January 18, 2016

Worth Watching Redux: Kill la Kill

When I set out to watch some anime, I usually give the first episode a go and see if it grabs me. Kill la Kill here was the talk of last anime season, with tons of memes and discussions all over the internet. I like to watch shows on my own time if I can help it, so I'm not really one to go for the weekly stream from Japan. But recently I noticed the entire series of Kill la Kill was on Netflix already, waiting to be streamed at my leisure. How could I resist? The show is from Hiroyuki Inaishi, one of the anime world's craziest minds, so I fully expected the new series from the creator and director of Gurren Lagann and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt to be totally nuts. Last time, Inaishi took to parodying mecha anime and this time he was taking on magical girl. That's literally all I knew going in to it. I wasn't expecting to be blown away.

Don't get me wrong here. I know both Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking are incredibly popular and highly rated shows that are held in high regard by anime watchers. I'm a fan of Inaishi's work and I enjoyed both of those. But Kill la Kill is way better. It's his best work by far. Gurren Lagann was fun to start out with, but then started to drag. The twist halfway through was kind of a non sequitur– it didn't really follow the plot that had been laid out up to that point. Kill la Kill has twists upon twists that work. They feel like a natural extension of the story from seeds planted early on if you're looking hard enough. It's just... I can't really talk about them without spoiling everything.

This is Mako. Also, a typical moment in Kill la Kill

What I can talk about is the basic setup from the first episode, which unfortunately does not properly convey how awesome this show gets. The basic premise is that an orphan high school girl named Ryuko enrolls in a nearby school named Honnouji Academy in hopes of finding information about her dad's killer. In a flashback, it shows his murder at the hands of a mysterious woman who leaves behind half of a giant scissor. Soon Ryuko is united with a magical talking sailor uniform and then things start to get real. The main antagonists are the school's most powerful students (the Elite Four, which is not the only Pokemon reference in the show) and their leader Satsuki who rules the school with an iron fist. The weird thing you'll notice right off the bat is that Honnouji is more like a military training camp and less like a school. It's got a crazy hierarchy with one, two, three, and no star students who all get magic transforming battle uniforms except for the no stars who are treated like dirt. Ryuko's goal is to fight her way through the lesser stars, the three-starred Elite Four, and to Satsuki who has answers about her father.

Oh, and then there's Mako. Can't forget about Mako. Mako is... how should I put this? She can make Pinkie Pie look like a lame duck at times. She is, quite literally, hyperactive and completely insane. In fact, all of the characters are pretty over-the-top. It's pretty surprising, then, that it works. The show is out there, like really out there, even though it takes itself seriously. And it works! Somehow, someway, the anime manages to be completely serious and completely insane at the same time. You literally have characters running around naked probably more than half the time, and yet it's never ridiculous. Some people call this fanservice, but because it's actually a thing that integral to the show you get used to it fast and become completely desensitized. The reason I called this a "parody" of magical girl anime is because the transforming clothing is jacked up to eleven and leaves the characters powerful but mostly naked. Early on, Ryuko and others make reference to nudity aspect, but it's quickly dismissed for more important things. By the end of the series, it's become second nature to the point that nobody cares and everyone is comfortable with their bodies and the bodies of everyone else. And, by the way, when I say "nudity" what I really mean is that everyone is about as naked as a Barbie or Ken doll, with all the naughty bits smoothed over. In any case, it's not hard to see the commentary here, as it's not exactly subtle. If there's one thing Kill la Kill teaches us, it's that maybe we ought to be more comfortable with ourselves.

Is it really fan service if the characters are dressed like this on a regular basis?

If there's another thing it teaches us, it's that you can have a lot of crazy fun but still have endearing characters. Panty and Stocking was crazy fun, but the characters were one dimensional. True, that's kind of it's thing since that show is like the orange to Kill la Kill's apple. But early on Kill la Kill reminded me a lot of it. They're both fast paced with off-the-wall crazy action with a bit of sex thrown in for good measure (though KlK is way more mature about it). But the characters in Kill la Kill are deep and interesting. They're lovable and loathable. Even Mako, who often seems out of touch with reality, can be the most sensible character in the show. At the end (which I can't talk about at all) the character's intensions and motivations are laid bare and it all makes sense. You believe it. You will believe in the power of friendship!

But let's not forget the parts that make it fun to watch. Kill la Kill has a crazy cool style to it. Not only is it superbly animated with some wonderfully intense action sequences, but it also has a ton of personality. Giant blocks of red text periodically appear, for example, in order to emphasize certain dialog. Flashbacks have kind of a grainy film look to them and shrink the screen down to a 4:3 aspect so it looks like an old home movie. And of course, there's plenty of flashy transformation sequences. But there was one aspect I wasn't expecting to love so much: the music. The score of this anime blew me away. That's not even an exaggeration. I've never watched an anime before and thought "Damn, this music is amazing!" In fact, the only time that's ever happened with any show for me was Avatar: The last Airbender. The music by Hiroyuki Sawano is truly brilliant. It really added to the impact of the scenes in tandem with the visuals. I even loved the show's second intro which, as you may know, is a rare occurrence. In my recent list of top anime themes I listed a few intro that I liked which is essentially all the ones I've ever liked of the anime that I've seen. It definitely helps that the lyrics are relevant (even though I don't think they were translated). Here's a scene early on in the show that doesn't really spoil anything because it has no subtitles.

Which reminds me, I suppose it's fair to close by talking about the dub. I usually watch my anime in English. I especially watch my action anime in English because I like to keep my eyes focused on the action instead of the captions. Plus, Japanese voices just bug me a lot of the time for some reason. However, I rather enjoyed the Japanese dub of Kill la Kill. Even though I couldn't understand a lick of what anyone said, the voices seemed to really go. I suppose it helps that they didn't sound like the same ten guys from Funimation, though. I'm not sure what it was, but watching in Japanese just rubbed me the right way. It must be said that the English dub is also quite good. Even though a few of the characters have recognizable voices, it at least doesn't sound like DBZ characters cosplaying as another anime. Senketsu took a little getting used to, but he grew on me. It did bother me that they knocked the "u" off the end of names (Mankanshok, Senkets) but that's no reason to avoid the dub if you want to watch the show in English, especially if you've never heard it any other way.

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