Kill la Kill’s Inventive Animation

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Of all the myriad criticisms I’ve seen of Kill la Kill, one that’s never made sense to me is the suggestion that this show features lackluster or inconsistent animation. What for my money is one of the overall best-looking and most inventively animated TV anime ever made, others have specifically called out on its visual presentation–which strikes me as something akin to a misunderstanding. It’s one thing to feel that the series’ visuals aren’t to your taste, but to suggest as some have that the show underwent budgetary issues because certain scenes used limited animation, or that any of the choices in this series were made without specific aesthetic interests in mind, strikes me as ignorant to the creative intentions of the show’s staff.

Before I really go in about Kill la Kill’s style, let me start with the declaration that most TV anime is pretty boring to look at. In general, TV anime tends to gravitate towards the aesthetic of non-moving images which are individually pretty to look at–with an emphasis on making sure that the character artwork is all on-model and attractive. This style can be fine in itself when the staff really delivers on great character designs, shot compositions, and artistry–but most TV anime don’t really deliver on that stuff. The general experience of watching TV anime is a whole lot of static shots of characters standing around and talking.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking that some high-quality action or sports anime that you enjoy totally isn’t like that because the animation is totally insanely awesome; but I want you to run a little experiment and try watching one of those shows with the subtitles turned off. With nothing to distract your eyes and thoughts during the more talkative scenes, you’ll slowly come to notice how much of each episode is occupied by totally uninteresting shots of characters standing around and talking–and the fact that their mouth movements barely ever actually match up with the voices will slowly worm its way into your brain stem and kill you.

What I’m getting at here, is that EVERY TV anime is inconsistent with its animation. Even the highest-quality TV shows typically feature short bursts of really incredible animation spliced into a million shots of characters doing basically nothing. This is why shows with really excellent digital effects, highly detailed backgrounds, and beautiful character designs have started to be heralded as the best-looking shows on television–because these are shows that do everything in their power to make even the most static and boring shot something pleasant to look at.

Kill la Kill does not have patience for these kinds of shots; not to say that there aren’t plenty of static shots in the series, but Kill la Kill more often chooses, instead of pretty shots where nothing is moving, to have things moving around as much as possible at all costs. It still features tons of excellent backgrounds and gorgeously awesome character designs, but it isn’t content to rest on its laurels. Instead it barrels over itself, firing on all cylinders, to convey as much movement as it can possibly cram into the frantic production schedule and regular-sized budget and staff of a TV anime–and all of it works gangbusters because the team behind it are all about this.

There are plenty of shitty, low-quality anime out there which try to convey movement through still images sliding across the screen that come off as totally inept and cheap, because it’s all too obvious that the staff just aren’t all that competent at creating good visual flow. Meanwhile, “visual flow” is Hiroyuki Imaishi’s legal middle name, and limited animation used for comedic effect is Studio Trigger’s game.

Okay, let me just get this off my chest: if you think that this shot of Sanageyama falling off of this platform happened because of budgetary issues, then you are a human idiot–or at the very least, you haven’t seen Inferno Cop. If the staff behind this show didn’t want this shot to look goofy and ridiculous, then they wouldn’t have even bothered having it move. They easily could have communicated this scene in still images, or simply have changed the nature of the scene to not look so goofy. The fact that this shot is just a 2-dimensional piece of paper flying backwards and then falling is literally the joke. It was meant to make you laugh–because it’s fun, and fun things are fun, and if this seems really patronizing then I’m sorry but there’s some things that I struggle to figure out how any intelligent person couldn’t recognize.

Kill la Kill uses limited animation in so many inventive ways that it truly astounds me. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the shots of Satsuki growing bigger and bigger over Ryuuko in episode two, and how it was simultaneously so funny and so fun, and yet really did communicate how Satsuki was becoming scarier and more imposing by the second, and how literal size was being used to communicate power in this crazy-ass visual metaphor that’s actually just one object being scaled up while another is being scaled down, and holy hell, this is one of my favorite shots ever.

