Characterization through music – An examination of Kill la Kill’s character themes

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Few anime series put as much effort into characterization as Kill la Kill. In everything from the designs, to the voice acting, to the animation, the audiovisual crafting of each of the show’s major characters is executed with elaborate care giving them distinct manners and personalities. One such element, that may often be comparatively overlooked but which deserves just as much attention, is the music. The concept of composing a theme for a specific character is perhaps not a rarity among anime scores, but it is exceptional that it’s done with such devotion and for such a large amount of the cast as in Kill la Kill. What composer Hiroyuki Sawano here has accomplished is a musical depiction of the very essence of each major character, to such an extent that even someone who has never seen the show may get a clear idea over their appearances, personalities and capabilities. While a lot of Sawano’s musical traits can undoubtedly be found throughout Kill la Kill‘s score – such as his bombastic, Beethoven-esque symphonic compositions, his incorporations of rock and electronica, and even some of his harmonic approaches – it is in a lot of ways a diversion from his safe zone, especially in the character themes. One can only speculate over how much this is due to Hiroyuki Imaishi’s directorial influence, but it really does seem like the songs were written in conjunction with the elaborate crafting of their respective characters. And exactly how they contribute to this crafting is what the following study is set out to examine.

goriLLAjaL & InuKa3L

Let’s start off with the Honnouji Academy Student Council’s Elite Four; the powerhouse quartet of Ira Gamagori, Nonon Jakuzure, Hoka Inumuta and Uzu Sanageyama that rule over the school and maintain its social order through their various roles within the council. In the track list for the original soundtrack, their themes comprise the two double-feature tracks “goriLLAjaL” and “InuKa3L”, where the former consists of Gamagori’s and Jakuzure’s themes while the latter consists of Inumuta’s and Sanageyama’s themes. The mere fact that they are contained within these double features, and also that they appear immediately after one another in the track list, indicate their unity as an ensemble. At the same time however, they each have personalities and characteristics vastly different from each other, resulting in their respective themes having their own highly distinct and separate styles.

If there is one adjective to describe both Ira Gamagori and his theme, it is heavy. One of the first things we hear is a set of thick, heavily distorted electric guitars on a violent low-note riff. It is rhythmically accompanied by a set of large and heavy percussions containing two sections. The first, closer section consists of toms from a regular rock drum set, which are significantly low-tuned as well as mixed with a boomy EQ and punchy compressor. The second, more distant section consists of (what I believe to be) a set of Chinese gu drums which are notably mixed with an extreme reverb, creating a sound reminiscent of a distant military march. Together, the percussions create an output that is both hard-hitting and direct as well as huge in scale. Combined with the distorted guitars, they establish an abrasive heaviness to the song that hits the listener head-on. Worth noting is also the relatively slow tempo and sluggish, almost stoner/doom-esque rhythm, which further adds to this heaviness. It is a fitting sound for Gamagori to say the least, whose main characteristic is his extreme physical size and robustly muscular physique – not to mention his very dominant personality, as he with the poise of a military general dictates over the school students. He is like a giant tank who takes down his opponents with brute force. The distorted low-note guitars strongly reflect his growly bass voice, while the percussions emphasize his bodily size.

Further into the track we see how it builds upon its established sound. The first drum set switches from the toms to a conventional two-and-four rock beat on the kick, snare and hi-hat, and a distorted synthesizer enters with a violently dissonant melody. We then get the addition of a thin, seemingly digitized vocal performance, as well as what sounds like bagpipes. The vocalist performs a solo reminiscent of Arabic singing, while the somewhat discretely mixed bagpipes perform their own solo with seemingly no regard to the rest of the ensemble. The electric guitars have also switched to a more melodically recognizable riff which accompanies the solos. As such, we can here start to identify what the track is doing harmonically. It is played in the key of C, but in a rather unconventional scale. From what I can gather, it’s either the neapolitan minor or the phrygian mode – supposedly the former because of its similarity to the harmonic minor, which is scale frequently used in Arabic music. The main aspect of the harmony that adds to the track’s overall character however, is the semitone between its first and second note. The tense interval creates a highly sinister sound, which one can hear being especially utilized by the electric guitars. Furthermore added to this are the bagpipes, which are playing in an entirely different key and scale, thus creating a rough and ugly dissonance. What would’ve sounded straight up bad in a less abrasive type of arrangement, here becomes another addition to the song’s violent character. Overall, the theme distinctly captures Gamagori’s big and heavy physicality as well as his dominative and abrasive personality.

