Let’s Take A Look At: Kill la Kill
(Originally posted on my Quora blog.)
So this took a while.
WARNING: Once again, spoiler warning here. This is about Kill la Kill, so if you haven’t watched it and plan to, don’t read this. If you don’t plan to, however, well, go ahead.
So it turns out that Kill la Kill, that 2013 seinen anime featuring schoolgirls fighting each other in skimpy outfits in an overblown high school setting with low-budget animation may be a lot deeper (and awesome) than most people anticipated. Those people probably didn’t know that Kill la Kill was made byStudio Trigger, made up of the ex-GAINAX (the studio that brought usNeon Genesis Evangelion, remember?) members who worked on a pretty good mecha shounen.
In 2011, after leaving GAINAX, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Ohtsukacreated Studio Trigger. Imaishi directed Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, another highly successful mecha anime produced by GAINAX, although with a vastly different tone compared to the intense angst of Evangelion. Some people might even argue that, in tone and character, Gurren Lagann is an anti-thesis to Evangelion, but that’s another post.
Trigger’s debut in the production of an anime series was highly anticipated, and the hype surrounding the promises and hopes of all Gurren Lagann and general anime fans filled the Internet as more and more information was leaked about this new upcoming anime.
And that was Kill la Kill. Kiru ra Kiru in Romaji, its an action comedy anime that ran for 24 episodes between October 3, 2013 and March 27, 2014, with an episode airing every Friday. Aside from numerous references to previous projects, Kill la Kill promised one thing – that it would be Trigger’s chance to both show off its skills and let loose with concepts. If I were to keep a very, very short one word summary of Kill la Kill, I’d say that is was fun.
The series has a simple plot, great characters, masterfully used (albeit outdated, but I personally don’t care) animation, amazing music (courtesy of Hiroyuki Sawano, who provided us with music in shows like Attack on Titan, Guilty Crown and Ao no Exorcist. Seriously though. I love the music. Holy crap. I love everything Sawano brings), and a speed that barely catches its breath.
From the first 5 minutes, which will do a great job of pulling you into the show and giving you right off the bat what you expect from something termed “fast-paced”, to the epilogue sequence, Kill la Kill is something wherein you just sit back, watch, and enjoy.
Gamagoori is r00d
But that isn’t to say that it’s mindless fun. Considering these are the people who worked on and wrote Gurren Lagann, you can expect more than just ridiculous sci-fi action and cheesy dialogue – but it’s important to remember that this isn’t Gurren Lagann.
Upon watching both shows, I was disappointed to see how many people downplayed Kill la Kill’s quality factor because it wasn’t as good as Gurren Lagann in doing what Gurren Lagann did. The show pays homage to its creator’s earlier work, but doesn’t take more than thematical inspiration from the mecha shounen.
It’s faster in pace, focuses differently on the main character’s development, and possesses a very different feel. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a story in the epic genre – its a spiraling retelling of the Hero’s Journey over a universe-sized setting, and incorporates themes of loss and self-discovery in a heroic coming-of-age tale.
Kill la Kill’s coming-of-age aspects are obvious as well, and yet different. Simon, the main character from Gurren Lagann, enjoyed a more extensive coming-of-age tale, and literally grew from being a young boy to becoming a hero, while Ryūko Matoi, the main character from Kill la Kill, has a character development is built more so to compliment its speed.
That isn’t to say, however, that Ryūko is shallow – she’s a very well executed underdog, and a great character to root for. Her development is just different to Gurren Lagann’s – and in a good way. Trigger didn’t simply copy-paste what everyone knew they could do – they proved that they could do something else independently, and that is what Kill la Kill was supposed to do and succeeded in. Furthermore, many side characters from Gurren Lagann noticably lacked any real development, while Kill la Kill does a pretty good job of having everyone in the good guy’s main cast grow to likability.
On to Honnouji!
It proved that Trigger has talent and creativity. Sure, Kill la Kill doesn’t have anything that hasn’t been done before – but in the world of literature, you’ll be hardpressed to find something new, and Kill la Kill manages to twist things in a way that makes the cliches enjoyable in a refreshing way, from utilizing extremes and parodying tropes to just straight up being enjoyable, even if cliched.
But before I delve into the themes of Kill la Kill, a bit of a plot lesson, first. Kill la Kill’s plot isn’t one that requires much explanation, unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion’s plot, so I’ll simply summarize it below for the sake of reference, and to recap things for the people who’ve seen the show but could use a bit of a refreshing of memory.
