Review: Kill La Kill
Armed with the notorious Scissor Blade, Ryuko's journey to find her father's killer has led her to Honnouji Academy, and its imperious leader, Satsuki. When the world is at war over supernatural clothing, can Ryuko take a particularly powerful sailor uniform, the last gift from her late father, and carve her way up to Satsuki's throne to find the truth she seeks? Or will Honnouji Academy's many obstacles be too much for the lone hero to endure?
24 Episodes (Approx. 480 minutes)
October 4, 2013 - March 28, 2014
Producer: Madman Entertainment/Aniplex of America
Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Writer: Kazuki Nakashima
Starring: Ami Koshimizu/Erica Mendez & Ryōka Yuzuki/Carrie Keranen
Distributor: Madman Entertainment/Aniplex of America
Genre: Seinen, Action, Comedy, Magical Girl
Kill La Kill is a series I was hesitant to approach in the beginning, mostly because I saw the protagonist’s battle outfit and thought there was no way the series was going to be modest.
Spoiler: I was right.
That being said, I really enjoyed the series when it first aired and recently went back and watched through the show a second time to prepare for Studio Trigger’s new serialization of Little Witch Academia so that I might reacquaint myself with the series and style of that team. While there are many content concerns we will discuss below, Kill La Kill also boasts a high number of endearing qualities, and is uniquely, relentlessly memorable.
There are some… unique spiritual aspects in this series regarding clothing. I will paraphrase the truth by saying clothing itself is a pseudo-conscious existence and is worshipped or at least highly revered by multiple characters. It’s said that human evolution was directly influenced by the “will” of clothing, and that clothing was man’s “original sin,” at least within the context of the story.
There is some degree of violence in every single episode, ranging from slapstick roughhousing to absolute, blood-fountain dismemberment. Even though the latter might not be acceptable to all audiences, even the worst injuries are done in a strangely cartoon-like way. Considering the large arsenal of weapons found throughout the series, damage is inflicted in an equally large variety. Characters are beaten with sticks, slowly crushed between hard objects, whipped with a steel-like cord, impaled by different items, pummeled by fists, slashed open by blades, shot at with needles, bullets, missiles, and even attacked with weaponized sound waves.
One character, desperately struggling against the protagonist, tries to kick her multiple times in the groin, but to no effect. In an early episode, a friendly character is nearly boiled alive in oil. There’s mass destruction of entire cities. Not all of these result in blood or lasting damage, but most of them do. There’s also many instances where the main character uses a technique which shreds apart clothing without substantial harm to the host. There are at least three decapitations, and two instances where somebody’s heart is ripped straight out of their chest. These latter instances, while certainly morbid and messy, are not as bloody as they might sound.
No, the worst instance of blood is when one character rips off the entire upper layer of her skin. There’s a lot of blood in that scene. The entire screen is bathed in red.
Hostile words are used in excess, with people frequently threatening to hurt or kill each other. There are multiple uses of the words “d**n,” “h**l,” “b***h,” “b*****d,” and “f**k.” God’s name is used in vain in nearly every conventional combination.
The chief issue of Kill La Kill. Because the show revolves around superpowered clothing, there are many implications around what people wear, how they wear it, and in some cases, the strategic or forced removal of clothing as a legitimate battle tactic.
Clothes are torn or cut off liberally, and while we never see highly detailed nude images, featureless nudity is so common that by the end you hardly notice it. Sometimes aforementioned nudity is wide-open; sometimes it is accompanied by inconspicuous things such as hair, smoke, or steam, to cover the particulars. There are about half-a-dozen scenes where female characters are shown bathing, again, with minimal covering of their bodies. In a couple early scenes when the characters have their clothing removed, they makes sounds like they are being raped (while they aren’t, technically, it’s still a degree of molestation).
As mentioned in the violence section, one female character is almost boiled alive. She is half-nude in this scene, hanging upside down so the underside of her chest and underwear is visible. In an early episode, the main character is knocked unconscious and wakes up to a man on top of her, drooling, sweating, and in his underwear. She throws him out a window, then finds out he saved her life earlier, so she stays at his house with him and his family, where he (as well as his son and dog) continues to harass and peek in on her. This is all conveyed as slapstick humor, which does not offend the protagonist, but rather serves just to be annoying.
When a few characters activate the transformations of their clothing, they pull a Sailor Moon and go through a dramatic sequence of becoming dressed as the new attire materializes across their bodies. During this transformation, the females’ busts move around a lot, even though they are at a distance and not given any detail, followed by many close-up coverage shots of their bodies. The outfits themselves are… well, they range from full-body armor to little more than underwear. That’s actually a plot point within the story. The protagonist is temporarily made weaker by the fact she struggles to wear her outfit in the beginning because of how embarrassed she is by its revealing nature. It is a part of her development that she overcomes this problem so as to use her transformation more effectively. Her outfit in particular is a little complicated to describe, but is effectively a thong, the upper half of a bra, leggings, sleeves, heels, and shoulder guards. The raunchy nature of the outfit is attributed to the perversion of the main character’s father, as he was responsible for its design. Because she is forced to fight this way, the protagonist is called a masochistic exhibitionist at least once.