At the opposite end of Gamagori, Nonon Jakuzure is the smallest out of the main cast in both physical size and character, and so her theme naturally gives off a less brute impression. Starting off with a simplistic snare drum that plays a typical marching rhythm, the song immediately establishes her trait as a marching band leader. A discretely mixed electric guitar then enters with a funk comp, while toms and cymbals are added to the percussions. Two bars later, we get the addition of brass; trumpets playing a set of dissonant notes that create tension, and distortedly trebled trombones playing a descending melody. Despite being very small, Jakuzure is shown to be just as powerful as any of her co-members in the Elite Four, something that this gradual buildup alludes towards. This allusion then becomes guarantee another two bars in, when a heavily distorted guitar enters with a classic hard rock riff. The impact of the guitar gets enhanced by the toms, which are with their bassy sound put at the forefront of the percussions. We get another two bars with an added bass guitar before the full orchestration sets into bloom. The trombones play a series of long, tense notes, while the trumpets are in the background with a more rhythmic melody. The electric guitar switches to a grimy comp riff, which gets accompanied by a distorted synth on the same melodic pattern. And then, as if a calm before the storm, the ensemble quiets down at the height of its crescendo. We’re left with a section that somewhat alludes back to the beginning of the track, as a trebled trombone plays an almost comical melody while the snare drum and the funk guitar holds the rhythm. Then the chorus kicks in with full force, with the entire orchestra in unison on a fierce melody.

What we can recognize as a musical theme throughout this song, is the mixture of brass orchestration, rock instrumentation, as well as sprinkles of funk. The brass aligns with, as previously mentioned, Jakuzure’s marching band character trait; the rock helps emphasize her physical power; and the funk reflects her small size and somewhat playful personality. It is also worth looking at how the song’s harmonic quality conveys her character. The key is E pentatonic minor, which becomes especially apparent when the distorted guitar kicks in. This is a scale that’s hardly known for its intimidating quality, being in the Western music tradition mainly associated with blues. However, the track doesn’t slavishly constrain itself within its scale, but includes various chromatic notes throughout its run. We can hear it in everything from the trumpets at the beginning, to both of the horn melodies at 00:41, to the first chorus melody at 01:15. Through its balance between the pentatonic scale and these chromatic notes, the track manages to convey an exciting combination of playfulness and sinisterness – two qualities that very much are at the heart of Jakuzure’s character. On one hand, Jakuzure possesses, with her squeaky voice and child-like demeanor, a cutesy goofiness, but she is on the other hand (as said) also very powerful and dangerous. The variety in both the song’s harmony and its composition and arrangement effectively reflects the combination of these two elements.

Hoka Inumuta’s theme is the only song on the entire soundtrack that’s entirely electronic, making it the perfect score for the Elite Four’s own super computerist. The song kicks off with a high-note staccato melody set to a typical pumping techno beat, immediately establishing a very cold and calculated sound. What is also noticeable from these first notes is the track’s harmonic similarity to Jakuzure’s theme – that is, it likewise embodies the pentatonic minor scale, only in the key of B instead. We then get a set of insidious long notes that, not unlike the first few trumpet notes of Jakuzure’s theme, suggest that there’s more to Inumuta than what meets the eye. Because while he may look relatively meager and has a fairly withdrawn personality, he is far from incapable of putting up a fight. When the staccato melody then explodes into a dense and abrasive jumble of distorted electronic sounds, this gets thoroughly expressed, as we’re met with the strength of Inumuta’s tech abilities. The song thereafter tones down, and we get a spacey B minor chord arpeggio from a somewhat ambient synth, followed by a minimalistic and almost retro-sounding beat together with highly distorted digitized vocals. Once again, a comparison can be drawn to Jakuzure’s theme, which similarly had a quieter section before its big chorus. On Inumuta’s big chorus however, we pretty much get a reprise of what came before, but with the addition of a vocal performance.

This is probably the messiest song on the entire soundtrack, getting its point across through density rather than pure impact. That makes it quite fitting for Inumuta, whose power doesn’t come from physical force but from his expertise in the digital technology at his disposal. The song also has a significant lack of bass, which aligns with both his physique and his light tenor voice. While his theme’s very cold, exclusively electronic arrangement may be enough to reflect Inumuta’s distinct trait as the team’s computerist, it also contains a lot of compositional elements that in more detail convey his personality and character.

