Part 2 of my Kill la Kill series. Today’s theme: feminism, magical girls, and growing up.
The mahou shoujo genre of anime is among the more popular genres as it contains many classic series, old and new (Sailor Moon, Precure, Princess Tutu, Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica to name a few). Sailor Moon really defined the genre for Western audiences and I’ve explored in the past how it directly ties femininity with power and why such ties are important. Furthermore, the magical girl story is the coming of age tale for girls. This post makes some excellent points about that.
Mahou shoujo stories are, at their core, expressions of what it’s like to grow up as a girl. Though it shares some of the same basic principles as the young boy’s coming of age story, as the post I linked above highlights, the act of existing and becoming a woman in this world is vastly different–and in many ways far more dangerous–than growing up and becoming a man. The magic of most magical girls sends a message that girls do have power and said power is found in the things they may use every day as expressions of their femininity (makeup, jewelry, and sailor fuku). Some mahou shoujo series are cheery and generally hopeful (Sailor Moon) while others are bleak and cynical (Madoka).
A magical girl series is not necessarily one with a sentai team who fights evil monsters, although that’s a common plot element in many stories. Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne and Princess Tutu feature magical girls who mostly act alone. They’re also not necessarily lighthearted, positive, or optimistic. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a prime example of that.
The point is that I think the definition of mahou shoujo is much larger than just anything that that nods to Sailor Moon. I’ll call something mahou shoujo if it A) has a female protagonist who acquires/has magical powers, B) said powers are activated by a transformation, and/or C) said powers are bestowed upon the girl by something/someone that does not or should not logically exist in the real world (a talking cat, a talking Kyubey, a sentient school uniform).
Kill la Kill easily fits into the pattern of a magical girl show. Female protagonist (Ryuko) encounters a talking magical creature (Senketsu) that gives her super powers, which she can access via transformation (Life Fiber Synchronize).
Much of KLK’s plot is also very shonen: protagonist seeks revenge, gains amazing fighting power, becomes more and more godlike with each upgrade, engages in over-the-top fights with a million bosses, and has a (mostly) side-lined sidekick/cheerleader/love interest (yet I would not categorize Mako as poorly written or glossed over in any sense). As it’s an anime that references, parodies, exaggerates, and celebrates just about everything that came before it, I’m not surprised that the story crosses over several genres.
Transformations are a huge part of magical girl stories, so I thought it’d be interesting to compare Kill la Kill’s transformations with those of other series. Though I didn’t find any shot-for-shot parallels, I did find that some transformations involve sexier outfits than others. This, of course, is very subjective, but here are some transformations I think result in a revealing/sexy outfit in the vein of Kill la Kill:
- Sailor Starlights:
- Specifically, Sailor Star Fighter and Sailor Star Maker’s second transformations cut to their breasts and lower waists, which happens for both Satsuki and Ryuko.
- Really, every Sailor Moon transformation does this, but the Starlights also have the most revealing outfits.
- Panty & Stocking:
- Goes without saying–in my opinion, this is more overtly sexual than Kill la Kill.
Femininity and Power(?)
In my post about Sailor Moon and feminine feminism, I noted how Sailor Moon–and the magical girl genre in general–directly ties the power to save the universe and fight wars against aliens with typically feminine items (female school uniforms, jewelry, makeup, etc.). On one level, KLK does exactly this: the power comes from the Kamui, which are girls’ uniforms. When Ryuko and Satsuki transform, the Kamui take on an even more “feminine” form. Scanty outfits, with all the debate they bring, are by and large associated with femininity and women. So, on a surface level, as Ryuko’s outfit becomes more feminine via transformations, she gains more physical/magical power. The same goes for Satsuki.
Nudity in Kill la Kill is complex and exists for more than just the sake of nudity. At the start of the series, when the status quo is being laid out, nudity is associated with shame and weakness while clothing is associated with power. The status quo of KLK needs this dichotomy to achieve its goals and maintain the current oppressive social structure. Yet early on, we’re given hints of some people reclaiming nudity from shame and using it to actively resist Ragyo and the Life Fibers. I’ll come back to this in a later post, but one of the manifestations of this framework is within femininity and growing up as a girl, but it’s not always an empowering process.
First, there’s Senketsu’s rape/assault of Ryuko in the first episode. To call it anything less or dance around it with excuses would be disingenuous. Like many similar scenes at the start of other magical girl series where the heroine doesn’t understand what’s being presented to her (Usagi repeats what Luna says exactly without questioning why), Ryuko has no control over what’s happening to her and actively resists Senketsu to no avail. Even though the two end up building a genuine friendship and discover that they are essentially one in the same, that does not take away from this moment where Ryuko is made powerless by clothing. Specifically, a type of clothing that is often required for girls to wear to meet certain standards of acceptability. We see this highlighted later when Ryuko fights Gamagoori and he attempts to mold a transformed Ryuko into an ideal female student.