There is one joke about the protagonist being on her period, and a passersby character is shown breastfeeding in the streets. Even when not stark nude, many characters are often shown in nothing but underwear. This isn’t always conveyed in a scandalous way, but sometimes just as a casual detail, with no emphasis on the fact.
One of the Elite Four of Honnouji Academy–who is very strict about discipline, justice, and punishment–has an outfit which appears to be an exaggeration of sexual bondage attire, and as it takes damage or whips itself, goes towards its “climax” to transform into a stronger version of armor. Despite the nature of the series, the inclusion of this sexual torture-themed ability is shockingly out of place and feels almost shoehorned in on a dare. It vanishes after its first appearance and is promptly replaced by something more kosher.
There is an entire organization within the series called Nudist Beach, whose sole purpose is the elimination of clothing in the world. These characters often go nude at random and to comical effect. The leader is particularly guilty of this, and whenever he shows up this way, his privates and nipples are awkwardly glowing/covered in bright lights. For some reason, even other characters in this universe don’t get used to the discomfort created by this guy’s behavior. When members of Nudist Beach aren’t stark nude (such as when in combat), their waistlines are covered by utility belts or mech suits (which are shaped like a pair of pants).
The worst of the sexual content is definitely perpetuated by the Big Bad of the series, the mother of the protagonist’s rival. On multiple occasions she touches or gropes herself, usually to accentuate a moment in which she’s feeling particularly dominant. She also pleasures (read: assaults) her daughter in one scene, and while explicit details aren’t shown, we are given more than enough indirect shots of the moment to warrant extreme discomfort as viewers.
Lastly, two girls kiss, though at the time one of them is literally possessed and out of her mind, so take that as you will. There’s a vague and brief mention of lesbianism at the end which gives the impression of being not entirely serious, and two characters go on a “date,” which is more of a girl’s hangout than anything romantic.
Some characters frequent a bar several times and drink alcohol. At least one character is shown smoking a cigarette.
Other Negative Themes:
People are trapped or enslaved in a number of different ways, either by being placed in prison or because their clothing forces them into submission. One incident shows a character trying to commit suicide by disembowelment; another is successfully executed by self-destruction. The show takes a hard right turn into dark territory when we see a newborn baby with its skull and neck peeled open and cables shoved inside the gaps between flesh and bone. This is done for the sake of genetic experimentation. The baby is casually discarded after it dies. One character gets tortured/captured frequently and doesn’t seem to care. There’s a sense of intellectual decay in the lesser masses, with all of them being either mindless drones or criminals.
There’s actually a lot of positive content, which is good because after that gallery of vices it’s kind of needed. For starters, Kill La Kill is an exhibition of powerful women. The top four most powerful and important characters are all female, with the protagonist being the most interesting of all. The protagonist has several major hurdles to tackle as a character, and the experiences of those challenges follow her from one episode to the next, showing a healthy sense of development. Pay no mind that two of those aforementioned four characters, while important, are also mind-blowingly psychopathic.
There are strong themes of sisterhood throughout the story, and friendship in many different forms. The protagonist is lost and looking for meaning, a place to belong, and a family, and slowly comes to find all three. A powerful sense of struggle and overcoming takes shape through the lens of several different characters. People discuss the nature of beauty. Greed is cultivated, and then when it becomes obvious it cannot satisfy, it is cast aside. Often, characters have to sober down the wild tone of the story in order to pick up somebody who is depressed or feeling defeated. Pride is laid down in exchange for humility. There are further themes of standing together with our fellow man, setting aside our disagreements, forgiving each other, remaining calm in turmoil, and accepting the parts of yourself which you cannot change.
I’m going to try and elevator pitch this series to you guys:
“Kill La Kill is… Okay, well there’s a school, right? Like, a huge school. It’s basically a city-fortress, and it’s trying to take over the world via school activities… No, that’s not right. So there’s clothing, okay? Except it eats you and it’s kind of like an alien… or something? But it’s cool because it makes you super strong! And it wants to conquer the universe! And maybe it caused evolution and devised the course of history! But the main character can stop it because she fights with a giant scissor! Half of one, anyways, because somebody took the other half. And it’ll be a satire on a million anime tropes, especially all the overwrought sexual ones… except with a serious tone… Yeah, a serious satire… Maybe…”
That’s basically how I imagine the writer of this series threw his story at the board. How it was ever picked up is beyond me.
But I’m glad it was, because despite the numerous reasons that it turn people off (I’m sure the negative material will push away quite a few people), I begrudgingly admit, I love this series. It’ll never be one of my all-time favorites, but the sheer level of fun injected into this anime is world-class. It’s an absolute blast to watch, and though I make fun of its supposed randomness, the story is actually quite coherent and self-contained. People who have seen Gurren Lagaan (or nearly anything by Gainax or Trigger) will know what I mean. It’s crazy, but it’s good crazy.