The anime is starts in Honnouji Academy, a fictional island-sized high school in the Tokyo Bay area that houses not only its students, but its student’s families, as well. The entire island is ruled through a uniform-based caste system, in which the number of stars a student has on their uniform affects the student’s family’s lifestyle.
That’s actually a kickass academy. I’d like to study there.
Controlling this is Satsuki Kiryūin and her trusted Elite Four, with whom she enforces her rule as a totalitarian leader and fascist dictator. Our main character, transfer student Ryūko Matoi, arrives at Honnouji and confronts its empress, demanding to know her father’s killer, wielding half of a large scissor-shaped sword. Apparently knowing something, this sparks an immediate conflict between the two, yet Ryūko is outmatched by the Academy’s uniforms (called Goku Uniforms).
Bow down, you pigs in human clothing!
At her father’s mansion, she meets Senketsu, a talking sailor uniform capable of turning into skimpy battle armor at the cost of blood. Satsuki, seeing Ryūko’s superhuman powers far outstrip the capabilities of her school’s Goku Uniform, dons her own specialized sailor uniform – Junketsu.
The two duke it out, with Satsuki having a clear upper hand, when Ryūko realizes her instinctual reluctance to accepting Senketsu’s revealing appearance, and lets go of that in order to synchronize with her uniform and become more powerful. A recovered Ryūko then beats Satsuki to a standstill, only for the match to end in a draw as Satsuki demands that Ryūko beat all the other students first.
Over the course of several days, Ryūko fights student after student while making friends with Mako Mankanshoku, who offers her a place to stay. Ryūko’s homeroom teacher is revealed to be part of a paramilitary organization called Nudist Beach, fighting the Kiryūins and their use of Life Fibers (what makes the uniforms superhumanly powerful) from the shadows, and another member of that organization, Tsumuga Kinagase, appears seemingly to come and destroy Senketsu, whom he deems a threat, before realizing the emotional bond between them.
“I smoke wherever I want.”
After one of the Elite Four challenges Ryūko and loses, fighting her to a draw in the subsequent rematch, Satsuki reveals that Ryūko’s rampage through the school’s club system and her pitting the students against her was a plan to weed out the ineffective combatants in school. She then declares a Reprisal Election, and plummets the school into total anarchy for seven days, at the end of which is hosted a King Of The Hill Finale Battle for the position of the Elite Four.
The members of the Finale are, predictably, the Elite Four themselves and Ryūko, who has to fight them individually before facing Satsuki and learning about her father.
Ryūko defeats the Elite Four one by one, yet the tides of battle change when a strange woman appears on the battle stage just before she is to face the last member. The woman, introduced as Nui Harime, reveals the other half of the scissor blade and declares to be Ryūko’s father’s killer. Blood boiling in anger, Ryūko goes berserk on Nui, only to be outmatched. In her anger, she forces Senketsu to lose control and consume her, transforming into a blood-painted abomination.
I could do a tampon joke here, but my mind is flushed.
After the incident, Nui is banned from school grounds by a cautious Satsuki, and Ryūko, in fear of her temper, refuses to don Senketsu. Nui, disguised as a helpless whistleblower against Satsuki’s rule gets Ryūko to wear Senketsu again, and then cuts it to shreds. She’s kept from impaling Ryūko by an angry Satsuki, who takes Senketsu’s scraps and leaves a half-naked Ryūko on the street.
Ryūko is rescued by her teacher, while Satsuki, distributing the scraps among students, announces the beginning of the Tri City Raid Trip, an operation that plans to take control of the last three bastions of resistance against Honnouji in the Kansai region. Ryūko, who recovered Senketsu’s scarf, finds out through him that the raid’s students have the remaining pieces, and goes out to save her friend and put him back together.
During the raid, Kobe and Kyoto fall easily, yet Osaka stands firm in rebellion, and a raid war burns a large portion of the city down into rubble. Satsuki, the Elite Four, Ryūko and the Nudist Beach forces, who’s headquarters were stationed in Osaka, face each other in a battle, wherein Ryūko manages to complete Senketsu and fight Satsuki to a draw, forcing her to retreat after she’s taken out the majority of Nudist Beach’s forces – the true objective of the Tri City Raid.
Called back by her mother, Ragyou Kiryūin, Satsuki is shown thePrimordial Life Fiber, and back at the secret undiscovered section of Nudist Beach’s headquarters, Ryūko is told of the true nature of her father’s work.
