Kill la Kill, the new anime from the creators of Gurren-Lagann and Inferno Cop, is pretty much living up to the huge amount of hype surrounding it. For me, there are a few areas pertaining to the visual element of the show which really stand out.
1) Kill la Kill excels at creative sight gags.
When it comes to works that are humorously absurd, often times we say they succeed despite themselves because the humor is because it takes itself seriously and doesn’t realize its own power. In contrast, we then say other works fail to capture this glory because they tried too hard. I find Kill la Kill generally hits that sweet spot where the humor is clearly intentional, but doesn’t go overboard in extending its jokes, so it’s even more possible to appreciate its cleverness.
Two scenes from episode 3 stick out in this respect. The first happens at the beginning of the fight between Ryuko and Satsuki, when their combined willpower literally blows away the surrounding bystanders. It’s a pretty typical sight in anime which wants to establish the sheer power of its primary characters. Then, in the next shot, Kill la Kill extends that sequence to the point of absurdity by having the bystanders’ bodies continuously flying through the air. The shot lasts for about 5 seconds, and during that time it’s easy to wonder if there are more bodies being blasted away than were actually standing there moments before.
The second is after the battle, when Satsuki says to Ryuko that in order to fight her she’ll have to go through her goons, her goons’ goons, and her goons’ goons’ goons. Kill la Kill sets the image up in a somewhat abstract fashion, much like one of those old dramatic Dezaki Osamu painted stills (which I just found out recently is called a “harmony” shot thanks to Anipages). Then, as the show switches to a bird’s eye point of view, you realize that Satsuki and all of her minions are actually standing there like they’re posing for a group photo.
These sight gags stretch their conventions just far enough to pull you out a bit, but neither of them overstay their welcome. Both of them use the screen to create strong images, which brings me to my next point.
2) Kill la Kill has strong image composition.
The series uses a lot of the extreme poses key to a Kanada Yoshinori-style animation, but even in still shots and pans Kill la Kill exhibits a lot of intelligence and creativity which both enhances the mood of the show while also encouraging an appreciation in the animation (or lack thereof).
This shot of Ryuko and the tennis club captain from episode 2 literally consists off two figures sliding and changing size against a background. There’s little to no animation, and yet the moment helps to create tension because the initial image of the two standing away from each other on the tennis court gradually turns into a face-to-face confrontation with the net acting as a visual separator between the two. I find it really impressive because it was able to do so much with so little, and it’s a trend you’ll see throughout each episode.
In the same episode, Ryuko confronts Satsuki. Satsuki begins to swing her sword and she grows to massive proportions on-screen to convey the idea that she’s a massive threat and that she’s much more powerful than she looks. Obviously from the context of the show she’s not actually getting bigger, and this sort of visual representation reminds me of two things.
First, is an American football manga mentioned in Fred Schodt’s Manga! Manga!, where a tiny Japanese player blasts through a massive American roughly five times his size. Second, is Fist of the North Star, and I don’t just mean the giant mohawk thugs. That series often exaggerates the size of Kenshiro’s foes yet shows them to be relatively even in size moments later, just to transmit danger.
3) Kill la Kill makes a lot of anime references but doesn’t overdo it.
This point relates heavily to the first.
Kill la Kill makes numerous references to old anime each episode, but doesn’t depend on them for success. In episode 1 Mako can be seen performing a Kinniku Buster from Kinnikuman on her little brother, but it’s never referred to by name, and there isn’t any sort of big fancy scene where she jumps from the air and lands with an impact. They save those moments for the actual fights.
A lot of the anime and manga references involve Mako, which makes me think that this is part of her purpose as a character. In episode 3, she goes to “shield” Ryuko but more to give a strange speech about how Ryuko should get naked. During that lively sequence this shows up:
That’s right, Kill la Killi threw in a Space Runaway Ideon reference (see 14 seconds into the video). Evangelion is known to be inspired in part by Ideon, and to have ex-Gainax employees bringing it out doesn’t surprise me too much. Again, the reference doesn’t linger too long, is more about the ridiculousness of Mako as a character, and is actually a little easy to miss.
There’s also the recurring use of stars blinking in and out in Kill la Kill. It reminds me of the opening to Evangelion, right before the title logo appears, and I really suspect that it’s intentional.
Actually, I think Mako herself is an anime reference, as her hairstyle and position as the main character’s best friend immediately reminded me of the character Maki from Aim for the Ace! Ryuko’s messier hair even somewhat resembles Aim for the Ace! heroine Hiromi’s style relative to Maki’s. That Mako’s first name is written in Katakana like Maki in the Aim for the Ace! anime, that she is a tennis club member, and that her membership sets up the conflict in episode 2 all point towards this being likely.
In each case the references aid the show but do not dominate it. If someone fails to get certain references (and given the amount it’s going to happen to pretty much everyone, including me) then it doesn’t unravel the humor or make the series any less visually strong. If a reference does get through, it is capable of becoming not only a matter of spotting the homage but also considering how Kill la Kill relates to that older work. For instance, there’s this interesting relationship between Kill la Kill, Gurren-Lagann, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, and Aim for the Ace! that I’d like to unravel in terms of how these shows approach similar ideas.
I also have other thoughts about the narrative and thematic elements of the show, but I’ll save those for another time. If you want to check out Kill la Kill though, it’s being simulcast from a variety of sites: Crunchyroll, Hulu, and for international audiences, Daisuki.