Watson Watches: Kill la Kill

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Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first four episodes of Kill la Kill.

This article is the the sixth and final (sort of, see the bottom of this post for details) of its series – the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth were Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh, Kuroshitsuji, AnoHana, Free!, and Death Note. As usual, Watson knew nothing about the anime before watching other than the title, and the following questions were given to him to answer afterwards.

Fans and critics have frequently used words such as ‘creative’, ‘inventive’, ‘over-the-top’, ‘absurd’, and ‘insane’ to describe Kill la Kill. Do you agree with these? If you could pick only a few words to describe the show yourself, what would they be?

For me the first word that came to mind was ‘silly’, but I suppose ‘absurd’ sounds better so let’s go with that. I don’t think I agree with all of them however. The show is ‘creative’ and ‘inventive’ in the sense that creating a show is by definition creative/inventive, but I get the feeling that these fans mean something more than that. The thing is, I can’t see what it might be – the show seems to be mining the tropes about anime pretty heavily, and these things got to be tropes by being heavily used to start with. So it’s not clear, to me at least, exactly what is creative about it.

If I had to pick a few words to describe the show, ‘absurd’ and ‘over the top’ would certainly make the list. After that, I’m not sure: maybe ‘intense’ but ‘uncomplicated’? It sure dishes out huge, steaming helpings of in-yo-FACE action without worrying much (or indeed at all) about making sure it’s all consistent and coherent. But it never pretends to be anything it isn’t, and that sort of honesty gets a certain amount of approval from me.

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Studio Trigger, the company behind the show, was only formed in 2011, and Kill la Kill is actually the studio’s first original television anime series. Does this surprise you? If you had known this before going in, do you think it would have impacted on your experience of the series in any significant way?

It’s a bit of a surprise, because the show seemed very comfortable with what it was doing. I suppose that’s a testament to the skill and knowledge of the creators. I tend to be a bit more forgiving of people’s first attempts at something, so if I might have been more charitably inclined towards it if I’d already known that. But I can’t honestly say that it would have made a huge difference.

Because of this, the studio was working under tight budget constraints – particularly in comparison to the likes of AnoHana or Free!. Was this obvious to you, and did it affect your enjoyment of the show?

It was obvious that the creators had gone for a rougher-looking visual aesthetic, but it was not obvious that it had been forced on them. I thought it was a deliberate choice – partly a homage to the manga I presumed the show was based on, and partly a reflection of the show’s focus: Kill la Kill is about scantily-clad schoolgirls and ridiculous fights, not refined sensibilities. In any event, it seemed to suit the show fairly well.

Apart from the visuals, there wasn’t anything else that screamed ‘low budget’ to me. The soundtrack seems to be fairly generic and uninspiring, but to be honest the same is true of a lot of other shows so it didn’t stick out. The world-building and character-building also has a lot of bare spots, but once again that seemed like a deliberate choice. “Why has this girl been transferred to this ridiculous school-city? Because fuck you, that’s why. Now shut up, it’s time for another dose of violence and skimpy clothing.”

I have to be honest, this seems like a case of taking disadvantages and making them work. Credit where it’s due, the creators have done a good job incorporating their limits.

Despite being commonly cited as a shounen title (i.e. one which is primarily targeted towards teenage males) by many viewers, the lead character of Kill la Kill is female, as is her best friend and both main antagonists (one of which appears later on in the series). This is fairly unusual for any action anime, much less one that makes use of so many shounen tropes. What do you make of this?

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If you say its unusual then I’m not going to disbelieve you, but it makes perfect sense to me. The entire point of the show is to manufacture excuses for over-the-top fights and girls in scanty clothing, so why wouldn’t you want a female protagonist? The only thing that surprises me is that there aren’t more major female characters so there can be even more opportunities to get them undressed. We’re talking about a teenage male target audience after all, so once we’ve included ridiculous fights and girls with severe wardrobe shortages, I’m not sure what’s left to add. Giant robots maybe, but I’m told there’s already some anime about that.

Is there such a thing as ‘too much fanservice’? And if so, does Kill la Kill cross that line?

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I’ve got to say that I’m not exactly sure what ‘fanservice’ is. Normally that wouldn’t bother me, but I feel like there’s something being asked which isn’t present in the words themselves, or at least not their ordinary usage. The last time I encountered the term was in the Free! article, and in that context it referred to scantily-clad boys being shown off for the viewing pleasure of the (mostly female) audience. Presumably the same can apply with sexual preferences reversed as well.

