It’s almost as if this movie is some kind of exploitative piece, that likes showing violence and naked women for no reason whatsoever. There really should be a name for this genre. Exploit…? Exploitate…? Ahh, I’ll think of it later.
Yeah, I’m going there. Actually I’m sure The Cinema Snob would love KILL la KILL (no clue as to Brad Jones himself) (Yes all caps. Yes, every time, Tom.)
Because after weeks of pondering, this is undoubtedly the conclusion I have to draw about KILL la KILL. Not a remarkably original idea, mind you, but this show is big, it’s all been said before.
KILL la KILL is an exploitation film in anime form. And really…that quote above, though completely unrelated to KILL la KILL in inception (indeed, said many years before the show was even conceived) illustrates the point quite clearly.
The reasons are numerous. And there is no doubt I enjoyed it as a series. But it shares far too many elements with this style to avoid this label altogether. Now…the more jaded among us might say “but all anime is exploitation art in some form”. Even if we take your argument as true, some are more exploitative than others.
I’m rather late to this party, so I have had time to absorb several other overall critiques of the series where thoughts may have been better articulated. I’m grateful for them, and hope I can contribute my own small piece to this discussion.
KILL la KILL is a visual masterpiece. Let’s be clear on that. If you want me to decry it as the next vapid step in Humanity’s collective retardation, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And if you are looking for the short version? As a self-aware popcorn-action series, it’s fine. Nothing wrong with its energy and presentation.
But neither are we going to Loose Change the series into something more than it really is. Here, let’s explain what I mean by that. But we’re going to get into the theory of narrative here. Again, this is just my take on the events, your viewing experience is probably different.
Or, to lift a quote from another well known critic…
“Exploitation doesn’t appeal to the brain; it appeals to the gut.”
That is KILL la KILL. To the letter.
This series is way, way bigger than anything we’ve tackled so far, so if you are new to this blog, this will not be a dork thesis with citations and an attempt to draw from at least three chapters of the anime textbook. This is, in short, a summary of what this lone viewer will remember of this series, one person sorting out their feelings on a show. I don’t watch action pieces to relax, I don’t even think I can name five action movies that have aired in the past ten years. My enjoyment is universe building and storytelling, and those are the areas where this will be focused. So I repeat again: If you want to find out if KILL la KILL is a good action series? It is. Your time is not wasted. None of the following is really directed at that aspect of the show.
A Madman in the Basement, Yarning Newspaper Clippings Together, Because Clothes Are Obviously Aliens
I wish I could attribute this quote, but I no longer know where I found it and a google search is not netting me results. But, here is the abridged version as best I can remember.
“So often in our English courses, we train students to read between the lines. We pluck out one or two lines or images and ask them to define what they believe the author meant by them. Almost never do we teach our children that it may be from an earlier draft that didn’t get cleaned up in editing, or that the author merely did not know how to transition before getting to the really good part.”
I believe this is the main idea to keep in mind when trying to discern any meaning behind KILL la KILL. After all, we knew the plot from over six months before the series even aired: That Matoi Ryuko and Kiryuin Satsuki would join forces against the true Big Bad, and we detected that from the series blurb Trigger released.
This is not the stuff that subtlety is made of. And we all knew even at Episode 1 that the two would end up being sisters. KILL la KILL has no surprises in its arsenal. So what, in god’s name, would convince anyone that KILL la KILL is some deep, methodical deconstruction of the worst tropes of anime fandom?
But my counter argument is that, as a practiced bullshitter, you cannot bullshit me. KILL la KILL’s “deep themes” are good band-aids for stuff that on the surface looks horrid. But with a slight amount of scrutiny, you end up seeing lies. Much like explaining to the three year old “Mommy and Daddy were just hugging,” can buy you some time….but eventually, that excuse will stop working on the more critically minded.
I don’t say this stuff to be a Scrooge, really I don’t. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun with KILL la KILL, I had plenty of my own fun! But let’s not pretend that it was anything more than it is. And let’s not pretend it wowed us with original storytelling, either. It has strengths, yes, but we won’t be overselling those strengths.
Now I don’t mean to say KILL la KILL had no themes, and had no motiff, but they are a very casual thing. Explosions had stars because everything else in KILL la KILL had stars, that sort of thing. I don’t think they were applied judiciously and by no means will anyone convince me that EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. it had some symbolic meaning. And the reason is that the conviction was lacking in the greater work.
This is tied into our next point, or possibly, BECAUSE of our next point.
The Cowardly Kamui
Trigger has expressly said that they kept the early story open and flexible, just in case they thought of something cooler than what was on the storyboard at the last minute.
