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.

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