If that is the case then I wouldn’t say Kill la Kill crossed that line, exactly. More like jumped over it buck naked with a rose clenched between its butt-cheeks. The show is the most blatant example I have yet encountered of deliberately applied anime sexualisation – the central premise of the show is literally nothing more than an excuse for female characters to be dressed up in lingerie. There were a couple of moments where the show seemed to be teetering on the brink of self-awareness about that, and for a tantalizing instant in episode 3 I thought it might be about to snap into something much more grown-up than I had initially taken it for. I was mentally preparing myself for an admission that I had badly misjudged the show.

Had this all been building up to a devastating commentary on power, and what people will do for it? Could we be treated to a survey on the corrosive effects of challenges to one’s sense of self? Was it going to reveal the dangers of obsession with a cause, no matter how noble?

Spoiler: no. HELL no. What we got instead was a short lecture on the importance of being naked, followed by what can only be called an unsatisfactory conclusion to the episode which nonetheless promised a good deal more in the way of unlikely mega-battles. I’m not going to say this was a missed opportunity because it stayed absolutely true to what the show had so far promised to be. But to have come so close to a climax like that, and then be pulled back from the brink, is distinctly frustrating.

Getting back to the whole fanservice issue, Kill la Kill seems to be entirely premised on providing copious quantities of it (either in the form of ridiculous smackdowns or equally ridiculous underwear). And that’s all very well, but it’s not much to base an entire series on. I feel like if fanservice is all you’ve got, it’s not going to take long to get old. So yes, I would say Kill la Kill does cross that line.

Many fans who often seem to shun such obvious and copious amounts of fanservice in their anime appear much more accepting of it in Kill la Kill – perhaps in part because Kill la Kill isn’t a show that takes itself particularly seriously, and perhaps also because the fanservice has been labelled by some as ‘equal opportunity’, with both male and female fanservice being portrayed (and/or parodied) throughout the series. Do you think these factors make fanservice any more acceptable than it would otherwise be?

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So far I don’t remember seeing any guys dressed up in bondage underwear, so I’ll take it on faith that they exist (no, really, there’s no need to search for images for me). In any event, I think there is a point to be made along those lines; Kill la Kill doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, and it’s completely obvious right from the start what the show is all about. This means everyone who keeps watching knows what they’re getting into, and I think that sort of up-front honesty does help quite a lot. It lets the audience make an informed choice about whether this is something they want from a show, and if it’s not they can happily leave it without feeling they might be missing out.

You’ve now seen the first four episodes of Kill la Kill. Will you be watching any more?

I don’t think it’s likely. So far the premise of the show has failed to grab me, and if I want to look at poorly-drawn cartoon porn there are easier ways. That’s not to say that it’s bad, of course. In some ways it seems technically well-executed, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying something where you can park your brain at the beginning of each episode without missing anything. But it isn’t giving me the experience I’m looking for from a show, and that’s the bottom line.

Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions, and do you have any other questions for him? As always, Watson himself will reply directly to anything aimed at him.

Note: Although this is the last specific anime in the Watson Watches series, there will be one more post next month to wrap things up, where we’ll be discussing Watson’s overall experiences with the medium thus far and how his opinions regarding anime may have changed (or not) as a result.

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22 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Kill la Kill

  1. Hmm—I ended up watching KLK because I’d been curious about the animation and it is creative but the entire story is pretty much held together by it.

    Fan-service=unnecessary scenes meant to appeal to a certain set of audience members but don’t add anything to the overall exp. I could write a 5 pg essay on my definitions of anime tropes but that’s boring and no one would read it either.

    I guess I’d call it dumb but cool looking series with nice battles.

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    • Personally I really enjoyed Kill la Kill. I normally have no time for fanservice – it’s typically not aimed at me anyway and more often than not, fanservice used for comedy’s sake either bores me or annoys me. I don’t know whether it was the tongue-in-cheek way Kill la Kill presented pretty much everything or whether I should just put it down to how enthusiastically the show embraced its own idiocy, but I had a ball watching it. That said, I can certainly see how it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and knowing full well that Watson’s tastes differ to my own, I was simply curious about what he’d think and what conclusions he might draw.