There’s a term for that, and it’s a term that…it feels so wrong to apply it to KILL la KILL, whose main ingredients are hammy acting, T&A, and violence.
Playing it safe.
Trigger, and by extension KILL la KILL, played the show extremely safe. Now whether or not they wanted to include motiffs and themes, the fact remains they were unwilling to commit and explore those recurring elements remains.
By not committing to them, KILL la KILL seemed to adopt various hats for a single episode, and threw them away, never to be visited again. Any inconsistency in the message can be waved off as “we just did what was cool”.
Again, they appealed to the gut. And going further, they were afraid of failure.
You know what this makes KILL la KILL? The underachiever. You know, that person who never takes the opportunities that life presented, who slouches by because not trying and not succeeding is to be expected. If you try and fail…that might be worse. So you hunker down and don’t put in effort. You try to get by on your natural talents, and that’s good enough (oh, the meta-irony).
It sounds so strange to say “KILL la KILL didn’t put itself out there”, but really? That’s exactly what happened. They threw a lot of flashy elements at the screen, well executed flashy elements. But when challenged, Trigger can just say “Hey it was for fun, it didn’t mean anything.”
It’s admittedly understandable. Trigger’s first series (we can rules-lawyer if Trigger counts as a “brand new studio” but this is the first full series with their name on it), is it not better to be mediocre and pass than to pour the soul of your studio into your debut production, only to see it crash and burn? I get it, guys, I really do. It’s tough. Fuck, I still have trouble promoting MY writing because of that reason. I can’t even imagine the stakes that Trigger is playing with.
But if they weren’t ready to COMMIT to their ideas, maybe this project wasn’t ready yet. Perhaps they weren’t ready to own up to their stylistic choices and that’s just a shield. I’m not sure the reason. But it’s there.
One of the reasons it’s hard to say “Trigger chickened out” is because of the strongest contender for actual “theme” in the KILL la KILL narrative: that of shame and embarrassment.
The idea is that KILL la KILL attacks that Japanese notion of shame and etiquette, trying to say that one need not be ashamed to do what is necessary.
This issue is highlighted in the Fukushima fiasco, which literally destroyed one of the parties in Japan’s (more or less) 2-party system. The resignations were backended because, in hindsight, everyone was able to look at the string of data and ask “what was wrong with you?” But as those events were actually unfolding? No one said a word, or at least, no one spoke strongly enough.
Now, we can argue the specifics (indeed, many have) about “male gaze” and what have you. But that’s not the thing I’m concerned about, in light of the previous section. Trigger stood up and shouted “we believe whole heartedly in…! …you know.” and sat down uncomfortably at the kids table where they belong.
This alone takes the teeth out of any possible message regarding standing up for your belief, regardless of society’s pressure. So, no, I do not care about the whole “male gaze” argument, because I do not believe this to be an actual theme. Oh sure, the show might tell you it’s a theme. But I also told my Ethics professor that I spent a couple weeks thinking out my term paper, the one he called me “a fucking genius” over, but really I just spit it out in an overnight session. I can recognize a fellow underachiever when I see one.
Indeed, Ryuko does not ultimately win by trumping society’s norms….she rises to the top and makes her own societal norm. She redoubles and shifts the standards of society…but they still exist.
Other motiffs that existed were that of the wedding dress, culminating in Ragyo’s Final Form. It is interesting to note that KILL la KILL separates the concept of marriage and family, the former seen as a tool of control while the latter a joyous body of people. Perhaps this can be attributed to the lack of a sexual revolution (which was actually a marriage revolution). But again, there is positive marriage symbolism, such as when Ryuko tears Junketsu off, the blood mimicking a red-dress, or ceremonially, the moment she emerges as her own person, no longer the daughter of her family, which seems to fit the script events quite well. And arguably, Senketsu telling Ryuko she’s grown up as he disappears could, in a sense, be seen as him, the father, giving the bride away. Which…I guess receiving would be Mako? Or more generally, her “new” family.
I’ll just leave this at the following: There are so many examples I would be here all day listing them instance by instance.
So we’ve gotten through the theory of KILL la KILL‘s narrative, let’s actually get to the (far more subjective) specifics.
Matoi Ryuko…she’s a difficult subject to discuss.
Often, as I go back and rewatch these series for the recaps, I am often given a sense of nostalgia as it has that early anime feel to it. The characters are less defined, they’re more tropey to establish themselves, they lack the baggage they would later carry. They feel, in a sense, less mature.
Ryuko is not like that at all. She is the same through and through. I watched the very first episode again, and it felt like the SAME Ryuko I had just seen at Episode 24.
