Kill la Kill Won’t Kill You Yet, But it Might by The End (In Four Weeks, This Post is Late)

Kill la Kill is something I like. At face value, it’s kinetic, brash, and big. But beyond that, it also has moments of levity interwove perfectly with moments of gravity. The show has versatility, and it’s this versatility that makes Kill la Kill the compelling thing that it is, and why I still find myself looking at it twenty weeks later.

(But for now let’s mostly focus on the first twelve–I had meant to write this post earlier, but you know how it is.)

Kill la Kill has a very impressive first half–it really is quite astounding how much stuff went down in the first twelve weeks. The show made great headway with its plot, while also developing its ensemble cast well, and dropping cool bits of background information on them. At week twelve us loyal viewers had a pretty good picture of Ryuuko, Satsuki, the Elite Four, and Mako’s lovably idiotic family, as well as a lot of the inner-workings of their world.

The show moves at pace which most anime find too scary. And they should–what Kill la Kill does is a very difficult thing to pull off well, but in the hands of an expert writer like Nakashima and a Professional Crazy Person like Imaishi, the show holds together very well. Nakashima’s script is expertly polished to lack anything that could potentially drag the show down, with only the most pertinent and/or exciting parts making it onto the TV screen. While Kill la Kill may seem fast and loose with the way the story moves and the way characters scream and announce things, there is a distinct method to the madness–everything is fits together well. This keen attention to story construction likely comes from Nakashima’s experience as a playwright, and the show’s bold theatrical style (the yelling and stuff) can be attributed to this as well. This is complemented by Imaishi’s big, showy direction, which is all about making things larger-than-life–forced perspective, speed lines, rough character outlines–all that good stuff. His sharp sense of style also gives the show an extra edge.

The main thing that makes this kind of pacing possible is the show’s grounding in convention. The murdered father, the hierarchy of powerful enemies, and the main character who gets stronger as time goes by–it’s nothing new, but the show makes use of the audiences’ familiarly with these tropes and doesn’t waste time dwelling on them, instead throwing its own weird and original stuff in the mix. The show has a lot of silly hyperbole, and it works because its so earnest and upfront with itself. Any weaker show wouldn’t take silly things like “their clothes are alive” or “these school clubs can murder people” all the way, but Kill la Kill does.

At first I thought a lot of Kill la Kill’s elements were just plain stupid, but I couldn’t help but love the show because it was so confident in the way it presented itself and continues to do so. Now I love how it takes everyday elements from Japanese school life and makes them extreme. School uniforms that make students into super-powered maniacs? Sounds good. Clubs that have ridiculously unique attacks based on their specialty? Give it to me. A student counsel that will literally go so far as to murder students for breaking their iron clad law? I’m lovin’ it. The show doesn’t ease you into this kind of mindset either–it forces you into it from the very moment Gamagoori busts through the classroom door in episode one. It’s going to do things the way it wants, and if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Sushio’s wild sense of design brings a lot of the show’s crazy elements to life vividly. While cartoonish exaggeration is used to depict the school clubs by taking their designs to logical conclusions–the biology club literally being surgically modified freaks with exposed brains and skulls–the Elite Four’s designs draw more on mecha anime influence, with nearly all of them transforming into some kind of weird robot. The show’s visual aesthetic in general is rough and larger-than-life–complimenting everything else in the show very well–and has a compelling visual diversity that keeps everything interesting. Animation-wise, while quite limited–most likely due to Trigger being a new studio–the show never looks bad, and always captures the eye. There may not be much actual movement, but  the show has very good framing and cutting. The show also boasts many cuts that make the sakuga people go wild at least once per episode, so it effectively makes use of its resources to make the show shine where it counts. The most workmanlike part of the production is the background music, which is simple and does the job, but typically doesn’t do more than just underscore the action.

The show boasts a diverse range of characters, but my favorites are pretty standard–Ryuuko and Senketsu. Maybe this speaks to my lack of exposure, but I think Ryuuko is quite unique as a leading woman. While Strong Female Characters are nothing new, I think the realistic grit in Ryuuko’s speech and her uniquely Japanese-flavored juvenile delinquent attitude is rare in anime these days. She’s the perfect opposite to Satsuki, who’s speech is more in the tradition of affected anime dialogue. Ryuuko’s transformation from simple punk kid to super-powered punk kid is the main attraction of the show. Her rough, not-scared-of-nuthin’ attitude towards any struggle is the main thing that keeps me watching. Ryuuko and Senketsu’s bond is also quite compelling–witnessing the two them grow and learn about each other is one of the story’s many satisfying aspects. After Ryuuko comes Mako and her family in my personal ranking–they are aggressively poor in both behavior and design (Barazou’s lack of pants is a nice touch) and Mako’s hyperactive character is a welcome comedic foil to Ryuuko’s focused and serious personality. The Elite Four are a fun and varied bunch, with Gamagoori’s rock-hard adherence to rules and constantly changing size (pretty sure that’s a Hokuto no Ken joke) making him the most amusing of the four. The weird thing him and Mako have going on is also funny and unexpected.