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  2. I may have to come back to this when I actually finish KLK (the peils of co-watching with another person), but I’m deeply intrigued by Watson’s non reaction re: gauging the show as especially all out nuts. Part of me looks at KLK as the perfect embodiment of what non-anime fans think the medium is like 100% of the time, and it’s only with context that it seems like anything special. And perhaps its appeal is being able to reach into the collective anime fan’s id – from fanservice to cool action because why not to big dramatic speechifying (to the Mako/Ryuko bits if you are me and desperately starved for any scrap of representation). Still, id is id, wild and unchecked and self-pleasing, and I think that might be at the heart of what makes the show both intensely appealing and pretty much impossible to defend (for my money, it’s the better Gurren Lagann…which, it’s rather a shame Watson won’t be wandering down any more of anime’s peculiar halls. I’ve had great fun).

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    • I think the key to my lack of reaction lies in your second sentence. It is so very much the stereotype anime show that I suppose I just mentally shrugged, said “yep, pretty much what I was expecting”, and moved on. If you’re confronted by exactly what you thought would see, of course it’s not all that surprising. I think my lack of knowledge about anime as a whole contributes to this. It’s a case of “yes, this is stupid and bizarre and WAY over the top… it’s anime, in other words. Why is everyone freaking out over this?”

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    • I much prefer Kill la Kill to Gurren Lagann as well. But who knows, he might even get curious someday and try out Gurren Lagann on his own time. While this is the final official Watson Watches article outside of next month’s wrap-up party edition, I wouldn’t count Watson out of the anime-watching business for good. 😉

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  3. “…I wouldn’t say Kill la Kill crossed that line, exactly. More like jumped over it buck naked with a rose clenched between its butt-cheeks.”
    ^Possibly one of the best ways to sum up Kill la Kill. Also made my entire week. Thank you Watson for giving us your opinions on some of our wackier shows and holding nothing back. I’ve enjoyed reading these quite a bit!
    And thanks to Artemis for posting ^^ I look forward to the wrap up. Although, I’m kinda worried we’ve scarred poor Watson for life. xD

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    • Well, you know what they say: what does not kill us only makes us stranger (I’m pretty sure I’m remembering that right). And I thought that summary was pretty accurate too. My one regret about the article is that I couldn’t find a place to use the phrase “disgraceful titstravaganza”; but to be fair Kill la Kill didn’t seem too bad in that respect. I was expecting huge bouncing chesticles every time someone started doing anything remotely athletic, but maybe there are other anime like that.

      Truthfully, though, I’m glad people have been enjoying these articles. It’s been fun writing them and seeing what people thought of my opinions, and its certainly been an interesting introduction to anime. I would say more, but I’ll save that for the wrap-up…

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    • I just asked the questions and hunted down appropriate images – Watson definitely shouldered the brunt of the work for this series. Thank /you for reading, I’m really glad you enjoyed the ride.

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  4. A quibble with question #2. It suggests that that show’s creators anime production rookies, when in reality, of course, many of them are hardened veterans of Gainax.

    This is one of the series where it’s a shame Watson couldn’t have watched more. I think of some of the points he made about episode three and what it COULD have done, when, further on, the show does indeed expand on these issues. Er, I think. I forget exactly what happened in that episode, but the show does squeeze in some larger themes among all the fighting and skimpy outfits.

    It’s a shame you didn’t show him FLCL–the same craziness, but since it’s only six episodes he would have had a better grasp of what it was intending to say. But I believe you DID ask for show suggestions at one point, so it’s our fault for not suggesting it.

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    • That’s true, I hadn’t thought of that – my bad.

      I’m not sure of what you’ve said in your second paragraph there. I’m a fan of Kill la Kill and as it so happens, I agree that the show expands on some of the issues that it hints at over the first handful of episodes. I’m definitely not convinced that Watson would have agreed, though. Of course, if he wishes to watch more of Kill la Kill in his own time then I certainly won’t object – he’s free to watch whatever he likes.

      As for FLCL, I don’t regret not showing Watson that particular show. Not because I think it’s a bad show (far from it), but mostly because I wanted to keep these titles as varied as possible, and FLCL does indeed have certain similarities to Kill la Kill, at least in terms of its crazy-factor. But again, if the mood to try out FLCL strikes him, Watson can of course hunt down that one on his own time.

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      • Well, I would have liked to see how he thought had he seen some the themes develop a little more. Sigh, the drawbacks of seeing on four of a twenty-four episode series.

        I was thinking of FLCL in place of KlK, actually. Would have been interesting to see what he made of that!

