In general, anime tends to be entertainment “snack food” for me. While, visually, the medium tends to be stunning, rarely does it ever venture outside the realm of utter predictability when it comes to narrative.
Why, yes, the only person who looks like they’re not having any fun in this vibrant and exquisitely designed world is the main character. How did you know?
Maybe I’ve had bad luck, but most eastern animation I’ve come across falls right in the middle of a sad Venn Diagram of poor writing and tired cultural clichés. Occasionally there will be a very a fascinating concept or premise (even I hold that Attack on Titan is a decent cure for The Walking Dead) but by and large, the shows suffer from very poor execution.
It’s a bad sign if I find myself hoping the protagonist gets eaten… and, y’know, stays eaten. It’s a weird show, okay?
But recently I came across Kill la Kill on my Netflix browser… and it shattered every expectation I had in the best way possible. In brief: I love it! Less brief: it is probably one of the most interesting metaphors for imposed social structure and body/self-acceptance in media.
It’s time to binge, people! Spoilers follow.
It’s clothes! It’s goddamn clothes!
No, seriously. It’s clothes. In the KLK universe, there exists an obscure and little-known fabric called “Life Fiber.” Weaving Life Fibers into clothes can augment a person’s physical abilities in scale with how many of these special fibers are actually used.
At the Honnouji Academy, these fibers are woven into “Gokuseifuku” uniforms and distributed to student council officers to maintain order. Now this is no ordinary school, of course; the Honnouji Academy is more of a citadel that commands the squalid town around it.
Already Kill la Kill’s allegorical technique starts to come into relief. Rather than simply being a small part of a large community (as one would normally expect of a typical school), the Academy uses the power of these uniforms to literally rule the environment around it.
Think for a moment what school and education means to the average person. How many parents have broken their backs laboring to put their kids through college? How many times have any one of us watched in horror as their father’s eyes rolled into the back of his head after we brought home that first F? Indeed, it can be said that — in a way — the school does rule our society (or at least it does for anyone, student or parent, currently invested in it). Grades are often valued more than marketable skills, and broader success — regardless of subject — is more highly regarded than finding the one subject that will serve you best in life.
In effect, “what” you learn in school is incidental next to your ability to navigate its systems, both intellectual and political. Thus we see very little attention being paid to the classroom aspects in Kill la Kill and almost all the time being spent on the protagonist’s dealings with hostile cliques. Social status, popularity, gossip, and friendship circles are the most fixated on elements of school life. When our heroine, Ryuko, faces off against the student council officers in ridiculous stadium battles. We can regard it as the impression one gets in all interactions in such a tightly knit social space: everyone is watching the outcome of your scuffles. And when someone is defeated, their clothes — their status, if you will — are removed. Thus they are exposed and vulnerable to the scrutiny of their peers.
Happens to the best of us.
But, surprisingly, this element (as in life) is but an ancillary aspect of our story. Indeed, the greatest villains of Kill la Kill are not the rival students but — get ready for it– the fashion industry.
Turns out that these Life Fibers are actually semi-sentient, seeking to ultimately cover and consume the world. Their will is made manifest by Ragyo Kiryuin, the mother of Honnouji Academy’s student council President, Satsuki Kiryuin.
While Satsuki is initially portrayed as the primary antag (more on her later), Ragyo is the true villain. In every scene Ragyo is presented as resplendent and almost pansexual. In this we might interpret her character as a metaphor for penultimate social status; above scrutiny, beyond reach, fearsome, impossibly beautiful, and yet always clawing for more — for the ultimate persona; in a word, I’d say she is materialism personified — so much so, that she has actually become a being purely comprised of Life Fibers.
And so, the nature of the enemies define our stakes — and what fascinating stakes they are. Our heroes not only battle against the vapid trappings of scholastic social mores; but the even more vapid obsessions of society at large. It’s not exactly a new concept, but good Lord, I’ve never seen it done quite like this.
Aside from the fact that the story is over-wrought (as is admittedly typical of most anime/manga adaptations), I have very few issues with the villains in Kill la Kill. While the bombastic, over-the-top dialogue, presentations, and motivations of the senior Lieutenants of the bad guys can be tedious at times; they’re filled with such interesting personalities that I really don’t mind.
I mean I could talk about Ragyo and Satsuki literally having sex for no reason, but that’s not really a problem with them as villains… it’s just weird.
The only issue I have that I wouldn’t consider a nitpick is with Nui Harime.
To be clear, my problems with her are minor. Nui is every bit as unsettling as being trapped in a room with the freaking Joker. As a secondary villain, she’s fantastic! But… I don’t know why she’s here. With just about every other character, their metaphorical necessity was fairly self-evident, but Nui seems to be nothing more than a basic (albeit superhuman) psychopath.
I suppose my main issue with her can be boiled down to the notion that, as she’s such an interesting character, her out-of-place nature in the story is a bit of a disappointment. On top of that, her resolution is as disappointing as it is bizarre.
The Student Council / Club Presidents. While most of these might initially seem quite disposable, even the least among them is, in fact, crucial to the central message of the show. By and large, the students of the Honnouji Academy are presented as an undifferentiated mass of dead-eyes, bowl-cut nobodies. However club presidents are the only characters who enjoy the slightest design-work. From this, we see the desperation for those to differentiate themselves from the “nobodies” by latching on to the slightest scrap of social standing… regardless of how ridiculous it is.
And trust me, it gets ridiculous.
What’s interesting about this aspect is that in their attempts to define themselves, these characters are instead defined by their club allegiance. So, rather than allowing their individuality to shine through, they themselves become an undifferentiated (if visually dissonant) mass. In this, we see that labels can simply be another form of conformity and anonymity. Instead of being an individual with unique interests, you are merely a member of the Tennis Club — and that’s all you are.
It’s only when they shed the trappings of yet another iteration of imposed social structure that their characters start shining through. For example, one of my initially least favorite characters was Nonon Jakuzure.
As a club president (despite being one of the “Elite Four”), she was perpetually restrained from action by Satsuki. Thus, for a large part of the show, her contribution to the story was nothing more than sarcasm and general bitchiness. Once she leaves the student council, however, she is suddenly unrestrained. Her caustic wit is now paired with dynamic action and you just tell that she takes such perverse joy in everything she does that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her character.
The Mankanshoku Family. If the main theme of Kill la Kill is shedding imposed, mimetic, and materialistic social trappings, then the entire Mankanshoku family is the perfect foil for this theme. I think anyone would hesitate to call this brood of misfits “good people,” but they are inescapably genuine people. Despite living in squalor, they opt to make the best of everything. And while their abject poverty discourages thinking too hard about what Mrs. Mankanshoku puts into her croquettes, their love and adoration for each other in almost inescapable.
The only time it’s put to the test, in fact, is when the Mankanshoku’s actually start earning some status. As idle delights become more available, they start to drift apart to the point where their massive mansion is almost perpetually empty.
It’s not difficult to see such parallels in modernity. Luxuries such as smart devices, video games, and multiple televisions can easily make entire families practical strangers in their own homes. While poverty is certain nothing to aspire to, the Mankanshokus show that there’s nothing like shared experience to bring people together.
The supporting cast cons and more are on page two!