She learns that Life Fibers are from space and use humans as a source of bioenergy, and that Senketsu was artificially built by her father to fight them before they manage to envelop and absorb mankind, while Satsuki learns of the Kiryūin’s tradition-bound duty to serve the Life Fibers and carry out their will, revealing the COVERS, living business suits being mass-produced by the Life Fiber.
Dashingly splendid, made of the finest space-fibers.
With the majority of the world’s clothing under the control of REVOCS, Ragyou’s corporation and Honnouji’s supplier of Goku Uniforms, Ragyou orders Satsuki to put a plan in motion that would sacrifice all of Honnouji Academy’s students and families to the Life Fibers, to activate them and begin their domination of the planet.
Ryūko returns to Honnouji in time for the sacrifice, just as Satsuki betrays her mother and declares her original intention to use Honnouji Academy and her army of students as a combat force to rebel against Life Fibers.
Teens do that sometimes.
A battle ensues in which Ryūko is revealed to be Satsuki’s sister, with Ryūko’s father, Isshin Matoi, being in fact Souichirou Kiryūin, Satsuki’s father and the scientist working on Life Fibers for Ragyou. Discovering her plot and seeing the full brunt of her evil after she nonchalantly uses her newborn daughter in a fatal experiment, he faked his death and founded Nudist Beach, saving the newborn, Ryūko.
The result of the experiment that purportedly killed her is the fusion of a human being with Life Fibers, explaining Ryūko’s constantly growing power. Ragyou also merged with Life Fibers, to an even greater extent, sacrificing whatever humanity she had left yet making her nearly unkillable.
The COVERS escape the mansion and begin absorbing humans, while the Elite Four and Nudist Beach retreats with Ryūko’s unconscious body. Satsuki, beaten and stripped of Junketsu, is taken prisoner by her mother, and Satsuki’s secret sword, Bakuzan, is broken and kept safe by her Elite Four.
Nudist Beach and Elite Four join forces, yet the COVERS destroy all remaining Honnouji Academies, nullifying Satsuki’s efforts. Ryūko, enraged by the truth and unwilling to put on Senketsu, dons a blanket as her only clothing and makes her way to Honnouji alone to face her father’s killer and her mother. The Elite Four, upon discovering that Satsuki is alive and in Honnouji, go after her.
Mothers shouldn’t make such faces when giving their daughters a smack on the bum.
Ryūko manages to nearly hold her own against Nui despite being practically naked, yet is tricked into being forced into Junketsu, which Nui has begun sewing onto Ryūko’s skin. Through mind manipulation, Ryūko falls into a dream world and is totally controlled by Junketsu, rising to ridiculous levels of power. Nudist Beach, unveiling its last trump card, the military carrier ship SS Naked Sun, arrive at Honnouji only to be greeted by a Junketsu-wearing Ryūko, after the Elite Four manage to extract Satsuki through helicopter.
Cruisin’ on a Naked Sun.
Satsuki wears Senketsu and uses herself to distract Ryūko long enough for a plan to be put into motion for her extraction from Junketsu, but it fails. Only when Ryūko’s best friend, Mako, makes her realize the fake reality of Junketsu’s mind manipulation does she break free of her hold. Ryūko tears Junketsu off while Nui arrives on the ship and keeps the Elite Four busy, only to be pinned down by a reawakened Ryūko.
This is what the fanbase wanted all along.
Covered in her own blood and in pain from tearing a sewn dress off her skin, Ryūko dons Senketsu and easily defeats Nui, cutting off her arms in the process. Nui is saved by Ragyou’s subordinate, much to her displeasure, while Junketsu is reconfigured with Satsuki’s DNA and Senketsu’s Life Fibers.
Nui, being the Grand Couturier of REVOCS, has been working on a secret Life Fiber robe for Ragyou, and, despite being armless, works in a frenzied rage to finish it with her teeth. Meanwhile, Ragyou’s COVERS have been building a Life Fiber transmitter in Honnouji Academy, with the intent to use to activate all Life Fibers on the planet.
Satsuki explains that her mother’s goal is for humans to become enveloped in Life Fibers, then for the Life Fibers to join and cover the entire planet, before using mankind’s bioenergy to destroy the planet and disperse Life Fiber seedling through the universe in the resulting explosion. Setting this plan in motion, Ragyou and the Primordial Life Fiber begin to fly towards Honnouji.
Life Fiber Drills to Pierce the Heavens!
