If an ordinary man puts on a uniform, he's not ordinary anymore — not merely because of the uniform, but because of what other people see in it: the glow of authority, the glamour of fashion, the glitter of personal style. If a show puts on a uniform of style, it can be tempting to believe the style is all there is — for a show to be that flashy, that outré, that excessive, it can't possibly have anything under those emperor's clothes. Can it?
Such a line of thinking discounts the possibility that the style is the message — that style and message transform each other the minute they're brought together, and that the whole point of the exercise is to mix the two and see what greater gestalt emerges. Kill la Kill is all about the way style and substance, inside and outside, public face and private desires, fuse and change forever, as expressed through an entertainment that embodies how surfaces and depths complement each other.
Other folks have stepped up to defend Kill la Kill as being more than some wild firehose of reckless excess, with its underside padded with just enough theme or meaning to keep it from leaking. What the show wants to say, and how it wants to say it, are a package deal and not an arbitrary mix. For a story that's about how what we wear on the outside changes who we are on the inside — and changes who we are vis-a-vis each other — its way of embodying its intentions is to wear clothes, so to speak, that are as gaudy and theatrical as its concepts.
Not everyone's likely to be on board with such a program. If you're not a fan of grand gestures, roof-ripping heroics, and shirt-rending emotion, it'll all just seem like white noise. But aren't grand gestures, roof-ripping heroics, and shirt-rending emotion as valid a set of ingredients as any, especially in anime? It isn't just more stately productions like Moribito, Serial Experiments Lain, or Angel's Egg that have meanings to be dug out of them; at the end of Kill la Kill's road of glorious excess is no smaller a palace of wisdom than those shows.
Dress for success
"Why," someone asked me once, "do so many anime titles take place in high school?" Aside from appealing to a marketing demographic — whether it's actual teenagers, or adults who want to recapture some teen spirit — there's a psychology at work that isn't always obvious. When you're stuck in high school, high school feels like the whole world and vice versa, and so everything that happens there feels larger than life and twice as absurd.
Such is the case with Honnouji Academy, a massive fortress of Brutalist architecture looming over a hillside carpeted with endless hectares of slums. The cavernous, ugly-airport-terminal halls of Honnouji are lorded over by its student council president, the queenly Satsuki Kiruyin. She and her four bodyguards enjoy the strength and protection conferred by their "Life Fiber" outfits, super-powered body armor created by REVOCS, the multinational clothing conglomerate owned by Satsuki's mother. The "pigs in human clothing" that make up the student body either follow or get out of the way; everyone outside of Satsuki's inner circle can't even think about leading.
Into the midst of this stack-ranked hell saunters newcomer Ryuko Matoi, a waifish delinquent sporting a red-dyed forelock and exuding enough attitude for any ten street gangs. Her weapon of choice isn't a wooden sword or a nail-studded baseball bat — rather, it's one half of a pair of enormous scissors, a weapon found skewering her scientist father's dying body. Somewhere out there lies his killer, and even if the trail leading her to Honnouji turns out to be a dead end, better to walk it all the way down than to turn back.
Poles as extreme and irreconcilable as Satsuki and Ryuko need balance. Such balance manifests in the form of Ryuko's classmate Mako Mankanshoku. She's a dippy bird of a girl with endless cheer, enthusiasm, and devotion, if also generally crummy academics (and unpredictable bouts of narcolepsy). Head-over-heels in admiration with Ryuko, she invites the other girl to stay with her family in their crumbling little shack that doubles as a back-alley medical clinic. There, Mom serves up mystery meat three times a day and where her father, brother, and dog spend most of their time either plotting how to sneak a glance at Ryuko when she's not wearing too much.
What's most perplexing to them about Ryuko is the attachment she has to her school clothes. That's no ordinary sailor suit she wears; it's a Life Fiber creation, courtesy of Ryuko's late father, a sentient being with whom Ryuko forms a powerful bond. When it imbibes Ryuko's blood, it becomes a battle suit of stupefying power and speed, if also deeply stripperiffic design (much to Ryuko's perpetual embarrasment). But Ryuko learns to put all that aside and fuse all the more completely with "Senketsu", as she calls this sentient creation, to defeat the Life Fiber-wearing school-club leaders that challenge her.
Under (and over) the skin
The sight of this upstart Ryuko leveling up so aggressively causes Satsuki to issue an ultimatum. If Ryuko can best the members of Satsuki's honor guard, and take out Satsuki as well, then and only then will Satsuki impart what she knows about the murderer of Ryuko's father. Never one to back down from a challenge, especially one that close to the heart, Ryuko agrees, and squares off against Satsuki's honor guard in four — well, three-and-a-half — battles that would be the climaxes of lesser shows.
