We're 12 episodes into the latest series from Studio Trigger and ex-Gainax icon Hiroyuki Imaishi, Kill la Kill. While this ride started off wild and exciting it has slowly wondered into a by-the-numbers snooze fest. You know it's bad when the latest Valvrave episode is more anticipated. Kill la Kill has quite a lot going for it though, and with a bit of fine tuning, it could still develop into something great. While it may not surpass Imaishi's directorial debut, Gurren Lagann, it can at least save itself a mere flicker in the annals of anime history. To get there, though, a few things need to be cleaned up which are holding the series back.
Poor Character/World Development
Granted, 12 episodes into a series isn't a long time, but with the series almost half way though, it's disheartening to realize how little development went into Kill ka Kill's characters and setting. Despite the often epic nature of Kill la Kill's setting, only a minimal effort has gone into developing the universe in which it actually takes place. Set pieces that should be of great importance, like Nudist Beach, have received so little attention it often comes across as an afterthought.
At this point in the story it's natural for some organizations to be surrounded in mystery, like the organization run by Satsuki Kiryuin's mother, Ragyo Kiryuin. Who she is, the strength of her company, and all the associated details have been slowly leaked. It has, thus far, create an aura ripe for exploitation during a final climax. Compare that to one of Ryuko's teachers, Aikuro Mikisugi and his organization Nudist Beach. We know just enough about Nudist Beach to somehow know their entire purpose and yet little about their motivations and reasons. Mikisugi comes off as a character who's initial purpose was to undress while offering basic support and exposition, first and foremost. His ties to a rebel organization come off as a loosely strung thread (get it) to somehow link him to rest of the plot. Same goes for his Nudist Beach buddy, Tsumugu Kinagase, who seemed like he would be an important foil to Ryuko yet has only served as a distraction. Like Mikisugi, Kinagase comes off as concept developed before the need. "You know what would be cool? Someone who works with sewing and thread-based weapons." "That's a great idea, here are some sketches we came up with." "Looks great, now how to we put this person in the show?"
At this point just as little attention has been paid to the development of the characters, main and supporting ones alike. Everyone is very one dimensional as they operate with only the bare nessecity of motivations. Ryuko wants revenge, Satsuki wants to rule, and Mako just wants to be comedic relief.
Take for instance Honnouji Academy's Elite Four. Four amazingly well done characters when it comes to their design, personalities, and presence, yet they feature some of the weakest motivations I’ve ever seen. Not to say that their motivations are awful, just that they're so simplistic and weak that we could have just as easily gone without them. And how are they presented to us? Awful flashbacks mid-battle? The only cool part is how the show changes the aspect ratio to compliment the awful use of sepia. The only one to have any proper developmental arc in the series is Sanageyama. (Not to mention the only one with some sort of upgrade/power development arc. Ryuko just suddenly comes upon new powers through sudden acts of Deus ex Machina.) His comparatively substantial development has made him out to be one of the coolest characters in the show. Everyone else seems to exist just as fodder for fanart.
There's no doubt that Trigger has some of the most talented designers and animators in the industry. The thematic design and stylish animation found in Kill la Kill is something to be envied. It’s likely that some of the fights from this show will no doubt go down in anime history. Yet as the series progresses a flaw has become more and more evident, recycled animation.
No, I'm not referring the age old practice of reusing transformation sequences over and over. To Trigger's credit, they've handled the transformations quite well by changing them around and speeding them up. What I'm referring to their practice of taking a handful of cels and repeating them numerous times during a battle sequence. Most of the time it seems to include some basic exposition between Ryuko and her foe of the week. Episode 12, which just aired this past week (or two weeks ago, depending on when I get around to posting this article), opened up with 30 seconds of Ryuko slashing at her opponent Harime while they have a nice little conversation.
What we're partially seeing is an odd effort to mix up an age old anime trope. In most anime instances when a pause is needed mid-battle the fighting characters break off for a few seconds. It's often used for one of the participants to mock the other, figure out their next move, or realize the severity of their situation. This brief respite allows the viewers to take a breather and build up tension for the inevitable conclusion.
