Part 3 of my Kill la Kill series. Today’s theme: Religion coopted into an oppressive force, blood covenants, crucifixions, and atonements.
Now is the part where I get all Christiany. I’ve briefly mentioned before that Kill la Kill presents a dichotomy in which clothing is power while and nudity is shame. This divide is the foundation of the social structure in which Hounnouji Academy operates. Clothing is associated with power (physical, mental, and socioeconomic) while nudity is associated with shame, disgrace, and powerlessness (all of which is reclaimed and subverted as the series continues). This is the kind of world that Kiryuin Ragyo wants to build and maintain. One way that Ragyo supports this system is through what I am calling a misappropriation of the Genesis 3 story, which describes the fall of humanity.
Ragyo alludes to this in one of her first major speeches of the series.
Ragyo: I put this question to you, gentlemen, what is clothing?
Mass of corporate clones: Clothing is sin! Man’s original sin!
Ragyo: Indeed. Clothing is sin. When man ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became ashamed of his nakedness and covered his nethers with fig leaves. From the time humanity first gained free will as human beings, it has been his fate to cover his body in the clothing called sin. Clothing made by REVOCS is sold in 90% of the world’s countries and control an overwhelming share of the market. Why is that? Because we alone know man’s sin and create clothing for clothing’s sake! I put the question to you again! What is clothing?!
There’s a lot going on here, but before I dive in, I have to note that some of the language I’m going to discuss in the series may come from “best guesses” in terms of translations–in other words, many parts of Kill la Kill use language that signal something religious (specifically Judeo-Christian) to me, but since Christianity in Japan doesn’t seem to be much more than something exotic/cool to use in stories, it could be the case that some words/ideas were translated into English to use Western religious language so Western audiences get the basic idea. I can’t tell because I’m not an expert in Japanese. So, I proceed with this caveat made–that the theology I’m finding in Kill la Kill is not concrete or absolute and was likely not intended to be as deep as I’m going to make it out to be.
But that’s what’s fun about analysis.
Ragyo the Religious Misappropriator
At her core, Ragyo is a villain whose form of evil is taking things that are not meant to be evil or abusive and making them so. She misappropriates sex, motherhood, clothing, theology, and queerness by tying all of them to power and oppression. She can be boiled down to an evil capitalist or a twisted clown (and by extension, a misappropriator of childhood joys).
So, in her speech above, she’s twisting a few things to fit her/the Life Fibers’ agenda. She connects clothing to original sin and understands the existence of clothing as a consequence of Adam and Eve a) becoming aware of their own nudity and b) being ashamed of it. Clothing is a reminder or sign of original sin, but Ragyo’s wording here (or the translation of it) may also suggest the general sin that humanity has covered ourselves with since the original fall. Ragyo’s version of the story suggests that nakedness is the original sin and that nudity is inherently shameful. This is a common misunderstanding of the text–some even say that sex is the original sin, which inaccurately equates nudity with sex. Genesis 2:24-25 says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (NRSV). Combined, these verses can suggest that a) sex is healthy and natural and b) nudity is not inherently shameful and Adam and Eve were aware of their own nudity before either of them ate of the tree.
The original sin is basically the act of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There are thousands of ways to unpack that, but some understandings are that they aspired to be like God and have God’s knowledge before they were mature enough to handle it, or that they didn’t trust God enough. Whatever the interpretation, committing this original sin–gaining the knowledge of good and evil (whatever that may mean)–is what causes Adam and Eve to feel shame in their nudity. Christian Naturism makes some interesting points about the acceptability of nudity specifically among Christians that fit comfortably with Nudist Beach’s view on clothing and their dedication to deny the shame in nudity to destroy the Kiryuin’s social structure.
Ragyo needs the world to believe that there is shame in nudity in order for her system to stay standing. This not only helps her sell more clothing and increase her wealth, but it also helps Satsuki impose a socioeconomic hierarchy on an entire town solely based on what type of clothing the school children have.
Ryuko: “There’s a pretty distinct gap between rich and poor.”
Mako: “Well, it’s a city ruled by Lady Satsuki. Top-tier students get put into the exclusive residential area. Lower-tier students like us get the slum.”
Ryuko: “Your position at school also determines where you live?”
Mako: “Yep! Pretty straight-forward, right?”
In the KLK universe, nudity is shameful and clothing alleviates that shame with power, but clothing (Life Fibers) has its own purposes for humanity: namely to use them for feeding and reproduction. Ragyo is the grand conductor for all of this and benefits greatly from tying clothing with social, political, economic, physical, and mental power. Shaming one state of human presentation (nudity, the natural state) pushes all of society to desire and need another state (clothed). Having this form of power is a sign of privilege and prosperity, which people will fight to protect (see the Mankanshoku family in episode 7). This sort of power feeds the oppressive system that Ragyo needs to accomplish her goals.