From the first couple of notes, we hear that Uzu Sanageyama’s theme is in both the same key and the same tempo as Inumuta’s. Instrumentally however, it is far more acoustic, being stylistically oriented around traditional Chinese and Japanese music to reflect his character trait as a kendo swordsman. It is worth noting that the pentatonic minor also occurs within the classical Chinese music tradition, something that the track makes sure to utilize throughout its run. It starts off with a string instrument playing a fast melody to the simplistic beat of a medium sized taiko drum. We get a smaller drum (assumably a shime daiko) added to the percussions as well as a double bass. The percussion section then gets further enriched by a cabasa and a bass drum, which get the song going with an up-beat galloping rhythm. On the last four bars of this section, we can also hear the pulsating beat of an electronic bass drum, introducing a non-acoustic side to the song. As the ensemble then quiets down, we get a half-tempo taiko beat over which the string instrument plays a solo melody. The traditional Chinese/Japanese theme here becomes especially apparent, as the solo is performed with the classic vibrato technique that pervades much of East Asian traditional music. After a few bars, an electronic sound is added to the melody, which we quickly can recognize from Inumuta’s theme. This addition both creates a contrasting musical mixture, and suggests a connection between these two characters. We then get a bombastic percussion solo from a section of large taiko drums, before the full ensemble kicks in with the big chorus.

While this song may be thematically based in traditional Chinese and Japanese music, we can hear that it’s far from following a purely traditional style, as it thoroughly incorporates more modern instrumentations and compositional elements. It is thus not a straight adaptation of the music tradition, but a modern reimagining of it. The same can be said about Sanageyama; while his character trait may be centered around classic swordsmanship, he is hardly a traditional swordsman, but rather integrates this style into an amplified modern variation.

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Summary-wise, these four themes carry a number of notable similarities. They’re all around two minutes in length, have similar song structures, and three of them are based on the same pentatonic harmony (two of which are even in the same key). We can also identify a few overlapping instrumentations, such as the rock section in Gamagori’s and Jakuzure’s themes, or the electronica in Inumuta’s and Sanageyama’s themes. These various similarities thus indicate that the songs are connected, together forming a unified entity. At the same time however, each of them has a prominently distinct style that vastly differs from the rest, and which also accurately represents the main trait of their respective character. The big and dominative Gamagori gets a heavy and aggressive rock song, the deceptively small marching band leader Jakuzure gets a brass song that gradually increases in intimidation, the high-tech computerist Inumuta gets an abrasively dense techno song, and the swordsman Sanageyama gets a modernization of traditional Chinese/Japanese music. These four themes thus effectively convey the members of the Elite Four as both unique individuals and as components that together form a unified ensemble.

KiryuG@kiLL

So continuing from there, let’s look at how the head person over the Elite Four gets musically portrayed. Honnouji Academy Student Council President Satsuki Kiryuin is a rigid, authoritarian leader who rules over the school with an iron fist, as well as a headstrong and powerful woman who uncompromisingly goes to any and all lengths in order to reach her ultimate goal. Her theme is thus a grandiose parade that illustrates as much her intimidating oppression as her remarkable determination.

It starts off quietly with a cello section on a rhythmic triplet melody that establishes the key harmony; A minor. We can also hear a light snare drum sneaking in the background. A viola section enters with an accompanying melody, and shortly thereafter a violin section on the same rhythmic notation. The violin melody however contains a slight chromatic diversion from the A minor scale, instead embodying in similar vein to Gamagori’s theme a semitone between the key note and the second note. A harmonic tension thus gets introduced that (as we shall see) further permeates the track throughout, and which alludes towards the fiercer side of Satsuki’s character. The horns section then enters, first trombones with another melody on the viola/violin-rhythm, and then growling tubas that fill up the bass. As all these instruments get added and the ensemble gets louder, the verse’s gradual crescendo closes in towards the listener with an imposing attitude. And then the trumpets kick in with the lead melody, grandiosely laying itself upon the entire orchestra. It is a melody that extensively incorporates chromatic notes to create tension, one notable such being its punctuated semitone between D# and E that lays a sinister mood similar to the main title from The Godfather or “Foundations of Stone” from The Two Towers. Here we can also hear the snare drum getting accompanied by a large taiko bass, as well as a sharp clicking percussion whose sound is somewhat reminiscent of Kiryuin’s trademark heel clicks, and could thus be interpreted as reflecting her strong and fierce womanhood. The orchestra then tones down, leaving only the percussions and a light violin section that repeats the lead melody, which are followed by lower strings that quietly sweep through a tense pre-chorus.

