Kill La Kill and Focused Theme

Thanks to the endless quarantine time provided by our dear friend COVD-19, I recently accidentally re-watched all of Kill La Kill, the hyperactive first child of Studio Trigger and golden standard for utter nonsense. Following vengeance-driven Ryuko Matoi as she makes her debut at the bizarre and mysterious Honnouji Academy, Ryuko quickly realizes Honnouji isn’t like other schools: here, students fight for the right to wear special Goku uniforms, magical clothing that gives the wearer unnatural powers. After befriending a family in town that runs a sketchy back-alley clinic as well as an old sailor uniform found in her dead dad’s basement, Ryuko sets out on a mission to fight her way to the top of the school and beat answers about her dad’s death out of the Honnouji’s student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin.

Yes, that’s just the premise. You read that correctly. Be warned that from here on out there will be spoilers.

Absurd as that synopsis may be, it honestly doesn’t do the show justice. Kill La Kill seems determined to animate every single idea that pops into its creator’s heads, tethering its boisterous conglomeration of nonsense together through enthusiasm and character consistency. If you’re looking for unhampered inspiration, Kill La Kill’s got it all: sentient clothing, nudist rebels, alien invasions, and BDSM-powered combat suits. The very first thing Ryuko does on-screen is buy a lemon from a vendor and take a straight-up bite out of it. One of the show’s core selling points is that it’s a non-stop barrage of vital energy and shattered expectations, doing its best to make sure that the audience is always having fun.

Protagonist Ryuko Matoi eating a lemon for fun. If this doesn’t put the fear of God in you, what will?

It’s hard to argue with the success of this goal. Kill La Kill is a roaring good time, full of sharp, funny dialogue, unforgettable characters, and adrenaline-pumping action scenes (whenever it hasn’t spent its budget, that is.) Watching it again, it was easy to get sucked into the intoxicating makeshift-family atmosphere and relentless string of hype moments, and for a moment there in the early episodes I had to ask myself–why did I stop touting this show? Don’t get me wrong, there are some immediate and persistent flaws: the budget is stretched thin, there’s an argument to be had about whether the show’s fanservice ‘parodying’ is really that, and some of the jokes are actually just uncomfortable and bad (like the ones revolving around all the men in the Mankanshoku family being horny for Ryuko.) But there’s also a whole lot of good–the writing is sharp and consistent, the soundtrack is one of the greatest of all time, the art direction is always stunning, and it’s got a strong central cast comprised entirely of distinct and well-developed female characters. And yet, around when I reached episode eight or nine, I remembered.

For a show about clothing, Kill La Kill sure does come apart at the themes.

I want to preface this by saying that fiction in no way has to adhere to a strong thematic core in order to be excellent. Different stories have different primary objectives, and if a story aims to be a side-splitting adventure romp, more power to it. For a great example, look no further than Galavant, a British musical-parody of Arthurian fantasy epics. Sure Galavant has character development and a central story, but at its heart it always prioritizes being goofy, endearing, and getting the audience to laugh. It’s a great show, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll do a write-up on this one soon, promise.

But Kill La Kill isn’t content with just being the fun uncle. It becomes clear quickly that underneath the manic explosions, skimpy outfits, and toilet humor, Studio Trigger is determined to grow Kill La Kill into an epic with a purpose. There are near-endless reminders from the stern Satsuki Kiryuin about how people are ‘pigs in human clothing’, alluding to the concept that while humans may have evolved to be more sophisticated and civilized than other animals, as individuals we’re still beholden to our animal instincts when it comes to our wants and desires. Honnouji Academy is also a pretty clear thematic vehicle: the student’s standings at the school decide the economic prosperity of their families, creating harsh class divides based on student’s abilities to perform within a specific set of rules.

There’s a ton of thematic meat to potentially chow down on there, including parallels to our own capitalist society in which success and lifestyle are determined solely by income and not other, less-tangible values such as integrity or kindness. The show makes it clear early on that it is intent on examining these ideas, coming to a head in the episode A Loser I Can’t Hate in which Ryuko’s foster-family, who have spent their lives scraping by in the slums, get a chance at a wealthy lifestyle. The luxury quickly transforms them from kind, generous people to cutthroats willing to do anything (including beat the tar out of Ryuko) to keep their newfound status. The episode still has all of Kill La Kill’s usual pomp and quirkiness but it is undoubtedly thematically driven, based around the question of to what degree our economic and social classes define who we are and the decisions we make.

