Important note from author: This is a much older piece and no longer really depicts my true feelings on Kill la Kill. I will keep this up as I do think I had some good points but if you’d like to see how I feel several years later, please read this linked article after reading through this one where I critique this article in-depth and come at it with a more mature understanding, disagreeing with myself on particular points.
Let’s talk about feminism and sexuality. For those that inwardly groan at the mention of these sometimes over-discussed topics, I can promise you that there will be massive fan-service and tons of ridiculous action. Fair? But a warning up front: Given the show we’re discussing, this isn’t exactly going to be safe-for-work at all times. I’ll also try to be vague about many particular instances in the show, but this will be a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t seen, or cares to see, the show. Now that we have our NSFW tag and SPOILER ALERT included, let’s begin.
So, for anyone that doesn’t know, Kill la Kill is an incredible but incredibly polarizing anime that came out during the Fall 2013 Anime Season and ran until Spring 2014. The story follows Ryuuko Matoi, a character who is set on seeking revenge on the murderer of her father. She tracks down leads to arrive at Honnouji Academy, an incredibly militaristic school ruled by the class council and their class president Satsuki Kiryuin. Satsuki controls the populace by instigating a class system based around school uniforms with different percentages of “life fibers” that enhance the abilities of the wearer. The more life fibers a particular piece of clothing contains, the more powerful it is. Soon after heading home from the school, Ryuuko finds a gift from her late father, a living sentient uniform, Senketsu, made of pure life fibers that gives her insane amounts of power. Together, with her new companion, she decides to take on the entire school to find her father’s killer and upset the status quo.
This probably sounds a little weird but cool. Kick-ass female characters duking it out against each other while blowing the climax of any other action anime out of the water with the sheer amount of epic action scenes. A feminist Michael Bay would be proud. So what’s the problem here? Why are people on both sides so up in arms about this show, saying the show represents female empowerment and others screaming that it’s sexist? What do people have against it? Well… Possibly the “uniform” that Ryuuko’s father gave to her, for one. At this part of the post, you should start checking to see if the boss can see your computer.
Clearly seen, not much left to the imagination. This is one of the big reasons people scream misogyny at this show. “The main character has no clothes! How lewd! Obviously it’s just sexualizing women!” And to those who don’t understand the show very well, this is probably what you’ll get out of it. However, let’s look at the rest of the cast for a second…
I have a feeling you can’t quite call this misogynistic if everybody is getting in on this super-hot orgy. Joking aside, what we see here is more of a ridiculous use of nudity and sexual themes for all sides of the gender spectrum. This is one of the things I love about Kill la Kill. It sounds weird, I know, but bare with me. Two of the major themes of Kill la Kill are obviously nudity and sexuality. Both are topics that many people may not like to discuss and I absolutely love how this show blows the book wide open. The reason we have a bunch of nudists is because the show is all about clothes and the lack thereof.
One idea about clothes explored in this show is the word-play between “fashion” and “fascism”; the reason being that they sound similar in Japanese. We see that the Honnouji Academy creates the uniforms and uses them in a way to keep control over the students through a class system. We also find out that the rebel group against the school is referred to as Nudist Beach and, just as their name entails, are men and women that forsake clothes because they are a symbol of being controlled and buying into this class system. It’s a bit of an anti-consumerist message as fashion and clothing are equated to the same political ideas behind Nazism, but it also sets the tone perfectly since the ideas of nudity and clothing are central to the plot of this show.
In fact, even the name of the show has to do with clothes. Kill la Kill, or “Kiru la Kiru” as it would be said in Japan, is actually a clever pun on the Japanese words for “cut,” “kill,” and “wear,” as they all can be pronounced in a similar way in Japanese. We can assume from this that the title is not just about killing the killer of Ryuuko’s father, but also can be thought of as “cut to wear,” referring to Ryuuko’s uniform being lessened in actual skin coverage in order to become more powerful. This also holds true for some other members of the cast as well since, as the show goes on, each character is wearing less and less but is also becoming more and more powerful. We also see many other puns on the ideas of clothing. A primary example of this being whenever a character is defeated and their power-giving uniform is torn to pieces, the words “’stripped’ of the will to fight” appear on-screen.