Being able to animate a show this way is a skill in its own, and one which I personally find more value in than just being able to animate a scene fluidly. I’ve seen so much sakuga animation which is praised for how much movement is happening, even though none of that movement is actually interesting or meaningful. How many goddamn flashy action scenes with spinning cameras and characters just kind of bouncing and flailing swords around am I supposed to pretend are cool-looking? Meanwhile, there are countless scenes in Kill la Kill that aren’t even animated at all, but are timed so perfectly that they put the biggest, stupidest grin on my face.

And that’s what good filmmaking is about–it’s about good editing, and creating emotions through the way that images flow into one-another–and animating emotions, not just movement. Nothing compares to the catharsis of a punch that’s timed in just the right way, even if only a few frames of it are actually animated. And even when it’s not about the bigness of the emotions, just seeing something really creative and new being done in a medium that I’ve grown so familiar with can really light a spark inside of me.

This little shot of Harime Nui spinning around is one of my favorite moments in Kill la Kill. It’s all at once a hilarious bit of slapstick, a reinforcement of Nui’s character and place within the story, and a genius piece of animation ingenuity that doesn’t look like one at all.

Harime Nui is basically a Looney Toon. She skips around the show’s world like Pepe Lepew, and is indestructible and always smiling like the Roadrunner. Her existence defies even the insane logic of this wacked-out show, as she seems to be able to play with the fourth wall at will. There’s a reason that she mugs the camera in her first on-screen appearance, and continues to be animated in ways which defy logic–because she, herself, defies logic.

So it’s not too surprising that Nui can turn into some sort of flat object in response to an attack–but it’s also funny because at this point in the story, Nui is such a 2-dimensional character. Turning her into a flat piece of cardboard only seems appropriate for a character who lacks dimensionality both figuratively and literally.

But what gets me the most about this scene is how it’s so much more complicated than it looks. I mean, think about what it means to depict a 2-dimensional object rotating within a 2-dimensional space. The only way that this could happen would be if the animators had drawn every single frame of that 2-D object turning through the air, which would be just as time-consuming as actually animating the character. What seems more likely to me, though, is that the animators created a 2-dimensional object and then placed it inside of an empty 3-dimensional space, wherein they filmed the object flipping around, and then superimposed that film into the 2-dimensional scene. This wouldn’t be difficult to do–in fact, here’s footage of me throwing such a thing together in like 2 minutes–but just the idea of it is so inventive that it blew my mind as soon as I thought about it.

Kill la Kill is always like this. It always seems like the team was asking themselves how they could animate the scene in the most creative way possible; not the way that would take the longest to do, or be the most technically impressive, but the way that would make it the most fun to watch and to have the best visual flow. I really feel like Hiroyuki Imaishi’s entire directing style is based around that idea, and that he’s formed his studio around teaching others how to do the same; and it’s because of that that we could get to be treated to shows like Little Witch Academia, which actually did get to cram animation into every single one of its thirty minutes of runtime without compromising on inventiveness either–or even something like Kiznaiver, wherein the characters look so detailed that surely there’s no way they could be animated as much as Kill la Kill and then WHOA! How did they even do that?!

Anyways, I know I’m like two years late on playing critical defense for Kill la Kill, but I really wanted to set the record straight about this because people keep giving me weird looks when I say that I think Kill la Kill is one of the best-looking TV anime ever made. I even think that in spite of everything, the color design and backgrounds are so much more interesting than those of Kiznaiver that it’s better-looking than that show too. There’s no other studio out there who animates things in exactly the way that I love to see them animated like Trigger does, and I’ll be damned if no one’s going to celebrate that.

I really hope that this video helped you to appreciate the animation style of Trigger’s work even more so than before–and that if it did, then you’ll share it to anyone whom you think it would interest–especially if they’ve been talking shit about Kill la Kill’s visual presentation. Support me on patreon if you’d like to see more videos like this, and check out my other channels for more of me. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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