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Ten Years Later: Kill la Kill Anime

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10 years ago, the anime industry was plagued with mediocre content, companies were collapsing, the very country of Japan was crumbling. But then came studio TRIGGER.

© TRIGGER, Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

Let me give you two useful pieces of information. One: If you asked anime fans in 2013 if anime needed saving, they said yes. Two: They said the thing that saved it was KILL la KILL. Indeed, 10 years ago, the anime industry was plagued with mediocre content, companies were collapsing, the very country of Japan was crumbling. But then came studio TRIGGER and their roaring debut TV anime KILL la KILL. Thus, anime was saved.

Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic in real life. It’s nonsensical to say Kill la Kill literally saved anime, but that’s how Kill la Kill rolls. It is nonsensical from top to bottom. The show’s plot is about how clothing will enslave humanity unless some high school girls dress up in skimpy outfits and destroy them, and this all takes place in a school that houses a whole city with its own unique class system. If there’s one thing Kill la Kill isn’t, it’s “quiet.”

From its first few seconds, the very first lines in the series spoken by the teacher Mikisugi are about the Nazis’ rise to power before a gargantuan student comes in through the submarine-looking door to the classroom and smokes out a traitor of Honnouji Academy. The allusions to authority don’t end there either. The student council president is surrounded in a blinding light while she proclaims that the “facts of the world” are “fear is freedom, subjugation is liberation,” and “contradiction is truth.” Do I need to say this is clearly a rip-off of the “1984” Party slogans? Kill la Kill may seem incoherent on the surface (and maybe it is under it too), but it makes its intentions clearer than the bluest waters in the world. “This series is going to be about authoritarianism. We’re giving you references to the Nazis, 1984, and we’re visually showing the antagonists as being way bigger than they actually are in blinding rays of light while they stand on colossal vantage points above saluting students who all look the exact same.

But at the heart of Kill la Kill is Ryuko Matoi, who has herself become an icon in the anime fandom since her debut. Even if you weren’t watching the show at the time, if you were online, you saw her face.

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

It’s not like there weren’t exactly tomboy anime characters before nor after Ryuko, but she (arguably more than most) has the tomboy look, attitude, and presence down to a capital Tomboy T. She’s rough, she’s tough, and she has that iconic red streak in her short, messy hair.  The red streak is such a nice visual for her. She’s got that fiery personality, and of course, it’s also representative of her burning desire for revenge for the death of her father. As a main character, she’s not the usual shy, dainty type you’d expect from conventional “waifu” options. And that uniqueness is part of why her design and character have continued to endure for so long. I combed through many seasons worth of anime titles before and after Kill la Kill aired while writing this piece, and I had a tough time of it trying to think of a character who could match Ryuko. And this is all before she whips out that equally iconic scissor blade.

Indeed, it’s not just Ryuko, but Kill la Kill has survived this long because so much of the series relies on a heavily unique identity. It is a show that oozes cool. There is something to be said about smashing big red text over every character and attack that gets a name. This happens not just when they’re being serious…

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

…but they do it when they’re being a bit ridiculous too.

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership
© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

The way the show plays with the text has always been one of my favorite aspects of it. That the text here is reflected in Mikisugi’s glasses implying he is looking right at it, played totally seriously, is my favorite example. Kill la Kill might not be the first to splatter text like this across the screen in fun ways, and it’s not going to be the last, but it’s stuck with us because if its unique presence. We all felt that same hype when Ryuko would scream “SEN-I-SOSHITSU” as that text popped up to the tune of “Before My Body is Dry.”

That brings me to my next point, the soundtrack. That magnificent OST was created by everyone’s favorite extravagant orchestra user Hiroyuki Sawano (known famously for his trademark “Sawano drop”). He had already scored a major hit with his soundtrack to Attack on Titan earlier that year but came out again with another banger in Kill la Kill. Everyone reading this knew it had to be mentioned somewhere.

How many memes? How many jokes? How many replays? How many references exist to those famous four words; “DON’T LOSE YOUR WAYYYYY?” I’ve been listening again to the soundtrack while writing up this retrospective and virtually every song has its own presence to it, its own moment in the show attached to it. “Before My Body is Dry” serves as the exception being tied to the whole series itself. As another two-in-one, can you hear the song playing in this shot?

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

Do I need to mention the heel clicks?

I think you get the idea. The iconography of Kill la Kill goes on and on and on. So long I’ve barely talked about the actual story. Those who have already experienced a series like Kill la Kill will no doubt understand its plot. But try explaining it on the surface to someone who’s never heard of it; A high school transfer student shows up with a giant scissor blade as a weapon to a school which also has a whole city at its core, hoping to find her father’s killer. She thinks it might be the powerful student council president and she takes her on by donning a talking school uniform that strips her and sucks her blood in the process. Every student at school has a similar uniform that grants power and their performance at school dictates how luxurious their life is, with high-ranking students living in mansions and low-ranking students living in slums. One of the teachers is working undercover for an organization called “Nudist Beach” that opposes the student council president. Also turns out clothing comes from an alien species called life fibers. Still following? The big bad antagonist wants to awaken life fibers so clothing can control humanity and eventually blow up the planet. That about sums it up (minus a few details here and there). Is Kill la Kill technically a magical girl anime? Sure, why not? It seems to be everything else. Murder mystery, action, comedy, sports, family drama, may as well add in the magical girl interpretation.