Ragyou’s daughters intercept her and manage to distract her long enough for the Naked Sun to achieve liftoff and use its blade-like proportions to pierce the Life Fiber and shut it down. In a hysterical rage, Ragyou makes off to Honnouji and dons the robe Nui prepared – Shinra-Koketsu.
Talk about an extravagant wedding dress.
A grand battle ensues between Ragyou’s forces and Nudist Beach, and after a fight against their mother, Ryūko and Satsuki, each wielding a scissor blade, cut their mother down, while the Elite Four destroy the transmitter. She reconstitutes herself by absorbing Nui and the rest of the Primordial Life Fiber, and uses Shinra-Koketsu’s power to instead turn herself into a transmitter, flying up into space to her REVOCS satellite.
Ryūko absorbs all the remaining Life Fibers into Senketsu, and goes after her, and the two have a Dragon Ball Z-style final fight. Utilizing Senketsu’s special absorption ability, Ryūko completely destroys Shinra-Koketsu, foiling Ragyou’s plans and saving the planet.
In an effort to control her fate, the defeated Ragyou pulls her own heart from her chest and destroys it, committing suicide. Senketsu then sends Ryūko back to earth, before disintegrating due to absorbing too much power. Satsuki and the rest break Ryūko’s orbital reentry, ending the show.
Watching Kill la Kill, one thing becomes obvious – it’s got a ton of tropes and cliches. It’s not horribly cliched, but its story structure is one we’ve seen an endless amount of times. But that isn’t a bad thing. And it does a good job of throwing a few little (and pleasant) surprises onto us, despite the overall predictability. The whole thing is enjoyable and while the story’s structure is nothing new, it still manages to hype things up to epic proportions simply due to nigh-on flawless execution.
Many things in Kill la Kill ended up being better off as a cliche, and even if its got a lot of commonly used tropes, they’re well-executed and backed up with such enjoyable characters that you don’t usually care.
The show is also incredibly fast in its pacing. It knows what the audience wants to see, and makes sure the audience sees it very early on. Exposition is rarely given, yet its given in very simple and concise ways, and it that isn’t your thing, then every exposition scene has some other type of humorous factor going for it.
There is a part in the anime where things slow down a bit, but only to throttle back up into blinding speeds, to the point where, admittedly, the ending may feel rushed. On that topic, no, the ending wasn’t bad – it was good, in fact, but not on par to Kill la Kill, nor on par to the many animes and tropes that it pays homage to. Had it been, say, 10 minutes longer, it would’ve been easier to absorb and definitely would’ve given us time to fire the hype engines up to maximum power, yet the way things went, the lack of build-up between meaningful scenes took away from the potential of the end.
Furthermore, the art is crude – yet good. People may come out and say that its rather poorly drawn, and is explicitly cartoony, and I won’t say that that is out of choice. Sure, as a debut, Trigger can’t have thrown too much of its capital in this thing, and I imagine its purposefully crude to further distinguish itself from today’s high quality animation, call back to an earlier, retro-style era of animation with a less saturated palette and near lack of shading, and serve to amplify the show’s humor and old-school referential style – further shown in the handpainted backgrounds.
Either way, it doesn’t ruin the show – on the contrary, it manages to amplify the theatricality and humor, of which there is plenty, and compliments the show in many regards, including its extreme factor.
The fight scenes are, for the most part, beautifully animated, although there are a lot of times where Kill la Kill cheats. Sometimes, epic moments may be replaced with panning still images, or repeating animations, or lazy black screen sword slashes. But these are fairly excusable; if you pay direct attention, you’ll notice it, yet otherwise, it’s not much of an issue.
One visual thing I love about the show is its use of big red Kanji.
Stuff like this shows up a lot, with a nice satisfying *dun*
Whenever something is named or announced in an epic fashion, its written in bold red Kanji characters, and slapped over the screen. In one example, a camera change even revealed that these characters float in the air and give off a shadow.
Visual tricks are used to compliment Kill la Kill’s knack for taking things into a ridiculous extreme, taking things that would usually be subtle and blowing them out of proportion. A literal visual example of proportion Ira Gamagoori, for example, one of the Elite Four and the perhaps largest character in the show, is subject to various changes in size, from being about as large as a tall bodybuilder, to being so large that his upper body occupies about a third of a classroom, and his head an entire human body.
