I recommend watching the video version of this post, as I use a lot of visual evidence to support many of my points. That said, the text version also has a few little sentences which I had to cut from the video for time. Text version and links below:
If you haven’t seen these shows:
Ever since Kill la Kill was first announced, there hasn’t been a single conversation about the series that doesn’t involve comparing it to 2007’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; which is fair enough, since they’re made by practically all of the same people, and are both explosively colorful, over-the-top action shows. Inevitably, each of these conversations will result in someone declaring that one of the shows was better–usually, Gurren Lagann–and sure, I can see how in terms of weaving a dramatic narrative with a solid structure, it’s hard to argue that Gurren Lagann doesn’t do a better job. However, I think that from the beginning, this comparison is reductive–not only to Kill la Kill, but to Gurren Lagann as well–as it ignores how each show was trying to do something different.
Even though they share a lot of stylistic commonalities, I think that these shows were chasing very different thematic goals–which I also believe that both of them did an admirable job of reaching. In this post, I’ll be breaking down both series to figure out what each was trying to say. In the process, there will be major spoilers for both shows, so if you haven’t seen these two modern classics, then I highly recommend going and watching them.
I think the biggest difference between the approach of each series is that Gurren Lagann takes a very broad lense to a few specific themes, whereas Kill la Kill takes a more narrow lense to a huge cluster of themes at once. The question of which handles its themes better is out for debate, but is not relevant to what I’d like to accomplish here.
Perhaps the broadest and most obvious theme explored in Gurren Lagann is that of the coming of age story, which also pretty closely follows the Hero’s Journey formula (aka the Monomyth). Now, I know that the heroes journey gets brought up constantly in fiction analysis, and that it’s so broadly applicable to so many stories that it usually ends up being really boring to talk about. However, I don’t think that Gurren Lagann is a series which just happens to fit the criteria of the hero’s journey, so much as one that’s actively set out to fit into those tropes.
To narrow the scope a bit, I think that Gurren Lagann is structured and designed to feel like an ancient epic. The series is presented in such a way that it feels almost mythical, and follows along with the kind of story beats which you’d find in legends. Every event is hyper-dramatized and over-the-top, with larger than life heroes and villains, along with character motivations and developments which feel as classical as time itself.
You could argue that Gurren Lagann may not have been deliberately built to follow the hero’s journey or to reflect the feeling of an ancient epic; but at the very least, I think that the creators were aware of how the story fits into those paradigms. The best evidence to this idea comes from a direct reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh in the form of Viral’s mecha, Enkidu. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu was a beast-like man created by the gods to defeat Gilgamesh and rid him of his arrogance. After their fight, Enkidu eventually becomes Gilgamesh’s best friend and trusted partner who fights alongside him, very much like Viral’s eventual relationship with Simon. Even the fact that Viral’s name is the word “rival” rearranged suggests that he was designed to reflect the timeless trope of the rival character, with a mecha named after one of the oldest rivals in all of storytelling. This kind of calling card suggests that the staff was at least aware of the ways in which Gurren Lagann felt like a new rendition of the most classical brand of story archetype.
But what Gurren Lagann sets out to do is not simply be a monomyth story, but be the ultimate one. It takes the idea of a story whose scope is constantly expanding, with a hero whose actions must reach an ultimate consequence, and takes that to its most extreme logical conclusion. By the end of the series, it gets as big as it possibly can–as if to not only go as far as it could, but to make sure that nothing else could ever go farther.
Likewise, as a coming of age story, Gurren Lagann follows Simon throughout his entire life, until he’s come of age into pretty much every age possible. Members of GAINAX studio have said in interviews that they wanted to follow Simon’s life for as long as they could until it was clear that he’d completed all of his adventures. They also attributed the desire to have a show which is split in half by a time skip, to wanting to explore the way that one comes of age into adulthood, and then also explore how one struggles as an adult living in a less-than-ideal world. They wanted to suggest that coming into adulthood is not the end of a person’s evolution, and that a person can only truly finish their journey when they’ve created the ideal future that they wanted and done all that they can.
Each of these themes ties perfectly into the spiral motif which dominates the series right down to the way that it’s structured. The fact that it’s a monomythical story, which is a kind of story that continually appears countless times throughout history, ties in with the repetitive theme of adherence to the ideal of growth and self-betterment. Almost every episode of Gurren Lagann features the characters espousing their beliefs about the need to constantly progress to the next stage; and once they’ve reached that stage, their goal is always to go further. Just as the width of a spiral constantly expands, so to does the breadth of Gurren Lagann’s narrative–which begins in a tiny underground cave, and eventually reaches out to encompass the entire known universe. Gurren Lagann is structured around the constantly repetitive spinning of the drill, and the ever expanding breadth of the spiral. In this way, the series marries its structure and its thematic message perfectly, which is why the idea of constantly making progress resonates so strongly with its audience.