This might be obvious, but the reason this episode is successful is that it structures its story around the conversation it’s trying to have. By putting the focus on a relevant vignette of a family able to work within the system to change their standing, Satsuki’s speech at the end of the episode has weight because the audience has just seen a clear example of what she’s talking about unfold. The show’s repeated obsession with clothing becomes clearer, too: clothing in Kill La Kill represents the ways in which we perform for each other, how we use physical appearance to display status and differentiate ourselves, and how most people are always looking for better clothes–or rather, a higher status than the one they have.

Yes, even the dog is dressed up fancy

Or at least, that’s what clothing in Kill La Kill represents for a brief, gleaming moment in episode seven.

The thing with theme is that if you want it to resonate, you have to earn it. Overarching theme isn’t an afterthought. It’s something you have to consider as you’re writing your story, and each step of the way you have to consider ‘how does my plot contribute to my overall theme?’ A show like Galavant can go, well, gallivanting off on random tangents about pirates and evil makeover artists and not suffer for it, because it doesn’t aspire to be more than a rollicking good time with a couple of solid character arcs. Again though, Kill La Kill is determined to have a central theme; it bases its entire story around the ways we adhere and conform to a society based around socioeconomic class. Every episode features characters giving dramatic, emotionally-charged speeches about ideals and ambitions. The show, as many of its super-fans will tell you, is absolutely overflowing with meaningful symbolism, with everything from Jojo references to Japanese Shintoism smartly stuffed into the show’s corners. But symbolism isn’t theme. Effective symbolism can support a show’s theme, but it isn’t enough to drive a point home by itself. Kill La Kill starts to labor under the assumption that a combination of shotgun-blasts of symbolism and summarizing speeches is enough to make its thematic points land.

It’s not.

As I rewatched Kill La Kill, every time I hit one of its emotional climaxes I felt like I had missed some key scene or event. There’s a school raid arc, which seems to be about educational conformity and cultural dominance–except the majority of the arc is spent on tangential jokes about stuff like sightseeing and how dumb American football players are. By the time Satsuki gives her capstone speech about the power of following values over money, there’s been maybe three minutes of actual screentime devoted to that idea. Most of the arc has been Ryuko making dramatic entrances on her motorcycle, the show’s iconic elite four engaging in nonsense battles in which Inamuta defeats illusion-wielding mages with some kind of reverse-paradox mumbo-jumbo and Jakuzure crushes opposing students with heart-shaped shockwaves from blasting Pomp and Circumstance.

No, this doesn’t make more sense in context.

Kill La Kill clearly wants this arc to have core themes, but it also wants to go on lots of fun, irrelevant sidequests, and unfortunately those two aims don’t go hand in hand. I can tell what the show’s intended ideas are here because it spells them out straight-up at the end of each arc, but I don’t feel them, because the plot hasn’t been structured in a way that effectively supports them. It doesn’t matter how elegant Satsuki’s speeches are if there’s no weight behind them.

The unraveling of Kill La Kill’s thematic threads becomes even more apparent in the show’s second half. For those of you not familiar with the main team at Studio Trigger, there’s a very particular plot about a loud-mouthed instigator going into space to fight magical aliens to determine the fate of the world that this team absolutely loves. Just look at Gurren Lagann or the recent movie Promare and you’ll see what I mean. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this plot blueprint–it’s fun to watch the stage grow exponentially as these stories pull back massive curtains. But magical space villains and battles to determine if humanity lives or dies don’t lend themselves to every type of story, and Kill La Kill is one such example.

Wasn’t this a show about identity and the nature of a class-based society?

Essentially, Kill La Kill decides ‘this is the plot we want to have–how do we get the themes we want out of it?’ and that’s just not how stories work. Plot is theme, and trying to mash ideas about the way class informs the decisions of individuals at every point on the socioeconomic spectrum into a good-versus-evil tale of hot-blooded rebellion simply doesn’t lead to something cohesive. Kill La Kill is trying to tell a story about how the systems we’re a part of are also a part of us. How does that line up with a burn-it-all-down combat epic? It doesn’t. What Kill La Kill wants to be about and what it’s actually about don’t line up, and that’s what makes it so jarring.