Women have a complex relationship with clothing thanks to how steeped the clothing made for us is in patriarchal culture. Countless of young girls, myself included, have struggled with clothing and self-esteem. We’re trained to think “I don’t fit into these clothes” rather than “these clothes don’t fit me.” We ask things like “Does this dress make me look fat?” as if fatness is bad and the dress has power over how the world perceives us. Girls are simultaneously hypersexualized and shamed from showing any bit of skin (look no further than the ridiculous suspensions of female students in public schools for what they’re wearing). At the end of it all, girls are steeped in a culture where clothes really do have power over us. Required uniforms and dress codes are ways that female bodies are controlled outside of our consent. Clothing (or lack thereof) is one of many things that become a powerful force for girls’ and women’s self-esteem.
I see this assault and Ryuko’s subsequent expressions of discomfort showing off her body as an exaggeration of this. It’s a simple, obvious, and shocking way to point out things that often take more critical thinking to realize. With Senketsu, Ryuko gets forced into both the required uniform/dress code aspect of girls’ experience with clothing and the over sexualized aspect that contributes to the shame of her own body while showing it off anyway. Ryuko says that she “hate[s] to get undressed in front of people” (episode 3). Senketsu’s most powerful form becomes more disturbing when Mikisugi suggets that his design is merely her father’s personal taste. At this point, it seems like the Kamui really just exist to appease the straight male gaze–can they really be considered empowering? That’s left for the audience to decide. However, the story does much more than shrug its shoulders and leave it at that. We learn much later that, since the Kamui are made of 100% Life Fibers, they had to be designed in such a way that the wearer can maintain control of themselves/their will. This meant minimizing the surface area that the clothing covers. The scanty Kamui have another purpose besides simply being sexy outfits. They come to embody the shame in nudity, the power in clothing, the power in reclaiming nudity from shame, and the idea of using an agent of oppression (Life Fibers) against oppression.
While Ryuko’s initial relationship with Senketsu is one in which she’s constantly ashamed and has no control over how she looks or how this is all happening to her, Satsuki’s relationship with Junketsu is one where she is constantly in control–the complete opposite of Ryuko. Junketsu, “purity,” is initially presented to Satsuki as her future wedding dress. However, she decides when she needs to take its power and she doesn’t let anyone stand in her way. She defies the orders of the male steward who is technically in charge of the Kiryuin household in her mother’s absence and begins changing her clothes without regard to his presence. A blinding light appears in this particular instance of Satsuki’s nudity, which at this point emphasizes how high above she is from what she considers “the values of the masses.”
In her fight with Ryuko, Satsuki makes one of several dramatic, impressive speeches loaded with strong rhetoric. When Ryuko (weakly) mocks Satsuki in her “exhibitionist getup” (and is thereby perpetuating the internalized misogyny she has put herself through thus far), Satsuki declares, “This is the form in which a Kamui is able to unleash the most power! The fact that you’re embarrassed by the values of the masses only proves how small you are!” Satsuki has taken the male gaze and the shame in nudity and reduced them to values of those she dominates. As the person in power of Hounnouji Academy, she is far, far above anything that would be of major importance to the generic one-star students, including the objectification and criticism of a revealed, naked female body. By relegating male objectification to a “value of the masses” she is essentially diminishing and conquering a worldview meant to oppress her as a woman. For Satsuki, there is no shame in her own nudity despite the fact that in the culture she created/rules nudity is shame. This highlights how leaders of oppressive structures are able to conduct the very acts they ban/look down upon without criticism. She has such tight control that no one can question her bending her own rules and whatever limiting oppressions or negativity her society contains are not powerful enough to affect her because they’re all just “values of the masses.” Satsuki has no shame in wearing the Kamui. If it means gaining power–if it means destroying a mother who is controlling and abusing her–she will do whatever it takes.
The big question is, of course, does Satsuki’s reclaiming/subversion of the norm actually work? For herself as an individual, it seems to, and it provides a glimpse into a vision of a world without Ragyo–a sort of eschaton (already/not yet) that I’ll get into in another post. Practically speaking, it only works for her and in the real world, this method of undermining objectification does not work for all women everywhere.
In the first arc of the anime, we see nothing but a Satsuki who has complete control over everything around her. She is 100% comfortable with the form the Kamui takes and has better control over it than Ryuko does of Senketsu. In fact, her joining with Junketsu is the exact opposite of Ryuko meeting Senketsu. While Senketsu clearly assaults Ryuko and reveals how she lacks control, Satsuki completely dominates Junketsu and forces herself onto it. “Even a Kamui is merely a garment and I will make it bow to my will!” she says. If Junketsu is sentient or has a will, we never see it and Satsuki totally disregards it anyway.
Satsuki wants Ryuko to adopt her framework–to stop being ashamed of wearing a Kamui and to actually, truly wear it. We learn later on in the series that Satsuki was shaping Ryuko into a powerful ally the whole time and one of the first steps Ryuko must take toward that end is to adopt Satsuki’s ideology. Of course, in episode 3, Ryuko is far, far from accepting anything Satsuki has to say, but with Mako’s intervention, she finally gets it. “The reason why you were drinking so much blood is because I was rejecting you out of embarrassment! The more my heart was closed, the more you yearned for a blood connection!” she says as she unlocks Senketsu’s full power. By accepting the Kamui’s form and understanding the power that comes along with doing so, Ryuko spends less energy (and less blood) worrying about how exposed she is. In a way, she has accepted this portion of Satsuki’s worldview and has risen above the values of the masses.
