Visual Breakdown: Tension and Payoff in Kill la Kill’s Opening Scene

Text version and extra description:

I made this video with the intention of posting it on the Digibro channel whenever it gets un-suspended; and as such I had to keep it under 15 minutes thanks to the problems my channel *already* had.

The script was actually a bit too long to fit in the video, so I had to cut some parts near the beginning; and the result makes somewhat less sense, so here I’ll explain what I was getting at:

One of the basic principles of animation is the manipulation of weight and momentum to make animation look more realistic and impactful. Similar to how Jackie Chan manipulates shots to create impact, animation is all about manipulating the timing of frames to create impact. However, Imaishi’s team applies this basic animation principle to the flow of scenes, which not lot a lot of anime does (but someone like Jackie Chan does expertly). In other words, Imaishi is like the anime Jackie Chan (or something).

Hope that clears up what I meant there. I’ll link the Jackie Chan vid below among other things.

By the way, I would be super duper appreciative if you supported me on patreon or paypal. Tax season came around and since my income is not taxed across the year I’m about to pay the government a loooot of money, so I can really use anything I can get!

Jackie Chan – How To Direct Action Comedy:

Dailymotion upload in case this gets taken down here:

Kill la Kill is, for my money, one of–if not, THE–best-looking TV anime ever made; and while the series has gotten a lot of credit for its sense of visual design, I nonetheless think that it has been unfairly criticized in this regard, and underappreciated for its strengths. Reviewers often seem to miss the forest for the trees when talking about Kill la Kill’s liberal use of stills and limited animation–without accounting for just how cleverly it utilizes those elements, or talking about the incredible way that every single moment of animation flows into one-another.

What director Hiroyuki Imaishi and his team excel at (more than any other anime staff in my opinion) is high-impact visuals, generated via manipulation of weight and momentum.

This sensation of impact is essential to creating an effective action scene. If you haven’t seen the video on Jackie Chan and How to Direct Action Comedy by Every Frame A Painting, then I highly recommend checking that out. In it, Tony explain how Jackie Chan manipulates a sequence of shots to make every punch and kick have more of an impact. These kinds of techniques are why, when you watch a great kung fu movie and someone gets punched, you and your friends all yell, “OH!,” whereas in a more empty and low-impact fight scene, you might not feel much of anything.

But what makes Imaishi’s style so compelling is that he doesn’t simply apply the ideas of weight and momentum to the individual animation cuts–he also applies them to entire scenes. Imaishi’s work is all about a sequence of rapid buildups and payoffs which flow together beautifully, combined with extremely well-crafted shot composition.

Remember how Jackie Chan’s style was called, “action comedy?” Well, like action, comedy is all about buildup, payoff, and timing. In other words, the key to both action and comedy is the feeling of catharsis. It’s the satisfaction that comes from being wound up and then released–or the impact of something bending until it breaks. A lot of the action scenes in Kill la Kill, such as the one which I’m about to talk about, are also funny, simply by virtue of their cathartic timing. What makes the series so fun and to watch is the satisfying way that all of its animation plays out, and the hilarious and kickass moments that constantly result from its use of momentum.

Right off the bat with Kill la Kill’s opening scene, it starts to build tension using super-dramatic text cards that pan towards the screen with a bassy musical cue behind them. The camera pans back across what would be a typical classroom scene, except that we can immediately tell that something’s off about it from the metallic look of the walls, the pipes running through the ceiling, and what looks like the door of a battleship. The high contrast between orange light coming in from outside, and the dark blue shadows on the walls, as well as on the uniforms of the students, creates a sense of heightened drama–which contrasts with these silly shots of Mako’s sleeping head bobbling around with a giant snot bubble, and with all of the snacks and toys on the students’ desks.

This contrast puts us in an interesting state of mind as viewers. The scene is set up equally for some kind of dramatic confrontation, as well as for irreverent slapstick comedy–and the scene which is about to come is exactly all of those things. After a sudden bang on the door, the camera pans towards it very slowly, while the wheel turns with lots of resistance, causing the tension to rise even more with our expectations.