While Kill la Kill is characterized primarily by its dangerous spirit, when looked at closely, there are a lot of diverse elements that make up the show, and it’s due to the show’s great versatility that all these elements fit together without seeming strange. While Sushio’s aesthetic is easily recognizable, every character’s design is very unique–the same could be said for their varied personalities. The show has a strong basis in convention, but throws in a lot of original elements that elevate it above its conventions. Wrap this all up with Imaishi’s distinct directorial vision, and you have something very exciting.

In the weeks since the show’s climatic twelfth episode, it’s broken away from its shounen path, and opened up the world for us, giving us more surprising twists and turns. There are four weeks left, and I’m pretty confident Nakashima and Imaishi will be able to wrap things up in the coolest way possible.

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Could Stand to be Dandier: The First Two Episodes of Space☆Dandy

Between less-than-inspired breast jokes and half-baked knocks at the fourth wall, Watanabe’s new space “comedy”, Space☆Dandy, is off to a rather dubious start. It doesn’t help that my first exposure to the show was the typically bland English dub that dared to drop the sweet Okamura-chan opening, and the even sweeter Yakushimaru Etsuko ending.

I mean, I get it–it’s fun to joke about boobies with your mates. We’ve all been in a bar surrounded by salarymen as they wax poetic about the boobs of the various women they’ve touched in The Brothel. Okay, maybe not all of us. Anyway, I’m not saying I’m above low-brow humor–because, lord knows, I’m not–but I think a vet like Watanabe should know better than to go for the lame boob jokes right off the bat. That said, he apparently wrote this first episode, so I guess he doesn’t. I do appreciate how Dandy’s opening spiel on boobies and butts has echos of Spike’s bell peppers and beef rant, though.

Actually, the first episode on the whole has nice echos of past Watanabe works–the smooth and confident tone, the way in which the episode navigates its peaks and valleys–all that good stuff. And after that first half–as many other internet commentators have said–the show goes to really far-out places with its animation. But, that script. Bad jokes, characters that don’t really do anything, and no real central idea driving the whole deal. Actually, I think the episode’s lack of focus is its biggest issue–it’s just kind of a series of events with no underlying thread tying it all together. I understand there’s value in a simple introduction to the world, but there’s also value in making it focused and entertaining, which is something that Space☆Dandy’s opener fails at. One thing it did have going for it was a somewhat compelling light-hearted and absurd atmosphere, but the jokes they put on top that really need to step up their game. Watanabe has a track-record for good first episodes, with both Bebop and Champloo making convincing cases for themselves right off the bat, but Dandy’s opener is kind of half-assed, which just isn’t good enough for your big directorial comeback/American co-pro.

Things do however get better with the ramen-themed second episode headed up by Bebop-vet Satou Dai. As someone who was unsure about whether or not Dandy’s non-human sidekicks would become Stupid Sidekicks, the character dynamics in the second episode are solid. Similar to Bebop, the characters engage in an amusing and realistic love-hate dynamic, except this time around there aren’t any girls aboard to balance out the sausage-fest. The episode still could have used less Hanna-Barbera sound effects, though.

But even if I found the second episode amusing, I wonder how many casual viewers would appreciate an episode about ramen. Or the fact that the alien making the soup was a bousouzoku in his past. Or the fact that the episode parodies Ramen Jiro at one point. What I’m saying is that for the big return of Watanabe in this flash-ass co-pro, I feel as if parts of the show are kind of too Japanese for the average viewer. Like, Dandy himself is more or less an ex-yankii, and Meow is clearly your typical guy from the sticks–like Saitama or Ibaraki–Crocs and all. Maybe I’m over-thinking things?

At this point, the show’s more superficial elements take it a long way. The animators are really going wild, everything moving smoothly, looking great all times and going complete bonkers some of the time–that scene where Dandy and Meow get sucked into that wormhole was far-out. The soundtrack headed up several different accomplished artists bestows the show with a varied and striking audial backdrop for the show to play out against. And to top off, Watanabe’s steady directorial hand ties everything together nice and neatly.