The result is that the second half of Kill La Kill feels like a tug-of-war between the plot and the themes. Its easy to glance back at the show as a whole and say, oh yeah, of course it was thematically rich, look at all these meaningful moments! For example, there’s a brief arc towards the end where Ryuko is consumed by the desire to live a normal, comfortable life, and as a result turned into a puppet for the main antagonist, Ragyo. For a moment the show feels to be pulling something coherent together: Ryuko has always been a symbol of individualism, and watching her struggle with her inert desire to simply achieve happiness as measured by society could’ve made for a compelling conflict to center the end of the series around.

But while the themes of the show demand internal conflict, the plot of the show wants a superhero-esque heroine. Ryuko cuts her strings with relative ease and turns to face the real finale, a compilation of sadistic, evil villains who need to be bested using callback battle tactics and plot-based solutions like Infinite Absorption! The themes are forced to take a backseat again for the finale, because they don’t fit naturally into the plot structure the show has decided it wants. The show gives answers that exist only on a technical level (the reason Kamui suits are so skimpy is to minimize skin contact to lower the risk of the wearer getting taken over! The twin scissor blades were created because if you cut life fibers from both directions they can’t regenerate!) because these plot choices have no thematic basis. The result is a heartfelt, fist-pumping story, but one that leaves me personally wanting, imagining what this story could’ve been if it had put more thought into the kind of plot that would best serve it as a vehicle. At the end, the only real theme the show was able to effectively prosecute, was, well…

This one

Look, I love Kill La Kill. I don’t rewatch shows I don’t love. But I also think it’s a cautionary tale. Before crafting all the details of a fictional story, it’s important to ask yourself a few key questions. Namely: is this story thematically driven, and if it is, how can I create a plot that best helps to uphold and accent those core themes? If you try to start by creating a plot and then forcing themes onto it without making serious changes, you might end up creating something like Kill La Kill–glimmers of greatness stitched together, but never able to add up to a whole that’s greater than its many fabulous parts.

Series Review: The Nevernight Chronicles

Good eve, gentlefriends, I see you’ve returned with a hunger for more regarding our tragic tale. O’, there’s little I can say to put your heart at ease, but prithee, rest your weary arse upon your seat if you wish to hear my sordid thoughts, and pray that you have the stomach to handle them.

I’m here today to talk about Jay Kristoff’s bloody fantasy epic trilogy, starting with Nevernight, continuing in Godsgrave, and recently wrapping things up in Darkdawn. The quickest review I can give you for The Nevernight Chronicles is that if it hurt your head to read that opening paragraph, then you should probably skip this one. This series and its obtuse writing style are extremely divisive, with some lauding Kristoff for setting his series apart through daring stylistic choices (such as skipping lines whenever the hero, Mia, uses her shadow magic,) and others comparing the experience of reading it to banging their head against a brick wall.

Personally, I fall somewhere closer to… eh?

Maw’s teeth, it had been grand to forget it all just for a moment.

Nevernight (which from here on out refers to the series) follows Mia, an assassin described by the series’ cynical narrator as a cold-hearted killer who topples tyrants and leaves ’empires in ashes’ in her wake. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the prophetic prologue that also tells us that Mia dies at the end of the story. That’s right: Nevernight begins by foretelling the death of the protagonist we haven’t even met yet, a move reminiscent of the epic tragedies of yore. However, the jaded prologue is full of lies–once we meet her, we learn that while Mia is adept at ending lives, she’s not nearly the sociopathic slayer the narrator claims she is. Motivated by revenge for her parents death against the corrupt government leaders that brought about their demise, Mia trains as an assassin with an exclusive school for killing called the Red Church. There she learns to make friends, fall in love, and discover that she’s actually a deeply sympathetic person unwilling to sacrifice innocents for her cause. She may be very good at slashing the throats of the vile, but make no mistake: Mia has a strong moral compass throughout the series.