So with the ideas of rebelling against the clothed establishment, as the show continues, we obviously have a bunch of nudists and a severe lack of clothing during the show. This brings up the topic of the naughty bits and sexuality. Luckily for the faint of heart, no matter how the camera pans, there’s always something to defend our eyes from full-frontal nudity. Also, in this universe, women apparently have no nipples and men’s penises have a tendency to shine pink light that’s too bright to actually see the crotch. But even if the physical parts aren’t there, the themes definitely are. Kill la Kill is unapologetic in using its characters to give us all complicated feelings about the topics of sexuality. This is definitely apparent with the many shots of Ryuuko in less than proper poses, particularly at the beginning of the show.
And here is where one of our major problems arise. With our main protagonist (Ryuuko) and antagonist (Satsuki) both wearing their Sunday’s best birthday suits throughout the show, along with having the camera trying its hardest to accentuate this, we have massive amounts of sexualization of our main characters. I scream this every time I see this in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, but the difference here being that JoJo’s isn’t an ecchi. Ryuuko and Satsuki are two high-school girls, not manly men that make me feel incredibly non-muscular in comparison. And let’s face it, what we see here is blatant flaunting of girl parts for the sake of fan-service, regardless of if it’s worked into the story to make sense. Trying to argue that point is like trying to argue a bikini episode in every anime is a perfectly benign and intelligent idea. This may be a common trope throughout standard anime shows, but that doesn’t excuse it simply because it upholds tradition.
However, let me introduce you to two of my favorite characters from Kill la Kill: Ryuuko’s teacher and higher up in Nudist Beach, Aikurou Mikisugi, and one of the student council members, Ira Gamagoori.
These two characters earned a spot in my list of favorite characters for a multitude of reasons, one of the most notable (for purposes of this article at least) is because of their ridiculous nature. We’ll start with Aikurou as his sparkling appearance catches my eye. Let me state this with absolute certainty: As much as Ryuuko and Satsuki tread the line of too much fan-service, this man is firmly well past that line. I’m pretty sure he could compete with either of the two leading ladies for the most amount of sexualization in this anime. There is not a shot of this man, outside of when he’s disguised, where his clothes are not falling off of him. And yet it fits him because of his role in the story. As one of the leading members of Nudist Beach, he obviously is not comfortable in his own clothes.
But nudity is one thing. This…
This is something else entirely. And that’s the point. He’s a ridiculous character, but he drives home the wonderful fact that this isn’t just a sexualization of the female cast. If it was, you wouldn’t see a nice divide of feminists arguing over if it’s sexist or not. If it was, you wouldn’t see me defending this show (I’m looking at you, High-school of the Dead and High-school DxD). The ecchi part of this anime is overblown at times, but it shows equal opportunity for both genders. It also fits within the themes of the show, which is that clothing is optional and an unabashed celebration of the human body is what’s popular in this world.
As another example of these themes, just look at one of our other male cast members, Ira Gamagoori, in his transformed uniform. An upstanding gentleman in all aspects of life except for his fighting style.
If you were wondering what special power he gets with this interesting uniform, it’s probably what you’d expect from the look of it. When he’s taken on enough pain inside of his bondage suit, he explodes in power and transforms into a monster with hundreds of whips to give back just as much pain as he received. This show isn’t even being metaphorical here. The man orgasms and then goes from a submissive role to a dominatrix one in this weird bondage game. There’s no member of the female cast that even comes close to this when it comes to sexualization of their powers. I’d also like to point out that he’s probably the only character to pull this off and it not come off as creepy, somehow. Stoicism and nobility do wonders for certain characters.
So we’ve gone over the equal opportunity of the sexy factor in this show, but now we find ourselves with the question… Why? Why all of the over-the-top sexualization and nudity? Well, for the nudity, it’s an element of the show that’s deeply integrated and discussed. Early on, Ryuuko learns that the secret to unlocking the full potential of her uniform is to accept herself and her body without embarrassment, which allows her to symbiotically link with Senketsu as if he was “her skin.” In this way, our female protagonist becomes unashamed of her body and is proud of herself, regardless of who sees her wearing her uniform. Also, as mentioned earlier, the idea of nudity in the show is to cast off fashion and the oppression of those who make the clothes and the clothes themselves. This becomes more literal as the show goes on when actual suits of clothing start to fight against the rebellion of nudists. These are interesting ideas and while the use of nudity can be jarring, the show pushes the point that it shouldn’t be. The natural state of a human being is naked and it shouldn’t be something we’re ashamed of. At one point, a monologue about Adam and Eve feeling embarrassed after eating the apple is directly linked to the modern obsession of clothes in a consumerist market. It isn’t just nudity for a quick joke. There are actual themes and reasons for it.
