Kill La Kill. Regardless of what it means – allegedly it’s a series of Japanese double-entendres – that title is a bomb-blast: two kills and a dose of French sophistication for good measure. It’s a violently amusing name for the anime series, promising claret by the bucketload, a ticking brain (or just the right amount of snark) and the everlasting appeal of total nonsense. Logic may apply, be it worldly or otherwise, but you’re already set for the rules to be broken.
Despite airing its first half of episodes last year, KLK kicked into a whole other gear in 2014, garnering a large international following as it barrelled towards its March finale. The entire series is currently bubbling away on Netflix for immediate watching, and it is something you should be adding to your queue right now. (DVD editions are available through the good folk at All the Anime.) This humble writer could argue that it made for the best television of the year – nothing was as daring, daft and quintessentially 2014 as KLK was through to the springtime.
The series follows Ryuko (voiced with gutsy brio by Ami Koshimizu), a vagrant who has arrived at a town under the rule of the dystopian school looming over it, Honnouji Academy. She carries the following: a giant one-armed scissor for a weapon, the need to find those responsible for the death of her father, and a bad attitude. The big bad at the Academy is Satsuki Kiryuin, an elite leader who sips tea, occasionally smirks, and rules over the school by yelling lines like the following: “Fear is freedom! Subjugation is liberation! Contradiction is truth! You pigs in human clothing!” Here’s Ryōka Yuzuki, the voice actress for Satsuki, on stage at this year’s Anime Expo, re-enacting that speech to an ecstatic audience.
The show gets going once our plucky hero stumbles upon a living sailor uniform answering to the name Senketsu. In time-honoured shonen (fighting anime) style, wearing Senketsu gives Ryuko great powers, even though it cuts off a large amount of her clothing. For Ryuko and Senketsu to triumph over evil, they need to work in symbiosis, which calls for Ryuko to learn to be positive about her body. (This will come in useful later.)
The first half of the season centered around Ryuko’s conviction that her arch-nemesis was behind her father’s death, but also allows us time to learn about both characters’ surrogate families. Ryuko gets taken in by the show’s comic relief, a low-rung family of thieves living in a back-alley clinic headed by the hyperactive Mako (Aya Suzaki, whose performance is delightful). Satsuki’s family unit is her group of bodyguards, who show undying loyalty to her cause. Then something happens halfway through the series, and family suddenly becomes a very important topic.
Also in appearance: an intelligence organisation called Nudist Beach, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” some incredibly hyperactive animation, and a running joke about how much a sentient item of clothing enjoys being ironed. I’ll say this much: strap in.
The director-writer team of Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima have paid their dues across Japan’s anime houses (Imaishi directed the cult feature Dead Leaves for Production I.G.; Nakashima scripted the series Oh! Edo Rocket), but are most renowned for the mecha comedy-drama Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan. Gurren Lagaan took pride in surprising its audience with unexpected narrative shifts – a central character dead here, a plot jump decades into the future there – but also in the way it happily futzed with its internal logic. The mecha battles started off reasonably small, but before time allowed for ludicrously huge machines fighting in space, powering up to the point that galaxies appeared minuscule. The scale of the thing was ridiculous, but by the end it had done away with such sensibilities. That aside, Gurren Lagaan hewed close to the traditions of the mecha genre: despite its moments of daring, this was no radical tearing-up of the rule book.
KLK is not a show that veers far off the rule of shonen anime intended for young male audiences: there are teenage themes, an emphasis on fighting and villainous schemes to be countered. While that’s what the show starts off as, it develops in its second half into something more impressive. (Some spoilers follow, so you may want to skip a couple of paragraphs down.)
When Ryuko and Senketsu combine together to use the extent of her powers, the transformation sequence looks like this. It’s a gratuitous sequence, one that many viewers are turned off by, noticing it as one of the more heavily-sexualised takes on the cliched “magical girl transformation” (see: Sailor Moon’s transformation sequences, for example). However, the fanservice aspects of the show go in both directions, with male characters stripped to within an inch of their lives. As KLK continues, the nudity that nearly every character indulges in becomes as much a symbol of non-sexual power as it is a surreal upending of the fanservice dynamic. The human body becomes desexualised, the tits and dicks and asses and abs of its characters becoming the show’s wildly unerotic running joke.
In a year of back-and-forth sniping over whether or not this was the Year of the Booty, where ‘All About That Bass’ was debated as to whether or not it was body-positive, where the sheer act of showing skin and not being a size 0 became not only personal but tinged with political meaning, the absurdity of KLK seemed timely. The show presented flesh as a weapon, but a ridiculous conceit as well. By the series’ end, the sheer act of being unclothed becomes a form of resistance, of sustenance and peace. It’s surreal – this year, a fanservicey shonen comedy turned to an ambitious, surrealist bodypolitik shonen comedy. It was astonishing to behold.
I would leave it to yourselves to gauge how adventurous KLK is, and just how gracefully it carries out its transgressions. Some of you will love it; some of you will hate it; some more of you will just be baffled. However, it needs to be seen to be believed. It’s my favourite show of this year – I can’t say something entertained and challenged me as much as this dose of crazy. It aims to break the rules. At the very least, it’ll break your brain, and that’s still a win to me.