[Note: This post is relatively spoiler free, and contains work-safe images!]
Watching the first few episodes of Kill La Kill felt a little like being chained to the back of a speeding car while intoxicated. The pace is relentless and the visuals are nothing short of wacky, even cartoonish, and the show overall takes no shame in being camp, voyeuristic and completely ridiculous. I had two main questions when watching this much-discussed (can you say controversial and problematic fan service?) piece of hallucinogen in animation form: first of all, why is this so entertaining? And second, what is it trying to tell me? Just because one of the main characters is a talking, blood-drinking, transforming school uniform that grants superpowers, doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have anything intelligent to say, damn it.
Kill La Kill follows seventeen-year-old Matoi Ryouko on her quest to discover who murdered her father, which takes her to the top of a tiered, segregated academy town to a high school where your uniform determines how much power you have. No really—they’re infused with Life Fibres that grant the wearer superhuman abilities. Thus, the higher you rank in the social ladder, the more you’re capable of flinging your fellow students into a madcap spectacle of a battle filled with shouted attack names, mech-suits, star effects and big red text.
As Ryouko discovers when she finds her father’s secret lab, the most powerful of these are ‘Kamui’—‘godrobe’, in some translations—costumes made entirely of Life Fibres that bond with their wearer by drinking their blood (and strapping them into a cringe-worthily revealing outfit, but we’ll get to that later), granting the ability to be the ass-kickiest of all ass-kickers in this hierarchy based on ass-kicking. Ryouko dons one, as does her rival, student council president and iron-thumb ruler of the Academy Kiryuin Satsuki. What follows are a series of intense, zany head-to-head fights as she works her way through the student body to get to Satsuki at The Top, convinced that that way lies knowledge and revenge.
Naturally, the big focus here is clothes. Saying they’re integral to the plot is an understatement and a half, whether they’re the bust-clamping thigh-strapping cringe-inducing Kamui or the regular uniforms. Is the series making a comment on a sleazy culture that forcibly sexualises maturing girls? Maybe, but if so, they’re suffering a not-so-small case of hypocrisy, so let’s leave that out. You don’t have to indulge in the dreaded scourge of “reading too much into things” to notice a theme of power, where it comes from and what people do for it and with it. This ties in with clothing, quite literally: fashion is power. This is a prominent facet of our own real-world culture, of course, but Kill La Kill gets to play with the idea and its scariness as only sci-fi and fantasies can.
Especially fitting since the series centres around a high school (initially, anyway–the series flips off its own status quo partway through), which are generally populated by teenagers growing up and trying to find their place in or make their mark on society. In uniform-free schools fashion becomes a huge part of the process of establishing identity (even if there are enforced uniforms, hairdo, accessories and even your gosh-darn stationary becomes a part of this anyway) and in its own way hierarchy. You know the jam. The cool kids have the most fashionable clothing, wear the right brands the right way et cetera, and different social groups can be picked out by the fashion movements they follow and how much money they spend on looking good every day. If you can’t afford the right labels, you will be filtered out as Not of A Certain Social Calibre. And of course, if you do have a school uniform, it immediately signifies where you attend and can become a tool for showing off status too. Too bad for the less financially privileged kids who could never hope to meet those expectations, of course. It becomes a classist thing as well as simply a cliquey one, like fashion always has been.
It’s stupid, but it continues well beyond high school halls and into the adult world. Hell, there are entire industries devoted to telling people what to wear and looking down their noses at the people who do it wrong or evade the advice entirely. And like I said before, it becomes about class. Since people have been making clothing they’ve been making statements, showing off what they can afford and thus filtering out the poorer people from a glance. Fashion equals power.
In Kill La Kill this is taken to a whole new level—clothes are literally power, and literally inform anyone looking of the wearer’s social standing. The number of stars on your uniform denotes how much power you have within the student body and also where your family lives in the tiered Satsuki-topped layer cake of the Academy town. No-Stars get the slums—if you’re underachievers or average students, you get no special powers attributed to you and your family lives in poverty. An episode follows Ryouko’s only friend Mako becoming a club president, thus earning Star status and elevating her family into better living conditions, only for her and Ryouko to be turned against each other in a final test of Satsuki’s—to rise, you see, you must step on other people.