Which is probably for the best. I might be alone in this, but personally I find fierce, hard-driven revenge stories to often be super fucking boring. Protagonists who are aggravating balls of anger and spite, who live and breath for the sole purpose of being able to shank whoever wronged them, are not only unrelatable, they’re one-dimensional. When all I know about the person I’m supposed to be rooting for is ‘they hate this other person a whole lot,’ that doesn’t really give me a reason to root for them. Nevernight is made better because it quickly breaks the promises made in its introduction, characterizing Mia as someone who is working towards the eventual goal of getting revenge on the tyrants who killed her parents but who is still willing to stop along the way to live her life. She enjoys learning how make friends, get hot & heavy, and mix elegant poisons. She has pride in her skills and loyalty towards those she loves. I give Kristoff credit for creating a protagonist who is likable without eschewing her more terrifying traits: make no mistake, Mia kills people very easily, and I couldn’t even begin to tally up her body count by the end of the series. I still found myself rooting for her, only pausing to reflect on her more frivolous carnage when she herself was questioning how ambivalent she was to slitting throats.

She had killed a few hundred of their calvarymen, she supposed.

Part of why cheering for Mia felt to me so easy was not so much related to her though, and instead a product of the series’ tone. While the overarching story is taken seriously, it should be mentioned that Nevernight is in many ways a dark comedy. Mia is accompanied by Mr. Kindly, a mysterious shadow-cat who’s always unfazed and makes snide remarks at every turn. There’s a great deal of banter between all of the characters, a non-stop slew of sex jokes, and a fair number of extraneous details added to the plot for no other reason than to elicit a laugh. While it’s certainly not a dedicated comedy, I did find myself snorting somewhat frequently while flipping through the pages.

It helps that Mia herself has a strong sense of humor: she gives her horses dumb, insulting names, cracks witticisms while on the verge of death, and derives a great deal of pleasure from slinging insults back and forth with clever people. But most of the laughs, or attempts at them, come from the narrator–distinct from Mia herself, Kristoff’s narrator is utterly determined to not take most events too seriously. No matter how intense the plot gets, the cynical, crass narrator is always there to inject humor in between the bloodshed, or, more often than not, at the bottom of the page.

Which brings us neatly to the matter of the footnotes.

Perhaps one of Nevernight’s most distinctive stylistic choices is its use of footnotes. Kristoff’s tangential asides, marked by an asterisk or similar symbol, make full use of their tiny font to tell all sorts of unrelated stories about the history, lore, biomes, and traditions of his fictional world of Itreya. It might be wrong to even call some of them footnotes: some of them, to my chagrin, were multiple pages long, interrupting the story of Mia whenever they pleased to talk about two-hundred-year-old idiot kings and which of Itreya’s lifeforms had the biggest dick-to-body ratio. Now, I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of using separate, parallel text to help with world-building in an otherwise propulsive and fast-paced novel. Kristoff’s narrator keeps fairly close to Mia’s experiences and internal dialogue, so it wouldn’t feel very natural to jam the information into the actual pages. The problem, especially in the first two volumes, was that after I’d read the first couple of darkly funny footnote-stories, I felt like I’d read most of them.

The vast majority of Kristoff’s footnotes follow a similar structure: start with a piece of relevant information about Itreya, launch into an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek justification of said information that feels more like the set-up for a joke than actual information, and then wrap things up with a sex or death related one-liner. Most of the footnotes are too long to fit here in their entirety, but here’s some examples of their tail-ends. Don’t worry, they’re spoiler free: most of the footnotes have nothing to do with anything that happens in the story.

The pair’s rivalry spanned decades, and looked surely to end in the death of one or both. But when the daemon-king, Sha’Annu, rose in the north and threatened all the empire, the pair joined forces to defeat him. Bound by the kinship found only in battle, the pair declared themselves brothers, and vowed in blood they would remain so ’til the end of their days. Tariq even refrained from bedding Andarai’s mother again.

His daughter, however…

Folk marked with three circles are the rarest and most valuable, their brand indicating they’re possessed of an education or some exceptional skill: scribes, musicians, majordomo, and some highly prized courtesans.

And if you’re wondering why skilled prostitutes are so valued in the Republic, gentlefriends, you’ve obviously never spent the night with a skilled prostitute.