Then, BAM! Giant foot through the door! As the torn-off door crashes into the window, we hear the classmates react with the same incredulity that we do; and then there is once again a small buildup between the door hitting the window, and it breaking apart to decimate the room. Because of how the door initially leaves through the left side of the screen, passes through this shot wherein everyone turns their heads to follow it, and then comes in from the right to hit the window, the impact of that action is felt across all three cuts. The buildup after the door hits the wall then gives us just enough time to process that impact before it comes crashing back through the right side of the screen and into this next cut. This way, the destruction of the classroom has just as much impact as the shot of the door getting kicked in, with the addition of a big visual payoff in the way that all of this detail litters the screen.

What keeps us grounded in this shot is the placement of the teacher in the center, who is standing still in a strange pose amidst all the chaos. If not for this, then the cut to the teacher staring into the gaping doorway would feel jarring after all the stuff going on in the last shot; but because of this visual through-line, the transition feels natural.

In this shot, the slow-moving dust and falling papers serve as a resolution to the previous payoff, which helps to transition into the next tension buildup. We still feel connected to the action which has just happened, while pensively awaiting the forthcoming drama. Our anticipation for what might come from the darkness is heightened by the length of this shot, and by the teacher’s slow drawl when he talks.

Three lights come beaming out of the darkness to signify to us that something is coming–sort of like an enemy telegraphing its attack in a video game. Our anticipation reaches its peak at this point, and then is payed off big time with the utterly insane visual of Gamagoori flooding the frame with his massive body. This animation cut itself has an enormous sense of elasticity, as Gamagoori stretches to fit his body into the screen, and then slams his foot on the ground and screams, generating tons of impact.

If we compare this animation cut to the impact of a shotgun sound, then Gamagoori squeezing through the door would be the cocking of the gun, the slamming of his foot and screaming would be the sound of the gun going off, and then the appearance of the one-star students would be the sound of the gunshot reverberating through the air. The appearance of these students also draws a clear line leading out of the frame into the opposite direction, which is where the camera then cuts to next.

Gamagoori’s massive presence not only dominates the majority of the frame in this shot; but the teacher then escapes backwards across the frame until he’s tiny, signifying the immense power of this giant man. Gamagoori’s head even encroaches further into the frame as the shot continues, allowing him to take complete ownership of the scene. Remember that up until now, the teacher’s presence near the center of the frame was our visual through-line for every shot. However, Gamagoori has come in from the right, taking up a ton of the frame, forced the teacher out of the frame, and then boldly taken over the entire frame with his face and name in the next shot. Within seconds, Gamagoori has run the teacher out of his scene and taken possession of it by force.

Gamagoori remains centered in the frame as he walks around the classroom, forcing even the camera, which had mostly been stationary until this point, to follow along with him. Gamagoori is portrayed at his actual size now, meaning that his size before was more representative of the size of his presence. Kill la Kill manipulates scale like this constantly, using its art more to convey the feeling of a scene above its actuality. It’s also worth mentioning how these cuts cleverly utilize the silhouette of a student as a wipe when transitioning between them.

As Gamagoori surveys the students, we are now introduced to the student whom he is obviously looking for, and whose face conveys a mixture of fear and anger. Once again, we enter a period of buildup, as we wonder if this kid is going to make a move. He stands up and knocks his desk out of the left side of the screen, which draws our attention in that direction, before this next shot which, also features right-to-left tension.

In this shot, both Gamagoori and this kid are sharing the center of focus. Gamagoori dominates the upper left half of the screen with his massive body–but in spite of his size, the kid’s presence is bolstered by all of the other students staring at him, and by the fact that Gamagoori’s face is shadowed, while his is lit. As the kid raises his arm slowly into the air while clutching a smoke bomb and his voice goes up in pitch, the tension escalates all over again, before the kid bursts the bomb and the screen is completely filled with smoke.

Now, the camera cuts out to the hallway as smoke blows the door off of several classrooms, and suddenly everything starts moving very fast. In contrast with the tension of the previous scene, now we are greeted with pulse-pounding, explosive action. Our defiant youngster has burst from the classroom and taken off, attempting to flee from the tension and overwhelming presence of Gamagoori.

