Screen & Page: Don’t Lose Your Way With ‘Kill la Kill’
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or film that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
This week, we're talking about the weird action-comedy with even weirder sexual politics: Kill la Kill! Please note that this piece digs into issues of sexual harassment and assault.
When Kill la Kill premiered in the fall of 2013, expectations were high. It was the first TV series from the fledgling Studio Trigger, the brainchild of former Gainax employees Masahiko Ohtsuka and Hiroyuki Imaishi (the director of the famous Gurren Lagann and an animator on shows like FLCL and Neon Genesis Evangelion). Trigger's only successes up till then had been the delightful short film Little Witch Academia and the web series Inferno Cop, so everyone was eager to see what they would do with a full TV budget.
The result was an instant success both in Japan and the West, but how is Kill la Kill ---directed by Imaishi and written by Kazuki Nakashima --- as a show separated from its hype? Honestly, this show is nuts.
In an alternate Tokyo Bay, Japan lies Honnouji Academy, a huge school on top of a mountain surrounded by the various layers of Honno City. The school is ruled with an iron fist by its student council led by President Satsuki Kiryuin who rules with an iron fist. Based on their involvement in clubs and loyalty to "Lady Satsuki," students are given different kinds of uniforms. These uniforms --- called Goku Uniforms because, well, you'll see why --- give the students crazy powers based on how many stars they have, with no star meaning no power, and so on.
Transferring into Honnouji Academy, Ryuko Matoi --- a tough vagrant wielding half of a giant metal scissor blade, seeking her father's killer --- learns all this from goofball classmate Mako. Challenging Satsuki to a fight and promptly getting whooped by a subordinate, Ryuko flees back to the burned-down remains of her dad's house and gets dropped through a trap door... by her homeroom teacher. Landing in a pile of clothes, Ryuko's wounds open up and her blood seeps into a sailor uniform...which wakes up and demands more blood. Forcing himself on Ryuko, the uniform --- who Ryuko names "Senketsu" meaning "fresh blood" --- gives his new wearer crazy strength to take down Satsuki and her crew, but also turns into an outfit so revealing even New 52 Starfire would balk.
So yeah, there's a lot to unpack here. Mostly, it has to do with language. Any anime/manga consumer knows that a big component of Japanese media involves puns. Kill la Kill does this explicitly; the history lesson that opens the first episode notes the Japanese pronunciations for fashion (ファッション/"fashhon") and fascism (ファッショ/"fassho") are similar. According to Imaishi, two other sets of puns inform how this all works: 着る/"kiru" can mean both "cut/kill" and "to wear" and せいふく/"seifuku" means both "conquest" and "sailor uniform [i.e. what all Japanese girls' school uniforms are modeled on]."
Does all this parallelism between the cutthroat natures of the fashion industry and high school, combined with satire at both the current right-wing tilt of Japanese politics and the way Japanese geek media --- and geek media in general --- sexualizes and objectifies young women, all under a layer of exaggerated, surreal animation, actually work? In broad strokes, yes.
The show's 24 episodes are split into two different camps. The first half is a series of one-and-done episodes that all center on crazy over-the-top fights a la JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (Mako even gets her own Goku Uniform at one point that echos Stardust Crusaders' Jotaro Kujo). The second half tells one gigantic apocalyptic story with world-shattering stakes, in the mode of Gurren Lagann (the good guys even get a ship similar to the one in that show). Although the first half especially suffers from repetitive animation that betrays a tight budget, the show transitions between its two selves very well.
It helps that the characters are instantly likable; Ryuko's a fun badass to watch in action and has a lot more going on than at first glance, Satsuki's a great villain who becomes incredibly sympathetic. And Mako is one of the funniest anime sidekicks I've ever seen while also being one of the best "best friend" characters in recent memory.
Not only that, when the animation is at its height, it's astonishing. The big fight sequences have weight and depth to them while looking cool as hell. The various powers Senketsu and the Goku Uniforms have are creative. And the great jokes in here are gold because of how they're exaggerated; there are jokes and running gags that echo, of all things, old-school Looney Tunes. The weird quirk of fanservice in anime --- owing to censorship laws --- is that you never see anyone's nipples but, in the case of one male character, his nipples are literally shining front and center.
Speaking of fanservice... yeah, there's loads here. And honestly, I don't know what to make of it. That bit about nipples I just mentioned? That's from Mikisugi, Ryuko's homeroom teacher who has a lot more going on, and who routinely hits on her and strips in front of her. And it's played for laughs. That and the ultimate narrative justification for why the costume Senketsu looks the way he does in battle --- and the fact that he's introduced forcing Ryuko to put him on --- are just part of the bizarre sexual politics going on here.
Is Kill la Kill an empowering narrative that reclaims female sexuality, or is it just the creepy fantasies of a male writer, male director and I assume mostly male animation crew writ large? I honestly don't have an answer and, being a white American dude, I'm far from qualified to draw a conclusion. This post by Tumblr user Jazzcatte tackles the issues of this show fairly well and, while I'm not sure I agree with some of their conclusions, I highly encourage you to read their take on it, as well as this Daily Dot story that sums up the varied reactions to the series. .
I'd say Kill la Kill is worth trying, at least to make your own assessments. It's formally interesting enough, and funny and exciting enough to be entertaining, even if the implications and subtext are suspect.
Premiering the day before the anime in the monthly magazine Young Ace, the Kill la Kill manga written and drawn by Ryo Akizuki ran for just sixteen chapters. Only the first two volumes have been released in English by Udon Entertainment so far (the third volume is slated for release July 26th of this year) so I don't know how its ending plays out compared to the show.
But the first two volumes offer, except for one slightly different story beat, a very close translation of the anime. Akizuki's art is essentially on model, even if it can't quite capture the madcap energy of the animation.
The one major problem is that the battle scenes are slightly hard to read. The show's battles go at a hundred miles a minute, but there's a clarity of perspective to them that the manga doesn't really capture. Instead, they just look either hastily drawn or full of the kind of artistic cheats that '90s comic art is infamous for.
That doesn't make it bad, just kind of inessential. Unlike the Cowboy Bebop mangas, it's not an alternate take or a side story. It's not an expanded version of the original like the Tiger & Bunny manga. It's just the same story, and only necessary if you want more Kill La Kill in your life. Good. Not great.
Kill La Kill is streaming on Netflix, Hulu and Adult Swim and is available on Blu-Ray & DVD. The manga is available digitally on Kindle, Comixology and other platforms and in print from retailers and your local library.