And then, the full orchestra explodes into a blistering chorus of bombastic proportions. The horns and violins play a majestic lead melody on the minor scale, but which has enough chromatic notes to add a sinister touch. Meanwhile, the tubas and low strings lay down a section of long bass notes on (mostly) the minor pentatonic scale. We can also hear a horns section in the background following the same triplet rhythm as the violas and violins at the beginning of the verse. During its second half, the lead melody is further accompanied by lower horns, which play a series of dissonant notes that add tension to the harmony. The tension reaches its peak at the melody’s very last notes, when the violins play a melodic semitone between C and B, of which the latter also gets combined with a blisteringly high F# from the trumpets, creating a harmonic fifth between the two. The chorus then ends off with the low strings returning to their verse melody, while the violins play a dramatically descending triadic melody. The trumpets scream out with all their might eight violently dissonant high notes, after which the chorus ends with the sound of a gong. The whole thing is rhythmically lead by the percussive trio of snare, taiko and clicks, as well as added cymbals which hit their notes with determined abrasiveness.

Together, all these ingredients create a harmony, arrangement and performance that is equally as triumphant as vicious – a contrasting combination that perhaps most accurately reflects the heart of Satsuki’s character. As the typical anti-villain, Satsuki is a strong female warrior with a heroic and selfless goal, but whose oppressive methods of getting there are questionable. She is someone who lives by the ideology of the ends justifying the means, willing to use anything or anyone at her disposal in order to reach that end. At the same time, this also includes herself, as she’s shown to be extremely self-sacrificial throughout the series. This very nuanced quality of her character is perfectly reflected in the equal nuance of her theme, with its exciting mixture of triumph and aggression, grandiosity and intimidation.

Blumenkranz

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How does this then compare to her mother? Instead of a nuanced anti-villain, Kill la Kill‘s main antagonist Ragyo Kiryuin is a purely evil villain in the most classic sense. While her ultimate motive arguably follows the same “greater good”-line as her daughter’s, she completely lacks any form of self-sacrificial willingness, instead reaching to become the world’s ruling queen among the Life Fibers. Her entire manner, personality and appearance is one that screams that of a pompous, egocentric and sinister diva. She is therefore given a theme that is an equally pompous pop anthem, filled to the brim with bombastic attitude. In contrast to all previously discussed songs, it embodies a typically conventional pop format, as noted through both its cyclical main chord progression, its fairly typical pop arrangement, and not least in how it’s compositionally centered around a lead vocalist.

The song starts with a chilling synth that subtly indicates Ragyo’s villainous character. Shortly thereafter, we get a punchy electronic drum kit on a two-four-beat and a distinct wobble-sounding synth bass, which together form an extremely pompous quality. The established tempo is notably slow yet fast enough to carry a steady rhythm, making it perfect for a catwalk or something of the like. In this intro, we also get introduced to the song’s main chord progression: i-VI-VII-VI – which, since the key is C minor, equates to Cm-Ab-Bb-Ab. With its stark interplay between tonic, submediant and subtonic, the progression creates an ascending yet tense harmony. The intro thus quickly establishes through its various elements the track’s both lavish and intimidating sound.

When we then proceed to the verse, we get introduced to the lead vocals. The singer at hand is artist Cyua, who has participated on a number of Sawano’s other works and carries the peculiar quality of singing in German. She enters into the verse with a light tone, performing a melody that subtly adds to the song’s intimidating character, especially at its two distinctly high Ab- and F-notes. At the subsequent buildup towards the pre-chorus, she switches to a more rhythmic melody, while getting accompanied by a percussively strumming guitar. As the buildup increases with an added bass line and percussion sequence, her light tone gets gradually replaced by a thicker and heavier one. This reaches its height on the pre-chorus, when she performs a powerful melody with her full voice alongside a mighty choir. It is worth noting more detailedly the variety in her technique during this section, as she hits the higher notes with a rounder timbre while the lower notes are sang with a wider and drier one. We thus get a quality from her voice that is at times more sombre while at other times more vicious. After a few bars of only percussions, the song then reaches a climax on its big chorus. The bass and drums return to their verse comp, while an acoustic guitar strums the chords. The large and powerful choir sings a low melody of robust bass alongside Cyua. Her aforementioned vocal variety is once again present, but with the wider and drier timbre being predominant due to the melody’s low register. The intimidating bombast is here at maximum, majestically conveying Ragyo’s pompous and vicious personality. With its slow tempo, large choir and synth instrumentations, it is like a doomsday anthem à la “O Fortuna” mixed with 80s diva pop.

