Lore and Terminology

Many of the names, terms, and lore elements make for much eyebrow-raising and head-scratching. For one thing, the Kamui are outrageous, but central to the premise of the story. But there is also stuff like Nudist Beach, which is a ridiculous and inappropriate name for a guerrilla organization, and it’s doubly so when said in Japanese.

But then again, tons of other anime have done the same thing, a lot of which do it way worse. Kill la Kill does do it surprisingly better, including terms like COVERS and so on. Trigger took on the theme of clothes and fashion, then just ran absolutely wild with it to the point where the fashion aspect is merely an undertone, which serves to not alienate anyone who may not even know who the hell Versace and McQueen were.

Music

Trigger’s use of the soundtrack is simply brilliant. The way they used the song “Before My Body is Dry” for the henshin sequences is so well done, it doesn’t get old throughout the series. The best instance is at the latter part of Episode 22, wherein everything was calm at first as Satsuki reassured Ryuko, then “Don’t lose your way!” hits to a split screen of their dual henshin. It was the perfect way to hype up Episode 23 and the upcoming final confrontation.

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As for the soundtrack itself though, there are a lot of songs with some bad parts, like the tacky rap in “Before My Body is Dry” and the lyrics in “Suck Your Blood” alluding to rape. Perhaps it’s par for course when something Japanese incorporates English (and German in the case of “Blumenkranz”) in it. Despite that, the quality of the music and how it ties in to the series itself are masterful in execution, similar to the directors’ past works.

Use of Nudity

This is the controversial part of the series; it’s what keeps this show from being fully classfied as “shounen” as it seems to be at first, so this is ultimately not for kids. The combination of adult themes with shounen elements speak to the inner child within adults. While many would speak of watching other shows (that are targeted to other demographics) in hushed tones, there’s much less shame in mentioning this anime.

I personally don’t mind it, but plenty of people out there may take issue with how the characters are depicted. From how I see it though, the resulting criticism is more of a bother than the imagery itself. They didn’t include nipples and pubic regions to the point of making characters look very cartoon-like. There are still things like boob physics and such, but it’s somehow tamer than the outrageousness of something like the mammary bullet dodge.

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There are quite a few fan service moments, but there are times when it does go a bit too far. Episode 16 crosses that proverbial line in a two-and-a-half minute scene. Satsuki soaks her wounded body in the grand bath of Kiryuin Manor, wincing as she lowers herself. Ragyo then comes in with all of her rainbow-colored glory, as naked as her daughter. She then puts her hands on Satsuki and rubs all over to apparently heal her wounds.

The scene was directed very well; perhaps too well. From the slow music to the suggestive imagery, this is perhaps the closest that Kill la Kill got to being pornographic. But before it went any further, she stops and tells her daughter to gather herself for something important. This isn’t just like any other fan service as it was also quite uncomfortable to watch. It’s like the directors tested the waters with Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, then decided to push their own boundaries.

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But despite the amount of nudity in the show, it then took an interesting turn. As time passed and as the level of nudity went higher, the level of perversity decreased as more and more characters lost their clothing. In the final moments of Episode 24, everyone was naked, and everything was alright; the conclusion of a hard-fought battle, with their nakedness signifying their freedom from the clutches of the Life Fibers. It’s a lot like that orgy scene in the movie Perfume, but somehow much less perverse.

Being either clothed and naked is a central theme in Kill la Kill as the Life Fibers are a symbol of subjugation through being clothed. Revocs Corporation had Life Fibers take people hostage, and they then fought back to break free from it. Ragyo’s mission was to assimilate all of humanity and spread Life Fibers throughout the universe, which is a lot like the Human Instrumentality Project in Evangelion (another Gainax reference).

Final Score

Kill la Kill
8 out of 10
Pros
  • New angle to transformation trope
  • Bold visual style
  • Quirky character designs
  • Great soundtrack
  • In-your-face action
  • Pulls no punches in its lack of subtlety
  • Maintains momentum
Cons
  • Pacing is whiplash-inducing
  • Fodder for feminist diatribes
  • Shallow characterization; many characters become ineffectual
  • Shifts focus too abruptly
Summary

I spent days on deciding whether the score should be a 7 or an 8, insisting at first that it should be a 7 due to the flaws in characterization. But I then continued to ponder on whether it deserved a higher score, and then was able to figure out why Trigger did what they did with their characters.


Despite my misgivings, they were offset by everything else that the series did brilliantly, which helped me decide on bumping up the score. Most of those flaws pointed towards the OVA, so the ultimate fate of Kill la Kill rests on that and other possible future releases.


This anime is a combination of funkiness from FLCL, exuberance from Gurren Lagann, and sexual energy from PSG. Kill la Kill is all about audacity, and that's why it's good.

For more information on the standardized review system, you may read about the details [here].