Another example is Mako Mankanshoku, resident comic relief character and a surprisingly well-done sidekick for the trope she plays, has a signature “argument” animation sequence of essentially a set of stills or two to three frame sequences of her doing various things over a few dozen second time period.
this is the key to combat enlightenment folks
Conceptionally, Honnouji itself is a concept taken to its extreme – taking the high school theme, fascism theme, and fashion theme and blending them to produce a kind of Battle Tower feel as you see Ryūko face all of Satsuki’s minions, and later providing the stage for all things epic.
The show does this a lot with various anime tropes, taking common scenes, quotes and memes (People Die When They’re Killed!) and making fun out of them through satirical deconstruction or just simple reference.
Going back to visuals, a major visual factor of the anime is its near-nudity, although the show does a good job at proving that the skimpiness and fanservice both has a purpose in plot and is presented in such a way that it isn’t meant to be arousing.
To clarify that – its a thematical reference to sexuality, both in a girl experiencing puberty and as a societal concept, yet the sexuality of a character’s appearance isn’t presented solely with the intent of arousal.
For example – in the earlier parts of the show, whenever Ryūko would get into Senketsu’s Life Fiber Synchronize form, there was always something to take away from the sexuality of the scene – the main focus wasn’t that she was wearing a revealing outfit, it was that she was in a major fight, and wearing Senketsu made her superhuman. Added to the fact that the various male character’s obviously obnoxious ogling helped in highlighting the primitivity in seeing her as nothing more than a sexual object.
From very early on, its obvious that Ryūko is a character. She isn’t a female object used in the show, but she’s a full-fledged character who’s likable from the start as both a badass, and a human. She isn’t a “strong female” trope, two dimensionally written to stave off the feminists. She loses her first fight, we discover the cause for her journey, and as a protagonist, she does a great job of being someone the audience can really get behind and root for. She’s a character, and a good one at that.
The fact that she’s a dynamic character rather than two dimensional eye candy further works in taking out the audience arousal from the skimpy scenes, boiling them down to their thematical importance, rather than their eroticism – which is still there in the form of cheap upskirt shots during fight scenes, but, in my opinion at least, works more along the lines of crude humor than blatant jerk material.
It isn’t to say that there is a lot of fanservice in Kill la Kill for the purpose of being fanservice – to the contrary, the fan-service is part of the show. It delivers. That’s what Kill la Kill does. It gives people what they want to see, whether its Satsuki in Senketsu and Ryūko in Junketsu, Ragyo being x-cut by her daughters in an epic team-up, Ryūko going “People of Honnouji, lend me your Goku Uniforms!” before going Super Saiyan, or Two-Star Mako making a return.
Mako isn’t very familiar with the first rule of Fight Club.
Plot-wise, Senketsu’s skimpy-ness in regards to Junketsu’s slightly less skimpy appearance is simple – the less skin a Kamui covers when powered, the less it has the ability to take control of the user – a design aspect her father built into Senketsu. Ryūko wears Senketsu, and Senketsu is worn by Ryūko.
It’s synchronization – Junketsu is incapable of that, thus, its transformation is dubbed “Life Fiber Override”, due to Satsuki controlling and subjugating the kamui through sheer will, rather than working with it cooperatively (an impossible feat due to the nature of Junketsu).
There is a theme in the sexuality of Senketsu and Junketsu that plays along with the puberty/coming-of-age theme in Kill la Kill, but more on that as we go through the themes.
Speaking of which, there are many broad influences and themes in Kill la Kill, ranging from obvious coming-of-age elements such as puberty, to subtle (and less subtle) yet prominent religious themes – and some historical references and wordplay.
Let’s begin with the wordplay.
The Romaji for Kill la Kill is Kiru ra Kiru, which is interesting, because of the many things Kiru means. First of all, Kiru can mean cut. It can also mean kill, as an English loanword and in Japanese. Furthermore, in modern Japanese, it can also mean to wear, or get dressed.
Seem familiar? Furthermore, there’s a play in the Japanese word for Goku Uniforms: gokuseifuku. Gokusei means high quality, while seifuku is the Japanese term for a schoolgirl’s sailor uniform. It’s also the Japanese word for conquest.
Finally, the kicker, specifically in inspiring the themes of Honnouji Academy, is the comparison between two foreign loanwords taken into Japanese – the first being Fassho, a loanword from German (or Italian) meaning fascism, with Fascho being German slang for a fascist (same going for the Italian: Fascio), and Fashhon, a loanword from English meaning fashion.
While these little wordplays may all be fun and games, they’re actually taken from historical context. Pre-World War II, Japan began militarizing itself, most especially focusing on the youth, making students wear military uniforms – a tradition of militarization that lives onto today. Girls wear sailor uniforms; seifuku, while boys wear the uniform of an Imperial Navy officer.
