WARNING: Spoilers for Kill la Kill will be discussed. In addition, this article will have NSFW (not safe for work) images.
Never in my life have I been so conflicted about a show. Was Kill la Kill sexist or some strange third-wave feminism masterpiece? At its core, Kill la Kill is a story about Ryuko Matoi, Satsuki Kiryuin, their friends, and their magical clothes. However, it’s mostly a show about some kick-ass people doing kick-ass things. The show is sometimes called a magical girl shojo, sometimes a shonen; it’s a little bit Sailor Moon and a little bit Gurren Lagann. It ultimately creates its own genre in how it takes elements of both shojo and shonen and mashes them together with a lot of “crazy.” It is “insane,” “badass,” and “sexy,” but what is it really? And does it say anything about anything or end up being about a whole lot of nothing?
Kill la Kill starts off with tough-girl Ryuko Matoi, who comes upon Honnouji Academy looking for information on her father’s killer. The only clue she has is one-half of a pair of massive scissors. Honnouji Academy, however, is headed/owned by the stoic Student President/Dictator Satsuki Kiryuin. She recognizes the scissor blade immediately but refuses to tell Ryuko anything about it. After being defeated in battle with another club member, Ryuko wanders around the charred remains of her childhood home. She then stumbles upon Senketsu, a living uniform. Senketsu reveals that he was made my Ryuko’s father and has the power to transform and give major boosts to her already impressive fighting abilities. With Senketsu on, Ryuko returns to Honnouji Academy with the intent of beating the information out of Satsuki. The only problem is that Satuski has dozens of loyal school clubs blocking Ryuko’s path.
Before we delve deeper, let me state a few things. For the purposes of this article I am going to define fanservice as “sexually suggestive scenes including partial and full nudity that serve no function to plot or story and are used primarily to titillate the audience.” Fanservice that is not sexual in nature where other works are referenced (i.e. other shows, sequels, etc.) are not a part of this definition.
Secondly, I don’t find issue with fanservice in and of itself. But, on the other hand, one has to consider something’s effects on the world around it. Art affects life and life affects art. The over-use of fanservice, I believe, will distract, turn off, and indirectly promote the idea that people are sexual objects.
So where does that leave Kill la Kill? From a surface glance, the show has almost naked girls fighting each other in completely unsensible “armor.” This would normally put the show square into the “uses too much fanservice for the benefit of horny males and thus is incredibly sexist” category. Right?
But consider the fact that there isn’t just female nudity. Consider that the first naked person in the show is not only a male, but not even attractive.
However, there are many naked men in the show as well. The first nude may have been male — and may have been fat — but there may not be a straight 50/50 cut of naked (and conventionally attractive) males to females. Ladies are given buff Ira Gamagoori, athletic Uzu Sanageyama, nerdy Houka Inumuta, bad-boy Tsumugu Kinagase, and playboy Aikuro Mikisugi’s shining naughty bits to gawk at. Everyone is somewhat equally sexualized, even though there may be more female characters.
Although Kill la Kill is labeled as a “magical-girl” show due to its transformation scenes and lead female character, it is unlike any I have ever seen. Something typical for girls in shojo is that they hardly ever fight for themselves. It is always for their friends, family, or to save the world. Ryuko doesn’t care about any of that. She wants to find her father’s killer for herself, and to beat the crap out of them. There isn’t even any talk of honor. She’s doing it for herself.
Visually, the show’s dark colors and striking bold lines are more typical of a shonen. The style is aggressive and over-the-top, reminding me more of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Attack on Titan than Cardcaptor Sakura or Shugo Chara. The constant shouting and growing in size that the characters do isn’t typical of what girls “are supposed to do” in anime. Even Mako and Nui, the most overly cute characters of the show, are no exception to this: they are loud, over-the-top, and are generally dynamic characters. If anything, the show is more like Gurren Lagann with its constant, insane action sequences. Adding to this idea is the fact that the director and writer for Kill la Kill are the same guys that wrote and directed Gurren Lagann.
Each of the characters are layered well, meaning they have depth and personalities — an uncommon feature for female characters in a shonen anime. Ryuko gives off a hard-ass attitude for most of the show, but she has an understandable soft side. There is this masculine/feminine duality to her personality. The first ending credits showing her walking through a normal city seems to imply that Ryuko often wonders about if she could have just been a normal “girly” girl. She stands apart from a group of friends gossiping, looking uncomfortable as she looks away from them. She gazes at a flowing wedding dress with a kind of wonder. Yet the final moments of the credits bring her back to the Ryuko we know. She stares hard at the viewer with that determination they know so well, facing the opposite direction of the faceless people around her. Then she turns, still herself regardless of her surroundings or direction. Because she is just that cool.