A great deal of Ragyo’s character elements can also be interpreted from the song’s lyrics. Going by the English translation on Kill la Kill‘s fan wiki page, Cyua describes in first person a desire to “become stronger” within a “cruel” and “strange” world. Subsequently, she sings to a second person that seductively whispers to her, asking if she will come with him/her, to which she responds: “I have no reason to reject you.” Applying this to Ragyo, it would seem that the second person in question are the Life Fibers, which she has an almost romantic affection towards. As the two of them join, the Life Fibers then grant her the power that she so much desires – “Yes, I am much stronger than I ever thought” – in order to bring the imperfect world into an ideal state. “It is advisable to remove withered flowers” is a phrase that appears in the song’s both verses, metaphorically signaling an obligational will to eradicate any weak parts that don’t fit the mold. When her strength then has been gained, she uses it to do just that: “I remove withered flowers.” The lyrics thus add further dimensions to Ragyo’s theme, conveying both her relationship with the Life Fibers, and her idealist worldview and how it results in her fascist practices. As a whole, the theme gives a strong depiction of Ragyo’s various distinctly antagonistic character traits; from her pompous and sinister personality, to her extensive power hunger, to her world-enslaving motives.

KillaKiLL

While Ragyo may be the series’ main antagonist, its arguably most intimidatingly villainous character is Nui Harime. From her very first appearance, she’s established as an extremely powerful and seemingly unstoppable force, who toys with her opponents with psychopathic sadism. At the same time however, she also carries a distinct trait of cartoon-esque goofiness and cutesy hyperfemininity. So what better way to musically depict her character than to mix these two contrasting elements?

The song starts off very quietly with a female choir and a light glockenspiel on a creeping melody, which then gets repeated but with the glockenspiel being replaced by a somewhat distorted staccato synth bass. A string section then takes over with a slightly increased volume, while the glockenspiel subtly introduces a lead melody. After a few bars, the female choir returns with another melodic accompaniment which rhythmically plays off of its string counterpart. Throughout these first few seconds, we can hear how the song presents a gradual buildup that sneaks onto the listener as if foreshadowing a great threat. With the exception of the synth bass, the ensemble is contained within a very high register, creating a light sound that reflects Nui’s feminine cutesiness. This is contrasted by the track’s harmonic quality, being played in a very sinister C minor while also incorporating a lot of chromatic notes in its lead melody. The result is an eerie sound reminiscent of horror film music – a comparison that is perhaps most notable in the plinking glockenspiel, which is a notable commonality among horror scores. The song thus informs the listener about the frightening danger that lies beneath this seemingly innocent facade.

The intimidating buildup then increases with additional instrumentation; mid-register horns take over the lead melody, tubas lay the harmonic groundwork with long bass notes, a somewhat distorted electronic drum kit plays a slow, simplistic beat, and a light violin section plays a series of long notes in an ascending melody. The chromaticism in the lead melody is furthermore complemented by both the tubas and the violins, creating a looming tension that reaches its final point when the tubas round off the section on a supertonic D. What then follows is a section of huge, bombastic taiko drums that fill up the song with a massive heaviness, as they play a six-note rhythm alongside the electronic drum beat. For the first time, we get a strong indication of Nui’s physical strength, revealing what the intro had foreshadowed. After four bars, the choir and glockenspiel return with another light, high-note melody, thus placing Nui’s two contrasting traits alongside each other, in a sound that is both bombastic and eerily cutesy.

A distorted electronic noise effect then violently approaches the listener, after which the whole ensemble comes together on a grand chorus. The leading horns roar out a heavy lead melody, while being accompanied by a more rhythmic background melody from the cold violins, as well as a series of long bass notes from the tubas. These three units play off of each other in an impactful harmony that is at once distinctively natural minor, but also extensively incorporates chromatics that give it an evil edge. Worth noting is also how the lead melody is in part a continuation on its verse counterpart, as it contains callbacks to many of its notes and phrases. The large scale and aggressiveness of the chorus is further enhanced by both the electronic beat, taiko drums and choir. If we got a taste of Nui’s dangerous power during the verse, we now get presented to it properly in all its might. And as if this presentation wasn’t enough, it then gets followed by a final section wherein huge, heavily distorted walls of sound fill up the mix entirely, abrasively hitting the listener on the C bass note like an Inception-esque drone. These walls are laid upon the electronic beat, taiko drums, choir and glockenspiel, which reiterate their previous verse section. It is violent, massive, and perfectly encapsulates Nui’s threatening and intimidating character.