Of course, the other side of this is that it could all be read as Stockholm Syndrome. Is Ryuko really empowered by accepting the form of these clothes that she didn’t want to wear in the first place? Does this example of sex-positive, anti-slut shaming feminism actually achieve its goal, or is it still belittled by the reality of objectification? While the self-acceptance and self-confidence aspects of this scene are positive, I’d hesitate in fully labeling it a feminist triumph simply because it only seems to work on an individual level (with the hope/projection of it working on a systematic level) and the circumstances behind both Ryuko’s and Satsuki’s acceptance of their bodies, the Kamui, and their power involve some questionable, nonconsensual acts that create uncertainty about any of this really being empowerment. Different audiences will have different takes on it–some see more beneficial aspects of it, but for others it’s a deal-breaker. Personally, I felt more encouraged when I watched this scene and when I thought about why, I realized that I completely identify with Ryuko’s view of her body. Before I learned to be proud of my body, I, like Ryuko, was very embarrassed by it. Exposing any amount of skin besides my arms or calves made me very uncomfortable, partly because I lacked self-confidence and partly because I was taught that my body was something sexual that needed to be covered lest my brothers in Christ stumble (commence eye-rolling). It wasn’t until I started unlearning all of these things and accepting/loving my body for what it was that I not only felt comfortable wearing a bikini, but empowered. So as I watched Ryuko accept Senketsu’s form (which is very much like a bikini), that subconsciously struck a chord with one of my own experiences of coming of age and accepting myself. By no means is this everyone’s experience, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to have this same reaction to Kill la Kill, but I think this is one reason why many women can relate to it.
Still, it’s not perfect and even though Ryuko becomes comfortable with herself in a Kamui, this doesn’t stop others from imposing their views on her. One of the more telling moments related to oppressive views is when Ryuko fights Gamagoori and the following exchange occurs:
Gamagoori: Where do you get off anyway, modifying your sailor uniform into that slutty outfit?! How utterly depraved! How utterly deviant!
Ryuko: What about your precious Lady Satsuki, then?!
Gamagoori: She is an exception! Her form is made up of her iron will and well-trained body.
Ryuko: Don’t give me that self-serving garbage!
Gamagoori wants to mold Ryuko into an ideal student. “This mold is of the ideal, proper female high school student. ‘A proper spirit starts with a proper shape.’” He has a literal shape of a female body that he is literally trying to force Ryuko into and it is physically painful. Here is a man trying to force an actual alive woman into an inanimate mold or ideal that pleases him, not to mention his hypocrisy in allowing Satsuki’s scantiness, but not Ryuko’s. Gamagoori’s role and character as the enforcer of all rules makes the metaphor even more powerful.
In another moment toward the end of the series, Ragyo perpetuates an idea of how a lady should act, shaming Ryuko’s recklessness as she fights. Both events highlight how peers, parents, and authority figures constantly try to regulate the female body/femininity and which versions of it are acceptable. Gamagoori’s view especially shows that Satsuki’s ideology as described earlier currently only works in theory and it only fully works for her (this could also suggest that Gamagoori has feelings for Satsuki and thus makes him biased).
One last word about the series’ nudity: in my opinion, most of the female nudity is actually non-sexual. I’m not denying the presence of fanservice because it’s most definitely there, but I think we often have the tendency to see a naked female body and automatically assume that it’s sexual just by its mere presence. The female nudity is certainly more sexual in the beginning, which is why many people stop watching, but as the story becomes serious, instances of nudity are more connected to this power/shame structure that frames the Kill la Kill universe rather than appeasing the straight male gaze.
Growing Up is Messy
Coming of age in Kill la Kill involves all of the mess and chaos described above and then some. However, there’s one final stage that Ryuko especially must reach before her journey is over. In Senketsu’s words, “The time comes when a girl outgrows her sailor uniform. From now on, wear whatever you want.” At the end of the day, Senketsu is just a school uniform and eventually, Ryuko will graduate from high school and will no longer be expected or required to wear a uniform. Just as Ryuko gained power through her complicated experience with a school uniform, she must ultimately let it go to begin the next stage in her maturing process, one that we only see hints of between episode 24 and the OVA.
Additionally, growing up is uncomfortable. I think this is the most obvious during Ryuko’s transformation sequence. As she dons Senketsu, a complicated example of what it means to come of age as a girl, she looks like she’s having growing pains at one point.
There might also be some connection between periods, growing up, and the gallons of blood throughout the series, though nothing in the series jumped out at me about this. Still, periods are part of many people’s coming of age (regardless of gender) and would fit within the show’s theme of growing up.
Kill la Kill is many things and a coming of age tale is one of them. Though it’s covered with a lot of other genre elements, it ends where just about every high school anime about girls does: with a graduation. I think this is one reason why it’s become such a favorite. Everyone can relate to growing up no matter who they are, and this is a story that deals with that in its own, over-the-top way.
Next week: You Pigs in Human Clothing: A Theology of Clothing in Kill la Kill