Layered and Meta Narratives, a la Kill la Kill

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Study of Anime on KLK in relation to Japanese history and legends:
Sort of kind of a list of things KLK references as noted in teh panel, but without the context:
Another excellent, super in-depth KLK analysis:
Me and Keg Standard discussing KLK, though a few of the points we raise I no longer fully stand behind having come to understand the themes better thanks to that first link:

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Attack on Titan is an anime series with a straightforward narrative. It has a developed world with involving mysteries and character arcs, and grows in complexity as more facts, characters, and developments come into play. When I say that the narrative is straightforward, I mean that whatever the series has to offer narratively is evident to the viewer through the experience of watching the series itself. It does not require analysis, deep reading, or a broader personal context in order to appreciate the majority of what the series has to offer. That’s not to say that it can’t be analyzed, as some have done so to figure out what about the show resonates so well with human psychology–but by and large, almost anyone could watch Attack on Titan and get the exact same things out of it that the next person does.

For some people, the narrative style of Attack on Titan is ideal. Many would argue that a series should stand entirely on its own within the context of what it presents. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with a series being that way, and commend those that do it well, but I think there’s a lot to be said for a series that expects more effort on the part of the viewer in order to get the most out of it. Many of my favorite anime series have more layered and dense narratives that can be enjoyed more with the more context the viewer brings into them. A perfect example of this kind of narrative in recent anime is Kill La Kill.

You don’t necessarily need to bring anything into Kill la Kill to enjoy it, and indeed the series has been massively successful because it’s so enjoyable even on the most basic level. It tells a silly, but emotionally gripping story presented in a way that goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of animation, music, art, and acting. If all you got out of Kill la Kill was the story of a girl trying to fight against ever increasing odds to solve the mystery of her father’s murder, the story has enough twists and turns and interesting, aesthetically appealing characters to keep you thoroughly entertained. But if you dig a little bit into it, the series ties its main narrative into other grand and meta narratives that can enrich the experience even further.

At Otakon 2014, I visited two different panels on Kill la Kill which dealt specifically with analyzing the series in a broader context than what is directly evident in the show. I won’t be detailing either of these in their entirety, but I will try to put links to where you can explore them in more depth down in the description.

The first of these was Kill la Kill and the Transformation of a Japanese Legend. This panel drew parallels between the conflicts in Kill la Kill and the conflicts that Japan faced as it emerged into a world power from the Meiji era up through World War 2. It shows many layers of social commentary lain throughout the series, from how Satsuki resembles the Emperor during Japan’s powerful theocratic period, to how Ryuko’s fight with the system represents the rise of the proletariat and protest. Moreover, it also shows how Kill la Kill characterizes all of its main cast using tropes attributable to major Shinto gods, who represent the same ideals that those characters share. None of this is something you need to know in order to enjoy Kill la Kill, but diving into it gives all of the characters a more involving social context which imbues them with more symbolic meaning than they had previously.

Whereas the transformation panel more explored broad-level themes and symbolism, the second panel, Kill la Kill Spot the Reference Beginner’s Edition, deals more with the direct stylistic influences on the series. Kill la Kill borrows a lot of design sensibilities and character iconography from series that came before, and knowing some of these things can also broaden the cultural sense of where these characters come from and what they represent. There are also lots of callbacks and references to other anime and TV shows, some of which are more meaningful, and some of which are just for fun. There aren’t any references that the viewer has to understand in order to enjoy the show on a moment-to-moment basis, but spotting the references can be fun for those privy to them.

Of course, Otakon isn’t the only place you’ll find in-depth Kill la Kill analysis. I’ve seen countless blog posts on the subject, each building off the last in an ever growing pool of people finding their own meanings within the symbols presented in the series.

And even beyond analytical writings, there are many meta factors to bring into account. Be it the fact that this is the first major work from studio Trigger after breaking away from the legendary Gainax studio and taking a lot of their staff, making a lot of the nods to past Gainax works and the general rebellious nature of the series even more fascinating. Or the fact that the series has so many noteworthy creative minds who worked on it, making it a field day for those who like to trace the different influences that individual creators have on the shows they work on.

What makes Kill la Kill fascinating to me is that there are so many layers to what happens in the show, and so many meta elements to look into. On a moment to moment basis, the animation tells lots of little stories, as every scene plays out like its own micro-narrative in service of the episode or series narrative. The show never misses an opportunity to make every little movement or dialog piece either stylish or symbolic. It doesn’t need to do this, but by doing so it strengthens the emotions and aesthetic into something more memorable and resonant. Add to that all of the symbols and references to broader sociological constructs, and the whole thing takes on a far deeper meaning than it would have if it just told a straightforward story.

Once again, it comes down to a matter of opinion whether a layered, meta narrative is a good thing. I’ve always been more interested in a series that asks me to do research or really draw connections to find a deeper meaning, and I think that when a series has lots of veiled references and symbolism, it invites the viewer to try and think harder about what they’re seeing. Kill la Kill is rife with such calling cards, and that makes it a fascinating series to dive into.

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