With the exception of Nintendo games, I didn't grow up with overtly Japanese media. I was certainly aware of it — and growing up one of the most Chinese cities in North America helped in that regard — but with the exception of a few games like Pokemon, Tales of Symphonia, and Viewtiful Joe, I didn't see it as relevant to me. I didn't play JRPGs, and I didn't so much as watch Dragon Ball Z.
As such, I passively accepted the idea of "anime" as a pejorative. I wasn't consciously perpetuating the stereotype, but I was very likely to hear the word "anime" in the context of a punchline and I'm sure that rubbed off.
At a time in which the "gaming community" is more concerned than ever with diversity and tolerance, anime and/or JRPGs fans are one of the few remaining groups one can pretty safely throw under the bus while still getting high-fives all around:
Wrestling is for cool people and anime is for dorks.— Dan Ryckert (@DanRyckert) August 14, 2014
"i must defend all art from censorship," said the man in the black satin dress shirt, emerging from his cave with anime hug pillow in tow— Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) April 24, 2013
"What do you mean this stuff only appeals to weird immature men? Let me show you my collection of Zelda nudes!" said the anime avatar.— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) May 23, 2014
That last tweet really gets to the heart of the issue: a sense that anime fans are gross, sexually-perverted weirdos. This stereotype — like most stereotypes — comes from somewhere, but whereas most stereotypes are seen as the unfairly broad brushes they obviously are, "anime" is a widely-accepted word with which to dismiss a piece of media, its creators, and its fans.
To the degree that my tastes were influenced by these popular straw men, I resent that I spent the first 22 or so years of my life not giving most Japanese media a fair shake. My tastes have changed a lot since giving JRPGs, anime, and manga a fair shot, and I'm happier for it.
This brings me to Kill la Kill:
Kill la Kill
Kill la Kill is the story of a girl and her sentient school uniform fighting the fascist school council government of an artificial mountain city in future Tokyo Bay in order to avenge her father's death. I could elaborate about the surprisingly coherent plot and likeable characters, but this show moves so quickly and unexpectedly that almost any further explanation risks spoiling it. I will at least mention that this show has one of the most menacing and downright subversive secondary antagonists I can remember. If the show wasn't already great, this one character might have been able to carry it themselves.
I'm not sure I'd have been able to deal with Kill la Kill even a couple of years ago. It hasn't been that long since I was wringing my hands about the costume designs in Final Fantasy XIII, and I find it viscerally uncomfortable to go back and read myself trying to wrap my head around characters wearing short skirts. If that post wasn't so embarrassing in hindsight, I'd laugh about how quaint it feels in light of my unequivocal love of a show that — to pull no punches — has a close-up of a 17-year-old girl's labia in its intro:
Kill la Kill's sexuality is so overt that it arguably transcends fanservice and justifies itself as an inextricable part of what the show is. Without spoiling too much, this is a show in which revealing battle armour is scientifically justified and body shame is directly and meaningfully addressed. All of the main characters — female and male — end up spending a great deal of their time fully or nearly nude. A major male character spends half of his time on-screen posing ostentatiously as his clothing slides off his body and pink lights shoot out of his nipples and groin, and the leading antagonist cements her malicious nature in an unsettling scene in which she gropes her daughter. I'm not going to pretend that some of the sexuality isn't on some level pandering, but it's so over-the-top and indiscriminate that I tend to see it as more of a stylistic and humorous choice than one primarily intended to titillate. To put it another way: I think it would be a worse show without the sexuality; at the very least, something else would need to take its place.
It took me a few episodes to get on board the show's inherent flamboyance — and that's to some extent a result of the first few episodes leaning a bit harder into the bashful upskirt school of fanservice — but I got over my self-consciousness and realized the show was deliberately using (and mocking) that trope as a stepping stone to far-more-uninhibited ridiculousness.
And man does Kill la Kill know how to escalate. The third episode features a climactic-seeming fight in which the two main characters are hitting each other with such intensity that the cavernous walls behind them are blown apart by the shockwave, and most of the remaining twenty-one episodes substantially raise the stakes from there. No single step feels forced, but by the time the show is over the scope of the conflict has escalated to a degree that makes the beginning of the series seem positively quaint. Don't get me wrong: this is a pretty goofy and self-aware show, but it doesn't fall into the trap of escalating for cheap comedic effect without the substance to back it up.
Kill la Kill also oozes style. Every scene — hell, practically every shot — is lovingly crafted to look and sound as awesome as possible. I'm a particular fan of the character designs and voice performances, which are on point across the board. The director and artists have a sizable bag of tricks, and they know when (and how often) to break them out for maximum effect: 3D zooms, 4:3, split-screen staredowns, on-screen (and sometimes in-environment) text, static pans, disproportionate looming, rotoscoping, and other assorted techniques form an unconventional visual patchwork that manages to feel congruous. I'm not usually one to physically react to stuff, but I found myself with a dumb slack-jawed grin at least a couple of times per episode. This show might have the highest "fuck yeah!"-per-minute ratio of anything I've watched in my life.
Those aforementioned "fuck yeah" moments are punctuated with some badass musical themes. You always know some weighty shit is going down when Satsuki's theme kicks in; Ryuko's triumphant anthem almost always marks the climax of the episode. Later themes (BEWARE SPOILERS: , , ) are appropriately epic and/or sinister. Hiroyuki Sawano also composed Attack on Titan's awesome soundtrack, and I've just realized that he's also working on Xenoblade X(!).
I can't recall a show I've loved as consistently as Kill la Kill. It's obviously something I enjoy for very different reasons than other favourites like The Wire, The West Wing, or House of Cards, but I think I'd much sooner rewatch Kill la Kill than The Wire, and that's got to count for something. I suspect there are a lot of potential Kill la Kill fans held back by a misguided sense that they're somehow above watching anime, let alone a semi-fanservicey anime like this. I've been there, and while I absolutely empathize with the discomfort, I'm glad I crossed that arbitrary line.