In contrast, whereas Gurren Lagann is designed to shoot directly upwards in one thematic direction, Kill la Kill is designed to go in every direction–and in the opposite direction–at the same time. You might even say that whereas Gurren Lagann is designed to constantly expand in an outward spiral, Kill la Kill is designed to take countless divergent ideas and unify them into a singularity, as if following the spiral in the opposite direction.
At the heart of how Kill la Kill presents each of its thematic elements is the idea of embracing duality. For instance: is nudity an artistic symbol of empowerment, or a means of base titillation? Well, it’s both. Do the things that we wear–the labels that we use to define ourselves–give us strength? Or do they limit us? Well, they do both. Does society need to be operated under rule of order, or under rule of anarchy? It needs a little of both. Does gaining power help us to improve, or does it corrupt us? It does a bit of both. Is Kill la Kill a narratively cohesive story, or a random mish-mash of ideas? An artsy high-brow show, or mindless low-brow popcorn entertainment? Of course, it’s all of those things.
Nowhere does Kill la Kill make its ethos more apparent than in the final battle, during which Ryuuko defeats both the symbol of ultimate anarchy and submission, as well as the symbol of ultimate order and oppression, at the same time, while screaming that she and Senketsu simultaneously are neither human nor clothing, but also are human, clothing, and everything. By the end of the series, Ryuuko stands as a definitive symbol for embracing duality.
Just as Gurren Lagann’s narrative structure represented its thematic message, so to does that of Kill la Kill. I’ve already mentioned how the show embraces the idea of being both a character-driven, straightforwardly dramatic narrative, as well as a no-holds-barred clusterfuck, and I’ll add the storyline is more than willing to contradict itself, while embracing that very contradiction. Just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, everything in Kill la Kill is what it is, while also being everything else.
Whereas Gurren Lagann used the drill and the spiral as its biggest symbols, Kill la Kill favors symbols which come in opposing pairs. Nudity and clothing; unity and individuality; scissors and threads; and of course, black and white. Each of these symbols are first presented in opposition to one-another, and then are slowly united into a singularity by the end.
This difference cuts to the heart of why I find it so strange, and so reductive, to constantly compare these series against one-another. Sure, we’re all going to have our own opinions of which one we thought was better overall, or which one did a better job of communicating its themes–but the themes themselves are so different, that to look at Kill la Kill, and then say that “Gurren Lagann did it better,” leaves me scratching my head, wondering what, exactly, you think that Gurren Lagann did. Was it better as a coming of age story? ‘Cause that’s not really what Kill la Kill was about, even if it did have elements of that. Was it better constructed? ‘Cause if you ask me, both shows were constructed in a way that reflected what they wanted to say. It’s one thing to suggest that you prefer Gurren Lagann to Kill la Kill, or vice versa–but to suggest that one was better at doing some specific thing ignores that they had very different ambitions.
Getting away from the broader, more general themes, let’s have a look at some of the other ones which get brought up in each show. Masculinity and the masculine ideal play big roles in Gurren Lagann, as the series equates manliness with an unwillingness to give in to the demands of others. In particular, this is the thing which Kamina values most in other people, and which he equates with manhood; even if it’s something which all of the characters end up exhibiting, be they male or female. This framework gets turned on its head after Kamina’s death, when the very feminine Nia ends up being the next character to drive Simon’s development, and more or less takes over Kamina’s role as the voice of the show. Whereas Kamina preached recklessness in the name of doing what you want, Nia preaches taking a step back and remembering that at the end of the day, you need to come out alive. Only through combining both of these ideals does Simon come of age.
Episode five comments on religion, and how a society will set rules for itself in order to function better, even if it knows that these rules are of questionable value. Kamina finds himself unable to abide by this social logic, as to him the very definition of being happy is being able to do whatever he wants, and to go after the best possible future against any odds. This reinforces the show’s message that the only right way to live is by embracing your own logic; doing whatever you want, and never kowtowing to the demands of others.
This theme is majorly expanded on in the series’ second half, when Rossiu tries to take control of Kamina City from Simon. Rossiu sees Simon as being no different from Kamina, throwing himself recklessly forward–but fails to see the importance of having people around can who take action and never give up. Simon represents the best of both worlds as someone not willing to settle for less than an ideal future–and in a way, this is the biggest thematic parallel between Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill. Just as Ryuuko stands for embracing duality, Simon stands for being a well-rounded individual in terms of caring about survival, but also not being afraid. It’s worth mentioning as well that both shows regard the unnamed populace as a complacent, faceless mass which will follow along with whatever seems most convenient.