Light your heart up

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Now, what does it say about Mako Mankanshoku’s character that her theme is the only one in major? With its up-beat rhythm, lighthearted tone and lively energy, the suitably named “Light your heart up” is probably the most innocently cheerful track on the entire score, strongly representing Mako’s likewise lighthearted and cheerful attitude and personality. Similar to Ragyo’s theme, it follows a typical pop format, with a verse-chorus-verse-structure, cyclical chord progressions and a conventional pop/rock ensemble arrangement.

The song kicks off with an acoustic guitar strumming its main chord progression in a bouncy shuffle rhythm, accompanied by the pulse of a kick drum and a playful bass line. In the background, we can also hear a light glockenspiel on a childlike high-note melody. After four quick bars, the drums switch to a full comp on the kick, snare and hi-hat, which reveals their highly distinct mixing; with an extremely punchy compression, fat EQ and strong reverb, they produce a heavy and hard-hitting sound to say the least. It creates a very interesting contrast to the pre-established style of the song as a whole, adding a distinct hard rock element to an otherwise sugary pop arrangement. The verse then introduces front singer Aimee Blackschleger, who has participated on a number of scores for both anime and video games, including Sawano’s Guilty CrownShingeki no Kyojin and Aldnoah.Zero. With a gentle yet rhythmically up-beat tone, she sings a cheerful melody that playfully moves within a wide register of notes. This carries on into the pre-chorus as well, when the chord progression changes and the arrangement gets stripped down to the pulsating kick drum, a simplistic key note bass line and a staccato backbeat on the guitar. The whole ensemble then breaks out into an energetic chorus, with Blackschleger bringing out her full voice on the lead melody. Beside all previously introduced instruments, we also get the inclusion of a set of heavily distorted electric guitars laying out long chords, which further adds to the hard rock edge established by the drums.

From its harmonies and melodies to its instrumentation, this track is as sugary sweet Disney-pop as it gets. And I think it says a lot that this, and not the very quirky second half of the track “Nichijou Gekijou-gata Mitsuboshi Gokuseifuku” that plays during her recurring comic relief interferences, is Mako’s official theme. Because beyond being just a wacky comedian sidekick, Mako carries the role of Ryuko’s close and faithful friend who willingly stands beside her through thick and thin, and also makes sure to keep the spirit up with her consistently positive attitude. She is just as sincerely caring and supportive as she is comedic. For this reason, her main theme isn’t comical or quirky, but instead genuinely heartfelt and uplifting. This can also be heard in the lyrics, which openly express from Mako’s perspective her constant will to support Ryuko through all her struggles. As Blackschleger takes the role of Mako and directs her words towards Ryuko, she firstly during the verses takes notice of her friend’s hardships and problems while offering support and understanding; “Because you seem feeling down / I’ve been trying to calm and fade it”. This is furthermore expanded in the chorus, when she breaks out in a set of encouraging bars that tell Ryuko to optimistically fight on:

Keep your faith
Raise your lively face
Just get rid of your broken wings
You’re strong enough by now
I’ll be your spark when you’re lost in the dark
And let me be your sun, be your match to
Light your heart up

Beyond all this lighthearted innocence however, there is an additional side to Mako’s character, as indicated by her theme’s more abrasive quality. As previously mentioned, the hard-hitting drums and the distorted guitars provide a distinct hard rock aspect to this otherwise innocent pop song; a rough heaviness suggesting that there’s more to Mako than what meets the eye. And indeed, in episode 7 she is shown to be very capable in combat, when she’s given a custom designed two-star goku uniform to battle against Ryuko on Satsuki’s command. She later returns in this uniform in episode 22 for their ultimate fight against Ragyo and the life fibers, showing great sufficiency in combat. This side of her theme thus indicates that she’s not just capable of providing mental and spiritual support, but also great physical support.

Before my body is dry

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Let’s finally move over to the show’s main heroine, Ryuko Matoi. As protagonist, her theme is fittingly the same as the main theme for the series at large; the catchy rock tune “Before my body is dry”. This is yet another song that follows a more conventional pop format, but is beyond that also the probably most purely hard rock-centric track on the entire score. It features Mika Kobayashi as lead singer, who, like Cyua, is a frequent collaborator with Sawano. With her powerful alto voice having appeared on major tracks for everything from Guilty Crown to Shingeki no Kyojin to Aldnoah.Zero, it has almost become a trademark of Sawano as a composer. “Before My Body is Dry” is certainly no exception in adding to this trademark.