Later in the series Satsuki enforces a ‘naturals election’ (like natural selection, geddit?) where she flat-out tells the student body to fight it out and whoever is left standing will have their Star status reinstated or raised. She makes a point of running a very Darwinist and militant society in her little corner of the world, complete with a very 1984-esque mantra and allusions to the rise of dictatorships like Hitler’s, the history of which is being taught in the first class we see before its foreshadowing is interrupted (the main villain is even working to engineer a super race). Again this ties back into fashion: Satsuki points out that Japanese school uniforms are inspired chiefly by military uniforms, and the Life Fibres allow her to forge clothes that can physically be used as a force of war as well as sending a visual message.
And of course when you fail you lose this status and its symbol, which is demonstrated wonderfully with Ryouko’s finishing move, which is to slice her opponents’ clothes to shreds leaving them powerless and nude (STRIPPED of the WILL TO FIGHT! as the Big Red Letters helpfully tell us). Ryouko’s main weapon is even one half of scissors big enough to be swords, and the terrorist organisation Nudist Beach (yeah. Yeah.) that opposes clothing and all the attached implications use a sewing machine gun (like a machine gun, but a sewing machine!!), grenades shaped like spools and paralysis dart clothespins. There is no shortage of nodding to the importance of textiles.
Which turns out to be a hell of a plot point and not just invoking Serious Business like anime has the uncanny ability to do. As the series progresses and we learn more about Life Fibres, their origins and those who would abuse them, the concept of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with clothing comes into play. Just because we wear the pants in this relationship (badum tss) does not mean we are necessarily in control. We need clothing to survive and succeed, do we not? Is it the clothes that, proverbial or otherwise, really wear us?
Tying into this is the issue of how embarrassingly revealing the Kamuis’ battle modes are. The trick is, Satsuki proclaims, to not be embarrassed at all, because shame cuts off the connection between godrobe and wearer. Through shaking off her confidence issues Ryouko is able to take ‘Senketsu’ to full calibre. Feminist message about the empowerment of body positivity, or excuse for blatant display of underboob? Again, we’re not goin’ there. That way lies madness*.
But it does bring up the power theme again—to achieve that power, the girls have to buy into and compromise themselves for a system that preys on them. They are literally paying in blood, as well as leaving themselves on display to be ogled (as many of the side characters make a point of doing, even the good guys). Behind the scenes, it turns out it’s not just wearing the Kamui that has major characters compromising themselves and donning a certain appearance to achieve power. What would you sacrifice for the upper hand? Your dignity? Your innocence? Your humanity?
There are mech suits. There are living uniforms. There are sword scissors. There is blatant, physics-defying fan service and shovelfuls of silliness. I’m not trying to waltz out onto a limb and proclaim that Kill La Kill is a misunderstood work of genius carefully concealing high political philosophy within action craziness to bring it to the masses. But the show is definitely saying something—is it that we’re all haplessly linked to our clothing and the system of society it represents? That many systems that grant empowerment also exploit us? That people with glowing rainbow hair are not to be trusted?
In the end, red threads of fate aside, it’s up to us to figure that out.
*DISCLAIMER: I am not claiming this show is ~super progressive~ or that I approve of the mechanics of it. The fan service doesn’t bother me as much anymore, because I think like most viewers I’ve become desensitised to it (also, though the focus is on Ryouko, every character loses their kit at least once in the series especially towards the end, so you could argue it’s equal-opportunity), which is uncomfortable in and of itself. There was absolutely no need for the outfits to take the shape they do except to get a fledgling studio a hook-load of new fans so they could get off their feet, and frankly the excuse that it’s empowering is well-meaning, but ultimately a cheap trick.
I surprised myself by enjoying this show. It’s got a fun cast of characters, some crazy anime action sequences, a bunch of interesting concepts to play with and a great soundtrack. This is all not mutually exclusive to it being horribly problematic. Thank you and goodnight, my dears.