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So  it’s been about an hour since I finished watching the first episode of Kill la Kill and the dizziness is just about cleared up. In a choppy, frenetic and dazzlingly colourful 20 minutes, the first episode of Kill la Kill has firmly placed the anime in the “What the hell did I just” watch genre. What I’ve yet to work out, is whether that’s a good thing or not.

On the one hand, this breed of whacky, irreverent and rapid-fire anime has produced some great titles over the years. There’s the new Cutie Honey, Excel Saga, Panty & Stocking, Kyousogiga, etc. – these all have a similar pace to them and were enjoyable. But on the other hand, there’s always a risk with this kind of anime that it will miss the mark and its hyper-activity will become tiring and monotonous instead of entertaining.

It’s often a fine line between fun and annoying. Both Panty & Stocking and Excel Saga dripped below that line sometimes, but they were rescued (mostly) by good gags and laugh-out-loud punchlines. Kill la Kill certainly wasn’t annoying, but it isn’t a comedy either. It’s not gonna make us laugh like Excel Saga, so it can’t rely on jokes as its main selling point. That means it’s going to need more than just fast-paced flashes of style to keep people hooked – it will need substance as well.

It’s obviously early days now, but I think Kill la Kill is caught between these two opposing forces – the attraction of style and the pull of substance. The first episode was probably intended to cram in as much as possible to make a big impact,  but the next few episodes will need to hit the pause button occasionally to flesh out the characters, the world and the story. I’m not saying it needs to have high-literature ambitions and become an intellectual masterpiece, but some simple gravitas of character to underpin the flambouyant look is something I’ll want.

As much as I love the company for its boisterous animation, I’ll be hoping that Trigger wants to tell a story with its animation.

I do have the sense that the anime will get a shift in tone to be a bit more serious and character driven. For a start, it’s 2 cour, and then this interview with scriptwriter Nakashima more or less confirms it:

Q: So with this major directional change, what were the effects on the story?
N: Initially we were making a battle-manga type show, but it changed to character drama. The battle-show planned for a complete story ended up becoming a work where regular characters’ development/drama will be thoroughly explored. The work coincidentally became much more interesting from there.

So beware of assuming that the feel of the first episode is all there is to Kill la Kill!

But is it at least winning on style?

Well, it’s not losing. This episode had an interesting production, which is what you should have been expecting from Trigger. And by interesting I mean it had elements I liked, and elements I didn’t. It was a little all over the place in an appealing amateurish kind of way. In the TV-anime industry today, Trigger are the antithesis to the smooth and pedantic Kyoto Animation, and I appreciate that free approach.

This is enhanced tenfold when Hiroyuki Imaishi sticks himself at the helm of a project. Say goodbye to the soft subtleties of Little Witch Academia and welcome back the exaggerated anarchy of Imaishi and his like-minded henchmen, Akira Amemiya and Sushio. The animation is fast, furious and lovingly limited.

One thing I didn’t like about the show was how much its style was a replica of Gurren Lagann, with dashes of Panty & Stocking here and there. It was just much too obvious that Imaishi liked what he did with Gurren Lagann and just wanted to do more. This anime is supposed to be Trigger’s breakout so I think Imaishi should made the effort to impress with a fresh visual flare. We’ve all seen this look before.

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Kill la Kill does have some tricks of its own, but it’s style is largely built on Imaishi’s loaded war chest of visual cliches.

Imaishi’s storyboard worked really well in some places and not in others. I really appreciated its density in some scenes, particularly all the everyday-life stuff around the city and at school. I think it’s fair to say that a lot more information and humour is crammed into these shots that you would normally expect from a TV anime.

I also like the jagged angles he applies to his scenes here, and it’s probably the biggest stylistic distinction between this and Gurren Lagann. Almost every shot in this anime is framed very confrontationally, skewed towards a target. This fits in well with its hot-blooded battle theme. But I do think this may have been used too much, to the point where every shot felt emphasised. And of course, if you emphasise everything, you end up emphasising nothing at all.

