Kill la Kill and Feminism

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Kill la Kill is my favorite show this season, despite the fact that it had a lot to live up to in my eyes.

Kill la Kill comes to us from Studio Trigger, a newer animation house formed out of ex-Gainax employees (Gainax, of course, being the studio of Evangelion fame). You could say that I’ve been following Trigger since before they were even Trigger. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is one of the most morally objectionable things I’ve ever seen. I quite like it. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is my favorite anime of all time. Little Witch Academia went a long way in justifying Trigger’s existence as a studio independent of Gainax, but that put Kill la Kill in the unenviable position of being the follow-up act. KlK had a lot to prove.

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You had me at “overt JoJo reference.”

Based on these first few episodes, I’d say that Trigger is succeeding in a pretty big way. It’s got a bit more PSG in it’s DNA than Gurren Lagann, which is a little disappointing on a personal level, but more than that, it’s a show with a unique identity and enough blazing visual flare to give a non-epileptic a seizure. That’s not really what I want to dedicate this column to, though. No, right now I’m more interested in talking about Kill la Kill in terms of the “F” word.

The dreaded “F” word, of course, is “feminism.”

Don’t misunderstand me; know that I don’t have any issues with feminism as an idea or a movement; only that it has the mysterious effect of lowering I.Qs whenever it’s brought up (to be fair, this is mostly seen in males). Some men get overly defensive whenever it’s even suggested that feminism is positive or necessary, and the discussion tends to become… unproductive.

Anyway.

Kill la Kill is a story centered around female characters; furthermore, it displays these characters in various states of undress as an integral part of the narrative. Naturally, the show has inspired a rash of debate from various sides of the feminism/sexism issue. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see why people would take offense; KlK is a visual orgy of jiggling boobs, bouncing booties, and lovingly illustrated crotch-shots. As such, The Comment Box Morality Police will tell you that Kill la Kill is a shallow, lecherous affair that’s more concerned with its fan service than its plot. Even the show’s male characters are enamored with the eye-candy, with more than one gag centered around a character becoming utterly incapacitated by bare skin or a panty flash.

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Pictured: Kill la Kill’s audience, as depicted by the show’s detractors

These gags center around the conceit that males become powerless upon viewing the bare female form, and that’s a decent segue into the opposite side of the argument, which sees the series as something of a female empowerment fantasy. In the world of KlK, one’s clothing directly determines their level of physical and social power. One-Star Goku Uniforms, though able to bestow great power on their wearers, are full-body outfits that show very little skin. On the opposite end of the spectrum, series protagonist Ryuuko possesses a uniform known as a Kamui; at full power, the Kamui transforms, concealing just enough skin to allow KlK to stay on the air. Antagonist Satsuki wears a Kamui as well, and together, the two are the most powerful individuals in the series.

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Here, we can see Trigger drawing an overt link between power and sexuality. Not only is Satsuki a physically dominant character, but she is the top dog of Honnouji Academy, the show’s main setting – by proxy, she also controls large swaths of Japan. She’s no brainless ditz, either; thus far, her scheming has demonstrated an ability to not only outpace Ryuuko, but her own subordinates as well. Despite (or rather because of) all of this, Satsuki is able to don her Kamui, Junketsu, and lay herself bare while fighting Ryuuko. Her nakedness while within Junketsu, and her sexuality, are all a means to an end – the forceful domination of Japan.

Kill la Kill reminds me very much of an American film that came out last year. The parallels between them, at least from my perspective, are downright eerie. Both possess a strong, distinctive visual aesthetic. On a more personal level, Both KlK and this film were created by directors I like and admire. I very much looked forward to this film before it came out. It also tackled difficult ideas pertaining to sexism and feminism. It tried to communicate similar themes of sexuality-as-empowerment. You might remember the film I’m talking about:

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Oh.

Yeah. I didn’t like this film. Critics didn’t like this film. Pretty much nobody liked this film. And that’s not because nobody grasped the “message” either. The prevailing complaint against the piece is that, despite an attempt to equate sexuality with power, the characters that were supposed to be “empowered” weren’t particularly interesting or memorable… and in the absence of compelling characters, the film was a visual mess of sexy ladies bouncing around, firing guns, and swinging swords. Sound familiar?

Now, I will say that, from a pure story and character perspective, Kill la Kill is leagues ahead of Sucker Punch. If you couldn’t already guess, I’m kind of in love with Satsuki, and I think she steals every single scene she’s in… and not because she’s sexy (though she very much is). Furthermore, for a story about “feminism,” there are a number of strong male characters as well. Specifically, the last few episodes have introduced and fleshed out Tsumugu and Sanageyama, respectively. When talking about the male characters, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the shockingly sexy homeroom teacher, Aikurou Mikisugi.

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I haven’t seen such pristinely rendered abs since… uh… Free.

Still, I have lingering issues about calling KlK a feminist piece, and they’re largely in line with why I wouldn’t say the same about Sucker Punch. Take a look at who created the two works, and you’ll see two male directors: Zach Snyder and Hiroyuki Imaishi. The question is, if the theme for Sucker Punch and Kill la Kill is “Female Sexuality = Power,” is that a truly valid viewpoint when it’s coming from a male perspective? I can’t exactly see Catherine Bigelow directing anything along the lines of KlK.

Let me pause and explain why I feel at least a little bit qualified to comment on this issue. I was raised in a household where the primary breadwinner was my mother. My mom went to college, got a degree, hated her career, changed her career, and now runs a business that sees her rake in six figures on an annual basis.