A first-time viewer would have little need to question that Satsuki is the enemy, or at least one providing comfort and aid to Ryuko's tormentor. But here and there, tucked away in the corners and out in plain sight, pile up details about Satsuki and her team that tip us off as to how Satsuki has cultivated radically dissimilar public and private faces. We learn in flashbacks of how Satsuki assembled her honor guard — how each one was chosen by her, how she gave each of them a place to shine and showed them a kind of compassion not given to them anywhere else. Who's to say Satsuki is not also screening Ryuko, albeit in a more roundabout way, and for a much larger purpose? Given Satsuki's singularity of intent, though, she hardly seems the type to be divided against herself, to be professing one mission while secretly hatching another.
Likewise, one glance at Ryuko wouldn't lead anyone to believe she could harbor self-division or even self-doubt. She is, from the outside, all of a piece: she wants revenge for her father's death, and is determined at all costs to stand by the friends she makes. But then she and Senketsu face off against Nui Harime, the "Grand Couturier" of REVOCS, and the true, self-professed killer of Ryuko's father. Enraged, Ryuko pushes herself and Senketsu too far; the two of them mutate into an uncontrollable, gibbering, twitching monster. If Ryuko has this rage inside — rage enabled by Senketsu, rage that could destroy him and her and everyone else close to them — then best not to let that power out at all. The first real cracks in her façade have appeared. Now we understand why the underground anti-REVOCS movement "Nudist Beach" (they live up to their name, hilariously) has targeted Ryuko for a takedown, even as it becomes vitally important for her to work with them to ensure their mutual survival.
This self-doubt and self-division backlashes against Ryuko. With her unwilling to confront what's been unleashed from inside her and master that, Senketsu is captured by Satsuki's men, torn to shreds, and has its fibers harvested to power Satsuki's army, the better to execute Satsuki's mother Ragyo's plan of world domination. The only way to get Senketsu back is to return into the fray (visualized in a wildly over-the-top homage to/parody of Japan's delinquent-gang pictures of the '70s, with Ryuko roaring around on a motorcycle), retrieve its missing pieces, and — most importantly — resolve to wear it again. Not only does a newly re-empowered Ryuko manage to beat Satsuki to a stalemate and compel her to withdraw — another possible hint Satsuki's intentions for Ryuko aren't what they seem — but Ryuko is able to finish the job of patching Senketsu back together (at least temporarily) with her own flesh.
It's with this last crop of plot pieces that the theme of outside vs. inside starts to become even more prominent. Senketsu wasn't just designed only to fit Ryuko and interface with her physiology; it's that Ryuko's physiology was designed to interface with Life Fibers. She and the suit really are the same thing; outside and inside have always been one under it all. (Hence the way she's able to slice through a Life Fiber mind-control tether with her one forelock of red hair!) But at first she rejects both their union, and later, the truth of her own nature. "The old me was one big lie," she tells the stupefied Mako when she realizes she's, in her words, "a monster made of Life Fibers." An even bigger shock, and another version of the same theme, comes when Satsuki turns on her mother at a crucial moment in the execution of their plans. Satsuki's own life has been one giant clandestine operation to stop her mother from selling out the human race in favor of the Life Fibers, an alien species now looking to make Earth into its new home.
Against ourselves, divided
One of the core tenets of Buddhism is the idea that all beings are already enlightened — that everything we're looking for is already within us in some form, and that we just need to let that enlightened nature express itself without all of the drama we habitually ladle on top of our experiences. The source of our problems is not that we are missing some special something that we're vying for; it's that we don't know we already have it. In fact, we often go out of our way to obscure it unthinkingly, to rebel against it and reject it.
Ryuko, Satsuki, and Mako all embody this dilemma in a different way. Ryuko's most visibly divided against herself, appalled at discovering she's the very thing she has been fighting. Ragyo exploits this self-rejection by cladding her in Satsuki's own Life Fiber armor, Junketsu, and turning her against her own friends. It takes an intervention on the part of not only Mako, but Satsuki, and allies from both sides, to make her both whole on her own and to re-pair her with Senketsu — to have her not turn her back on herself, hide behind yet another disguise, or deny her true nature.
Satsuki is also divided against herself, but inwardly. This whole business of conspiring against her mother in secret for so long has forced her to cultivate all the worst parts of her personality — the tyrant, the martinet, the manipulator, the bully — at the expense of most everything else. The only way for her to survive — not just against her mother, but against a brainwashed Ryuko wearing her own armor — is for her to strip all that off. They can't afford to be divided against themselves, let alone each other. Especially not after we find out they're two halves of the same whole; both are Ragyo's daughters, albeit onceived under radically different circumstances.