Perhaps the show will find its stride–everyone on board staff-wise is a winner, and maybe they just need to time to ease into doing a comedy? There are twenty-four episodes left, so there’s plenty of time to get better. I am most certainly looking forward to seeing episode three when it drops soon.

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So Crazy Japanese Folklore: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a very long film, based on an old Japanese story, with several aspects that make it impossible to export anywhere else in the world. It’s quite a good film, and looks gorgeous, but it’ll be difficult to show to many people when it drops on home video. But this is kind of director Takahata Isao’s thing, right? That’s why they don’t let him in the director’s chair much, I guess.

So as not to bore by recounting the story that can just be read on the Wikipedia entry linked above, let’s start with Kaguya-hime‘s visuals: They’re fantastic, and quite unique. As seen in one of the film’s more bold trailers (the first one I saw), Kaguya-hime employs a very distinctive sketchy style of artwork. This style is very difficult to animate, but Ghibli’s group of competent and talented artists manages to keep the aesthetic rock-solid throughout the entirety of the film. Never are there any points where it feels like the film’s cutting corners with its aesthetic or the animation–it constantly feels as if you’re watching a moving water-color painting, and everything on-screen is active.

The film’s character designs are also unique in that they employ a design aesthetic distinctive of 1960s manga, with a slight touch of modern flare. It’s very difficult to describe, but there are a lot of influences at work. However, despite this mix, nothing particularly feels out of place or strange–the variety spices things up. Every character has a distinct look and feel to them, giving the film a satisfying visual diversity, as well as adequately telling the audience who the characters are through their designs. I particularly thought that Kaguya’s suitors’ designs were quite funny, as well as the design for her somewhat cat-faced attendant, and her adoptive father is simply a very cute old man. While the film’s sketchy artwork mixed with its classic designs don’t necessarily look like artwork harking from the 10th century from which this story came, these aesthetic choices that look “old” effectively take the viewer back to an older time, creating an appropriate atmosphere with its visuals for the story to unfold in. And that’s one of the main draws–the atmosphere.

On a broader level, another main draw of the film is its presentation: The bold and effective framing of shots that tell you everything you need to know, the simple and distinct musical score that only comes in when it needs to, and the easy-to-understand cartoonish expressions of the characters. In short, it’s a masterful use of simple visual and audial language that perfectly compliments the film’s simple fairy tale story, chock-full of nonsensical magical occurrences, princesses, suitors, and other supernatural happenings.

On the subject of these supernatural happenings, the depiction of them is one of the film’s strong points. One of big part of the film is Kaguya’s accelerated growth. Her initial transformation from a tiny doll found in a bamboo shoot to a crying baby is shown in a very matter-of-fact way, as is her subsequent growth, and all the other instances of supernatural weirdness in the film, making these events come off as rather convincing. However, this is most likely basics for a director like Takahata who knows better than to put a kookie supernatural glow or something similar on top of these sorts of things.

Much like many other Ghibli films, Kaguya-hime has an amicable light tone with a fun sense of slapstick and visual humor to carry the tale along briskly. Once again, this light tone is carried along heavily by the visuals, but at the same time the movie uses this same expressive style to bring to life the story’s serious moments, be them quiet, tense, or intense. It’s quite versatile.

Like any other Ghibli movie, the cast is composed of many real-life actors. Asakura Aki’s Kaguya is as versatile as the film–energetic, filled with infinite fascination and enthusiasm, but deadly mature and serious when the occasion calls for it. Other stand-out performances include Chii Takeo’s spirited performance as Kaguya’s well-meaning but clueless father, who unfortunately died before the film was completed.

I alluded to this earlier, but more than the content of the story or the characters, the presentation makes this movie. Had the movie looked more conventional, it would have lost a lot of its strength. Seeing as the story itself is a simple fairy tale, presentational aspects like visuals, music, and acting go a long way into breathing life into the film, and making it compelling.

So, what’s wrong with it? Not much, but it’s a little long at 137 minutes, and the ending may put off some people not familiar with the conventions of Japanese folklore, if some of the nudity and stuff like that didn’t put them off already. That said, to either an art house crowd or a crowd that likes Japanese culture, I think this film should go over well. Just think about who you show it to, I guess.

Takahata just turned 78-years-old a few months ago, and this is his first film in fourteen years. Does he have another one in him? I hope so, but Kaguya-Hime isn’t really a bad place to stop.

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