Even Mako Mankanshoku — the cute, bubbly, and rather clueless best friend of Ryuko — has a tough side. When thinking about her family, she works hard and gains an impressive uniform. It’s worthy to note that, while the show’s directors could have used it as an opportunity for more fanservice, they instead give her one of the masculine Goku uniforms covered in phallic spikes. Her will and strength match the massive Ira Gamagoori — literally the physically biggest member of the elite four — during the last battle when she moves against the Absolute Submission field to cheer on her best friend. Mako, while physically weak, was a character that refused to sit on the sidelines when danger was near. Not to mention that she was actually useful. How many side characters in, say, Bleach or Dragon Ball Z can you say that about? Female characters tend to be weaker and less useful than any male counterpart in anime. Bulma, though a genius, was utterly useless in Dragon Ball Z other than giving birth to Trunks. Orihime in Bleach is just there for boobs and for a minor plot point for the villain.
But let’s not jump to trumpeting Kill la Kill as a post-post-modern masterpiece (the second “post” was intentional, thank you) just yet. We have yet to consider how the show directly responds to Ryuko’s obscene transformation outfit.
Ryuko is ridiculed as an exhibitionist and gawked at for the first few episodes (which is where most of the fanservice is). Ryuko’s response makes logical sense: embarrassment. This, however, is actually a plot point. And after thinking about it, I don’t recall any episodes of Sailor Moon having issues with her outfit’s short skirt. Should she have had to, though? Would it have added depth to her character, or does it say more that Sailor Moon never has an issue with fighting evil with a mini skirt and a tiara?
Lately, there’s been a movement against “slut-shaming.” Slut-shaming is defined as a “process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct, i.e., of admonishing them for behavior or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable.” This boils down to the idea that people (men and women both) shouldn’t be shaming or slamming a woman for wearing revealing clothing because nobody gives a hot damn about what men are wearing. The most a man will be asked is, “Hey, dude… aren’t you cold?” We don’t assume a man is “asking for it.” The idea became widespread due to the SlutWalks that were sparked in thanks to Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s advice for women to avoid rape and sexual assault: “avoid dressing like sluts”.
Is the movement questionable and problematic? Oh sure. Using a term that refers to a promiscuous girl as a term of power is troubling, and yet it directly attacks the notion that one always hears of where it is okay for males to be promiscuous but not women. Sure, maybe males shouldn’t be shooting for promiscuity either, but good luck with that. And there is a far more important and pressing point than that.
It doesn’t matter what you or I think.
There is an active problem in the world. Structures of authority and power use the idea that women should be pretty, fragile, little butterflies against them. No one really treats a ripped male with a tight t-shirt as negatively as they would a girl whose clothes hug her curves.
Going back to Kill la Kill, I found it amazing how the show handled this whole thing. Until about episode three, the fanservice shots are all focused on her naughty areas, shouting to the audience that Ryuko is almost nude. Her first appearance in the outfit is actually with a cloak. She is covering and shielding herself from not only the gaze of onlookers, but to protect herself from her own fears. Senketsu, the uniform, actually tells her the reason she’s not able to obtain her full potential is due to said embarrassment. Once she stops caring about what other people think about her, not only is she more powerful but the fanservice stops being fanservice. It fades into the background and the outfit is simply that: an outfit.
It was almost a bait-and-switch. From that point on, I feel that calling the show “sexy” is doing it a disservice because the outfits really are not all that sexual anymore. Even the constant transformation scenes add to the desensitization of the outfits. Ryuko is nude in the scene, but it’s not sexualized. It is much like how Sailor Moon’s transformation scene is not sexy regardless of the fact that she is naked with a glittered silhouette; her poses are feminine, but not submissive. It’s not sexual because it’s not intended to be sexual.
But at the same time, is this just a way to sidestep the issue and allow the male gaze to have something nice to look at? Perhaps. Zack Snyder claimed that Sucker Punch was supposed to be some sort of girl-power flick. While some will agree, the issue with that movie was that the girl’s “power” only came from their sexuality and nothing more. They were not smart and their talents all revolve around being sexy. Those that have seen the movie will recall that any real action in that movie is a dream sequence. Not to mention most of the girls die and don’t perform half the tasks they all set out to do. That’s not girl power. That’s showing half naked girls doing sexy and cool things while still being controlled by “the man.”
