How One Little Witch Saved Studio Trigger

Was Studio Trigger ever really that good?

This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.

This was a thought I had in 2016. Space Patrol Luluco was fun, but wasn’t exactly the type of masterpiece that masterpiece that the critics thought that Trigger was capable of. Kiznaiver was insulting in many ways. And once the dust had settled on Kill la Kill, I found myself becoming more and more aware of it’s flaws.

Then, along came Little Witch Academia. I had enjoyed the previous OVAs/movies, but the limited nature of these left me craving more. So, when I was finally able to watch the full series legally around the end of this year on Netflix, I was surprised to see that LWA had addressed many of the flaws of the previous full-length Trigger shows I had seen – Kill la Kill and Kiznaiver.


Kill la Kill – a less than graceful climax

Even now, almost 4 years later (soon to be 5), I can remember when I first watched Kill la Kill. It had been airing for a bit before I got around to it – maybe 7 or 8 episodes in – and internet hype had convinced me to check it out.

I was blown away. The combination of stellar production values and the bombastic nature of Ryuuko and Mako were enough to make me get up to date immediately, and continue to follow the show throughout it’s airing.

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In general, it seems that most people agree that the first half of Kill la Kill is high quality. For 12 episodes, it delivered a show many still keep dear to their heart – balancing stellar presentation with focused directing that kept the momentum going. Several moments still stick out to me to this day, such as the episode where Mako and Ryuuko have to make it to school without being late, and the fight with Sanageyama.

But all of that excellent set-up was almost wasted with the very underwhelming second half. Whereas the show had previously made use of a school setting, suddenly in the second half, after a time skip, we were thrusted into a post-apocalyptic resistance thriller, as our characters were forced underground and plotted to defeat Ragyo.

It’s not like I’m not on board with this type of tonal shift. In fact, the work that Kill la Kill had done previously to deconstruct slice of life archetypes within it’s school setting could have easily been carried over to a post-apocalyptic setting. But the problem was fundamentally one of time – something that slips away from us all, and even Studio Trigger.

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The unfortunate reality of Kill la Kill was that it was helmed by a studio that had never done a full TV series before, who were all very young in the grand scheme of things, and having just split from Gainax, woefully inexperienced to sustain a show as demanding as Kill la Kill – a show which not only aimed story-wise to be a deconstruction of the henshin genre but also of female sexuality and gender identity itself. This, combined with bombastically over-the-top presentation and complicated, expressive animation, meant that for a first show, Trigger picked one hell of a challenge for themselves.

Kill la Kill’s complicated nature most likely led to equal complications in the production schedule. Once the setting changes after the first half, there’s almost no time to explore the new locale or catch up with old characters after the time skip. Instead, we are thrust headlong into the concluding arc of the story, that of defeating Ragyo and saving the world. As a result, the second half doesn’t mesh into the first half very well, as well as being of much lower quality than the first half.

Incidentally, it’s in the second half where we begin to see breaks in the presentation as well, as stills are used more and more, and as the detail begins to be lost from that otherwise luscious visual presentation. For a show that never had any loftier ambitions to be anything but a bombastic action rollercoaster, once a key element of that – presentation – begin to suffer, Trigger’s ability to fulfil that ambition began to wane.

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Although I do still appreciate Kill la Kill now, particularly those earlier episodes, these developments later into the series have continued to leave a sour taste in my mouth. If Trigger had had more experience, then I’m sure they would’ve been able to pull off a show like Kill la Kill much better. But if I could go back to my 2014 self, and tell them that Kiznaiver would leave an even worse taste in my mouth, perhaps things would be different…


Kiznaiver – a preachy trainwreck

I really wanted to like Kiznaiver. I really did. Not only was it seemingly targeted towards the seinen demographic, helmed by Trigger, but the prospect of one of my favourite studios doing something they’d never done before was immediately appealing to me. Yet how disappointed would I be.