Honnouji Academy is under the fascist control of Satsuki Kiryūin, and what do the Elite Four, her enforcers, use to uphold the law? Clothes. Powerful fashion. The varying definitions of kiru are a no-brainer as well, and as Andy Lee Chaisiri, from whom I first heard of this comparison in his post linked below, Kill la Kill’s rather unrelated series name then becomes Dressed to Kill, which makes a lot more sense when you think about it.
It may be because of this and the Kill la Kill title itself that Trigger went out of its way to make sure no one was killed. Unless you consider suicide a kill, none of the major characters were killed by anyone but themselves. Every death in the main cast was some sort of suicide or self-sacrifice.
Anyways, seifuku meaning both schoolgirl uniform and conquest is a strange quirk, yet an obviously (and easily) exploited pun as well, considering Satsuki’s seifuku (called a kamui, due to its 100% Life Fiber composition) Junketsu, and her ambitions of conquering all of Japan’s high schools.
The whole bowl-cut routine represents a united, single-faced army.
Puns and wordplays are in abundance in the series itself, as well, most notably in the names of characters and objects, such as with the SS Naked Sun’s dagger mode being named Great Mappa Dagger, the pun therein being the similarity with the word mappadaka, which means butt naked.
There are various historical references in Kill la Kill as well, most prominently in reference to Satsuki – the first and most obvious is the name of her prized academy, Honnouji. There is one other Honnouji in Japanese history, and it’s the scene concluding the chapters of one of, if not the most ambitious conqueror in feudal Japan – Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga’s ambition was the glue that helped bring together a Japan divided among daimyo.
What a moustache.
While the Imperial House ruled Japan on paper, the true lords of the land were the individual daimyo controlling their own regions. In fighting and rivalry tore at Japan, with regions ravaging each other for dominance. Nobunaga managed to start a campaign to bring all of Japan under his control – but not before he was betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide at Honnou-ji, a temple in Kyoto. Believing himself safe in the heart of his territory, he appointed a minimal guard – a fact Mitsuhide exploited as he staged a total coup d’etat.
“The enemy awaits at Honnouji!” declared Mitsuhide before the coup – this exact same quote is said by Uzu Sanageyama, one of the Elite Four, after they discover Satsuki’s been imprisoned.
Seeing Mitsuhide overwhelm his forces, Nobunaga withdrew to an inner chamber in the temple and committed seppuku – ritual suicide employed by samurai to avoid death at the hands of an enemy.
There is dispute over the reasons for the coup, yet in any case, Mitsuhide died soon afterwards in battle, leaving Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in control of his legacy. Hideyoshi completed the unification of Japan, and later, Tokugawa began the Tokugawa Shogunate and controlled the nation.
They say Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end Ieyasu sits down and eats it.
Yet the relevance of this little history lesson is Honnouji’s significance as a place of betrayal – in the series’ case, its the betrayal of Ragyou at the hands of her daughter, Satsuki, who plays the role of Mitsuhide where Ragyou is Nobunaga.
Another reference is found in the scene where Satsuki first dons Junketsu, forcing her butler and the mansion custodian to watch and learn as she dominates the Life Fiber Kamui with her willpower and ambition alone. “Ask not the sparrow how the eagle soars!”
That’s a pretty awesome thing to say when you’re mentally conditioning a dress to fit you.
The quote appears in a 1976 book, A Course in Miracles, although I suspect the source is much older. In fact, In his initial analysis, Andy Lee Chaisiri quotes Chen Sheng, a 2nd Century BC Chinese warlord: “Little sparrows cannot understand the ambition of a great swan!”
In keeping with Satsuki’s themes of conquest, ambition and warfare, this makes more sense as a reference, with the former quote perhaps being nothing more than an English modernization and modern adaptation of an old Chinese proverb.
In this scene, Satsuki does what perhaps no other human would be capable of, donning and controlling a 100% Life Fiber Kamui whereas a 60% Goku Uniform took control over a student within seconds previously, showcasing the power of her ambition as something not understood by others. Her position of rebellion against her mother and her constant responsibility as one to play the part of a villain in order to build an empire may also play into the quote, as not only can her ambition not be understood, but her responsibility.
It may even be a reference to how teenagers feel during puberty, cherishing and exaggerating their individualism to help discover who they truly are, although that aspect of the quote may really just be me reaching to try and tie it to the show’s coming of age theme.