This probably stems mostly from the fact that Ryuko is a character without an arc. And indeed, of the many series recaps I’ve read and watched, so very very few have even bothered to praise Ryuko the character, rather than Ryuko the well-drawn animation machine that makes your heart flutter and pump blood to your (metaphorical) testosterone areas to get you ready for the ass kicking.
Her absence in this regard is striking, especially when people will talk more about how much they hated Ragyo’s execution than how they liked Ryuko’s presence. How can the main character in such a dynamic action piece leave so little an impression?
It may be thematic, or not, again, I can’t tell, but Ryuko, to me, is the epitome of clothing that KILL la KILL went on about. About how clothing wears people and people wear clothing.
Ryuko was worn by the various members of the cast, and her “development” coincides with these people.
At the very first, she was worn by her father, donning Senketsu and trying to find the truth behind his death. In this she became exactly what he and Mikisugi wanted: a weapon against the Life Fiber’s forces.
But at the Naturals Election, we introduced Nui, a chaotic element that donned Ryuko for much darker purposes. Her actions for those two episodes were driven by that rage she felt. And the first episode of season 2, Nui plays her like a freakin’ harp (again), destroying Senketsu in the process.
After this, Satsuki tried to wear Ryuko. She attempted to direct Ryuko’s rage towards herself, in the hope that it could be channeled to her own ends. But this ultimately ended futilely, albeit it did divert her to be more “productive”.
Then, Ryuko would be worn by her long lost mother, Kiryuin Ragyo. She became despondent over her nature, and like a switch, adopted her mother’s way of thinking without a lot of protest.
Finally, Mako wore Ryuko, fully and completely (by entering her mind…one of those many Mako powers), and she “realized” what her true family was, and how to save the world, blah de blah de blah.
I sound bored because…this didn’t come from growth from where I sit. Ryuko was donned by a person with purely good intentions, and thus she became good intentions. It’s not growth, just she got lucky enough to fall into the right hands. She is that dog from Up. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find out the tru-SQUIRREL!” Whatever she is fixated on is what influences her behavior.
This was ultimately to the detriment of her character, I feel. Ryuko never really makes a choice that overrides these people’s use of her powers. She feels so very much like a tool that gets re-purposed over and over again. Because, ultimately, she has no goals. Not really. She lost that word that we call “agency”. This ultimately has its roots in the fact that Ryuko’s character arc plateaus at the end of season 1, and then stagnates, reverses, pitches and dives and climbs again with little cohesion in the second season.
“I know I was fighting Life Fibers before (as my dad intended), but that was just happenstance. Now I’m CHOOSING to fight Life Fibers! (as my dad intended)”
The message about Ryuko was “Be who you are…but not too much, because you’re basically that person already.” Indeed, the heroes keep Ryuko around, not because of who she is, but WHAT she is. And I’m not even stretching, I am literally pulling the words from Nudist Beach’s mouth. It is Ryuko’s nature as a weapon that they need, not the person they are concerned about. When she goes off the deep end, they abandon her, no argument. And that was totally the right call to make, but it shows that “going to the brink for family” was not a persistent theme in their mind. It was only a theme when it was convenient. She strayed from her pre-determined path and was then deemed expendable by her “family”.
Again, I’m not arguing that “OBEY THE MILITARY FAMILY!” was the theme, merely that there was no consistency to it, or to Ryuko’s character arc.
Because Your Waifu is Shit
Kiryuin Satsuki…where to begin?
I think I understand the structure that was attempted in this show. Satsuki was, as we knew, “every bit the protagonist as Ryuko”.
One could argue that Ryuko had a hero’s journey in the first half, where she overcomes her need for vengeance and becomes more attached to what she HAS rather than what she lost. We can quibble about the specifics of how much backpeddaling she did, but, if the first 12 episodes were the entire series, that was the idea you’d take away.
I would then argue that the second half was originally intended to be about Satsuki. Originally. Like many of the blueprints in the early creative process, however, this seemed more of a bullet point than a hard format plan.
The show, of course, then refused to stray from Ryuko’s point of view so we gave her a lobotomy in the hope of stringing more drama out of our protagonist, but we already discussed how well that worked.
This left Satsuki in a bit of a bind, as while the show had been hinting at us, in a frustrating way, that Satsuki was going to turn hero, she didn’t actually make the plunge until the final 30 seconds of Episode 17, ¾ through the series. This harmed her, as she was not allowed to GROW for the third quarter.
Oh sure, we learned things about her. We got insight into her motivations and what she valued. But that wasn’t growth, it was just us seeing her different shades. Something that SHOULD have been teased in the first half, but was not.
