“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.” – Nietzsche
For nearly thirty years, the Japanese animation studio Gainax has been telling one story: a story about human yearnings and dreams, about the power and potential of love, ingenuity, and the human spirit. In an odd twist of fate, the studio’s most well-known work in the west has always been Neon Genesis Evangelion, an obvious and enormous exception to this theme, a story about the walls between people and the things that keep them from realizing their dreams and knowing love. Perhaps because of the simple human affinity we have for focusing on the negative, or because of our more specific bias toward praising suffering in art, Evangelion has achieved more international recognition than any other Gainax production. And it certainly deserves the attention. It’s wonderful.
But alongside Eva stand around a dozen other incredibly human works, the latest of which comes from Trigger, a new studio formed by most of the creative talent Gainax had at the start of this decade. One of the two founding members of Trigger is Hiroyuki Imaishi, an animator and director who worked on many of the great Gainax titles, and who directed the epic Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and more recently the raucous comedy Panty and Stocking With Garterbelt, which I wrote about previously on this blog.
Trigger burst onto the scene last year with Little Witch Academia, a short feature with movie-quality animation that seems to have enchanted everyone who saw it. LWA followed a host of timeworn anime tropes and familiar characters through a story structure resembling an anime Harry Potter, except with an all-female cast of witches. Pretty much everything that happened in its story was predictable, and one could see from the beginning that the ambitions of its clumsy, big-hearted heroine to follow in the footsteps of her own witch heroine would be realized. But the telegraphed nature of the plot took nothing away from the film’s effect, simply because the proceedings were imbued with so much love. Every frame of Little Witch Academia drips with attention to detail and playful artistic charm, and the underlying message of the whole thing seems to be one of sheer gratitude for being able to work in the medium of animation and for having the good fortune to stand on the shoulders of the creative giants who came before. With Little Witch Academia, Trigger immediately established themselves as the proper heirs to the Gainax throne, and the kickstarter they put up to fund a sequel earned more than half a million dollars. But before LWA 2 was to be released, Trigger had something else up their sleeve.
In October of 2013, Trigger unleashed its first full-length anime TV series, titled Kill la Kill. The initial plot of the show revolves around Ryuko Matoi, a rebellious transfer student who arrives at a school that functions something like a fascist dictatorship. The students at this school are ranked in tiers, and the higher their rank the finer the regalia they get to wear. The fun part is that their uniforms are imbued with the power of “life fibers,” which enhance their natural abilities and grow increasingly stronger as the ranks go up. The school is ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin, the student council president, a girl with a crushing demeanor and a strength of will that makes most villains look like dilettantes. Ryuko suspects that Satsuki is the one who killed her father, which is what brought her to the school in the first place, and she begins fighting Satsuki’s lieutenants one-by-one in her quest to take on the main girl herself. And, importantly, Ryuko has some special clothing of her own: a living seifuku named Senketsu who was bequeathed to her by her murdered father, and with whom she can speak. Wearing Senketsu and wielding a wicked red scissor blade with the power to slice life fibers, Ryuko begins cutting her way toward the truth.
Kill la Kill, above all, is a love letter to anime as a medium in the same way that Little Witch Academia was. The plot description above accurately conveys the sequence of initial events, but it doesn’t describe the show, much in the same way that a description of the structure of a Led Zeppelin song doesn’t convey the song’s sonic content. On the screen, Kill la Kill explodes with life. It’s the antithesis of animation-as-product, of pandering to an audience by using a cheap and proven formula. It constantly surprises the viewer with artistic invention. But at the same time, KlK uses nearly every shounen anime cliche in the book, and yet still manages to feel like the creators are getting away with something they shouldn’t. There is a constant sense that they are playing, creating art out of joy, doing what they do purely for the sake of doing it. This is what all great artists do, and it’s why we usually pay them so much: we love to watch them play.