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The production in Kiznaiver is as stellar as ever, I’ll give it that. Unique character and environmental designs were signs of a much tighter production this time, especially since the show was only 12 episodes long. A solid OP with a great song and interesting visuals greeted me every time I started up an episode over the course of it’s runtime. But try as the Trigger animators did, even a master artist sometimes can’t polish a turd, especially when no matter how elbow grease you put into it, it still stinks like shit.

One key example of this was the bland cast of characters. Visually, they were engaging and distinctive – but as characters, they were utterly disinteresting. Tenga’s brashness just made him come off as an asshole, only saved somewhat by his romantic infatuation with Chidori, a character who was seemingly so void of meaning that I struggled to even remember who she was. Nico’s bubbliness was as annoying as Katsuhira’s emotionlessness, which was neither endearing nor tragic, since because of later revelations revealing that Katsuhira’s emotionless state was entirely due to Sonozaki, any narrative weight was stripped from that character trait at all.

Sonozaki, incidentally, represented the worst part of the series – it’s preachiness. Her espousing of an ideology based on mutual pain which would somehow save the world got to me after a while, and still infuriates me to this day. The metaphor of stripping away Hedgehog’s Dilemma and allowing others into your own heart was clearly ripped straight from Evangelion, and the series does nothing to explore that concept further, merely repurposing it for it’s muddled narrative – a narrative so muddled, that despite the reason and method behind the Kizuna project being explained multiple times, I could not to this day tell you what on earth either of those are.

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Moreover, Kiznaiver’s preachy nature extended it’s influence even over to the otherwise solid production, which it began to warp for it’s own vile needs. Shots of bridges become these impossibly elongated expressionist pieces, with anatomy stretching beyond the show’s established norm. Insufferable character dialogue became even more so with mise-en-scene that was simply trying too hard – the eventual episode 8 ‘confrontation’ being a particularly memorable example of this. The show tried to go for style over substance to distract from the shaky foundations of it’s plot; a half-baked premise, confusing lore and boring characters.

It almost seems like Studio Trigger looked at Kill la Kill and decided that they needed to be deeper, yet had no understanding of what being deep really meant. Kiznaiver feels like a preachy student art film more than a 2016 TV production by a critically acclaimed studio formed of the brightest bright sparks of Gainax.

What Trigger needed to do to remedy the problems of Kill la Kill was not to change tact or style. It needed to make it’s production process more consistent, improve it’s writing and stick to it’s guns with regard to visual style and cinematography. Thankfully, Kiznaiver will go down as a black sheep in the studio’s history rather than a precedent – because Little Witch Academia did improve in many of the ways that the studio needed to.


Little Witch Academia – a new high

Having already directed the previous two LWA ONAs, director You Yoshinari clearly came to direct the long-awaited TV series with a clear creative vision in mind. The series has an overwhelming sense of unity, as the plot threads necessary for the overarching narrative are threaded into each and every one of the episodes right from the beginning.

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Unlike Kill la Kill’s sudden shift to a post-apocalyptic setting, Little Witch Academic’s shift towards addressing the overall plot of Shiny Chariot and the Shiny Rod is subtle and carefully dropped into the episodic narrative. Despite being 25 episodes, the show ends up because of this focused creative vision being very tight, feeling very much like a single whole – despite the introduction of Croix in the second cour, because her existence is well established and well utilised in the overall narrative, which offset the risk of her feeling out of place and blatantly employed for plot reasons.

Just as Croix represented a threat to the otherwise focused narrative, the content of Akko’s journey to activate the Shiny Rod also could have come off as overly preachy like Kiznaiver. Fortunately, this was not the case. Despite Akko having to learn what are essentially 7 moral lessons to do with humility, friendship and patience (among others), these lessons are contextualised both with heart-warming vignettes and Akko’s initial characterisation.

Episode 16 comes to mind as one of the best examples of this, when Akko has to save the lives of Lotte and Sucy, characters we’ve come to love, in a heart-warming way which demonstrates the value of patience. There are many other episodes that demonstrate this, and ultimately are executed in a much better way than Kiznaiver’s vague and lofty moral “messages”.