And then there's Mako, the combination Greek chorus, comic relief, and moral anchor. Her surface may be silly, but her heart is sincere; she may panic easily, but she's absolutely fearless when it comes to her friends, and her outer behavior and inner motives are always in sync. She's never less than entirely herself. Her one big flirtation with being dishonest comes when she becomes president of Ryuko's school club (a fight club, of course), moves far up in the school's hierarchy, and enjoys the creature comforts that go with such a promotion. Then she's squared off against Ryuko, and realizes all this social climbing has come at the cost of her soul. The lesson she takes away from that becomes a source of strength for her, one she uses to bring Ryuko back to her own senses and to help her become whole when she's split off against herself. People criticize her for the wacky, cartoonish notions she has about what's going on, but the emotional truth of those things remain spot-on, even after she's twisted them into mental balloon animals.
Raising the roof
It's tough for a show to go over the top in a sustained way. Excess and overkill are easy to indulge in, but also easy to burn out on. When Kill la Kill director Hiroyuki Imaishi gave us the OVA Dead Leaves back in 2004, he crammed that just-under-an-hour production with a frenzy of action that would have required the invention of frame-by-frame playback if it hadn't already existed. But there wasn't much in the way of story or character; any attempts to provide that got wiped off the screen by everything else going on. (I felt Imaishi repeated many of the same mistakes, and at series length, with Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt.) But with Gurren Lagann, three years after Dead Leaves, the madcap energy came in the service of a great gallery of characters and a story that thrived on the very preposterousness it conjured up.
Kill la Kill, released six years after Gurren Lagann, is just as accomplished in its absurd self-one-upsmanship, even if it only ("only", he says!) expands out to include the Earth as its arena, instead of the known universe. What matters most is not that we go over the top, but that all of those acts of excess are somehow connected to, or stem from, what the story needs most to be about. It's one thing to just say "evolution of character", and another thing entirely to show Ryuko and Senketsu literally evolving as Ryuko's understanding of herself matures. This isn't to say one approach is better than the other, only that neither invalidates the other. A story as stately and languid as Kaoru Mori's Emma is no worse for being laid-back and modest, because it still aims to be about people we care about and a story worth seeing through to the end.
What I like most about Kill la Kill's visual frenzy is how the production team constantly digs new things out of it. One common running gag, the use of on-screen explanatory text in an ultra-bold typeface, eventually starts poking fun at its own excess (e.g., at one point the letters manifest between the characters as a kind of set dressing, even being seen from behind when the camera switches to a reverse angle). Whenever Mako throws her arms into the air, cries out "Wait!", and delivers an action-stopping soliloquy in defense of Ryuko, her words are visualized as a series of rapid-fire flash-frame gags. Many of those images revolve around untranslatable Japanese puns (as do many of the characters' names), but for me that only adds to the fun.
That said, I am always conscious of how such esoterica has its limits, and how the fact a show contains such things isn't by itself praiseworthy. When Mako takes hold of a machine gun and blasts her pursuers with a gasp of "Kaikan!" ("快感!" ["What a feeling!"]), few non-Japanese watching are going to know she's riffing on an oft-quoted moment from a Japanese pop-culture phenom of the 1980s, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. I did know this, and I laughed, although I knew full well merely explaining the ontology of the joke wouldn't make it funny to anyone not already in on it. Likewise, the fact that the show's design style plays as tribute to equally over-the-top mangaka Gō Nagai isn't by itself a redeeming factor; it's a bonus. Knowing about them, or understanding what they point to, aren't required, and the show wisely doesn't build on top of those things to be successful.
One of the common connotations of nakedness is lewdness — the way Ryuko looks when wearing Senketsu in his battle form, and the way the members of Nudist Beach are (un)dressed, all work as sly jabs in that direction. Attempts to mock or kid tricky subjects like fanservice often turn into the very things they're trying to make fun of (My Mental Choices are Completely Interfering with my School Romantic Comedy). Here, it works because the larger agenda of the show is always front and center, not because Kill la Kill makes the fanservice into something resembling thematic material (and it does, but only parenthetically).
But the other connotation of nakedness that comes most to mind with Kill la Kill is vulnerability. The Life Fibers, like the Monolith in 2001: a space odyssey, conferred their protection on an early humanity and spurred the evolution of that species away from being mere "naked apes". It falls to Ryuko and Satsuki (and Mako, too) to shuck off that false protection. But first they have to do the same for themselves — and it's not their outsides that are most vulnerable, but their own hearts. A fitting ending for the show, then, that in the last moments in the series everyone's naked, in both body and soul, with inside and outside reconciled at last.