“But, Doll!” you will no doubt say, “We were teased!” Wrong. We were teased that there was more to Satsuki than meets the eye. And we were teased again. And again. And again. Not growth, we did not see the shades that actually existed. There was one instance: When she smiles at Mako and Ryuko’s display of friendship.
Other than that? They were all so many ways to say “Satsuki has plans you can’t fathom Ryuko” (and considering Ryuko’s tactical mind, that was an absurdly long list of possibilities).
Satsuki finally started showing us a different side in Episode 16 (and that’s not a bath joke), her vulnerability, her interactions with her mother. It may have, ultimately, been play acting submissive but it is important that there were situations where Satsuki would utter words and perform actions that she would otherwise hold in contempt. I’ll get to that more in Ragyo’s section, but for Satsuki, it finally added depth to her character beyond the unattainable goddess motiff.
Because she only had the final quarter as a good guy, this was when Satsuki’s pitifully weak character arc played out. It was, admittedly, rather natural, but again, she felt very much like a side thought, even though I still hold to the idea that I believe the original intention was to have her growth be a focus. She overcomes her learned behaviors, and adopts her own warped sense of Ryuko’s philosophy.
And lots of stuff did make sense with this, don’t get me wrong. The very distanced way she handles her retainers (the family she chooses) is almost ingeniously set up as a reaction to her own mother’s lack of personal space (the family she’s stuck with). It was perhaps the most solid thematic example to the “you actually CAN choose your family” thread that KILL la KILL was running with.
But this development really came too late, it didn’t tie very strongly with the story.
Time to talk about Ragyo. I liked her a hair more than most people, in part because she was walking philosophy.
And, KILL la KILL is practically Nietzhean in its ascension elements, so thus Ragyo embodies a related, yet slightly different set of ideas. And the closest I think she embodies is this one, Divine Humanism.
If you aren’t up on the new age stuff (or a nerdy gamer into RPGs that have latched onto it like the fad-nipple for their metaphysical systems), you may need a definition. Well, here’s my own definition that I use in my spiritual life.
Divine Humanism is basically what you might call “spiritual gravity”. It is the idea that each and every Human is an embodiment of the Divine (see what I did there?). There is no “right” way to do things, however. There would be no sacraments (not as Christians would understand them) because the Divine is not a lofty being to be appeased, it is a force that exists within ourselves. Nietzche might approve at this point.
But where Divine Humanism diverts is that, whereas the ubermench is a goal, an ideal, Divine Humanism is more a force of nature. Hence that “spiritual gravity” thing I talked about. If everyone were a spiritual body, some would shine very brightly, and exert tremendous gravity. But most objects (people) are smaller. We go throughout our day, following our own momentum, and every now and then our energy interacts with others. Often times we barely notice. Other times, our orbit gets shaken, sometimes altered forever and sometimes? Other objects draw us in, warp our orbits to suit their behavior. Your energy shapes the universe around you, that is the Humanism in the Divine.
I think this is what made me tolerate, maybe even enjoy, a lot of Satsuki’s interactions with Ragyo. On Ragyo’s side, we had that thing I mentioned earlier, how under a certain set of conditions, Satsuki would be submissive or feign submissive tendencies. Either example is her energy bending around Ragyo. And ultimately after her betrayal, it is Satsuki who exerts her energy to counter her mother’s, to not be done in, to prove she did have the power with her personality to not only emerge, but to ruin her mother’s orbit.
Of course, this is entirely the “convey she is a threat” stuff. None of it is “why should I care?” stuff.
Ultimately Ragyo fails as the Big Bad because she just isn’t interesting. She’s not even a one note character, she’s a no-note character. She walks onto the screen, laughs a few times, maybe fondles a breast, and leaves. She is Kramer as the pedobear lesbian, and nothing more.
Where will KILL la KILL’s place in anime history be?
Well it certainly won’t be in saving anime. It’s only been a couple months, but more people talk up Attack on Titan already than promote KILL la KILL. An older series, I might add.
And yet…I tried to highlight this in my Saving Anime post but apparently I didn’t articulate it clearly enough because people keep misinterpreting it. I don’t believe the concept of “saving anime” is tied into the relative quality of then and now. I believe the idea exists because of the perception within the culture. That the community made those series “bigger” than they really were. It’s not related to the shows, but to the people you see around the shows. Much like “the decline of the television networks”, that’s just a ratings thing. The programming has remained the same or quality has improved dramatically since their heyday. The idea that the social experience played a much bigger role than we would like to admit. And in that sense, KILL la KILL has been an amazing success. Indeed, the “how saved is anime this week?” meme and the fact that KILL la KILL presents some great meme-fodder has kept those of us who may not have been particularly interested more engaged in the community over this show that others failed to do. But this is not any staying power, and the narrative weaknesses in the series cripple its ability to REMAIN in the culture’s collective memory (collective memory, as you know, is goldfish level). So without new material week to week, the old tired jokes have grown boring, and though it’s only been two months, it has started to vanish from that frame in our line of sight.