To me, “female empowerment” is not naked chicks flying around bonking each other with swords (as awesome as that may be). From my perspective, one of the best written female characters in recent anime came from otaku community darling Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika. With only a handful of scenes, Kaname Junko (Madoka’s Mom) did more to portray what I see as a “feminist ideal” than Kill la Kill has in seven episodes.

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When does HER movie come out?

Furthermore, if Kill la Kill is meant to be a female empowerment story, how does one explain the scenes of overt sexual violence that seem to crop up every episode? Ryuuko is constantly at the receiving end of rape “jokes.” The very first episode in particular left a really bad taste in my mouth the first time I watched it; it contains a scene in which Senketsu, Ryuuko’s Kamui, is so desperate to be worn that he pins her against a wall and strips her down, literally forcing himself onto her. The dialogue here is very disturbing as well, with Ryuuko firmly resisting Senketsu’s advance, and Senketsu overtly ignoring her in his attempt to be worn. This scene isn’t alone, either; episode two features a scene in which Ryuuko awakens from unconsciousness to a mouth-breathing fat man looming over her. In fact, this is a disturbingly common scenario for Ryuuko – waking up in strange men’s homes, or being pinned powerlessly to the ground by a male character.

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Tasteful.

Bringing back my earlier points makes this all the more disturbing. When Ryuuko bares her body in her Kamui, she is competent, courageous, and powerful… but when she’s not leveraging her sexuality into strength, she’s constantly the victim.

Now, let me clarify; I highly doubt the boys at Trigger are creeping into their writing room to discuss all of the ways that they can undermine ladies in any given episode. But that’s what’s so insidious about deeply ingrained sexism. It can bubble up to the surface regardless of any good intentions series composer Kazuki Nakashima may have. Maybe even this article is sexist. It’s not like any women approached me asking me to write this. Maybe women don’t feel objectified or belittled by this show at all. Maybe they resent all these boys trying to drum up unsolicited sexism debates on their behalf (I’m making an assumption as to the core audience of Kill la Kill, here).

I have first hand evidence of this, in fact; I sat a female friend down to watch the first episode with me, way back in the first week that it aired. I wanted to gauge her reaction to the nasty pseudo-rape sequence, and her response was… nothing. It didn’t bother her. In fact, Senketsu’s desperation and exaggerated antics even elicited a chuckle. I found that I had been effected by it way more than any girl I knew, and I ended up even feeling a little silly.

All in all, it’s a little early to be making sweeping judgments about Kill la Kill‘s worthiness as a feminist piece. We’re only about a quarter through the show, and the story has a lot of ground to cover. Regardless, it’s good for any show to get otaku thinking about gender issues. While I do believe that some moe, some harems, and some fan service are good for the male soul, they’re not typically the most stimulating of conversation pieces (to say nothing of other stimulated regions). I’m glad Kill la Kill is around to make us all a little uncomfortable. And if Kill la Kill isn’t making you uncomfortable… consider being receptive to that! You might find that giving yourself something extra to think about will make the show a richer experience.

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Kill la Kill is streaming via Crunchyroll, Hulu and Daisuki.

Kill la Kill still images via Crunchyroll

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6 responses to “Kill la Kill and Feminism

  1. It’s not that they are in a revealing outfit, it’s that they can be comfortable in it and not worry about people gawking or criticizing them that’s what is empowering.

  2. Pingback: FEATURE: Fanart Friday – Home Library Edition, Vol. 3 | We, The Otaku: Daily News!·

  3. Between the overt male gaze shots and the sexual violence, I was actually cringing a bit while watching. It had me partially reconsider whether I really want to watch it despite being a huge Trigger/Gainax fan.
    I was less uncomfortable watching Panty and Stocking.
    I’m a woman myself, but I was watching it with my boyfriend and he was also uncomfortable. I’m still watching it, but not devouring it four episodes at a time like I thought I would before it came out.

    For a show with female empowerment involving less clothes that elicted a girls-‘hell yeah!’ reaction from me, I’d say Gunbuster (the original, not the sequel Diebuster) would rank highly.

  4. I think this is a very interesting article to read.
    I first watched KlK because a friend, knowing I’m a feminist, recommended it to me because of the badass ladies. However, I only made it to the second or third episode when the rape jokes and fan service became too much for me. My female friend who suggested I watched wasn’t bothered by this at all, and didn’t think I would be. I think it’s odd that we could have such different reactions to the show.
    Also, I love how you brought up the mom from KnK. My mother was the bread winner as well, and that’s what I view as the feminist ideal.

  5. I seriously doubt that Trigger is thinking of female empowerment at all, and find it more likely that they just like bombastic fights and sexy girls, and decided to put those two things together. (Fighting girls can be drawn in more dynamic poses, and action sequences allow for more jiggling fanservice occasions.) Perhaps the sexuality=empowerment point that some people like to make is merely an excuse to continue making the bodies of female characters the subject of sexual gratification.

    I think you are pretty cool (and not at all silly) for being sensitive to the sexual objectification in the show, even if your friend wasn’t.

    What scares me is the thought that although the over-the top fanservicing of Kill La Kill that some may think is pushing the limits now, would be wholesome in comparison one day, if some of the audience now are desensitized enough to regard KLK’s extreme fanservice and suggested rape scenes normal and nothing to fuss about. (Because that’s the thing about pushing the limits. It lowers the bar on the norm.)

    Thank you for an excellent article.

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