I was initially going to write about the new “House of Cards” season this week. But the more I ruminate on Frank Underwood’s ascent to power, I realize how little I have to say about it at the moment. I have to let that ponderous, baffling show find its proper space in my cranium before I can appropriately criticize it.
So instead, how about we discuss “Kill la Kill,” a Japanese anime show best described as the love child of “Zoolander” and “Dragonball Z?”
I must warn you, “Kill la Kill” is a guilty pleasure. The guiltiest of pleasures. It’s absurd, vulgar and nonsensical to a worrying degree. This show came about because its creators noted how similar “fashion” and “fascism” sounded in Japanese. I’m going to try to find some meaning in it, but I do not blame you if you cannot do the same.
“Kill la Kill” is the story of Ryuko Matoi, a 17-year-old drifter whose search for her father’s killer has brought her to the enigmatic Honnouji Academy: a school ruled by the unflappable Student Council President Satsuki Kiryuin and her powerful henchmen, known as the Elite Four. Satsuki definitely knows something about Ryuko’s dad, but she isn’t telling. Doesn’t sound too crazy so far, right?
I’m going to need you to bear with me for the next four paragraphs.
The school is actually a way for Kiryuin to find the strongest high schoolers and equip them with ultra-powerful Goku Uniforms (outfits that increase the abilities of the user) in the hopes of creating an army and conquering every high school in Japan.
These Goku Uniforms are powered by special, yet dangerous threads known as Life Fibers. One-Star Goku Uniforms are 10 percent Life Fibers, Two-Star are 20 percent and so on. The higher the percentage, the more powerful you must be in order to control your uniform.
Look, I’m going to have to chuck some other nonsense at you if we’re ever going to get through this. Satsuki is the heiress to the nefarious REVOCS corporation. There’s an underground organization called Nudist Beach (seriously) that opposes REVOCS. Ryuko has a sentient uniform made of 100 percent Life Fiber named Senketsu and a Scissor Blade that can cut Life Fibers. When Ryuko nicks herself and releases a single drop of blood, Senketsu can transform into an advanced form that gives Ryuko power beyond any Goku Uniform.
It also leaves her almost entirely naked, which is where “Kill la Kill” will lose most people. The heroine of the show is just about everything people want from strong female characters. She’s witty, cool, gets to do awesome stuff and currently has no romantic interest. But she also does her fighting in what could very charitably be described as a “revealing” outfit.
This is somewhat addressed within the show itself, in all fairness. Episode three is about Ryuko letting go of her shame, which gives her even more power. Around episode eight, the guys start getting naked as well and “Kill la Kill” somewhat changes the focus of its fan service. This doesn’t help much, because objectifying women is not even in the same league as objectifying men. Also, every time Ryuko transforms, there’s not really much left to the imagination.
There has been some debate as to whether “Kill la Kill” is merely objectifying its female characters or wants to make some kind of statement about clothing and self-image. It really comes down to what kind of person you are. Do you over-analyze things, looking for meaning in every line of dialogue? Or do you just want to see rad swordfights?
I’m in the former camp, so I see “Kill la Kill” as a show with very heavy-handed symbolism. REVOCS is Mugatu in all but name; the establishment viewed through the lens of Japanese fashonistas. By going almost-naked and literally fighting the evil clothes from the big company, Ryuko is fighting “The Man” with her “Individuality.” Even Nudist Beach has loads of clothes-based symbolism.
Maybe that’s just me and my tendency to analyze. It’s obvious “Kill la Kill” thinks sex and nudity is funny, even if you think there’s some chin-stroking behind all the guffaws. But, if women pushing their rumps in front of the camera disgusts you, the first three “Kill la Kill” episodes are going to be somewhat painful to sit through. It does get much better, that much I can say. By episode 18 (the most recent, as of Friday), the camera’s gaze is not quite as lecherous.
However, know that if you give up early, you’re missing out on some appointment television, the likes of which I haven’t seen from a Western show in years.
Each episode feels like a season finale, especially last week’s. By the time you read this, episode 19 will have been released, and I legitimately have no idea what the team at Studio Trigger are going to do. Episode 18 started with a mind-blowing deck shuffle that changed everything we thought we knew, only to top itself four times with moments that a lesser show would frame a multi-episode arc around.
The fights are ridiculously imaginative, each making excellent use of the fighters’ respective abilities and the surrounding area. Even during the weaker episodes, I never left a “Kill la Kill” fight disappointed.
Episode eight is definitely where things get amazing, with a distinct lack of the cheesecake that otherwise dominates the series. It explores the characters in some pretty fun ways and sets the stage for the show’s explosive tone going forward. The preceding episodes are not “bad” (with the exception of the abysmal episode seven), but if you have absolutely no time and haven’t been fully engaged by episode four, I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped ahead.
A good episodic story has two things: advancement of some previous thread (be it character or plot) and some hook for the following episode. “Kill la Kill” has utterly mastered both aspects. It fills its over-the-top world to the brim with interesting characters, giving the audience a reason to care about the proceedings as said characters beat the living tar out of each other.
Look, “Kill la Kill” is straight up ridiculous, even if you labor under the impression that something clever is going on behind the curtain. But it’s also some fine TV. Even if you’re not a big fan of anime like myself, it’s definitely worth a look.
“Kill la Kill” ends in 5 weeks. I will revisit it then.