However, only seconds later, Gamagoori shows that he will not be forgotten so easily. This brilliant multi-layered scene gives us two action sequences at once–one of this kid who thinks he’s getting away hauling ass down a revolving series of staircases–and one of Gamagoori’s aerial pursuit as he freefalls from the building. Besides being visually impressive, the action has gotten so frenetic and chaotic in this sequence that the next payoff actually arrives in how it comes to a hault.

In one very rapid sequence, just as this kid has finally gotten the scene all to himself for a moment, he throws the doors open with a bang, only for Gamagoori to be right there, towering over him; and then Gamagoori grabs him by the collar. You’ll notice that the transition from Gamagoori standing in front of him to having him by the collar is so fast that we don’t even see the action taking place–we only understand it because of a well-placed sound effect which occurs across both cuts. It’s because of the sequential impact of the doors flying open and Gamagoori grabbing the kid by the collar that we instantly sense how completely Gamagoori has flattened this kid’s attempt to escape, and how he immediately takes back control of the scene.

Whereas the previous action sequence had featured both Gamagoori and the kid in contesting positions of power, the next shot after Gamagoori throws him is the beginning of a beatdown. Gamagoori has once again forcefully expelled someone from the frame; only this time, we follow along to see just how much damage the kid is taking. This high-intensity sequence immediately smash-cuts into a detailed frame of Gamagoori asserting his dominance–only this time, it’s less about Gamagoori, and more about the school itself. Notice that the school dominates most of the screen, along with both Gamagoori and his one-star lackeys. We even have this enormous burst of light, which signifies the supreme power of the school itself; however, we have yet to see the actual source of this light, meaning that the school and Gamagoori are merely a part of the light that the school casts over its students.

Our kid is not done, though. While Gamagoori is still looking down at him, he once again finds himself better-lit, and attempts to reclaim the scene by unveiling the one-star uniform which he’s stolen. The uniform even gets its own on-screen text, which has already been used to establish important or powerful forces. However, the uniform only gets a text crawl, which tacitly implies that it is less important than Gamagoori, who got an entire screenful of text before. This slow panning shot once again builds up the tension, as we are posed with the question of whether or not this kid can turn the tables on the opponent who is casting that shadow across his face.

Once the kid dons the uniform, he gets to take center stage, and even has his own starburst from behind! Immediately, his presence has increased massively; and as his body transforms, he dominates the screen in his own blinding light! This is the kind of shot which would be used to introduce a main character or a superhero in most episodes of most shows. Right away, we understand just how much this uniform has increased his powers, as well as his importance in the eyes of the scene. Now, in spite of Gamagoori’s overwhelming presence, the kid is able to hold his own in a longer shot, and even pull the camera back to focus on himself. He slaps away Gamagoori’s whip, and then takes over as much of the screen as he can in the windup to one huge, scenery-tearing punch! And then—

boom. What should have been this kid’s earth-shattering rebuttal to Gamagoori’s attack is instead consumed by Gamagoori’s presence all over again. Not only do Gamagoori, his men, and the light of the school consume the majority of the screen, but Gamagoori’s power radiates out of him with a demonic light. This is the turning point after which it’s apparent that Gamagoori is far more powerful than what any of us could have expected. This kid feels small and feeble all over again as Gamagoori reclaims the frame for himself once more. In this shot, even though the kid is centered and alone in the screen, the actual focus of the shot is of Gamagoori’s shadow being cast over him. At this point, Gamagoori’s presence is so all-consuming that he doesn’t even have to be in the shot to have possession over it. Gamagoori grows even more gigantic, brilliant, and terrifying as he continues his explanation, before finally jumping into his utter beatdown of this poor, pathetic rebel.

In the midst of Gamagoori’s scenery-chewing beatdown, we are teased by brief cuts of Satsuki waiting in the wings. We don’t know who this is yet, but the fact that she’s important enough to stand over Gamagoori’s fight sets us up for the expectation of her power.

By the time Gamagoori’s beatdown is complete, the kid has been reduced to nothing but a tiny blob in the midst of this gigantic shot, which is dominated entirely by Gamagoori and the walls of the school. One Gamagoori has retrieved the uniform, he gives it a pat down–signifying that he’s completed his mission and done away with his opponent. When Gamagoori hands the uniform back to his subordinate, the camera pans to the right, which works as a transition away from kid and onto the rest of the school behind them. Just in this one cut, we have effectively ended the relevance of that kid’s scene, and moved into a new sequence.