As for the sexuality, that one is a little tougher to answer. It is used for jokes many times over to add to the absurdity of the universe within this anime. However, we also see it used to drive home points that we may not be comfortable with. For instance, there are a couple of very uncomfortable scenes involving Satsuki’s mother, Ragyou, that depict how twisted and evil the character is being within the show. Ragyou Kiryuin is shown to physically and sexually abuse her daughter, and I’m not going to lie, I was incredibly uncomfortable and a bit disturbed. This was intentional, however, as the creators of the show were hitting home how completely disgusting, manipulative, and honestly fucked up this character’s mindset is. I know for me, it worked. I couldn’t stand the character, and it also helped us sympathize with Setsuki, her daughter, who wasn’t even really explicitly shown on the side of good until the last half of the show, particularly the last few acts of the last half. Did the couple of scenes need to be so uncomfortable? Probably not, but neither do half of the scenes in Game of Thrones, yet that’s heralded as a modern masterpiece, even though it uses very similar techniques to emphasize evil characters. As for the less disturbing and more in-your-face moments of sexuality in the show when it’s not used for a joke, I’d argue that Kill la Kill follows the idea that sexuality is simply not talked about when it should be. Having it shoved in our faces (literally) forces us to acknowledge that it’s there and sensuality is a natural part of the human body. As such, we should be aware of it and cope with the ideas of sensuality as they’re not going away.
To end, Kill la Kill in my opinion, is one of the best anime I’ve seen come out in a long time. Its use of empowered female characters (on both sides of good and evil), equal treatment regardless of gender, as well as nudity and sexuality as au natural ideas of the human body give it a big feminist thumbs up from me and another thumbs up for being an awesome show. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not afraid of a little skin and who loves incredible action and thought-provoking themes, and I didn’t even cover half of the ideas brought up by this show. Things like the importance of family on our behavior and our future, a comparison of the life fiber uniforms as a wearable technology to the real life craze of wearable technology, as well as the idea of who we really are as people and what makes a human actually human are all discussed very well by this show. If you disagree with me, I’d love to hear a discussion about why, and if you actually read this whole thing, you are a saint and a scholar and I love you.
Research and Inspiration for this discussion:
– Is Kill la Kill a Warning About Wearable Technology – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eO-0Aq2lTxM&index=15&list=PLIk5ISEUUL3ZVlll-1pVCyM8OoVOcTlz3
– Kill La Kill: How the year’s most polarizing anime became a smash hit – http://bit.ly/1z2nraA
– Fashion, Femininity, and Fascism, but Family Foremost: The Themes of Kill la Kill – http://bit.ly/1z2nt2e
– Kill La Kill Is A Rare Breed Of Anime – http://bit.ly/1z2nx1Y
– Kill la Kill: The Fashion of Fascism – http://bit.ly/1z2nAuD
7 thoughts on “Kill la Kill – Feminism, Sexuality, and WHY IS EVERY EPISODE MORE INTENSE THAN THE LAST!?”
On the one hand, I love this show. On the other, I’m aware that when you love a work, you can bend yourself in pretzels trying to make excuses for it’s problematic elements. So in analyzing it’s progressive or regressive aspects, we want to make sure we’re not just saying “they POINT OUT the ridiculous oversexualization, that makes it OK!”; we don’t want to be “have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too” feminists. Of course, it is possible to thoroughly enjoy something even if it’s completely exploitative (especially, even), but it’s important we be honest with ourselves.
There are three basic questions we have to answer here: 1) Does this series fundamentally treat, in this case sexualize, its female characters in a qualitatively different fashion than its male characters? 2) If so, are the reasons for that difference fundamentally sexist or making a trenchant commentary on gender? Or, if NOT, is it necessarily a good thing that female characters are treated the same as male ones in a context of social inequality (For instance, in a medium over-saturated with over-sexualized female characters, would it really be all that much of a step forward for a series to merely ALSO feature over-sexualized male characters?) 3) Are the creators people who’ve earned the benefit of the doubt regarding the feminist bona fides of their work?