The tropes being played with here are shopworn: the hot-blooded shounen hero (Ryuko), the plucky and loyal-but-silly companion (Mako Mankanshoku, one of the show’s greatest creations), the enemies who become strong allies after winning their respect through battle (Satsuki and her lieutenants, the “Elite Four”), and the True Villain, the figure who represents the decline of humanity: in this case utter decadence, enslavement to clothing and superficiality, lack of love for one’s offspring, and a strong love of Thanatos (Raygo Kiryuin, Satsuki’s mother and a villain to remember). All of these tropes have been used hundreds, thousands of times before, and at times Kill la Kill can feel like deja vu because the creators choose not to deviate from the well-beaten path of the shounen plot arc. It is so earnest, so unironic in its presentation of events that it can almost feel embarrassing, as we often feel when we watch television from decades ago and find ourselves laughing defensively. Aren’t we more savvy than this, we think, more ironic? I would never be caught dead being emotionally affected by something like this.
But Kill la Kill’s impact does not come from postmodern irony or guile. It comes from pure, visceral style that hits the viewer with megaton force. Imaishi and his animators are absolute masters of their art form, and the things they accomplish with a TV series animation budget are breathtaking. Kill la Kill often has a loose, puffy style to its designs, a style that the animators exploit to wring the most frames of animation and the most possible action they can out of a limited amount of time and money, but this style falls away during more dramatic and important moments to reveal something as honed as a blade. When Trigger put in their utmost effort, the results are amazing. Some scenes in Kill la Kill go beyond the quality of animation that one would expect even in a movie, the actual animation being bolstered by incredible direction with a constantly swooping camera that finds the most dynamic and powerful angles in any given scene.
Style is pushed to the limit in Kill la Kill, and so is sexuality. When I wrote about Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, I noted that the luscious transformation sequences of the show’s titular angel characters felt unlike most “fanservice” moments in anime because they were so completely lacking in shame. Japan does not share our western sense of sexual guilt in the sense of “original sin,” but they do have a nearly oppressive sense of modesty, and of shame for indulging in certain lifestyles, anime fandom being one of them. Imaishi’s projects at Gainax always had a sort of punk rock feeling to them because of their rebellion against this attitude. It’s quite apparent that he and his coworkers do not give a fuck about society’s general opinions of their work, and also apparent that their pushing the envelope with unabashed, glorious sexuality was deeply tied in with their larger project of celebrating everything great and strong about the human spirit. As I said, Japan has never equated sex with sin and death in the way that Christianity does, except for perhaps in the pernicious western moral influence that infected the country after WWII, the influence that leads them to mandatorily censor their porn even to this day. But Kill la Kill will have none of that. The main good guy organization in the show is an underground movement called “Nudist Beach” which opposes oppression by clothing. Nudist Beach are comical, but the issue is addressed very sincerely by Ryuko and Satsuki, who in their most powerful transformations become scantily clad. Ryuko is embarassed by this at first, and concerned about the judgments of the crowd, but Satsuki has no qualms. She condescends to Ryuko for caring about the opinions of the rabble around her, and states that she would bare anything in order to accomplish her goals. She feels no shame whatsoever, and the crowd has no choice but to respect this. To a westerner, especially in our hypersensitive modern era which obsesses over body images and wants to moralize every depiction of female beauty, this sentiment comes like a slap in the face. And it should, because there is an intense kind of truth here. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Shakespeare opined, and perhaps the connection between the two is that while they can be covered up, neither can be denied once brought into the light. In one of the central visual motifs of Kill la Kill, the act of a character disrobing is often accompanied by blazing clusters of four-pointed stars, stars that also appear when a character is donning a uniform and truly making it their own. This other quote from Nietzsche seems appropriate:
“Most people are nothing and are considered nothing until they have dressed themselves in general convictions and public opinions–in accordance with the tailor philosophy: clothes make people. Of the exceptional person, however, it must be said: only he that wears it makes the costume; here opinions cease to be public and become something other than masks, finery, and disguises.”
An aphorism tailor-made for Kill la Kill. On several occasions in the series, characters accuse other characters of not truly wearing their clothing, saying that in fact they are being worn by it. The implication is that they have not self-actualized, that they are merely playing a role for the sake of a certain audience. In the metaphorical superhero logic of the series, this translates into a lack of physical strength and fighting power: a person who is being untrue to themselves cannot stand in combat against one who has embraced all of what they are, and there is beauty in that truth. In fact, all of the beauty in the series springs from this: Trigger are largely independent artists who work for themselves, who do what they do primarily because they love to do it. And it shows.
