Visual Timing: Three Great Things About Kill la Kill

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 KillGurren-LagannAim 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.

ME AM OPEN UP AMERICAN CLUB TO MASSES

There have been many, many American characters in anime and manga over the years, and in many cases they tend to use a very odd and unique form of Janglish, where Japanese and English are interspersed. One common way to convey that a character is American (or perhaps just American-esque) is to have them use English pronouns, e.g. “YOU wa baka desu!”

So you’d think they’d use “I” when referring to themselves, but there’s a long tradition of using “ME” (as in “me, myself, and I”) instead. Of course, I don’t quite understand why it’s used over “I.” So the thing I’d like to know is, when did this start? How far back in the history of anime and manga does it go? Is it even something that arose out of anime and manga? Perhaps it has something to do with how Americans spoke in post-war occupied Japan.

As far as anime and manga go, the oldest example I can think of with an American character who uses “Me” as one would normally use “I” is Getter Robo, which features American cowboy and robot pilot Jack King. Another popular American character is Terryman from Kinnikuman.

If anyone has more information about the history of American manga and anime characters, I’d like to hear all about it.

Also, In celebration of this most American of days, I’ve decided to open up the myanimelist club dedicated to American characters a little more, so that non-members can also post. I know I haven’t been able to keep up with requests and such over the past year either, so I’m also going to be opening up officer positions over the next few days so that the truly patriotic can make this club greater than it has been.

Shounen Opening Pattern

Recently, after years away from the Naruto anime, I decided to check out a few recent episodes of the second series,  Naruto Shippuuden. Watching the opening, I saw the Konoha ninjas fighting off an invasion of their home village, with each character getting their own time in the sun, as if the intro wanted to tell you that each and every character is Important. Given the immense cast of Naruto and the 90 second limit of the opening, this means that each character gets no more than a few moments. In fact, Uzumaki Naruto himself, our titular protagonist, hardly has more screen time than others. All in all, the opening is quite hectic.

Afterwards, I decided to go back and watch the very first Naruto opening, and right from when the orange ninja beckoned me to “C’mon,” I was getting an entirely different feel from  the Shippuuden intro. Instead of the scores of figures that currently populate the series, the first opening features only four characters. Rookie ninjas Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura, as well as their teacher and leader Kakashi are each focused upon extensively, and it makes the newest opening feel almost claustrophobic by comparison.

Part of this has to do with the open-endedness of the first opening. With no specific plot developments to hint at, it’s as if the characters and the intro itself are given room to breathe. You get a real sense that these characters are important, Naruto in particular. In a way, it’s quite relaxing.

I compared Bleach openings, too. Once again, the simple, yet heavy emphasis the first opening puts on Ichigo and Rukia differs a good deal from the almost overwhelming number of characters featured in the current opening. Taking a step back, the sheer contrast between then and now seems to speak towards the character bloat that the most popular shounen fighting series almost inevitably experience. If you go and watch every opening back to back, be it Bleach or Naruto, you can really experience the cast creep.

Having an enormous cast of characters in a shounen title is not anything new. Kinnikuman for example sports so many wrestlers that it can be difficult to keep track of everyone. However, the anime’s openings do not try to partition roughly the same amount of time for every character. They do not try to say that everyone else is almost as important as Kinnikuman himself. And while there are a number of differing factors between Kinnikuman and Naruto, not least of which is the fact that Naruto simply has more openings, I think it also highlights the increased focus on a “pick your favorite” method of presenting characters in anime and manga.

Essentially, I believe the reason that later Naruto and Bleach openings feature so many characters with roughly equal screen time is that they know each character has their own fanbase, and they want those fans to feel that their favorites are getting treated right. While I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this, it still makes me miss those simpler times, when it was mainly just Ichigo and Rukia.

If you want to check out the openings I’ve referred to in this post, Crunchyroll has the latest episodes of Naruto and Bleach. As for the older ones, I’ve provided links below. Keep in mind that due to copyright policies and such, most of these videos are modified somewhat, usually by making them widescreen when they originally weren’t.

Naruto Opening 1

Bleach Opening 1

Kinnikuman Opening 1

Kinnikuman Opening 4

Shinnikuman

I don’t think anyone out there expected this, but there is actually a new volume of the Kinnikuman manga out. Released on the 29th of January, this manga is not Kinnikuman II or variations thereof, but an all-new release of the original series. Kinniku Suguru, not Kinniku Mantarou, is the star of Volume 37.