In regards to the first, we can say two things definitively. One is that the series uses nudity in every fashion you can think of. There is nudity played for salacious exploitation, and for comedy, and for drama, and for comedic drama. We see people stripped and it’s funny, we see them stripped and it’s heart-wrenching; we see people disrobe to demonstrate disregard for modesty, we see people disrobe begrudgingly. And all of these DO happen to characters of both genders.
However, the series, to its credit, features female characters in the majority of its prominent roles: the Hero (Ryuuko Matoi), the Hero’s Companion (Mako Mankanshoku), the Heavy (Satsuki Kiryuin), the Big Bad (Ragyo Kiryuin), and the Arch-Nemesis (Nui Harime) are all female, and again to the show’s credit, each one is completely distinct in terms of design, personality, and motivation. Because of this prominence, female characters tend to be the ones the camera ogles: Ryuuko and Satsuki are the only ones given the ultra-revealing-fetish-tastic kamui uniforms, for instance. Aikurou Mikisugi, to be sure, is definitely drawn ostensibly for the female gaze (or at least as a parody thereof), but as a character, his nudity is always voluntary; Ryuuko resents her revealing attire at first; and while leaning to accept being seen in the kamui is presented as character growth, her own desires vis-a-vis revealing her body are never respected (I.E., her host family keeps trying to peek at her in the bath against her wishes and despite her repeated and violent reprimands). Is that a sexist discrepancy in how the show treats characters depending on their gender, a value-neutral discrepancy inevitably resulting from the prominence of the females cast (I.E., we don’t see male characters getting peaked at in the bath because our main characters are all female), or a realistic acknowledgement of a difference in how society treats the genders (I.E., we don’t see male characters getting peaked at in the bath because that really IS more of an issue for women)?
I can’t say. How you come down on these questions may be a referendum on Gainax, the company for which many of the creators previously worked, one which highlights the dichotomy of the male-dominated anime industry: works associated with the company are often thematically resonant and intensely psychological; simultaneously, the company name is synonymous with jiggling tits.
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I think you bring up excellent points and I agree that this show is not perfect when it comes to the specific points of good female representation without taking advantage of oversexualization. This show definitely puts more emphasis on the females characters as far as for the sake of eye candy for the show. We could say this is because a majority of the main players in the show are female but I do agree that while this may be partially true, and as much as they attempt to add in more fan service with the male cast (mostly through Aikurou Mikisugi), there is still the problem of possible oversexualization past the point of what is necessary for the themes within the show. However, Trigger does do many things right with this show, enough to warrant a thumbs up from me still. They attempt to do justice for their female leads and have some kickass action along the way. I think the decision on how to view this series should definitely include a look at the true nature of Trigger as a company.
Though they do come from Gainax, They don’t seem to have the same values as that company. Their first major production (as Inferno Cop was more of a fun pet project) was Little Witch Academia, which features prominently a very interesting all-female female cast. The protagonist is another typical headstrong hero but the short film plays with the Harry Potter-esque ideas well and the ideas of “Gainaxing” through the use of hot babes and bouncing boobs are nowhere to be found. As their flagship for their company, Little Witch Academia definitely left me feeling I could trust them as far as their views on creating interesting and well-developed female characters. InoBato followed Kill la Kill and though it falls into the typical tropes of adapting a harem light novel (i.e fighting over the male protagonist later in the series as well as female leads falling into specific character archetypes), the female characters themselves were much better written than most similar series I’ve seen and never overly sexualized for the sake of fan service aside from two segments within the show. This doesn’t excuse these segments but I feel generally, they definitely could have done worse. I will say as far as harems go, the characters were interesting and the group as a whole felt more like a group of friends than a true harem, at least as far as the series adapted the source material.
On the whole, I don’t feel they are Gainax, nor do they typically follow Gainax’s beliefs, and that is why I feel Kill la Kill should be noted as a more feminist friendly work. It fails in some regards but when you look the at the industry as a whole, Trigger definitely seems to be well ahead of most when it comes to developing interesting and well-developed female characters as well as treating those character with respect in their work.
Thank you so much for commenting. This site has been very scarce of good back and forth discussion and it’s something I think we definitely need more of.
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