It is no coincidence that Kill la Kill, being an expression of love for great artistic work, is also a celebration of great human beings. Ryuko and Satsuki are female characters in traditionally male roles–the shounen hero and the temporary antagonist foil who becomes his strongest ally–and they embody masculine virtue in the original sense of the word, the Latin virtus: strength. But they also represent pinnacles of feminine beauty, and they have a kind of softness to them in some moments, a nurturing love that would be difficult to achieve on the same level with traditional male protagonists. In short, they come across as apex human beings. They represent the greatest qualities of both the masculine and the feminine, fused together into characters who above all are meant to do one thing: inspire. Both of them blaze with a fire that sets one’s neck hairs tingling, and their passion and conviction make many of our own superheroes seem embarrassingly bland. There is no sense of winking irony in their portrayals, unlike what one finds in nearly all modern western superhero films. Studio Trigger is not trying to be “cool” in Kill la Kill. They don’t need to do that, because they have such strong conviction about what they’re doing, such love for the material and such a powerful sense of style. Tough-guy irony is a crutch they simply don’t need.
The strangest thing about this lack of irony is that Kill la Kill is overflowing with metafictional references to older artists and series. Typically we associate references with jokes, to the extent that they have even taken the place of actual humor in some modern shows like Family Guy. Japan often does the same thing these days, but in Kill la Kill every reference seems to be played as a straight homage. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. The shows’s first ending theme sequence, shown above, cribs blatantly from 1985’s Sukeban Deka, another TV series about a fighting delinquent schoolgirl. The references in Kill la Kill are so ubiquitous that fans decided to compile a massive list of them, and reading through it is rather mind-boggling. There’s so much love for anime, television and cinema crammed into KlK, so much gratitude for other works of art and inspiration taken from them, that it’s no wonder the show has such passion. It reminds me of another old saying: “talent borrows, genius steals.” But in this case theft doesn’t seem like the correct metaphor. Rather than trying to claim all these things as their own, Trigger seems to be celebrating that they exist as part of our cultural heritage. What a great thing it is, that we still have all of this art to enjoy. The series leans especially heavily on the works of Go Nagai, an infamous mangaka whose art constantly pushed the envelope in his own time. Nagai’s sense of chaos, the fierce and fanged nature of many of his characters, and his drive to be sexually transgressive are all very apparent in the show.
But it should be mentioned, amidst all this serious art talk, that the greatest aspect of Kill la Kill is possibly its sense of humor. Humor is present in the show always, a sense of lightness and playfulness being the background from which all of its dramatic events arise. As in Gurren Lagann and Panty and Stocking, Trigger refuses to take themselves too seriously. Every stern scowling line delivered by Satsuki is coupled with a derisive aside from her tiny lieutenant Nonon, or an insanely rambunctious outburst from Mankanshoku Mako. Mako often punctuates the show’s most intense, most serious moments with sudden interruptions, a musical chorus shouting “Hallelujah!” in the background as she proceeds to pantomime her particular screwball take on what is going on in an attempt to sway the opinion of Ryuko or one of the antagonists. Interestingly, this almost always works. Mako has a divine foolishness which cannot be denied, and she is consistently respected for it, along with her tenacious sense of loyalty. There is something deeply marvelous about her character, so silly and yet so freely expressive, and Trigger has more fun with her than they do with any other character in the series. It’s impossible to be totally tense with Mako around. Pure foolishness restores.
In the same vein, another great character of the series is Harime Nui, the “grand couturier” of Ragyo’s clothing company, and the most menacing figure in Kill la Kill. Nui is cute as a button, obnoxiously cute, pink frilly dress and massive curls of blonde hair, often flouncing around with a fancy umbrella. She wears a purple patch where she lost an eye, and her manner throughout most of the series is mocking and unflappable. Moreover, she cannot be stopped by Ryuko or anyone else. She’s like some kind of gothic lolita terminator, and her overly cutesy appearance and behavior, which most people would already find annoying, are made even moreso by the fact that she seems to break all the world-rules of the show. Nui also routinely breaks the fourth wall, in ways that even Mako seldom does, and all of this adds up to make her one of the most effective “love to hate them” villains in recent memory. Never has cute been so intimidating and so irritating.