Satsuki’s other quotes are also quite powerful and possibly referential – one good example is “Fear is Freedom! Control is Liberty! Contradiction is Truth! That is the reality of this world!”, which some speculate to be a reference to George Orwell’s novel, 1984: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”, a dystopian piece of fiction set in a totalitarian police state built around surveillance and censorship.
The religious themes in Kill la Kill seem both foundational and added as flavor, as much of the anime is structured around a couple Buddhist concepts.
The earliest reference is both the Elite Four and Honnouji Academy’s tiered structure, which seem reminiscent to Mount Meru, the center of the universe spiritually and physically, and the residence of the Four Heavenly Kings.
Furthermore, Mount Meru is surrounded by a vast body of water, and Honnouji is an artificial island in the middle of Tokyo Bay.
Branching off from the Elite Four (Shitennou in Japanese), their characters play on several distinct themes – one, seen in their names, is that they all represent an animal – Gamagoori’s animal is a toad, Sanageyama’s animal is a monkey, Inumuta’s animal is a dog, and Jakuruze’s animal is a snake – another one is their similarity to the Four Heavenly Kings of Mount Meru – one king sees all, one hears all, one causes to grow, and the last upholds the realm.
Gamagoori upholds the realm. Inumuta hears all. Sanageyama sees all. Jakuzure causes to grow (if you know what I mean. Can anyone say “nani sore”?).
Another reference to such tenets are the characteristics of the Four Wise Monkeys – originally three, forming the Japanese saying: “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil”, a Japanese Buddhist proverb that forbids dwelling on evil thoughts. However, in this fashion, one simply has to ignore evil to be absolved of its malice, and such, over time, a fourth rule (and monkey) was added: “Do no evil.”
Gamagoori is a student hellbent on using himself as an example for discipline and punishment, pushing students to follow the rules and “do no evil”. During the series, Sanageyama sews his eyes shut to no longer rely on them and show resolve against Ryūko, allowing him to “see no evil”. Jakuzure’s music drowns out all other sound, allowing her to “hear no evil”, while when not talking, Inumuta’s uniform automatically covers his mouth, probably referencing the “speak no evil” part.
Far more subtle are some other references to Buddhism hidden here and there – such as Ryūko’s eyes looking like the Dharmacakra, or the fact that Isshin Matoi’s Life Fiber sewing device looked like a giant star mandala, the mandala being a symbol or kind of chart for the place of all things on Mount Meru.
There are a lot more subtle Buddhist references in the show, a large portion of which can be found in the referenced image.
Yet the other references that are far, far less subtle are, to name two very obvious ones, Ragyou’s crucifixion at the hands of Satsuki, and Ragyou’s poetic comparison of clothing being man’s original sin, what with Life Fibers giving man the Fruit of Knowledge through evolution, in exchange for the instinct to cover up our nudity (and feed them our lifeforce).
The biggest and most obvious theme in the show, however, is puberty. Puberty, the change from childhood to adulthood, isn’t just reflected thematically with this being the story of a teenage heroine, but also in a very physical manner.
By that, I mean the representation of physical change, and the responsibility and consequences of it, not to mention to power to be attained from controlling and getting over that change. The first instance of this is Senketsu itself, which represents what a girl physically goes through in puberty. When transforming, Ryūko’s hips and bust are accentuated, and Ryūko shows clear embarrassment – while it’s pretty clear why she’s embarrassed about fighting half naked, it’s the first clue to Senketsu’s meaning.
Next is his name, and his “berserk” transformation – both of which have a lot to do with menstruation. “First Blood” is what Ryūko names the sailor uniform when they first meet, due to Senketsu’s need for blood.
His bloodlust ends when Ryūko understands the key to Life Fiber Synchronization, and embraces her appearance and Senketsu as part of her and her own skin, using it to empower herself rather than be embarrassed.
At first, she’s put off by the ogling and the attention Senketsu’s gotten her, and she begins to use Senketsu as a means to an end, yet by no means feels comfortable in the uniform’s exhibitionist look. Yet by the end of the third episode, she’s grown to the point where the lowly opinions and constant gaze of the brainlessly-portraited male population of the show no longer matters – because it shouldn’t.
She wears Senketsu because it makes her powerful, because she needs to find out who killed her dad, and just because everyone else thinks her appearance is cheap or skimpy doesn’t mean she needs to share the opinion.
