Naming the studio "Trigger" was probably asking for trouble, because it's all just blown up! Formed by former GAINAX employees in 2011, Trigger's life as an independent studio began quietly and unobtrusively, spending much of its first eighteen months of life doing odd bits of subcontracting for other houses. However, like a landmine which can slumber quietly for years before being disturbed by a wayward footfall, this unassuming small startup set off a massive explosion of interest earlier this year with the presentation of the short film Little Witch Academia, part of the government-subsidised "Anime Mirai" programme. Little Witch Academia immediately caught people's imagination and admiration for its luxuriantly fluid animation, exciting and expressive cartoony style, and the sense of childlike wonderment from its spirit of light-hearted adventure; wonder that sparkled like diamonds when Trigger's Kickstarter project to raise revenue for a sequel received over $600,000 in pledges! The touchpaper's burning to blast open Trigger's breakout, and in anticipation of this they're the studio that everyone's watching this season. A lot then is riding on the success Kill la Kill, Trigger's first original television anime. Excitement - and expectation - for Kill la Kill is only further charged and overloaded by its being the new child of the team that brought us the spectacular Gurenn Lagann, including director Hiroyuki Imaishi (who also helmed the anarchic Dead Leaves and Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt), scriptwriter Kazuki Nakashima and designer Toshio "Sushio" Ishizaki. The pressure is most certainly on - will the chain reaction reach critical mass and let Trigger continue to blaze a flaming trail across the anime industry, or will it just fizzle out as a mere momentary flash in the pan?
We're all familiar with the anime trope of the bizarrely influential student council, but in the world of Kill la Kill it's taken to a wild extreme. Honnouji Academy sits atop a mountainous stratified city, with tiers of opulent mansions cooled by the rarefied air of its upper reaches to sprawling ramshackle slums sunk into the swill of the stinking sump at the base. As a pupil of Honnouji Academy, whether you and your family get to live in splendour above or squalor below is determined by your academic performance (and you thought that the stress of revising for your GCSEs was bad!) This is judged ruthlessly and uncompromisingly by Satsuki Kiryuin, President of the Student Council, and the "Elite Four" who comprise her fellow-councillors and lieutenants. Satsuki is the undisputed Dictator of Honnouji Academy, ruling both staff and students alike with an iron fist and a stiletto boot-heel. To fall foul of the rules set by her unyielding discipline is a fate worse than death - assuming that you're not just summarily executed by the prefects, you and your family are expelled from the school and even cast out from the meagre shelter of the slums. President Satsuki enforces her inflexible rule with the incredible power of Goku Uniforms - she bestows these on pupils that please her. These uniforms are magically-infused to impart increased strength, agility, toughness and stamina on those that don them, on a scale of increasingly superhuman power ranging from the mere common fabric of the no-star plebs in the general pupil body, to the One-Star members of school clubs, the Two-Star club captains, and the truly mighty Three-Star outfits worn by the student council elite. Much in the same way that Japanese school uniforms were designed after military clothing, with these Goku Uniforms Satsuki has built a private army that is dominating Japan, smashing schools high and low into submission and bringing the whole educational establishment of the country under her imperious sway.
Into this hostile environment of scholarly subjugation steps Ryuuko Matoi. The 'mysterious transfer student' with a vengeance, Ryuuko has been beating up schools across Kanto searching for the killer of her father. Amidst the blazing ruin of her home Ryuuko discovered the murdered body of her father, speared by one half of a giant pair of scissors, the other half carried by a shadowy figure leaping across the rooftops... that scissor now forms her only clue, and she carries it across her back to smack down anyone in her path. Now transferred into Honnouji Academy, Ryuuko has reached the end of the trail and is determined to extract from a knowing Satsuki all the information that the President has on her father's death.
That is to say, she would, but no amount of shonen-manga hard work and guts can match the power of Goku Uniforms - Ryuuko's first attempt to confront the Student Council results in her being beaten to a bloody pulp! Retreating to the ruin of her old home, a battered Ryuuko weeps bitter frustration at the hopelessness of her cause, until something strange happens... blood dripping from her wounds onto a pile of mouldy old laundry stirs and brings to life... a talking sailor uniform?! This bizarre thing bundling over Ryuuko and demanding to be worn is nothing less than a Kamui - a God robe - and a set of sentient clothes that are even more powerful than Honnouji Academy's Ultima Uniforms. With the strength of the Godrobe on her shoulders Ryuuko can finally go toe-to-toe with Satsuki and find the answers she seeks... if she can ever get over the embarrassment of the skimpy fetish-wear that the Kamui turns into when activated!
That sense of character is an important part of Kill la Kill, and the episodes covered here in this review introduce a myriad of distinctive roles to create a multi-talented and capable ensemble. Our heroine Ryuuko herself is a well-balanced character - while she's a 'delinquent girl' and a tomboy, this portrayal has more nuance than her just being a surly fighter: Ryuuko reveals a dry, sardonic wit in her ripostes to the street-urchin pickpocket Matarou, and along with her panicked squeals of hating needles when getting an injection suggest that she's a girl of diverse interests forced to toughen up by circumstance. Don't let that scowl on the promotional posters mislead you - Ryuuko's independence comes across as a positive and cool confidence in herself, rather than a negative angsty rejection of everything around her. This more open aspect also allows the viewer to easily accept the immediate friendship with Mako Mankanshoku, a bubble-brained (and bubble-bosomed) classmate who bounces around, transmitting tireless energy to every surface as she ping-pongs into being simultaneously guide to the setting, inspiration to fight and damsel-in-distress. And it may be strange to say that a heartwarming relationship of trust and fondness exists between a schoolgirl and her astute talking blouse who loves a nice hot ironing, but... just roll with it, that's only the start of the weirdness.
At this early stage of a two-cour anime not every other character has been thoroughly introduced, but they all have individual bases to work from in a well-realised setting. Honnouji is a stratified city but the anime is not weighed down by any leaden and laborious social commentary that many other anime succumb to in pretensions of profundity. Mako's family may be at the bottom of the pile, but they are a gregarious bunch that lead a cheerful and carefree lifestyle in no way inhibited by their circumstances - the dubious ingredients of Mrs. Mankanshoku's stews are more for light gross-out comedy than lamenting on their plight. This upbeat portrayal liberates the show and lets it jump into action and adventure without being sapped by dreary maundering. The only real drag is Tsumugu's "let me tell you two useful pieces of information..." catchphrase in the fifth episode, which is too long, clumsy and repetitively forced, but by and large the dialogue skips along neatly. I don't generally follow voice acting closely and tend to be gently baffled by how seiyuu can become celebrities, but the show stands out amongst most as being well-cast with very fitting voices. Oh, and yes there is a reason why Ryuuko's homeroom teacher starts stripping like a Chippendale when delivering exposition!
The artwork is drawn in a quite a cartoony way. There's a sense in some places that "cartoony" may be being used as an excuse for "basic animation", but it's always done in a stylish and lively way to enhance atmosphere (particularly in how characters grow to loom imposingly over others) so I never had a problem with it. Animation firms up when important for dramatic scenes and beyond two short shots of pretty dismal CG in episode three the art is appealing throughout, full of personality, energy and vim - it had me as soon as the opening scene where Gamagoori is laughing maniacally as he falls down the side of a building. It also lends itself well to an undercurrent of physical humour in Mako's feel-good speeches which erupts out in a flood of madcap slapstick in the comic-relief episode four. The show's aware of the silliness of its setting but doesn't mistake a bit of capering for clownishness.
The stringy outfit that Ryuuko's Kamui transforms into has predictably provoked a lot of comment. It's certainly easy on the eyes but it exists not only for titillation but as part of the story too - when Satsuki reveals her own similar outfit, she makes its skimpiness an asset, boldly proclaiming that she is too great and mighty to be restrained by the social mores of mere mortals, and that one as magnificent and elite as her makes her own rules on decency; for Ryuuko, learning to loosen the deadweight of her self-consciousness and move past the fear of being judged, and to fully realise her own will - to "get naked" as Mako cheerily proclaims - is the key to unlocking her full potential. The fan service thus doesn't exist just for its own sake but quite smartly helps to inform us of their characters, and thus we get to enjoy the best of both worlds! It's also interesting to note that, for all of the scantiness of Ryuuko and Satsuki's outfits, the only actual nudity we really see in these episodes is male, throwing up a number of bruised cartoon heinies from thwarted enemies and the new challenger in episode five baring all in his determination to win. The clothing-based nature of the powers in Kill la Kill also helps to diversify the action, giving Ryuuko's enemies lots of variety, while Ryuuko herself ingeniously twists her threads to defeat her adversaries with a bit of lateral thinking, such as the climax to the tennis match in the second episode.
Despite its outwardly cartoony presentation, the action in Kill la Kill is surprisingly intense. It's no-holds-barred when it comes to landing blows, and characters can stagger from fights with broken teeth, swollen eyes and disfigured by bruises - even if they smooth back out again in later scenes, there's definitely a powerful sense of real impact which makes the action sequences impressive and dramatic. Furthermore, even though she's the heroine we're not just watching an exponential increase of power as Ryuuko knocks down the dominos - after the first three-episode arc which show Ryuuko getting to grips with what her Kamui can do, the following episodes change tack and avoid a 'monster of the week' format. This is an interesting suggestion that future episodes could go in unexpected directions - as a direct illustration of that, even though she's the heroine Ryuuko loses a number of fights, in early episodes running away as though she's Team Rocket scheming for another day! Kill la Kill repeatedly proves itself able to wrong-foot expectations to keep up our interest for the rest of the series.
Kill la Kill is absolutely crammed full of content - there have been multiple times when so much had happened I was expecting to see the credits rolling only to be genuinely surprised that there was still more than half an episode left to go! There are lots of lovely little details that show care and interest and that can't help but raise a smile - for instance, the Head Prefect Gamagoori likes spikes. He sticks them everywhere. On his shoulder-pads, on pianos, on joysticks - it's kind of his thing. But, when he presses his thumb on a button surrounded by ickle dinky spikes, in the instant before the cut to the next shot you can see that he's pricked himself on one of them! Another more visible but no less witty effect is how flashback scenes are shown in 4:3 with black borders on either side, going back to the days before HD.
On the theme of depth shown in little details, the unusual name of Kill la Kill, or "Kiru ra Kiru",is based on a Japanese pun that observes how the infinitives "to kill", "to wear", and "to cut" all have the exact same pronunciation ("kiru"). You have to wonder if this whole series and all of its clothing conundrums was built out of someone in the office just pointing that out one day! This small seed, like a growing plant, becomes a genetic quality that extends throughout every strand of Kill la Kill, for as the title recalls something else the entire anime is also highly referential. The general style of Kill la Kill is heavily indebted to the works of Go Nagai (the setup in particular is strongly reminiscent of Cutie Honey), but the fabric of the show is straining at the seams with a host of more specific references. Many of these might not be immediately obvious to a Western audience, but Japanese viewers will pick up on how the episode titles all reference songs of the '60s to the '80s; how the ending sequence is virtually a Xerox of the one used in the 1980s live-action version of Sukeban Deka ("Delinquent Girl Detective"); Satsuki's motto is quoted from Saint Seiya; The second-episode villainess's eyepieces rotate like the mecha from Armored Trooper Votoms; a monument in the Honnouji Academy quad is shaped like Diebuster's Imperial Space Force emblem; the steam-jetting costumes are lifted from Kamen Rider Black; and how Mako poses against the Space Runway Ideon symbol. These and many other references run through the main cloth weave right down to the infinitesimal of the very individual fibres teased out of incidental background details - the initials of the premier idol group Momoiro Clover Z are imprinted on a keyboard (the character designer Sushio is a big fan and regularly posts art of the singers on the internet), and the eagle-eyed might even catch a glimpse of Pulp Fiction's Jules & Vincent in one scene.
I feel ambivalent towards references. On the one hand, it recommends a work as being well-read and building a fond tradition higher and greater; on the other hand, it can betray a dearth of imagination and a lack of ambition, exhuming old images rather than expanding the corpus and creating new and fresh ones. In the case of Kill la Kill, I can come down happily on the positive side. If over-referencing makes a show staid, this anime is bursting with enough energy and vitality to easily overcome that weight and bound along - also, it spreads its net so broad and gathers together so much that it achieves a certain seamless smooth synergy, a syncretic sense that, like a Tarantino movie, takes a thin solution and distils down into a concentrated, powerful drop of full flavour. If Kill la Kill just picked from one or two sources it could be accused of being derivative, but instead it feels like its opening its arms wide and warmly embracing the family. These references are also background impressions, which make for a decent drinking game for anime aficionados but reassures general viewers that they don't need Jonathan Clements' Anime Encyclopaedia to enjoy the story.
The character of Kill la Kill is further enhanced by a keen selection of music. The signature theme "Don't Lose Your Way" is an entirely generic piece of feel-good pop, but it is dropped into the action at just the right moments to solidly back a character's comeback and let her bounce higher. The ending theme "Sorry, I'm Done Being a Good Kid" is a good complement to Ryuuko's character; despite its delinquent theme it has a melodious, daydreaming musical quality that carries the listener along with a wistful exploration of oneself rather derailing into a ditch with a po-faced screw-you-dad rebellion. Even though you might expect the soundtrack of a brash graffiti-tagged show like Kill la Kill to be all about rock and metal, the anime also displays some smart awareness by making simple but effective deployments of orchestral music in the fourth and fifth episodes.
Wakanim is stepping out into uncertain territory as a new online streaming service when it's competing against not just grand old man Crunchyroll but other new pretenders ANIMAX UK and broadcast service East Asia TV, at a time when Anime on Demand's wheezing expiration is a worrying suggestion that they might be fighting over a thin and unfulfilling slice. However, I can happily endorse Wakanim as having short straight out the gate with a barnstorming opening found here in Kill la Kill. This is not a profound or game-changing series by any means, but in terms of sheer fun and outrageous enjoyment it's honestly hard to beat. Sexy, funny, lively, bouncy, warry and witty, lashed onto the screen with lots of confidence and little self-consciousness, Trigger has summoned up a lusty loud bellow to blow away the doubts surrounding it and push out some space for itself in the anime industry. To be honest, I only rarely rewatch anime, but I must have played back the first episode of Kill la Kill at least half a dozen times as it left my head in such a spin on first viewing. Trigger's right on target, and I have every confidence that they'll continue to score bullseyes.
You can watch Kill la Kill on Wakanim.
Japanese audio with English subtitles. Video is available in SD and HD streaming resolutions, or as a time-limited DRM-enabled download.
Wakanim / Anime Limited