Episode three of Kill la Kill poses one huge criticism of the concept of shame, arguing that embarrassment, and an unwillingness to do whatever it takes to fulfill your ambitions, are signs of weakness. Mikisugi repeatedly relates Ryuuko’s embarassment to being a symptom of her youth and immaturity, while Satsuki outright slams Ryuuko for caring about what society thinks of her. In this way, this episode is not only Kill la Kill’s self-justification for the nature of its presentation, but a criticism of the audience themselves for being immature enough to be embarrassed about watching a show like this. It’s the writer’s way of saying that, love it or hate it, this show has no intentions of being anything other than authentic about itself. Hilariously enough, this theme is somewhat subverted in the next episode, wherein Ryuuko’s opponent is so shameless that even Senketsu is disgusted with her.
Episode seven is a straightforward commentary on the corruptive power of greed, and reminded me of a study I read once which proposed that the maximum amount of money a person can make while retaining happiness is seventy thousand dollars a year per dependent. It also gives us our first glance at the series’ message of coming together in naked authenticity, which we’ll see paralleled in the final scene.
Kiryuuin Satsuki’s arc largely revolves around her revelation that you can’t rule the world while rejecting the very nature of that world; you have to love the world and be willing to work within it. While her methods of subjugation can make people powerful, it is impossible to create powers of her level while putting herself above everyone. Satsuki realizes the error of her ways and apologizes, after recognizing that she wouldn’t get very far without the friends that she has backing her up; and she strives to become someone who inspires others instead of striking fear into them. Again, in the end, this culminates in a display of authenticity and naked togetherness.
The Kill la Kill special also suggests that the school setting was meant to be symbolic of the characters learning all of these life lessons, which they will now have to carry with them into the real world upon graduation. Their history and everything that they’ve gone through will be what ultimately informs their future as they move forward.
Now, let’s talk about references. Studio GAINAX shows have always been huge on references, but the works of Hiroyuki Imaishi take them to a whole new level. An important note about GAINAX is that they like to draw influences from and make references to mediums outside of anime. Former GAINAX lead director Hideaki Anno has even criticized the way that, in his eyes, too many modern animations are drawing influence from anime exclusively, instead of pulling influences from a broader range of artwork.
Gurren Lagann is, after all, a mecha show, and I dare say that it’s almost impossible for a mecha show not to pay homage to its genre in some way. Almost every mecha anime owes a great deal to at least one specific forbear, if not to the genre as a whole. In Gurren Lagann’s case, the creators have stated in multiple interviews that their biggest influence was the classic Getter Robo manga by Ken Ishikawa.
For a long time, there’s been rumors and speculation over whether Gurren Lagann was meant to be a sort of curation of mecha tropes based on its structure; with the early parts paying homage to seventies mecha series, before moving into the eighties in episode nine, and then again into the nineties with the final arc. It’s an interesting theory, though it makes too many broad assumptions about the kind of mecha stories which came from each era to be completely trusted–but it definitely gets the point across that Gurren Lagann has a deeply realized relationship with its genre. Imaishi has stated before that he’d always wanted to do a mecha series, and that the primary idea behind the design of Gurren Lagann’s setting was to be a world where there is literally nothing besides mecha.
Gurren Lagann’s animation and art style heavily reference that of the legendary animator Yoshinori Kanada, who was responsible for lots of classic mecha animations; and the overall tone of the series has a very old-school feel. Imaishi has stated that he finds it interesting how in older series, there was a higher tendency for animators to show their individuality in their work within an otherwise unified series, and that he wanted to capture that feeling in his own work. Outside of mecha though, there are plenty of other references to classic anime, such as Kaminas death being a nearly exact copy of the final scene from Ashita no Joe, and the use of director Osamu Dezaki’s famous hand-drawn still shots, called harmonies, across the series. Also, Squidward.
But once again, whereas Gurren Lagann has much more cohesion in its references to largely old-school anime and mecha shows, Kill la Kill has references to virtually everything packed into every nook and cranny of the series. It references old Japanese dramas, wrestling moves, western cartoons, classic films, Japanese mythology, Shinto gods, and, of course, old anime and manga–to such an extent that there are massive online guides to as many references as people have been able to find. Some entire scenes, such as the show’s first ending theme, are direct references to other works of art, creating one big melting pot of references.
But the biggest and most complex reference in Kill la Kill, is that of its gigantic simultaneous allusion to Japanese history–from the end of the warring states period to the modern day–and to the mythology of the Shinto gods. This series of references and allusions can not only be considered the keystone to understanding the core narrative themes of the series, but runs so deep that Charles Dunbar has been doing hour-and-a-half long panels about it at conventions and is currently writing a book on it.