I’m actually sorry because here is how I see this going down. KILL la KILL has a mixed reception as of right now. It certainly didn’t unite the otaku as some had hoped. But because of the superficial appeal, I don’t see KILL la KILL being the go-to series to suggest to newbies like Death Note is (going by what I’ve observed on Facebook, at least).
Indeed, as the fans of KILL la KILL move on to the next flashy action series, the detractors will remember this as nonsense. I think KILL la KILL will then have a big negative backlash, suddenly it will be hip to hate it, before the tempers settle and, like so many things, the community barely remembers it as a quaint little series without remark (as all the Scrooges are shown it wasn’t AS bad as they remember) (and, the counter-hipsters to the old hipsters find its suddenly cool to like it again).
For all the crap I’ve given it, I think KILL la KILL deserves better than that. But that’s just how I see its legacy going down.
I do understand the backlash. Honestly I do. I had a similar reaction when I jumped onto Madoka when it had JUST finished and was hailed as this SUPAH DARK series. Only it really wasn’t that dark. It took a few years for me to go back and give it a second chance, and able to take it on its own terms, I found my opinion had improved (I was also less cynical. Yes. I used to be MORE cynical).
You Could Have Been More
There are probably two things you’ll notice about Dataport Doll as the weeks passed with KILL la KILL.
The first, that Episode 12 really the moment that deflated a lot of my enthusiasm for this show.
The second, that enthusiasm was briefly rekindled with an evil Ryuko.
These are the two instances, for good or for ill, that KILL la KILL burned into my psyche about itself. I generally don’t mind when my expectations don’t match what is demonstrated, honest. Just briefly glance over the shows here, if I held my expectations against a show’s actual course, I’d end up hating ALL media (as most of us would).
But, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, this was not a case of letting the show carry us for a ride. This was a case of the show saying “Are you ready?” and the audience bouncing up and down with our no-spill cup of juice saying “YAY!”, strapping ourselves into our booster seat, eagerly awaiting our trip.
That never came.
At best, we drove around the block and Trigger tried to pass the local park off as Disneyland.
And these two instances, the mid-season backpedal and the obligatory-turncoat scene, will forever be the two things I remember about this series. No real reason. They are just what KILL la KILL will always mean to me. And no one can define that for anyone else. No one will be able to dictate to me that my impression, that image of the series I carry in my head, is wrong.
Much like in Doctor Who we have “Generic Moffat Woman”, the characters of KILL la KILL tend to exist as abstract personalities without any one standing above the crowd. From the dramatic angle, let me clarify that. Mako remains best character by leaps and bounds. But taking the story on its own terms? Satsuki, Ryuko, and Ragyo all exist in this nebulous “space” where female protagonists and antagonists meet in the creative ether. Again, this is such a hard thing to say about this show, which almost defines the idea of “over the top”.
KILL la KILL taps into this desire in our society at large for a narrative about strong women. I do believe it falls under the umbrella that “Suckerpunch” and arguably “Frozen” do, trying to tap that vein buried deep in our collective chests that pounds for a woman to take charge and run the show. Our gut and science tells us it is there…but no one has really yet hit it precisely enough to get an accurate reading. Mind, that’s not a value judgment on any of those examples, merely observation that they are chasing the same ice cream truck.
Let this be the last time I use the disclaimer: If you want a serviceable action series that can keep you entertained and get your energy up for 26 episodes, this is your show. Absolutely.
But personally, if for whatever reason you’ve taken to enjoying my “taste” in media, if I were to honestly express my thoughts on it…
I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it.
While there are definitely positive elements, none of them are elements I really give a shit about. So, as far as “my type” is concerned…
I don’t regret watching it. But the emotion is so close, that hair splitting is something I’m only really trying (and failing) to do out of obligation.
You will probably enjoy your experience watching KILL la KILL if you have at it in one go. But it is junk food, and if you tried to subsist on it exclusively you will be courting the worst tummy-ache you have ever seen.
I don’t regret watching it…but I don’t really care that I saw it. And perhaps indifference is the most damning criticism of all for a show that existed to illicit a gut reaction from the audience.
If you want to see my full experience watching KILL la KILL, you may do so here.