The time between this release and the previous one? Over 20 years! That’s some Glass Mask-level release schedule! Though to be fair Kinnikuman actually ended its story, and this I assume is just Gravyman.

I haven’t read it myself yet, but it is available for order on sites such as Kinokuniya.

If you’re unfamiliar with Kinnikuman, I recommend you check out my review, which lays out just how much a series like Kinnikuman wouldn’t really fly in today’s shounen environment. Still, I hope Kinnikuman Volume 37 proves me wrong.

“Tanaka! Are You Paying Attention?”

In my opinion one of the best things about the old Shounen Jump manga Kinnikuman was that it allowed kids to submit their own designs for wrestlers with the possibility of their characters appearing in the actual comic. Not only that, some of those submissions became full-on major characters in the story of Kinnikuman. Even if they were sometimes just Hulk Hogan in a mask, it provided a level of interaction with the readers and imbued the story with a greater amount of childhood imagination. I wrote a small review a while back, in case you’re curious about what the series is ctually like.

In 1999 though, Kinnikuman received a sequel, Kinnikuman II: Second Generation, which is still running today Known in the US as Ultimate Muscle, the big difference between Kinnikuman II and the original was that instead of targeting kids, the new series targets the kids who grew up loving Kinnikuman who were now adults, much like the relationship between Hokuto no Ken and Souten no Ken. Shounen manga’s changed in the last 20 years, and a series like Kinnikuman would not have the easiest time in this new era of Shounen.

The sequel receives submissions for wrestler designs just like the original manga, only instead of it being from Tanaka Hiroshi Age 11, it’s now Tanaka Hiroshi Age 27, which has me picturing a salaryman on the train or in a board meeting eagerly sketching out a Choujin Wrestler on a notebook lying against his briefcase. He’ll be sitting there as the company president is detailing their new financial plan, drawing the buzz saw that comes out of the wrestler’s legs.

“Tanaka! Are you paying attention?”

“Yes sir, I’m just…taking notes.”

“Oh…very well then. Good job, keep it up.”

Tanaka then sits down and adds some electricity lines to his character’s muscles, for extra power.

Nowhere to Go But Everywhere: Kinnikuman

I’ve recently been reading the Shounen Jump classic Kinnikuman (literally “Muscleman”) by the creative duo known as Yudetamago. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be “transparent.” A transparent work, as I’m using the term, describes something where you, as a reader, are able to see the creative process used in creating the series, and in that sense Kinnikuman is the most transparent manga I have ever seen. Plot points and important climaxes are revealed with little prior warning, and the reader isn’t given much time to parse any logic, which is good because there never is any.

The basic premise of Kinnikuman is that it’s about a bumbling oaf named Kinniku Suguru trying to be a superhero. It starts off as an Ultraman parody, but as the comic progressed the creators got into pro wrestling so, “Hey why not!” they said. “Let’s turn the whole comic into a wild and crazy version of pro wrestling where people wear hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people!”

One of the later villains in the series is named Sneagator. His name is a portmanteau of the words “sneaker” and “alligator,” and that’s exactly what he looks like. But he also reveals that he has the ability to shed his skin and turn into different reptiles, such as snakes and lizards, and according to Sneagator he can turn into the most terrifying reptile of all, a frilled-neck lizard! Except this frilled-neck lizard can SPIN ITS FRILLS LIKE A BUZZSAW.

But that’s not even Sneagator’s true form! In fact, I think I’ll let the images do the talking.

Yes, his true form is THE FOOT OF A TYRANNOSAURUS REX. Now consider that the whole series is like this. You can pretty much tell that every single moment in Kinnikuman had its creation preceded by at least one of its authors saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if _________.” Repeat this for 36 volumes.

You might think I’m complaining about its lack of structure but I’m really doing quite the opposite. This transparency is the charm and primary strength of Kinnikuman. Oda (One Piece) and Toriyama (Dragon Ball) have both been lauded for understanding what boys like and want, and appealing to their senses, but they both have a level of self-control and an idea of what would happen at least as far as the current arc. Series such as Pyuu! to Fuku Jaguar are crazy and frenetic, but you can tell that the jokes are planned out well, that there’s a method to the madness. Kinnikuman has none of that sophistication and doesn’t really need it. On top of that, it’s about as extreme as a series like Violence Hero Riki-Oh but unlike Riki-Oh it’s still definitely meant for children. Kinnikuman is unique among its peers.

Seriously, check it out if you want to see the kind of wonderful Shounen comic that just can’t survive these days.