Does Kill la Kill fall into this trap? Satsuki Kiryuin actually has a monologue regarding it when she dons her own magical garment, Junketsu:
“Exhibitionist? Nonsense! … The fact that you are embarrassed by the values of the masses only proves how small you are! If it means fulfilling her ambitions Satsuki Kiryuin will show neither shame nor hesitation, even if she bares her breasts for all the world to see! My actions are utterly pure!”
This stares directly in the face of the idea of looking at the girls as nothing more than fanservice. Satsuki has goals and she will use anything at her disposal to achieve them. The fact that the outfit is somewhat sexual doesn’t even register to her. It’s a tool, but it’s not the only tool she has and the audience knows this before she ever dons Junketsu. She’s smart, tough, and one hell of a fighter. In a sense, the show is a statement to people that it is okay for them to dress however they want and that it is one’s ambitions and actions that define you.
Feminism has also started trying to break away from petty girl-on-girl hate: mindless dislike over what the other character wears or even just because they have big boobs. Ya know, whatever. The reason for this is that it tends to normalize and/or rationalize various gender stereotypes. Does this ever happen in Kill la Kill? No. Ryuko and Satsuki’s rivalry isn’t over a boy or because they are from different cliques. Ryuko hates Satsuki because she thinks Satsuki is withholding information from her (which she is). Satsuki’s pompous attitude just doesn’t help the matter and the two have a genuine personality clash. With all the various types of women shown, are any of them ever seen as superior or inferior? No. Actually, none of the main heroines and villains ever actually defeat one another. Consider this fact for a moment. None of these females ever best one another. They are all equally powerful, even the “evil” ones.
Another fact to note is that Kill la Kill passes the Bechdel test, which has three rules:
- The movie/show/work has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
This test has been used by feminists since the 1980s as a rubric to talk about how gender is portrayed. While this might seem odd at first, consider the fact that most movies and shows were made about, by, and for men. Often times, women were only shown in their relation to other men. This is never the case with Kill la Kill. The only romance in the show is maybe possibly hinted at with Ira Gamagoori and Mako Mankanshoku, but that might just be the fan community’s desire to ship characters together. The point being, never are the female characters brought together or conflicting because of a man.
And yes, all this conjecture is all well and good, but there is still fanservice. There is still nudity for fans to get titillated and excited over. One could still point to this and say that this is all objectification and renders the show sexist.
However, when Kill la Kill reaches its second half, practically everyone is naked (including the background characters) and the idea of it being sexual becomes as silly as Mako’s antics. Because of this silliness, the objectification is rendered moot. It is ridiculed, actively mocking those that are still titillated.
Why is this a big deal? Well, with the new Captain America movie out, consider The Daily Dot’s article about the coverage of Scarlett Johansson’s role as Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In it, they point out that the Black Widow is mainly described in terms of how she looks. Not by her smarts or abilities, but by her corsets and catsuits.
This is a problem.
A character that would otherwise be seen as a kick-ass, empowering figure is reduced to a mere fetish object for the male gaze. Is it due to the way she looks? If she dressed a different way, would it matter? Consider earlier when I talked about slut-shaming: what these characters wear should not matter.
Granted, the whole concept of applying fanservice and talking about empowering feminist characters is tricky. Fanservice isn’t always an issue, but could easily overshadow any positives of a show. Kill la Kill nails that fine line. The girls as over-sexualized beings isn’t an issue beyond a few episodes. They are strong, they are tough. Calling the show sexy isn’t wrong, but it is inaccurate because that’s not the focus of it. It’s not Highschool of the Dead, but it’s not innocent like Madoka Magic. Kill la Kill is first and foremost about hardcore girls who dress however the hell they want to while kicking ass.
Consider the marketing for Kill la Kill. Most promotional artwork does not have Ryuko in Senketsu’s battle forms. Why not? If the marketing was focused on promoting the show’s “fanservice,” it would have been a given, but it doesn’t. The marketing is concerned more with making Ryuko appear badass. Oftentimes a show might make the villain look more sexual (thus equating the idea that sexiness is evil), but Satsuki doesn’t appear to have this issue either. These girls are not meant to be sexualized objects, they are meant to be awesome.
And the Kill la Kill deserves applause for it.
…Unless the OVA ruins this somehow.