I’ve been remiss in allowing my otaku side to wither a bit in recent years – a pretty big liability given that I now regularly write for an otaku website. As part of my attempt to remedy this, I started watching Kill la Kill. A show which has the advantage of being relatively recent-ish (2014), popular, controversial and made more or less by the same people behind Gainax’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
Just as Gurren Lagann was an over-the-top, macho parody/celebration of giant robot show tropes, so is Kill la Kill an over-the-top send up of the magical girl genre. Our teenaged heroine Ryuko Matoi is out to avenge her father’s death, wielding one half of the giant pair of scissors which was used to kill him (the other half in the hands of his mysterious assassin). This leads her to Honnouji Academy, a school under the thrall of an absurdly powerful student council run by Satsuki Kiryuin, a young lady in the process of taking over Japan. The key to her megalomaniacal schemes (aside from her Nietzchean determination) is her line of Goku Suits: school uniforms that imbue the wearer with special powers.
It turns out Satsuki may have something to do with Ryuko’s father’s death, and so Ryuko winds up taking on the Academy in an attempt to claw her way to Satsuki. Not long after the ball gets rolling on this, Ryuko happens upon her father’s top secret weapon: a sailor outfit called a Kamui, which is in principle similar to the Goku Suits, except that it is constructed entirely out of the powerful life fibers that those suits employ more sparingly. And it is also alarmingly skimpy.
Typing all that out made me realize just how convoluted the basic premise of Kill la Kill is, so I guess it’s a testament to the show’s writing that all this is quite clearly laid out in the first episode.
Anyway, Kill la Kill actually brought to mind that recent Deadpool movie: both are trashy, vulgar and risque, and did very well with their respective demographics. The difference is that when you scratch away all of Deadpool’s R-rated stuff you’re left with a standard mediocre Marvel movie, while Kill la Kill is actually a really creative show with some surprisingly smart writing. Also ironically Deadpool’s sense of humor was far more juvenile.
The setting is, as indicated above, rather surreal, literalizing the tendency in anime to turn high school drama into Serious Business. The action is demented, frenetic and amazing, as a followup to Gurren Lagann should be, a lot of the humor hits home, and everything just unfolds with this incredible machine gun fire pace.
Which made me wonder about what makes a good action scene.
I’ve so far divided action scenes into three types:
The first is grounded in realism. The excitement comes from a very visceral sense of real physical danger and putting the audience right in the middle of it. Fury Road is a good modern example of this, but a lot of classic action movies would also fall into this.
The second is what I’d call the Looney Tunes approach. This is the approach that Kill la Kill takes. The laws of physics become very malleable here – it’s less about conveying a sense of realism than it is in setting up an expectation and then subverting it, which is why it almost always dovetails with comedy (see also: Evil Dead 2).
Third is what could be described as “dangling a shiny object in front of a cat.” In this one the laws of physics are ignored, but a pseudo-realism is given through heavy special effects work. Excitement is derived not through any sympathy, internal logic or setup, but rather through shoving as much explodey, technically impressive stuff on the screen as possible in the hopes that it will mesmerize the audience. A good example of this is the Star Wars prequels. It’s not that fun to watch but at least it keeps those CG animators employed.
But back to Kill la Kill. The academy is a meritocracy in the sense that theoretically a no-name student could fight their way up the ranks, but the concentration of Goku suits in the upper class only serves to enforce Satsuki’s fiefdom. Beyond that, there is something to how the show suggests that meritocracies tend to result in the creation of an autocratic and morally imperious elite.
The show does seem to want to bake its cake and eat too when it comes to the fanservicey stuff. On the one hand the salacious wardrobe designs and whatnot are obviously satirizing all the oversexualization that goes on in anime (there’s never a moment where the Kamui doesn’t look completely ridiculous), but it’s also kinda reveling in it at the same time. Irony only gets you so far. It’s a show that’s always sticking its toe over the line and then pulling it back. Watch at your own discretion, etc.
On a completely unrelated note, it strikes me that the show owes a lot to Revolutionary Girl Utena, which also had a surrealistic school setting with an almost omnipotent student council which sponsors crazy duels and the like. But I haven’t seen much mention of that.
This has been a pretty aimless post. Perhaps I’ll have more coherent thoughts when I finish the thing.