Caravaggio fought with twin blades–one in each hand–pioneering the art of dual-wielding that eventually bore his name. Ironically, his fondness for twins also proved his downfall: he was killed in a duel by Don Lentius after spending a night of drunken passion with Varus’s twin daughters, Lucilla and Lucia. Reportedly still intoxicated and too exhausted to heft his rapier, he was skewered by his opponent quite easily–and inglorious end for such an artisan of the blade.

His last words were reportedly “Worth it…”

Now, I won’t claim that they’re all like this. A smattering are actually informative, and some are just one-line quips that can actually be funny. But after you’ve read your first three stories about dastardly rogues sleeping with people’s daughters you start to wonder how much you’d really be missing if you just ignored the tiny font on the bottom of the page. And in fact, the answer isn’t much–as it turns out, these footnotes built around their punchlines are mostly irrelevant to the story, meaning they’re pretty much just an excuse for Kristoff to tell an endless string of jokes about dumb people dying and horny people with weird kinks. Maybe this wouldn’t be so exhausting if Nevernight wasn’t already almost entirely about exactly those two things, but the result is definitely an over-saturation of the same subject matter. At the very least the footnotes are turned down in the third book, thank fuck.

While I’m on the topic of Kristoff’s smut, let’s have a chat about the series’ actual smut. Some wise English teacher once said that sex for the sake of sex in fiction is just porn, and using that description I’d argue that some portion of Nevernight is, well, porn. There’s definitely not much character development or thematic purpose to the sometimes pages-long love-making scenes. It’s all just their mouths found each other, a warmth spread between her legs, and then her fingers, trailing down. Spirals, turning ever lower, into the mysteries below. Mother, she wanted her. Pulled her in. Tangled her fingers in that golden hair. There, now you’ve read all of Kristoff’s sex scenes, except it’s usually this for many more paragraphs and it always ends in everyone orgasming. Much like the footnotes, these scenes suffer from gross repetition in the way that they’re written. Is all sex the same in this world? Every sex scene in this entire trilogy could probably have been more evocative as a four-sentence allusion that left most things to the imagination.

The flipside is that when there aren’t bloated sex scenes, the actual relationships in the series are super compelling. Kristoff writes believable romances between his cynical assassins, most of it starting as lust in a world where death is omnipresent and then slowly developing into bonds the reader can believe in. And not just romantic relationships either: whether longtime friends or long-estranged siblings, Kristoff is careful to define the relative strengths and weaknesses of character’s ties to each other. Mia’s fellow assassins-in-training, Tric and Ashlinn, both bring out different sides of her, and it’s her distinctively different but comparably potent connections with each of them that pull the series forward even when its simplistic revenge plot doesn’t seem to know where to go. Seriously, credit where credit is due–the bonds between Mia and her companions drastically increased my investment in the story because through watching their dynamics shift through shared experiences I was able to understand and appreciate how much these characters defined each other. I believe I actually wept at one point while reading the third book because of how tightly Kristoff had knotted his leads together. If there’s anything that I look for first and foremost in fiction it’s whether I can fall in love with the cast, and on that front Nevernight succeeds.

Unfortunately, Nevernight’s cast have some heavy lifting to do. While Nevernight often feels more intent on being entertaining than truly epic, there’s definitely a central effort by Kristoff to tell a grand, sweeping tale of espionage and myth. The only problem is that the plot is a poorly-paced jumbled mess, focusing nearly the entire first book on a Harry-Potter-esque training experience, taking the second book on an extended tangent through the gladiator circuits, and then trying to cram most of the promised story into a rushed and inevitably predictable third novel. The central antagonist doesn’t get any real lines until book three, the second book does actually nothing to advance the main story until the very final pair of chapters, and there’s an entire plot line about Itreya’s divinities that feels like it only exists to make the story feel bigger without actually earning it. If you’re looking for another Game of Thrones, run for the door. This is more like Jersey Shore with the setting of The Lord of the Rings. However, if you’re just interested in following likable characters through a furious, heart-pounding romp of drama and backstabbing, the series is worth a look. I laughed more than I cringed, and even the footnotes weren’t all bad. Three cheers for Mia, and may I never have to write the word gentlefriends ever again.

A moment to think. A moment to breathe.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I hated the ending.

Nevernight — 6/10
Godsgrave — 6/10
Darkdawn — 5/10

Series Score — 6/10, because I’m feeling nice.