If you thought the thematic analyses of a show like this must be monstrous, you’d be underestimating it. To this day there is still debate about what exactly Kill la Kill is trying to say. Given that the series opens with a lecture on Hitler’s rise to power, it relates to fascism in some way. Perhaps it’s meant to convey that humans are tied down by clothing standards and that only be stripping down can humanity be liberated. Maybe Ryuko needed to strip to take on Satsuki Kiriyuin and in doing so becomes a symbol of women’s empowerment and liberation. Or maybe that’s all just an excuse to create trashy fanservice. And there certainly is plenty of that. Kill la Kill is a very sexual show. Of course, there’s plenty of imagery of Ryuko and Satsuki in their skimpy schoolgirl outfits which often leads to nosebleeds and this might not be the best time or place for referencing that controversial scene where Satsuki’s mother all but molests her in the bath (calling it a “purifying ritual”). Sexual abuse like this is also a means of showing power and dominance. Ragyo, as Satsuki’s mother and the main antagonist and supporter of the life fibers, clearly and explicitly reminds both her daughters of her position. The story is sexual, the themes are sexual, even the imagery itself is sexual. There are suspicious signs laced throughout the entire series. Without context, can you guess where on Ryuko’s body Ragyo is placing her hand in this shot? You’re probably wrong.

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

Another favorite example of mine is Ryuko giving a signal to Satsuki in the final fight against Ragyo.

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

This series is slathered in sexuality. Not just the women, but the men too. Toward the end of the series, the final uniforms bestowed upon the best fighters in Honnoji Academy are simplified, stripped-down versions of their previous tank-like uniforms. Their names also resemble their zenith as weapons, donning names like “Blade Regalia Secret Unsealed,” “Symphony Regalia Finale,” “Probe Regalia Truth Unveiled,” and “Shackle Regalia Persona Unleashed.” More evidence that seems to point to liberating yourself from clothing bringing you to your true form or more realized self. Of course, the men get naked too, when they get in their “DTRs” as Mikisugi insists on calling them.

What do we make of Satsuki’s father telling her that her Kamui Junketsu would be her wedding dress? That wearing clothing is a binding ritual? One that shackles humans in exchange for greater power? That might just be the message, since the main villain at one point brainwashes Ryuko into wearing Junketsu and the way to break her out of it is to invade her (false) memories, which happen to take the form of a wedding, and stop the “marriage.”

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

But the message is also that humans and clothing can be friends? The relationship Ryuko and Senketsu share is special. They care for one another and share a special bond. As Senketsu describes it: Ryuko wears Senketsu, and Senketsu is worn by Ryuko. It cuts both ways. Senketsu tries to protect Ryuko from the Nudist Beach terrorist Tsumugu and ultimately we feel pained when Senketsu is burned into the atmosphere at the end of the show. Senketsu was more than just a sailor uniform. He was a friend. But ultimately girls have to graduate from wearing their sailor uniforms. Ryuko needs to move on to better clothes. So maybe the message is that clothing has the potential to become a fascistic parasitic lifeform that holds women (and often men) down from being their true selves, but we have the chance to make peace with them and have an equal relationship. One in which humans wear clothes and clothing is worn by humans. Or maybe it’s all nonsense and the creators wanted to seem deep in an excuse to animate a bunch of high school boobs and butts.

I’ve also just now realized that I haven’t even mentioned the system of Honnoji Academy itself. A meritocracy in which academic performance (particularly in clubs), determines student and family living conditions within the city. The Mankanshoku family lives in the slums as “zero star” students. When Ryuko and Mako create a club, they quickly rise through the ranks until they’re so far removed from their previous selves Ryuko is forced to disband the club.

I could spend all day and more analyzing that one episode and all the other themes and symbols expressed in Kill la Kill I’ve mentioned so far. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t mention. Good looking visual shots and other iconic moments that all deserve their own spotlights. But we don’t have that kind of time. Others have already done it time and time again, throughout the last decade and they’re still doing it to this day. My point is that the fact that Kill la Kill being so ripe for so much analysis, criticism and debate is a testament to its longevity. Kill la Kill is the kind of show that sticks with you from its opening seconds to the end of its closing credits. It never slows down for a second, and it didn’t need a sprawling franchise of other manga, games, sequels, prequels or remakes to stay relevant. Yes, there’s a short manga adaptation and there’s a game too. But there’s something respectable about a series that manages to stay in peoples’ minds for a whole decade with only 24 episodes (plus an OVA).

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership

I initially wasn’t sure how to tackle a retrospective like this. Kill la Kill is just a lot. That’s it, just a lot. It’s iconic, it’s cool, it’s sexual, it’s crazy, it’s humorous, it’s serious and heartfelt, it’s sharp, it’s action-packed, it’s well acted, well animated, and well scored. It’s a nonsensical mess filled to the brim with ideas, but that’s just how Kill la Kill rolls. I hope my retrospective ended up the same way. I have a lot of fond memories of Kill la Kill. It began airing around the time I started my senior year in high school. I talked about it with friends and even showed it to some of them. It was one of the first Aniplex of America series I started collecting (getting all 5 limited edition volumes was quite the price quest). I even frantically messaged Right Stuf (unfortunately gone by the time this will be published, R.I.P) to see if they would partially ship my summer order that year (2014) so I could have that first volume by the time I left for college in case anyone was able to watch it with me (and I eventually did show some of it to another friend a little later). Watching it on Toonami in English was also a fun experience.

We all grow up someday, and eventually, we all graduate from our sailor uniforms. But even 10 years later, it seems we still haven’t lost our way and haven’t quite graduated from Kill la Kill.

© TRIGGER,Kazuki Nakashima/Kill la Kill Partnership