At Honnouji Academy, a less than ordinary Japanese high school towering atop a post-apocalyptic stack of tenement slums, the Student Council rule with an iron fist terrorizing teachers and students alike. Students are assigned star ranks like military officers and alloted so-called "Goku" uniforms with varying levels of superpowers based on their star number. None of which matters to Ryuko Matoi (voiced by Ami Koshimizu), a gorgeous badass scissor-blade wielding delinquent schoolgirl, who has travelled miles on foot to challenge tyrannical student council president Satsuki Kiryuin (Ryoka Yuzuki) whom she suspects of murdering her father, the brilliant inventor behind the Goku suits. At first Ryuko falls prey to the brutal rule of the Elite Four but somehow ends up with a sexy schoolgirl outfit named Senketsu that is not only sentient (yes, it talks!) but more powerful than any other uniform. In return for letting Senketsu feed off her blood (which evidently does not harm her) Ryuko becomes an unstoppable fighting machine with incredible superpowers. Aided by hyper-manic bubblehead b.f.f. Mako Mankanshoku (Aya Suzaki) and her goofy but good-hearted family (each of whom enjoy sneeking a peek at babelicious Ryuko naked, including Guts the family dog!), Ryuko battles an array of wild and wacky kung fu sects disguised school clubs (sewing club, ping pong club, folk dance club, etc.) to unravel a conspiracy that threatens the world.
Right from the opening episode Kill la Kill explodes out of the gate with demented imagination and boundless energy. Inventive, exhilarating and surprisingly epic in scope, this unhinged fusion of the high school sex comedy, surreal science fiction and crazed kung fu genres (only in Japan, eh?) has an appealingly anarchic sensibility with satirical intent but also a disarming degree of compassion and heart that sets it apart from Hiroyuki Imaishi's previous extreme works Dead Leaves (2004) and Panty and Stocking (2010). What first seems like a straight battle between a crypto-fascist regime and punk rock sentai-samurai heroine grows progressively intriguing as we learn each of the Elite Four, including ostensible chief villainess Satsuki, harbour more complex personalities and agendas than we initially suspect. Meanwhile the relationship between Ryuko and Mako (who delivers an hilarious rousing speech at the climax of every episode) grows increasingly affecting, culminating in a poignant episode wherein the Mankanshoku clan are unexpectedly elevated out of the slums into the lap of luxury. Hitherto sweet and loving Mako ends up facing off against her bewildered best friend in a battle royale to safeguard their new-found prosperity.
On one level Kill la Kill is a self-conscious throwback to the subversive high school fantasies of the Seventies. In interviews Imaishi name-checked Sukeban Deka, the seminal delinquent schoolgirl superhero saga that spawned a live action television series, anime, 1987 feature film and recent reboot Yo-Yo Girl Cop (2006), as an influence though the show exhibits more in common with the work of Go Nagai, evoking the scantily-clad super-heroics of Cutey Honey (1973) and the raunchy high school hi-jinks of Shameless High School (1969) with a hint of the baroque body horror of Devilman (1972). Yet the show uses ideas and imagery from anime of the past to satirize the present. Like a lot of satire it is exaggerated to gargantuan cartoonish proportions that only makes its observations that much funnier. Imaishi's chief target is the Japanese educational system though the jibes extend to the nation as a whole which he draws as having never quite relinquished the rigid hierarchies of its feudal past. As Satsuki points out Japan's dress students in military uniforms and enforce military discipline for the sake of maintaining a harmoniously conformist society even though the constitution rejects militarism. Satsuki's belief that "people are pigs in human clothing" is counterbalanced by Ryuko's growing empathy with the downtrodden yet defiantly upbeat poor. This is especially well illustrated in the hilarious episode "No Tardies Day" wherein Ryuko and Mako are among the assembled hundreds of students taking part in a mad dash for the school gates through a town transformed by the Disciplinary Committee into a gigantic lethal amusement park of lava pits, giant pinballs and a crocodile infested moat. A sequence with Ryuko and Mako at the wheel and machinegun turret respectively of a school bus pays tribute to Clint Eastwood's cop thriller The Gauntlet (1977) of all things and includes a famous line of dialogue lifted from Sailor Suit and Machinegun (1981).
With leery angles and semi pornographic poses Kill la Kill is gleefully pervy yet showcases anime's remarkable ability to appeal to the horny adolescent demographic without coming across as demeaning or mean-spirited. Quite the contrary, sexuality is another major theme the show dissects quite skilfully. Ryuko's rejection of conformity yet discomfort with the opposition (nudity) is a big part of her character arc. The plot plays like a warped coming of age fable about taking charge of one's own sexuality as a form of rebellion. In other words, get nekkid to save the world or as Mako enthusiastically tells Ryuko: "Go on, you have a great rack. My whole family thinks so!" At the same time it is worth noting that all the key characters in this story are female. Their relationships are central to the action and drive things forward. Kill la Kill also deftly reflects the underlining philosophy of martial arts as endowing people with an ability to take control of any given situation and thereby grow through realizing one can affect change upon the universe. Like the theme song says: "I'll make all my wishes come true with my own hands." Even if one opts to overlook its provocative themes, the series proves no less enjoyable simply wallowing in its hyperkinetic humour and set-pieces where kung fu characters contort into wild mutant shapes blasting surreal superpowers. Remember kids, "contradiction is truth!"