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Furthermore, Akko’s brash and selfish characterisation at the beginning allows us to see her development throughout the series as she engages with her moral lessons. She becomes more aware and appreciative of those around her, more patient, and ultimately becomes a better person. This gives meaning to her characterisation, something which a character such as Katsuhira should learn a vital lesson from.

Speaking of characters, because of the tight production due to the seemingly consistent creative vision, the show is able to showcase a fairly large cast and explore them in a satisfactory manner. Part of this is due to the 25 episode run, which gave the director a much larger timespan in which to introduce and explore the characters. However, beyond this, a very smart decision was taken in delegating the majority of the episodes leading up to Croix’s introduction in episode 14 to be mainly episodic, character focused vignettes. We get to spend time with Lotte and her Twilight-esque trashy literature, with Sucy and her mushrooms, with Constanze and her mecha, and many other characters.

Even though Kiznaiver did have a shorter run than LWA, with only 12 episodes, when comparing it’s own flimsy characterisation with LWA’s, it’s plain to see that the shortcomings of the creative decisions taken during it’s production process had an equal, if not greater effect on the sub-par nature of the show. Furthermore, unlike Kill la Kill, LWA did not seem to run out of time – instead coming off as meticulously planned and executed, allowing it to flourish in both halves of it’s run.

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Considering that Trigger is known for their bombastic visual presentation, LWA does appear somewhat low-key at first in this regard. It’s first episode is hardly the visual tour-de-force that Kill la Kill’s was, but this does not mean that is of a lower visual calibre than Kill la Kill. Fundamentally, the two series’ desired aesthetics are completely different – and it just so happens that LWA’s visuals do appear low-key because of this. In actual fact, LWA has some stellar character animation, particularly when it comes to Akko, whose hyperactive and brash nature is showcased excellently through some great key animation. The wonder of magic is also wonderfully showcased through brilliant effects work, with any scene involving flying on a broomstick being a real highlight.

LWA may be more visually low-key than Kill la Kill, but perhaps that was preferably when compared to the “high-key” nature of Kiznaiver. Yoshinari’s team did not elect for style over substance – probably because they were aware they did have, in actual fact, substance – and instead allowed the substance to speak for itself, augmenting it with an appropriate visual style. Rather than feeling like an art film, LWA feels more like the culmination of 4 years of work and maturing by the Trigger staff.


Conclusion

Thus, Little Witch Academia all in all feels like the excellent show that I knew from my time with Kill la Kill that Studio Trigger had in them.  Kill la Kill’s problems with pacing and a disjointed second half were avoided by You Yoshinari’s consistent creative vision, which kept the show tight in terms of direction and narrative development. The team also clearly took great care to delegate the majority of the first half of the series to episodic character-based vignettes, since this allowed us to get to know them – such a luxury not afforded to Kill la Kill due to time constraints, and something Kiznaiver wasn’t able to due to it’s poor writing in the first place.

In addition, the team was able to execute a narrative based around moral lessons much more subtly and in less of a preachy way than Kiznaiver by situating them within Akko’s characterisation and our relationships that we are able to build with the supporting characters. Furthermore, one of the most infuriating elements of Kiznaiver – it’s constant style over substance, lending itself more to a student art film than a professional TV series – is completely alien to LWA, thanks to it’s appropriate visual presentation and confidence in the material it presents.

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Because of this, 2017 was a great year for me as a Trigger fan. I was finally satisfied with a full-length Trigger production, which was not only great as a Trigger production but as a production in general – combining fantastic characters with a focused narrative, lovingly crafted by a team who had confidence in their material. In my eyes, 2017 was the year that Little Witch Academia saved Studio Trigger – because god knows I wouldn’t be able to take another Kiznaiver.


I would really recommend you check out The Canipa Effect’s excellent video on You Yoshinari and his emergence as a leading Trigger staff member. It’s not really related, but I just think it’s great.

Did you like this post? Did you hate it? Disagree with me? Let me down in the comments or via Twitter.

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