It starts off very direct with heavily distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums and an extremely low-note bass, establishing its rock sound. The guitars consist of two sets, one of which lays down heavy quint chords (or power chords, as they’re typically called in the rock field) alongside the bass notes, while the other plays a melodic arpeggio in the upper register. We can also hear a somewhat discretely mixed distorted synth working as accompaniment to this arpeggio. When the verse then enters, the song tones down significantly, with Kobayashi subtly singing on top of the drum beat and an ambient electronic comp melody. In the role of Ryuko she directs her words towards Senketsu, describing their first encounter; “In the dusty basement where we met / May you surprised so much / Because you’re talking now”. As the bass comes in alongside a plucking acoustic guitar, the power of her timbre slightly increases, and she sings about her need for Senketsu’s partnering support in her lonesome struggle to find the answers that she seeks; “I gotta find the truth from many fights / But I’m all alone / You’re the only one who can help me out / We’ll be as one”. The song then tones down once again, this time leaving the drums, bass and a set of synth strings, which follow a chord progression that intriguingly builds up towards the chorus. This buildup is also present in the lyrics, which motivationally describe how the two of them are “ready to fight” and that their “bond has got much stronger than before”. And then, Kobayashi delivers with full force the almost iconic phrase “don’t lose your way”, upon which the whole ensemble enters with a blistering chorus. She passionately describes her close partnering bond with Senketsu and how it makes them stronger together, to finally end on the titular line “Run through this game before my body is dry”, referring to Senketsu’s consumption of her blood in order to gain the two of them power. If the cold and somewhat sombre verse reflected Ryuko’s struggles throughout the series, then this big, powerful and heroic chorus conveys her and Senketsu’s persistent willingness and ability to overcome these struggles as a team.

It is also worth looking at how this sense of heroism is achieved harmonically. The chorus consists of two main chord progressions, the first being i-VI-iv-V and the second being VI-VII-iv-III. The former is a very commonly used harmony within Western pop music, and is typically referred to as the “50s progression” due to its wide usage in the 1950s, especially within doo-wop. In its usual major form, one can instantly recognize a very uplifting and catchy quality, which in this case – since it’s played in minor (Eb minor to be exact) – is spiced up with a harder edge. In the progression’s second round, the subdominant (iv) is replaced by the subtonic (VII), giving the harmony a slight dramatic tension. This tension then leads into the second chord progression, where it is increased by a non-resolving harmony far away from the root. This is changed however during its second round, when the mediant (III) is replaced by the tonic (i), thus leading the harmony back to its root and ending in a satisfying payoff. As a whole, the chorus’ harmony thus conveys a dramatic progression from triumph, to hardship, and then to a happy resolution. This progression is furthermore paralleled and enhanced by the lead melody. For starters, the initial phrase “don’t lose your way” consist of the notes Gb, Bb and Db. What’s peculiar about these three notes is that they together make up a Gb major triad. The Gb major scale is the relative major to Eb minor, meaning that they both consist of all the same notes. In other words, this melodic phrase uses the relative major in order to add a triumphant and uplifting quality to the song’s minor key. We can further hear the melody center around the Gb major scale throughout the first chord progression, until it reaches the subdominant-subtonic replacement where the melody plays a slightly dimmer phrase. When we thereafter get to the second chord progression, it delivers a variation of this phrase and builds a sombre melody around it. And then finally on its last two notes, the melody returns to the Gb major triad with a Db and a Bb, after which the chorus concludes with the tonic chord.

In the following second verse, we get a feature from rapper David Whitaker, another collaborator of Sawano’s who has appeared on tracks to Guilty Crown, the Ao no Exorcist movie, as well as the video game Xenoblade Chronicles X. His verse, which likewise is written from Ryuko’s perspective and directed towards Senketsu, follows the same line as the pre-chorus and chorus, expressing their mutual bond and their rebellious fight against the powers that be. Lines such as “Stay with me and let’s stand out”, “Sync and learn what we can do to take ’em down” and “I wanna be complete / It’s not in me to retreat” strongly send the message that Ryuko and Senketsu are two intimate parts of one powerful unit, which subsequently is at burning odds with the surrounding world. The verse is performed over a laid back and primarily electronic arrangement, which gradually builds up with added instrumentations and a dramatically ascending chord progression. It then gets followed by a toned down bridge being shared evenly between Kobayashi and Whitaker. Kobayashi delivers with a light and somewhat sombre melody the lines “I gotta find out who killed my dad / I hear the voice of you in my mind” – openly referring to the death of Ryuko’s father and her quest to uncover the reason behind it throughout much of the series – while Whitaker thereafter performs a set of bars that continues on the same theme as his verse. After a slight pre-chorus where Kobayashi gently performs the chorus melody on a lower octave, the two of them finally come together on the concluding second chorus, with Whitaker delivering small bars interspersed between Kobayashi’s main singing. It is a passionate and triumphant finale that strongly captures Ryuko’s and Senketsu’s united fighting spirit (if Whitaker’s lyrics didn’t tell otherwise, the duo between him and Kobayashi could even be interpreted as representing the respective duo between these two characters).

