The other day I was catching up on episodes of Regular Show and reruns of Kill la Kill and began to wonder to myself: what exactly is the appeal of these shows? Sure, on the surface, Regular Show is a comedic fantasy steeped in absurdity, but I wondered if there was more to it. For me, the characters are very relatable in their mundane activities, but that couldn’t be the only thing. Kill la Kill is an action-packed anime with heavy fanservice that also revels in the absurd. I believe that the way each of these shows handle absurdity seem to be where they shine, and I think there is some room to analyze deeper points.
With Regular Show, there is a celebration of tropes by invoking them for seemingly no reason. For those uninitiated, Regular Show is a animated television program focused on twenty-something slacker pals, Mordecai and Rigby, who are employed at a local park. Most episodes deal with them struggling with park work, video games, or some other typical activity. Eventually, often through an exaggerated use of the activity, something paranormal happens. Through the power of friendship, honesty, or an equally paranormal or cliché solution, the problem is solved. One example is of the main characters trying to crack the password of someone’s voicemail to remove an embarrassing message. After enough failures, they are sucked into virtual space and speak with guardians of recorded technology. The situation ends by playing the message for the intended recipient and having the characters own up to their motivations. Additionally,
the show and its situations can analyze relationships (romantic, friendly, or otherwise) closely since the guise of humanity isn’t there. (There are only a few humans. Most of the characters are animals or some kind of anthropomorphicized object.) But because there are so many absurd things going on, it is easier to pick up on the normal things. When spirits, monsters, and mythical situations arise, the mundane things stay present and their own absurdity comes into question.
For instance, the oddities of dating are often called into question. Going back to the previous example of trying to delete an embarrassing message, the scenario starts to make us question why we would go to such great lengths for certain things in real life. Why would we rather go to an alternate dimension than face a few minutes of discomfort from a mistake? Why would we rather fight Earth-shattering circumstances than just talk to our love interest? Obviously we wouldn’t, and we probably would never have to. In this way, Regular Show makes some more mundane issues seem a little less insurmountable. Really, this seems to be the premise of the show: a mundane activity or situation is taken to its logical extreme and then to an illogical extreme, either for the sake of laughs or action. Then, it uses this escalation to show how a regular problem isn’t as horrible as we may have originally thought.
Kill la Kill, on the other hand, creates an analytic lens with absurdity just by turning it up to a high level. It has points to make about objectification and anime as a whole. (Whether or not it does so clumsily is a different question, however.) For those who haven’t seen it, Kill la Kill is a high school fighting anime where the clothing gives the wearer special powers. The series is focused on Ryuko Matoi, a teenage girl trying to avenge her father’s death. She gains a sailor school uniform that transforms into a powerful, yet skimpy, armor. Using this, she battles Satsuki Kiryuin, the school council president who also has a version of this armor, as do her henchmen, the four members of her student council.
At first the objectification is focused on the protagonist and antagonist fairly exclusively. However, as the series progresses, all but a few characters are depicted as completely naked or very close to it. Regardless of gender, you’ll see pretty much everyone’s butt. (Which, hey, no complaints here.) Although this has a narrative explanation, we must remember that everything that happens in a story is up to the authors. Therefore, it raises the question: why was this necessary to the story? Was it to prove a point, and if so, what point? Where other media typically have nudity strictly for titillation, clothing (and the loss of it) is literally a central theme to this particular show. But seeing a media norm presented in such an exaggerated fashion, one must ask: why was it normalized in the first place? Did it have to be this way? Why is this the norm? It is for this reason that I think KLK satirizes some elements of objectification. The lack of clothing in KLK is first questioned even by the characters, and then eventually justified. (The clothes are made of evil aliens trying to eat humans.) At first, viewers will see one or two characters and assume it’s a run of the mill example, but then it goes overboard and is discussed. Since the nudity is justified here, it makes us realize that it’s often not explained or given a proper narrative reason in other media. “Why are characters semi-nude in other shows? This show gives a reason!” So, in questioning this show’s motivations, we are encouraged to question other shows’ motivations in their artwork, as we should.
In addition to exemplifying objectification, KLK puts a spotlight on some media tropes. The first example that really stands out to me is the use of Boss Subtitles, showing a character’s name and title on screen to accompany their introduction. Of course, Kill la Kill turns it up to a ludicrous degree and displays the titles in giant, red lettering, showing them for each introduced character and many locations and attacks. These titles are often repeated for humor to the point that they don’t seem necessary anymore. Again, it makes us question if they were even necessary in the first place.
Second, the show employs an over-explanation of attacks and processes that don’t seem to make much more sense than before it was explained. A very glaring example occurs around the middle of the show when the school stages an attack on other schools in Japan. One of the enemy schools specialized in a mental illusion-based combat. The character sent to raid this school had students that were falling for the mental trick and could not fight. To fix this, another commanding character came in with troops to dispel the illusions. However, he was only there through a hologram displayed by a film projector. The projection launched a counter-attack described as being in non-euclidean space, so it was able to destroy an illusion based in a more normal space. The original character sent to fulfill the mission claims that this description doesn’t make any sense, and this viewpoint is shared by the viewer—this attack was described in such a way that made it sound scientific, but it wasn’t real science. This makes us question why some things are created or described in such an obtuse fashion that doesn’t help, similar to technobabble from shows like Doctor Who or Star Trek. It’s likely we’d accept much more mundane answers, considering we must already be using some sort of suspension of disbelief.
This is all fine and good, but why is absurdity important to these shows? In a vacuum, it wouldn’t matter at all: these would just be shows with ridiculous use of tropes and it would be fun. But media doesn’t exist in a vacuum; all other shows exist. Fanservice and goofy tropes occur in most shows, and they almost become background noise. They tend to pass under the radar with minimal criticism. But with Kill la Kill, it’s almost impossible to see the level (or non-level) of clothing the characters wear. In Regular Show, the paranormal situations normally don’t have any rational explanations. This is is important because we see fanservice and tropes so often that one of the only ways to notice them differently is in extreme levels. We most certainly should notice and question heavily used tropes to remember and understand why they are useful and enjoyable in the first place. In the case of the paranormal jumps in Regular Show or the Boss Subtitles in Kill la Kill, we can continue to enjoy them and create them. But with deeper analysis, we can continue to use them and find even more creative uses for them. For potentially harmful norms like objectification, we have to examine why they are used in order to not let them run rampant. We should put effort into enhancing our favorite tropes and diminishing the problematic ones. Exaggerations can help us find the root of the mechanics.
All in all, absurdity is a good thing! I enjoy it even if it’s just for fun, but even in that case, I think absurdity works because of the contrast to a more simple or mundane explanation. In this way, I think it’s important to have an analytical eye whenever we see something absurd in our media. Yes, it might be enjoyable, but there may be a little bit more going on that we had originally thought.