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        • Oh, I see. Hmm… honestly, if I had to go back and make the decision, I think I still would have chosen Kill la Kill over FLCL. I wanted to stick with televised shows, whereas FLCL is an OVA series, and while I did end up picking a couple of slightly older titles, I wanted to try and keep things relatively recent for the most part. FLCL is now 14 years old.

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  5. Rose in its buttcheeks… thank you, Watson, I will never forget this sparkly image and I’ll have to resist using that phrase describe things in the future–though it will probably go through my head.

    While there is a lot to appreciate about KLK (you know I laughed) and I really liked their commitment to the style, it felt too FLCL to me, and I don’t enjoy Gainax style works as much as other fans. Unfortunately, although this looks over-the-top to me, the way this appeared as unsurprising makes me want to sink into a hole of anime fandom that makes me feel snuggly and warm but, being a hole, is not seen from the outside. I tend to forget how much fanservice driven (in the male audience centric way) works tend to drive the industry. That’s why, as an anime fan, I can find KLK funny as a piece of work, but for what it says about the industry, it makes me embarrassed—especially since this is what older relatives, colleagues, and potential employers are thinking of when they picture Japanese cartoons.

    I appreciate the selection Watson saw, even considering they were all relatively recent works with fairly wide popularity. Just as long as people can understand that anime is a medium and not a genre in and of itself–just as painting is a medium with a varied history–then I feel anime justice has been served (albeit without the interdimensional time-space giant hammer).

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    • I had a chuckle when I first read that particular comment too. XD

      I didn’t like FLCL anywhere near as much as I liked Kill la Kill, the latter of which felt about as crazy but also somehow less pretentious (though I suspect many others, particularly Gainax fans, might disagree with me there). I’ve more or less stopped caring about what a lot of people who don’t watch anime and don’t know much about the medium think about it – it makes me roll my eyes, sure, but if they want to believe all of it is about girls in ridiculously skimpy school uniforms or whatever, then so be it. As to whether Kill la Kill reinforces that idea, I’m unsure. People could argue either way, and I’m sure both sides have some validity.

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    • Happy to be of service! It’s a phrase that can be applied to several types of situations, although it must be used sparingly.

      The way it seemed unsurprising does make me thoughtful too. I’ll admit I’m still undecided about the distinction you’re drawing between anime-as-media and anime-as-genre; I can see there are arguments to be made in support of both.

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  6. Kill la Kill is a series I love to bits, but this reaction doesn’t surprise me at all. Personally I see it as more of a commentary on sexuality and images in media and culture (both in terms of self-image, and the way we see others) than something that embraces it outright, but it’s so crazy, and demands so much context, that it makes it hard to come to a conclusion about what the intent really was, and it’s really hard to catch onto at a glance. When it does present those issues, it doesn’t exactly draw attention to any deeper meaning, fitting with its atmosphere but making it admittedly a bit hard to argue for it. And honestly, I think that’s kinda cool, that a work can do so well while so blatantly not being concerned about what others think of it. If there’s one thing I will defend KLK to the bitter end on, it’s the amount of passion crammed into pretty much every scene, and the love that so obviously went into making it. Really, the only viewpoints that actually bother me are the ones that shut down conversation entirely, and I will admit it’s hard to pick up on what KLK’s really doing in the first few episodes, so while I don’t agree with Watson, I absolutely see where he’s coming from.

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    • I largely agree with everything you’ve said here – but particularly that Kill la Kill is worth the watch purely because of how much enthusiasm went into the project. Personally speaking, whether or not Kill la Kill has any grand purpose or point to make about sexuality (and I can see valid arguments for both sides) comes secondary to the fact that the show was obviously created with so much love. There are plenty of other anime titles out there that have likewise been labelled as crazy, but considerably fewer where I feel the same amounts of joy and passion have also been invested. I have my qualms about Kill la Kill, but the sheer enjoyment I got out of watching such a vibrant and energetic series more or less eclipsed them.

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  7. “this is the last specific anime in the Watson Watches series” naww 😦 would you ever consider doing a watson watches reprise focussing more on artsy-fartsy stuff (a la mushishi, tatami galaxy, madoka, etc) than more popular anime?

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    • I’d consider it, but I think the series would need a stronger focus than ‘artsy-fartsy stuff’. XD I mean, anime such as Madoka and Mushishi already have quite a large fanbase – I don’t think they’re any less popular and/or well-known than the likes of most of the anime that’s been discussed here.

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  8. Pingback: Great Original Anime | OTAKU LOUNGE

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