Kill la Kill actually did a great job with this during the first Ryuko v. Satuski fight, though even that is guilty of the recycled cels + exposition issue. It's very minor in use though and not an issue on it's own, but since then it's become more and more obvious. It’s just the placement, right in the middle of what’s supposed to be a heated battle, that always manages to ruin the mood. I’m not sure whether it’s just the budget limitations (not like Imaishi still has Gainax funds), or simple laziness, but it’s managing to water down everything. I'd rather watch two separate parts of a great battle than one great battle with some dulling material in the middle.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Speaking of things getting watered down… one thing I don't think director Hiroyuki Imaishi realizes is how easy it is to dilute a product. He must have missed that lesson following the disaster that was Panty & Stocking. To his credit though, he knows what his fans want, and is trying his hardest to deliver. High octane, impossible feats, and constant action. However there's a point where that constant action quickly becomes run of the mill.
If you have fight after fight in episode after episode it's only a matter of time before this becomes the baseline. Once this new standard is set adding more, of what would otherwise be super exciting, just comes off as generic and boring. This was pretty evident in recent episodes where Ryuko faced off against the Elite Four. While some of the strongest characters in the show, their battles against Ryuko were easily the weakest. Gamagoori's felt lethargic, Inumuta's was so pointless and silly one could just skip the fight all together. The much anticipated battle against Jakuzure was a complete let down. Having made it thus far without any development the only option for her fight was to go big or go home. It was exercise in in escalation without impact. As things got bigger and more outrageous the more boring they became. Frankly, I couldn’t wait until Ryuko inevitably won so we could move along and possibly get some sort of plot development out of these battles.
Worst of all is how it absolutely kills the impact of an important battle. When you take the time to build and develop toward a climax you bring the characters and viewers closer together with the hope that the resulting events will leave a lasting impact. If these steps aren’t taken and one just skips from climax to climax any potential impact is lost. What could be, should be, an important triumph just comes off as another generic event. You only turn it up to 11 during the finale, not for the whole concert.
I also get the feeling that this extraordinary level of development has begun to sap the production team. At times it feels like we're watching a relationship that's run through its course. They started with so much enthusiasm that it set the world aflame but now they've stooped to going through the motions. Inumata’s got keyboards all over his uniform? Jakuzure’s is some sort of irrationally large, ineffective, poorly conceptualized battleship? Everything was going so well! Might as well just have Senketsu skip from SSJ to SSJ3 in the same battle.
Earlier in the season I compared Kill la Kill to the cake sequence from Matilda (Roald Dahl book, 1996 movie, take your pick). Stuffing one's self with cake once and awhile is fantastic, reaching the point where your body becomes diabetic, not so much.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that these three issues, on their own at least, are fatal. Stacked together, on the other hand, they really jeopardize the series. It may not be enough to destroy the fandom (who the fuck wants to watch people react to the latest episode on YouTube) but it will effect how we look back at the series, and Trigger, going forward. If the story doesn't improve we'll remember Kill la Kill for its fun-at-times action sequences. We'll look up some key fights on YouTube but never sit down to watch through the whole series like we still do with Fullmetal Alchemist or Cowboy Bebop. We'll start look with upcoming Trigger releases with eyes glazed over. "Oh... look... more fight sequences... sure it looks nice but. when's that new series from Kunihiko Ikuhara coming out?"
Interestingly enough, if Trigger was spend some time fixing just one of these issues it could greatly alleviate the others. Taking some more time to flesh out the plot? Less time to fill with repeated animation sequences and frivolous fights. Cutting out some of those repeated animation sequences? Let's use the time for some character development while people aren't fighting. Willing to dial down the number of battles? Fantastic, now we'll have whole episodes for character development!
Kill la Kill is certainly not the anime of the year/season. Hell, despite it being convoluted, rushed, and sloppy, at least Valvrave had a plot. Thankfully, Kill la Kill still has some time left, and the potential, to do great things.