It is worth noting how the lyrical content of the song is very similar to that of Ragyo’s theme; both of them depict the respective characters singing to their Life Fiber companions, expressing their relationships to these companions in their lone fights against the world around them. At the same time though, there is a fundamental difference between them. As the protagonist and the antagonist of the narrative, Ryuko’s and Ragyo’s themes present two polar opposite sides of the same coin, where their approaches and end-goals in interacting with the Life Fibers are in emotional and ideological conflict with each other. Whereas Ragyo’s relationship to the Life Fibers is that of blinded romanticism and seduction, Ryuko’s relationship to Senketsu is that of mutual trust and friendship. Furthermore, Ragyo wants and is granted power from this relationship in order to conquer the world and shape it after her ideal image, while Ryuko’s power together with Senketsu is used to fight against this very idealism with an antiauthoritarian rebelliousness. The stark opposition of these approaches also speaks closely to the theme and message of the series at large; the narrative’s big antagonism is the consumption of humanity by clothing, which is ultimately overcome by erasing the line between humanity and clothing altogether.

Looking at “Before my body is dry” in its entirety, we can beyond merely rock identify its belonging to a very distinct subgenre. Electric guitars that fill up the mix with fat and heavy distortion, a grimy bass whose tone rumbles from its low notes, a drum kit mixed with extreme punchiness almost to the point of artificiality, incorporated electronic instrumentation, and a rap feature, all of which is set to a conventional pop/rock-composition; this is classic nu-metal. While this is a genre generally known for its history of backlash ever since its inception, with metal fans and critics alike deeming it as flat, gimmicky and overtly commercialized towards young teenagers, maybe that is exactly why it works for the theme of Ryuko. Not only is she a youthful rebel standing alone against a pre-established ruling system, but she is also the protagonist of a show that actively seeks to erase the line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. By giving her and by extension the show at large a theme within the very divisive genre of nu-metal, it illustrates not just this somewhat immature but nevertheless passionate rebelliousness, but also the diminishment of the constructed dichotomy between art and commerce. As such, the song is perfectly positioned at the center of the entire score, embodying much of the heart of both Ryuko and the narrative that surrounds her.

Final words

Ensemble_1

In conclusion, we’ve heard how the character themes of Kill la Kill thoroughly convey the various eccentric traits and personalities of the show’s cast. These nine compositions are in a great sense a prime example of what the concept of a ‘character theme’ is capable of as a storytelling device. By strongly reflecting the qualities of a character through a musical piece, their characterization gets effectively enhanced by the expressive means of scoring. Film music’s main aim is to amplify the dramatic effect of an on-screen occurrence – in the same vein, the inclusion of a specific musical composition to a character’s on-screen appearance has the ability to increase the impact of this appearance. And with themes that so thoroughly convey the different roles, traits and personalities of their respective characters, Kill la Kill manages to make its cast truly come to life and shine with their unique presences.


References

crossing the line, “Excerpts from the Kill la Kill OST Hiroyuki Sawano interview”, <http://mikiryuko.tumblr.com/post/73664118412/excerpts-from-the-kill-la-kill-ost-hiroyuki-sawano>

Kill la Kill Wiki, “Before my body is dry”, <http://kill-la-kill.wikia.com/wiki/Before_my_body_is_dry>

Kill la Kill Wiki, “Blumenkranz”, <http://kill-la-kill.wikia.com/wiki/Blumenkranz>

Kill la Kill Wiki, “Light your heart up”, <http://kill-la-kill.wikia.com/wiki/Light_your_heart_up>


This post was partly inspired by ATMA & Funomena’s “A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell“. If you liked this read, you’ll definitely enjoy that one.

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One thought on “Characterization through music – An examination of Kill la Kill’s character themes

  1. As someone who hasn’t seen Kill la Kill, I gotta say I was curious by the title of your post that I saw in the Blog Carnival. Anyways, the way you went into so much detail about each character, and actually provided the scientific music theory approach to describing each of the character’s songs blew me away. I’ve been playing guitar for about 10 years now, but have only just recently gotten into music theory. So it’s definitely cool to read someone else’s post about music and anime, and learn a thing or two in the process. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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