As Gamagoori rants to the entire student body, we see panning shots of students looking out of the windows–all of which are covered by the school’s radiant light filtering in from above. This shows that while the camera may be focused elsewhere, the scene is still being owned by the school and those who govern it. Then finally, as the teacher and Gamagoori glance upwards, drawing our attention towards the light source, we finally get our introduction to Satsuki.

Within seconds, and before even emerging onto the scene, Satsuki immediately takes complete control of the scene in just this one shot. In spite of having dominated the entire scene up until this point, Gamagoori is made to look small in the face of this incredible light which consumes everything. Satsuki doesn’t have to force her way into the center of the shot; even from a distance, her presence owns the frame. Similar to how Gamagoori’s shadow had continued to possess the scene even when he wasn’t on-screen, Satsuki’s light shines entirely over this cut as Gamagoori pays deference to her in the center. Satsuki’s proper introduction with her name card on screen requires a towering panning shot, which places the entirety of the school and its one-star students underneath her radiant light.

It’s worth noting that in the consecutive upward pans while Satsuki gives her brief speech, we can just barely get a glimpse of her other elite four members. While we don’t know who these shadowy figures are just yet, we at least know that there are others who are powerful enough to be sharing a screen with Satsuki. Considering all that we’ve seen, we can instantly recognize that these are going to be hugely important characters, even though they’ve been on-screen for less than a second and never even been verbally mentioned.

After Satsuki’s radiance wipes the screen, we then cut to another shot of the school, only the without light radiating from the top–signifying that we’ve transitioned into a new scene. The next shot is simply one long, continuous pan, which once again serves as another huge tension build. We see Honnouji Academy–the school which we’ve just been made to understand–in its full form; followed by the entirety of the gigantic city that this school stands at the summit of. Then, finally, we are introduced to our main character–the transfer student, Matoi Ryuuko–who gets her own screen-filling shot all to herself.

Matoi Ryuuko is then shown at the foot of this city, standing off against the overpowering light from high above. Right away, we understand that this girl is going to have to fight her way to the top, in opposition to the city in its entirety–and that’s when we get the title card.

Just within the span of this opening scene, we have witnessed the ways that Kill la Kill uses a constant sequence of tension and payoff to build satisfying, high-impact action-comedy scenes, as well as how it utilizes shot composition and color design to communicate the power relationships between its characters and the flow of its action; all while introducing us to the setting and most of the important characters. I’m confident that had I first watched this sequence entirely in silence with no subtitles, then I still would‘ve felt every single thing which I was supposed to feel and understood what was going on just through the visuals alone (although I wouldn’t advise doing this, considering how the fantastic soundtrack and sound design makes the entire sequence that much more impactful).

I hope that this breakdown can help people to appreciate why I regard Kill la Kill as such a visual masterpiece. Honestly, there are not a lot of TV anime which come anywhere close to putting this level of care and thought into every single frame of animation; and to criticize Kill la Kill for not always having the most fluid animation seems like totally missing the point to me. Before criticizing a show on its visuals, I advise taking into account what the show is trying to convey with its visuals, and looking a little bit deeper into how each scene plays out. When you can tell that a series has a very satisfying visual element, even in spite of its limited animation, then try and figure out what the series is doing to compensate for that limited animation. Personally, I think that Kill la Kill’s sense of flow and composition makes it far more visually engaging than any other TV anime that I’ve seen, regardless of the fluidity of its movement. Let me know how you feel about it in the comments; and if you enjoyed this video, then be sure and subscribe for more videos just like this, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help me continue to make this kind of content in the future. I’ll see you in the next one!

3 thoughts on “Visual Breakdown: Tension and Payoff in Kill la Kill’s Opening Scene

  1. Pingback: AniWeekly 2/15/2015: Sailor Moon Says... - Anime Herald

  2. Pingback: AniWeekly 2/15/2015: Sailor Moon Says… | We, The Otaku!

  3. How do you feel about the animation in a more traditional show, like Hyouka? Personally, I feel like that has the best and most creative animation I’ve ever seen in a TV anime.

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