Perhaps my biggest problem though was that he just had too many cuts for my liking. Just when I felt I was enjoying a scene it was chopped away into something else. He was clearly aiming to keep a running pace with this episode, but it was too much. I guess the problems with the production for Kill la Kill episode 1 can be summarised as ‘trying to cram in too much of a good thing’.

The Designs

Sushio created the character designs for this one, and I think his talent shines through quite well. I thought this was his first big gig as original character designer, but apparently he did the designs for Engage Planet Kiss Dum, which I know nothing about. Either way, this is a big break for him, and being the character designer and chief animation director on Kill la Kill is a big step in his career. There’s an interesting interview with him about it here.

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Interestingly, the anime designs are purposefully inconsistent in their style. Usually anime, especially modern anime, will give characters a similar facial structure and eye style. But here, there’s quite a bit of variation. Actually there’s sort of two strains, there’re the cool ones on the right, and the more cute and silly ones on the left- which seem to be the ordinary folk of the city. There are a lot of characters, and they all stand out well with a nice design.

The highlight for me is, as it should be, the heroine, Ryuuko Matoi. I’m not 100% behind some of the costume design choices, but I love her face and her hair. She carries herself with effortless swag and emits a ‘cool’ aura. But when her badass demeanor is compromised she can be frighteningly cute.

I’m so glad I got a 1080p version just to see that adorable blush in high-res. It’s great that they seem to have crafted a strong, hot-blooded heroine with sex appeal AND a lovely shoujo side. Ryuuko Matoi has got the lot.

Key Animation

The Key Animation was really good this episode. While I wouldn’t say there were any scenes that blew me away, there was plenty to like. The fight sequences had enough gusto with a mix of fluid choreography, and dramatic still shots while the day-to-day occurrences at school and on the streets adopted a playful limited animation approach, cramming in as many facial expressions and gesticulation as the framecount will allow. Going back to the two different ‘looks’ to the character designs – it’s almost seems as though Mako and her family will be the characters to get the comical limited animation treatment, while Ryuuko and her rivals will remain more smooth and composed!

One thing I really appreciated about the animation were some of the gags they managed to slip in. Just by the way they animated some moments made me laugh.

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Hiroyuki Imaishi worked on the episode as a Key Animator, and I dare say Sushio had his work cut out for him correcting as Animation Director. I expect there will be some big Sushio and Yoh Yoshinori cuts coming up in the future for us Sakuga fans to look forward to, but for now the rank and file Trigger animators are doing a stellar job at keeping it lively and fun. Actually, speaking of the Trigger staff, the best thing about the credits for the episode is that it included all 5 of the inexperienced animators that worked on Little Witch Academia to be trained up. It’s heartening to see that they have all stayed on and have been taken under Trigger’s wing! Keep your eye on these guys!

I should also mention the use of CG in the episode. It was contributed by Sanzigen, a company that focuses on creating 3DCG animation. Sanzigen sits alongside Trigger and Order in the holding firm Ultra Super Pictures. All three of these companies collaborated on the anime Black Rock Shooter, which I wrote about here. It was in BRS that Sanzigen matured its limited 3DCG animation approach – the CG characters in the fight sequences were made to move more in line with 2D TV-animation by selectively dropping frames from the render. Imaishi helped them craft this limited CG animation for the anime’s action sequences.

Given Imaishi’s involvement with them, it does make sense that they would make an appearance in Kill la Kill. Fortunately, most of the CG is inoffensive, because it’s not models of characters, but 3D backgrounds. That makes shots like this one far more achievable and means the animators can focus on the character acting or choreography. There were also a few times when they used 3DCG for people, but nothing that stood out enough to ruin my immersion! Honestly, despite my love for 2D animation, I think there is merit to what Sanzigen are doing – and they’re certainly good at it.

Wrap-up

Perhaps the best thing about studio Trigger is not their mark of quality, but their charisma as creators. So far, Kill la Kill has served as a platform to demonstrate this. It has the frantic, high-energy animation and flashy production we all expected, and more (perhaps a bit too much more). But for this anime to really be a hit it’s going to need to develop a bit more depth and character. I think that’s exactly, what’s going to happen, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this anime will turn out to be great.

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