It’s worth mentioning too that all of these characters are brought so vibrantly to life not only by the skill of the animators, but also by the voice talent. The energy and intensity that the actors put into their performances reaches levels that are not often seen outside of animation–the closest analogue in America would probably be the kind of dramatic monologuing in films like Braveheart or A Few Good Men. The almost total lack of irony in the series gives the actors free reign to be completely committed to their performances, to scream and roar in the booth with every ounce of passion they have. This kind of stuff is more common in anime than it is in western films, but Kill la Kill excels in the emotionality of its voice acting even by Japanese standards, and the rousing soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano gives the actors a fantastic base to stand on. The show’s recurring musical themes are unflinchingly ardent, some sounding angry and rebellious and others wonderfully noble. All of them inspire emotion, and the music ties up the total package of the show beautifully. It’s hard to imagine anyone giving serious attention to Kill la Kill without having some kind of emotional response.
The response, on the internet, has certainly been emotional. The show has been extremely divisive, attracting many devoted fans who maintain that it is “saving anime” (a claim that seems to resurface every few years, usually attached to a Gainax production), and a large group of people who decry the show as being juvenile, overly bombastic, too action-packed, and too self-serious. Many take issue with the show’s nudity as well, displaying a sort of puritan squeamishness and prompting others to make apologetics by way of saying that it’s a satire of fanservice, or a “deconstruction.” The show spells out clearly in words that this is not the case, but people will go a long way with their cognitive dissonance when it comes to sexual discomfort. The main issue, however, is that many people seem to be very uncomfortable with the show’s guilelessness. If one is accustomed to shielding oneself by maintaining an ironic distance from the world, a work of art like Kill la Kill can seem threatening. In a way, its lack of irony is rebellious.
One of the main things Kill la Kill and the internet reaction to it brought to my mind was a 1993 essay by David Foster Wallace, titled”E Unibus Pluram,” where Wallace pondered the ways in which American television has descended further and further into defensive layers of irony, and the futile ways in which we have reacted to this cycle by bashing TV and trying to become more and more ironic ourselves (while still constantly watching televison). After wrestling with this seemingly intractable issue for 42 pages, Wallace comes to the conclusion that the only way out, the only true way for the contemporary artist to rebel in a climate where irony has rendered rebellion obsolete, is to embrace earnestness. He suggests that such rebels would “have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values,” and would “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions…with reverence and conviction.” The risk of this, he points out, is the risk of disapproval: “the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘how banal.'” And that is the negative reaction that Kill la Kill has gotten, from some people. Specifically, detractors have accused it of being a show for teenagers or children, implying that to be an adult is to hide behind a redoubt of irony. This reaction comes as no surprise.
The great surprise, however, is how popular Kill la Kill is. One of the delightful things about our modern era that Wallace couldn’t have seen back in 1993 is the degree of cultural cross-pollination we have reached, where the Hot New Thing in Japan is simultaneously a big deal in America. Kill la Kill was simulcast on Crunchyroll, the largest American digital anime site, and US fans were able to experience it at the same time as fans in Japan. The amount of fanart, cosplay, internet posting and general excitement and hype surrounding the show was greater than any other in the past few years, and after the airing of the series finale last Thursday it seemed that most people were very pleased. The critical reception, for the most part, has been highly positive. Interestingly, it’s hard to imagine the response being the same if Kill la Kill had been an American show. The series is profoundly Japanese, and perhaps something about it being so foreign allows an irony-inoculated American audience to accept it and revel in it, rather than rolling their eyes and turning away. For whatever reason, Japan has still not reached the level of irony saturation present in western culture, and our increasingly close relationship with them allows their bright-eyed take on the world to penetrate and influence our own.
But, as I said before, Kill la Kill is amazingly earnest even compared to other anime. And the reason for this, above all, seems to be love. Trigger is an anomaly, an animation studio formed by seasoned auteurs who maintain nearly complete creative control of their projects. They are “artist’s artists,” people who have nothing in mind but creating something which they themselves adore, and they expose us to a truth which is easily forgotten in a jaded and overly-marketed world: the most successful art is always art created in a state of play, created to please and satisfy the artist rather than some imagined mass audience. Kill la Kill is a success because, no matter how much farther we travel down the irony rabbit-hole, people will always respond to art made by and about people who are striving to be true to themselves. In short, the outpouring of gratitude, love of craft, and power of style in Kill la Kill are things which simply can’t be faked.
The fan-compiled list of references in the show: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/225692543/References.html
Watch it on Crunchyroll! http://www.crunchyroll.com/kill-la-kill