Matoi Ryuko (last name first to keep with Japanese convention) approaches Honnouji Academy with nothing but the clothes on her back and her late father’s ultimate weapon, the Scissor Blade. More specifically, she has half of the Scissor and is looking for the other half, which is in the custody of the woman responsible for his death. Believing she can find her answers with Honnouji Academy’s top dog, the indomitable Kiryuin Satsuki, Ryuko enrolls in the school in the hopes of challenging Satsuki and forcing the truth from her iron grip.
In the meantime, Ryuko finds herself in the company of the Mankanshoku family, a hyper-erratic group of zany characters who live at the bottom of the city’s caste system. Their daughter, Mako, accidentally becomes Ryuko’s best friend. Mako can only be described as the spiritual incarnation of caffeine, but she helps Ryuko in endless ways over the course of their friendship.
After a crushing defeat, Ryuko comes to possess a piece of living clothing named Senketsu, with whom she can communicate. Senketsu is a leftover experiment of her father’s, and possesses immense strength when worn specifically by Ryuko.
From there, Ryuko rises through the ranks of Honnouji. She challenges their violent caste system, which divides students (and their respective families) based on the level of “Goku Uniform” they are permitted to wear, with Club Captains allowed 2-Star Uniforms, and the Elite Four wearing the heralded 3-Star Uniforms. At the top sits Satsuki and her almighty outfit, Junketsu, a mirror of Ryuko’s Senketsu. Conspiracies rise, loyalties are tested, and we come to find out that immediate threats aren’t always the biggest on the plate. Much more is going on in this world dominated by clothing, and it’s all quite a bit more sinister than you might imagine.
Kill La Kill is impressive in its ability to consistently deliver a major plot twist every six or seven episodes. I’ve had few anime experiences which thrilled me as much as the introduction of Harime Nui in episode 12. In one fell swoop, this super creepy, bubbly girl comes out of nowhere and completely rearranges the tone of the story, delivering back-to-back critical story developments at just the right time in the narrative. It was at her introduction that I realized why the series was so popular.
Nui is straight-up crazy.
Trigger’s animation is on point, as usual, and serves to punctuate the already absurd nature of the story with wild, titanic strokes of animation. The style is a miasma of color and chaos, and anybody who is familiar with Trigger’s work knows exactly what I’m talking about. Using terms like “dynamic” and “insane” to try and capture my meaning is similar to attributing “wet” and “large” to the ocean. As with most art, it is something which can only be experienced.
Speaking of the narrative, it’s good, but suffers from a rough start. The first episode in particular is unbelievable in how conveniently everything happens (Ryuko stumbling upon Senketsu, for example), and there’s a thick paste of exposition lathered over the first couple episodes. It’s a strange phenomenon. The story is hardly difficult to understand, and isn’t complicated in the least, yet the exposition feels needed most of the time. The narrative would also benefit from a little more foreshadowing for developments in the third act, as well.
There’s also a time-skip. I always approve of time-skips.
Character development is firm, but not winning any awards. Ryuko changes a ton, yet not at all, which is honestly a sign of good writing in my opinion. It’s believable this way. Her core personality remains in tact, while the exact symmetry of her inner details change as she matures. Satsuki sees her fair share of development, too, and the characters of medium-grade importance aren’t shafted for screen time, each earning at least one episode mostly to themselves.
The humor is hit-or-miss depending on your tastes. Several different brands of comedy are utilized throughout the series, though there’s a surplus of the more preposterous styles, such as people yelling absurd things and falling prey to slapstick situations. I found myself laughing at about half of the intended funny moments.
While I can’t speak at all to the quality of the dubbed translation (on a gut level, I think the dubbed version would be jarring), the Japanese voice acting deserves an applause. Each voice fits the mold of its respective character so distinctly that I am confident I could tell you who was speaking even if I wasn’t looking at the screen. The actors own the inflections and vocal behaviors of their characters in a way lost on most anime. Mako grinds on your nerves, but that’s mostly due to her personality. Frankly, the actor’s ability to capture her likeness so well is almost horrifying.
Let’s talk about the music. Without argument, the soundtrack is one of the strongest points of the series. What else could you expect when Sawano Hiroyuki (Attack on Titan, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Blue Exorcist) is the composer? Each track is distinguishable, with a clear emphasis on heavier-plated sounds. You’ll find a lot of guitar, synth, and, in the case of the Big Bad’s theme, ominous choirs used in unconventional ways. You know what, I’m going to go ahead and link to that latter track because I like it so much. Here’s the main heroic song, too, because it’s great and DON’T LOSE YOUR WAAAAAY.
To be honest, guys, I am beside myself with the fact I love this series. For all its blatant absurdity and sometimes questionable material, Kill La Kill has some knockout narrative spins, amazing art, and a solid soundtrack. I have never had so much raw fun watching an anime. I could never and have never recommended Kill La Kill by virtue of its content, but I’d be lying if I didn’t wish I knew more people who’d seen it, because it’s truly special and deserves its place as one of the most popular anime to run back in 2013 and 2014.
Just… be careful with the cosplays.
+ Incredible soundtrack
+ High-quality animation
+ Unique premise
+ Intense fights
+ Strong voice acting
+ Story has many big twists
- Tons of content concerns
- Exposition-heavy in early episodes
- Humor is hit-or-miss
- Many characters feel unrealistic