Obviously I won’t be able to get into all of this in the span of one video, so I’ll be linking to some other posts that talk about it below. For now, here’s a brief summary: Satsuki represents imperial Japan, post-warring states era, trying to imitate the west, while in turn representing the emperor’s synonimity with the sun goddess Amaterasu. Ragyo represents the expansionist West; Ryuuko represents the proletariat, old Japan, and the Oni; and each conflict in the show can be tied to a major historical event–most notably the tri-city raid being an overt reference to the unification of Japan in the warring states period, and Honnouji academy representing the Honnouji shrine and state Shintoism. Satsuki’s elite four have ties to major gods as well, as do other characters, and ultimately the message this is all meant to convey is that a people will function at their best when the state and the populace see eye to eye, and when they can strike a careful balance between order and freedom. Obviously I’ve simplified this a ton, but if you look into Charles Dunbar’s writing on the subject, he makes a very compelling case that these allusions were intentional; and that they, frankly, are fucking awesome.
Anyways, I’m going to link a bunch of interviews and analytical posts about both of these shows in the description for further reading. Ultimately, what I hope to accomplish with this video is to broaden the discussion surrounding these two shows. I don’t really care about why you might think one is better than the other, but actually getting into the thick of how each show makes you feel, or what the deeper meanings behind them are, is a lot more interesting to me. If you’d like to discuss these shows and their themes with me, follow the link in the description to the reddit thread I’ve opened on the subject; and If you like my content, be sure and stick around, ‘cause I’ve got a lot more coming; and if you REALLY like my content, consider supporting me via patreon. I’ll seeya in the next one!
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Re: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
A short video interview with director Hiroyuki Imaishi and character designer Atsushi Nishigori: http://animediet.net/conventions/ax-2009-junket-interview-hiroyuki-imaishi-and-atsushi-nishigori-of-gurren-lagann
Two short interviews with several producers and animation directors: http://www.mania.com/interview-gainax-gurren-lagann-staff_article_87027.html
GAINAX answering fan questions: http://www.japanator.com/the-secrets-of-gurren-lagann-answered–6714.phtml
TV Topes “Wild Mass Guessing” page is basically a dump for everyone’s insane interpretations of the series. A few are usually interesting: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WMG/TengenToppaGurrenLagann
TV Tropes also has a pretty extensive list of references in the series. A lot of them are questionable, but a lot are really cool: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ShoutOut/TengenToppaGurrenLagann
The Animanachronism posits it as the ultimate tale of rebellion: https://animanachronism.wordpress.com/2008/02/10/tengen-toppa-gurren-lagann-rebellion-perfected/
Because Gurren Lagann came out around when I first got into anime blogging, and when more analytical blogging was only just getting popular, I haven’t read as much/there isn’t as much out there. Googling “gurren lagann analysis” turns up some promising results, but most of them aren’t saying much different from what I did in this video. Anyways here’s the search: https://www.google.com/search?sourceid=chrome-psyapi2&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8&q=gurren%20lagann%20analysis
Re: Kill la Kill:
The biggest and most important post that I’m going to link here is, as you’ve probably guessed if you follow my KLK content, the massive post Kill la Kill: A Love Story from Chromatic Abberations everywhere. What makes this post integral is that it’s not only probably the best close-reading of the series outside of Charles Dunbar’s panels, but it also is a curation of analysis done on the series. It culminates tons of stuff written on the show and links to most of it, so from here you can easily dive into a world of KLK analysis. I recommend all of the links in the “Building Up A Mindset” section: https://eyeforaneyepiece.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/kill-la-kill-a-love-story/
Very cool interview with director Imaishi and writer Nakashima: http://flamingo-chan.tumblr.com/post/49964346263/kill-la-kill-imaishi-and-nakashima-interview
Database of known Kill la Kill references: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/225692543/References.html
Charles Dunbar’s massive KLK panel has yet to fully hit the internet. He plans on filming it at Katsucon in February and is writing a book on it, but for now you can find bits and pieces, and the genesis of the ideas, over on his website: http://www.studyofanime.com/
You can also find some similar reading in this post, The Fashion of Fascism, on Art-Eater: http://art-eater.com/2013/11/kill-la-kill-the-fashion-of-fascism/
Interview with character designer Sushio: http://pastebin.com/9cDsZjET
And of course, my own posts on Kill la Kill, in reverse-chronological order. All of them are worth checking out as they lead up to my thesis in this video: https://myswordisunbelievablydull.wordpress.com/category/favorites/kill-la-kill-favorites/
Other discussions of this post: http://www.reddit.com/r/Digibro/comments/2s6ju4/gurren_lagann_vs_kill_la_kill_a_thematic_rundown/