Tumblr user skaboyjfk makes an excellent point in that, rather than having the fetish look represent Ryūko and Satsuki as helpless sex objects, it empowers them to superhuman levels of strength and speed. They grow powerful in their appearance, despite the male gaze, making the point that “you cannot control the lens through which society views you, but it should never be a cause for shame. In fact, you are stronger because of it.”
Senketsu’s next clue towards puberty is in Episode 12 where, after being driven into a rage-fueled insanity by Nui, Ryūko’s rage makes a helpless Senketsu lose control, turning the two into a monster.
The entire arc’s red sky foreshadows the metaphor, with Ryūko’s pre-transformation rage being a reference to PMS, and her transformation being a reference to the uncomfortability, irritability and pain of menstruation, as shown by her twitching, painful form and the way her legs are positioned, as though desperately holding something in.
This bit I didn’t catch at all, but a very good essay explains that Nui, the trigger to Ryūko’s transformation, represents hormones and the rebellious anti-authority phase we all go through. Nui’s deceptive cuteness is an apparent metaphor for the way puberty sneaks up on you as everyone tells you how great it’ll be when you’re all grown up, while her being Isshin Matoi’s killer is a metaphor to how puberty leads to hormone-fueled rebellion between child and parent.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Another point in it is the significance of colors. Now, colors, throughout any kind of art, are very often symbolic. In Kill la Kill, this is no different. Let’s take a look at Satsuki and Ryūko, and their individual relationships to their kamui – their puberty. Satsuki forces Junketsu, which means “purity”, onto herself with the force of her will.
She refuses to let the kamui change her (a good thing mind you, considering its malice), and thus her colors are mainly white (purity), with hints of blue (change). She maintains her stance at a constant, and has stayed firm in character since her father disappeared.
This resolve is what makes her character powerful, yet at the same time, it also thematically represents an unwillingness to mature. Ryūko, on the other hand, dons Senketsu, who is mainly blue and red (adulthood), and as the anime weans on, all the way to the finale wherein she dons Senketsu-Kisuragi, we can see that her main color is more and more obviously red, indicating her rate of maturity.
Interesting thing: The kanji for Kisaragi is roughly metamorphosis, and this looks a bit like a butterfly.
The essay, which makes several more points towards the puberty theme in the anime, along with other sources, will be linked below.
The nudity vs. clothes theme is further portrayed not just through the two sisters, but, quite obviously, throughout the entire series in pretty much all characters. Clothes are equivalent to power, yet the power comes at a price – clothing, at first, is a symbol of hierarchical strength, with the number of stars segregating the strong from the weaker and weakest. It’s later revealed that the cost of this power is a relationship with Life Fibers whose purpose is to devour mankind for energy.
A kamui especially signifies this give-and-take relationship, at first with Senketsu drinking Ryūko’s blood, and later with Satsuki having to use an immense amount of willpower to don Junketsu. The eventual antagonism of Life Fibers is accompanied by the fullblown reveal of Nudist Beach, a paramilitary force of nude warriors fighting both symbolically and plotwise against Life Fibers. The thematical victory of people over Life Fibers is sealed when the Great Naked Dagger pierces the Original Life Fiber.
The ship then proceeded to lift off and fly through a giant piece of alien yarn. Kill la Kill, ladies and gentlemen.
The clothing + people theme is explored through the relationship of Senketsu and Ryūko, where, through caution and engineering, they have equal power and work in a symbiotic tandem rather than a master and slave fashion. The Elite Four’s Goku Uniform incarnations also explore this, as with each incarnation, they lose more and more bulk on their armor, revealing more and more of themselves and their character, rather than their antagonistic persona, with which they hid themselves at first. The Mark 3 Battle Regalia shows the most skin, to pay homage to their time as Nudists as they enter the final battle.
This shot is awesome. Enough said.
On a more “meta” point, the entire series comments on society in more than just our opinion of nudity and female degradation. It makes satirical notes on the concept of high school animes and possibly Japanese high schools in general (although I’d have to be living in Japan to be able to gauge that), as well as contemporary Japan’s dilemma of the possibility of remilitarization in schools, an ongoing debate over there.
Yet for all its subtle and obvious themes, for all its exaggeration and social commentary, what makes Kill la Kill truly enjoyable is the fact that its just fun to watch. The premise is ridiculous, the plot is rather simple yet its the show’s performance and delivery that makes each episode such a joy to watch. The humor, the action, everything’s done well with a minimal amount of issues, mainly in budget allocation and animation.
A couple sources: