£24.99 DVD / £29.99 Blu-ray
21 Mar 2016
Taste is a peculiar thing. On anime forums across the web members regularly bundle around the latest postings of Oricon sales charts and the veritable hi-score table of Amazon Stalker points, usually followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth that the Japanese are buying all the wrong shows and giving support to the wrong genres. Whether we on the outside are even able to question the taste of the people who are after all anime's primary consumers is an interesting question, but if you're frustrated that paint-by-numbers battle-harems like Infinite Stratos (9,610 copies) can draw over eight times the sales of something colourful and inventive like Space Dandy (1,169 copies) it helps to remember that even for the conservative Japanese taste is a mutable thing and can shift quite rapidly, particular in the modern light-speed world of the Internet.
A case in point is Kill Me Baby - while most shows can expect to have diminishing returns over subsequent releases (people are unlikely to start buying into a series halfway through, so your customer base is limited to whichever fraction of first-volume purchasers chooses to stay on, with inevitable wastage) Kill Me Baby is remarkable for actually increasing its sales as volumes went on. That said though this was still a marginal thing... the first Blu-Ray of the original Japanese release sold a mere 686 copies, even smaller than "1 frt" (883) that was used to mock the bombing of the "anime saving" Fractale. When Kill Me Baby's producers adopted a self-deprecatory attitude to the slow start (such as producing an individual Twitter avatar for each single copy) the online buzz improved future volumes to around 1,500 copies each, but still well below the kind of numbers which are often casually if inexactly assumed to be an anime's break-even point (although Kill Me Baby's budget was so low it may even have made a profit with as little as that). While such unimpressive absolute numbers indicate a forgettable flop, on the other hand you could say that as Kill Me Baby did not just inspire but sustained a more than doubling of viewership it suggests the show has real qualities that were just unfortunately drowned out by the bigger and louder shows that were also on-release at the same time. There's also been something of a modern revival of interest in Japan in the Kill Me Baby anime, albeit of an ironic sort since Ai Takabe, the Japanese voice actress of the character Agiri who is often caricatured as a stoner for her languorous delivery, was herself arrested for drug offences last year. Is Kill Me Baby really an underappreciated and unfairly-overlooked cult classic, or do we focus so much on the notoriety surrounding the show because the show itself is nothing interesting?
Kill Me Baby is the based on the on-going four panel manga by "Kaduho", published since 2008 in the Manga Time Kirara Carat magazine that specialises in the format - Kill Me Baby has had such notable titles as K-On and Sunshine Sketch as stablemates. Kill Me Baby depicts the daily life of three high school classmates - the effervescent (that is to say, bubble-brained) Yasuna, the taciturn Sonya, and the spacey Agiri. They're certainly an odd bunch... not least because Sonya is actually a pint-sized pig-tailed hitman and is using the guise of a schoolgirl as a cover identity! Despite sitting in the adjacent desk to someone who's altogether dangerous to know, though, Yasuna's only ever more eager to have a new playmate in Sonya and her irrepressible enthusiasm won't be beaten down... even literally.
This anime is called "Kill Me Baby" but I don't like how that's the case - the show even provides it's own alternative English title "Baby, Please Kill Me" which in the show is always said alongside the Japanese title (which is itself just a japanese pronunciation of the English "Kill Me Baby"). While Kill Me Baby as a title has the lyrics of the opening sequence song repeatedly saying "Kill Me Baby" in English which would link name and speech together, "Baby, Please Kill Me" is used just as much in the episode title-cards themselves so I'm not convinced. I also think that it just sounds better, too - reaching out and joining show and audience together sharing a mordant wit. It may be a small niggle but it's an annoying one.
Related to titles are also subtitles. Despite being called a "Complete Collection" on the box, this release is actually not - this edition is missing the OVA episode from Kill Me Baby Super. This really irritates me too - it's careless at best and dishonest at worst. While you might think that it's an insignificant point to get hung up on as the layman consumer probably doesn't research anime in enough depth to care, it's still a loss of content and ignoring something that'd be so easy to fix - even just calling it "The TV Series" rather than "Complete Collection" would be simpler - is a distressing example of the laziness that characterises these dashed-off Sentai Filmworks rips.
Although one of the characters is an assassin, this is certainly not an action show - it doesn't have the budget for it. We never see Sonya on one of her "jobs", and when rival assassins are dispatched to take her out they are themselves despatched in cartoony ways and certainly not any elaborately-choreographed fight scenes (those rocket launchers on the DVD cover aren't even seen in the show itself). In one scene where Sonya does a combat-roll into a room the effect of taking a single frame and spinning it around is so crude it has to be deliberate in its brazenness. Unless they have a specific role in the scene, background characters such as the other pupils are frequently no more than featureless white stick-figure cut-outs - although in fairness to Kill Me Baby this is a not uncommon trait of high-school shows to keep the principal cast standing out from the crowd of the class that can be seen in everything from romances like His & Her Circumstances to comedies like Azumanga Daioh. The comedy in Kill Me Baby is reliant on back-and-forth banter between a tightly-bound cast, and thankfully for such a dialogue-intensive show Kill Me Baby enjoys an excellent dub from veteran anime voice-actresses with the stamina to sustain the long scripts. In particular Hilary Haag puts in one of her best performances as Yasuna, perfectly pitched at multiple levels from the excitable yapping of a hyperactive puppy when launching a new scheme to her plaintive whine when trying to get Sonya involved with the snotty snivelling mewls of its inevitable failure; Luci Christian also does well in giving Sonya a gruff and tired but still feminine voice. Rozie Curtis hasn't had as many roles as the other two principals but those that she's had go right back to the early days of Western anime with Nineties Manga Entertainment OVAs like AD Police and she accents the laid-back speech of Agiri with a certain sing-song quality too. Another interesting feature is how scenes are introduced with a voice saying "Another Day", "That Evening" and so on, reinforcing the ephemeral, and so light, nature of the show as you casually flip through the calendar, but the use of a voice rather than just a caption means that someone's welcoming you in. There's one odd incident in episode 10 when this voice keeps repeating itself - but the same thing is in the Japanese language track as well so it's not an error, just a strange directional choice, but only confined to one episode of the series.
What does that dialogue say? I've read essays elsewhere on the Internet that cast Kill Me Baby as a psychoanalytical study and the antics of Yasuna, Sonya and Agiri as mediations between id, ego and super-ego. While that might seem to be quite fanciful and require more of the reader's wish than the author's intent to be plausible, Kill Me Baby nonetheless does certainly offer substance behind its surface as a direct animated example of the manzai stand-up routine that's a centuries-old historic staple of Japanese comedy. Sonya is the straight-man tsukkomi while Yasuna is the funny-man boke, as Yasuna's antics get steadily more ludicrous until an exasperated Sonya slaps her down, and while Sonya's throwing knives and wrist-dislocating submission holds are an escalation above the tsukkomi's traditional paper fan they sprout from the same principle. Even Yasuna's airheaded nature suits the boke whose Japanese characters also translate as "senility". When you appreciate this Kill Me Baby actually becomes quite intriguing - for any viewer whose interest in Japanese culture reaches deeper than mecha and moé, Kill Me Baby is a rare accessible example of the mores and motivations of the wider nation.
Kill Me Baby is also interesting for its art as well as its culture. The show is notorious around the Internet for being funded by whatever loose change the producer could find down the back of his sofa, but it's also a signal example of how to puff up a tiny budget and how intelligent art direction can compensate for limited animation that could well be cited in lecture halls. You won't find much "sakuga" in Kill Me Baby but you will find plenty of style. The gentle pastels of the background are always soothing - and combined with that natural sketchiness, in the best design tradition of "if you can't hide it, make it a feature", having the classroom backgrounds white-out around the edges doesn't make the shot look unfinished but rather gives it a homely feel, like you're looking on the oval of an illustration in a Beatrix Potter storybook. Rather than having characters spasm into a complicated double-take, the long absorbing beat of watching a background pattern shift to a new design with the changing mood as insults are processed and ramifications understood gives a joke time to properly cook. On a personal level, there's one single frame in the final episode - Yasuna's at home, clutching her pillow to herself as she's open-eyed and fascinated by an exciting movie on the television - which is just so guilelessly happy that it's one of my favourite single images in all of anime.
The music also complements this. While the screeching demented polka of the opening theme is... original, other songs are more appealing - particularly the tinkling birdsong warble of the evening theme that closes an episode as Sonya and Yasuna walk home together from school in the sunset, in the same soft pastel shade as the background colours.
I've talked a lot about whether Kill Me Baby is significant, but giving you quotes to cite for a Media Studies assignment is besides the point - is it actually funny? At first glance it should feel quickly repetitive - Yasuna acts stupid, Sonya whacks her upside the head for being stupid, the repeated brain damage certainly doesn't encourage Yasuna to be clever in future, and it's the circle of idiocy - which might suit a quick newspaper-style strip like a yonkoma but would get boring over a television half-hour. However, despite those initial expectations, Kill Me Baby does very well to sustain your interest throughout. Key to this is the dedication to episodic themes - when Yasuna has caught on to a new fad and excitedly wants to show it off to Sonya it's not just discarded in a single throwaway skit but is kept coming back to via multiple scenes. Every angle on it is exhaustively explored as Yasuna bounds up again and again like a ducking-bird toy. Over this time you come to be helplessly charmed by Yasuna's enthusiasm, and so cheer with her as a victory the occasions where the sourpuss Sonya is roped into an activity despite herself - it's a great way to get involved in the goings-on even when the show is completely plotless.
Sketch comedies often have catchphrases and Kill Me Baby's comedy is also enhanced by a few decent ones. Casting Agiri the ninja as a huckster selling off gimmicky tat as secretive infiltration gadgets is novel, and one recurring joke that honestly cracked me up without fail each and every time it aired were the next-episode preview segments - the bright art is banished by a sudden slash of forbidding noir shadow, and the narrator begins intoning dire warnings with an ominous resonance, finishing with the barbed question, "what will you do now, Yasuna Oribe?". I'm not sure what she'll do, because what was said before was total gibberish - and that deadpan juxtaposition between the complete nonsense of the lines and the deadly earnestness with which they're delivered always brought on a fit of giggles. It's not all perfect though as another recurring joke that doesn't work is the "Unused Character", a discarded design who resents being consigned to the cutting room floor after Yasuna absorbed her character traits during development and is trying to elbow her way back into the story. The occasional skits that feature her are nice enough, I suppose, but I think that they really overplay it - the Unused Character would have been funnier if she was the subject of a spotting game across the series, peering over hedges and around corners and pointedly wandering around in the background like someone intruding on a location spot during the news. As it is, though, when the Unused Character even has her own lines she just becomes a minor character who has a couple of throwaway cartoony pratfalls.
Still, the Unused Character's scenes are funny enough on their own, and that even the show's disposable sections bring on a chuckle speaks well for Kill Me Baby altogether. I do think that this show deserves the interest that it's maintained to this day - my criticisms above are mostly about ancillary issues beside the show itself, which has a strong core. It's plotless and inconsequential but that means that it's also light-hearted and carefree. A set of strong personalities have the vitality to keep up long engaging rallies between each other, in a theatre that's absurd but not depressing. I encourage everyone to buy this... even if only because this time we have a real chance to make a topsy-turvy world where the UK actually buys more copies of an anime than the Japanese do, and like Yasuna Oribe's quest for fun and novelty that certainly makes for interesting times!