Ragyo subtly appeals to religious stories to support this world she has built. This is a practice we readily find in our own world. She twists it just enough to suit her needs (and conveniently leaves out the part where God gives Adam and Eve better clothing upon their expulsion) so that people are too busy trying to use clothing to survive rather than questioning the system at all. Only Nudist Beach (and likely Satsuki) has any clue about the Life Fibers’ true nature because they have radically resisted the fundamental framework of the social structure in which they find themselves.
On a minor note, Ragyo’s rainbow aesthetic could be read as a misappropriation of the rainbow God makes at the end of the Noah story as a sign of God’s covenant with him. What is meant to be a symbol of peace and never destroying again becomes tied with destruction itself.
With the power of the Life Fibers, Ragyo builds a world where clothing becomes equivalent with access to resources and a higher quality of living. She spreads Life Fiber clothing all around the world via capitalism (her company REVOCS) and connects the need for clothing with a deep-seeded religious text that at the very least is familiar to most people around the world. At most, it’s authoritative. This connection not only compels people to buy and wear clothes, but it also gives them a taste of the power they can wield with clothing made of Life Fibers. If people want to wear clothes to preserve their social standing, then it’s much, much easier for the Life Fibers to feed once they’re awakened.
This is how Ragyo misuses theology (among other things) and why she needs to misuse it. She needs to find the most covert way possible to realize her vision of a silenced world made of one cloth. She needs to tap into very deep human needs and traditions to emphasize certain insecurities (nudity) and make her entire system work. By incorporating religious ideas specifically, she can be understood as a personification of corrupt religion.
Kamui and Blood
One of the most powerful manifestations of Ragyo’s vision is the Kamui Junketsu. Junketsu is meant for Satsuki, although we learn later that she can’t wear it properly according to Ragyo. However, since Satsuki’s transformation is called “Life Fiber Override,” I think Satsuki is wearing it wrong on purpose, making its form on her match that of Senketsu on Ryuko so she can wield the power of a Kamui without it totally taking over her. When Ryuko wears Junketsu properly in episode 20, it’s covering most of her body and she has no control over herself. Satsuki may have some sense of this, which is why she exerts such extreme control over Junketsu from the start.
“Kamui” typically translates as “god,” although it’s rooted in Japanese mythology so I don’t think its use in Kill la Kill is invoking a Western understanding of God. I watched the Crunchyroll subtitles, which don’t translate “Kamui,” but I’ve seen clips of other subtitles that translate it as “Godrobe.” Translation nuances aside, it’s clear from the context of the show that the Kamui are otherworldly. With minimal understanding of how they work and where they come from, they could be interpreted as spiritual or divine because the power they hold is stronger than any human can fathom. They also relate to/connect with Ryuko and Satsuki in a spiritual way: blood covenants. This is made most explicit when Satsuki dons Junketsu for the first time. “Come, Junketsu,” she says. “This red blood is the eternal vow between you and I. The red thread of our covenant.” Again, this could be a case where the translation uses language that would be more familiar to Western audiences, but isn’t quite describing the religious context it’s coming from. Even so, blood oaths are a common spiritual element in many religions, so I think the Kamui are being equated to something spiritual.
The blood bond between the Kamui and their hosts maximizes both of their power. In this sense, it’s right to call it a covenant since both parties benefit and the bond is deep. Conversely, neither girl’s initial relationship with their Kamui is consensual. If Junketsu is anything like Senketsu, then he should be a conscious being, but he is either not sentient or Satsuki overpowers his will that much. She imposes the blood covenant onto him. Senketsu does this to Ryuko as well, though the full power of their covenant doesn’t manifest until she completely accepts it. This, however, can still be seen as a forced or coerced covenant and is not fully aligned with any Christian understanding of covenants (that I’m aware of).
If the blood that Kamui consume is a sign of a spiritual bond/contract, then Senketsu’s self-sacrifice in episode 21 (to save Mako from Junketsu!Ryuko) closely parallels a Christian understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. When Senketsu sheds this covenant blood (spilled by an act of violence under oppression), Ryuko finally wakes up from Junketsu’s spell. She realizes that she is being controlled and she uses Senketsu’s gift to tear herself away from Junketsu. Blood washes over her as she’s restored to her own self, so this entire scene becomes a sort of atonement or salvation. Ryuko vows that she will always wear Senketsu, even though returning to reality means death to the ignorant bliss she lived in under Junketsu’s control. Salvation can entail recognizing that what seems happy and normal is just an illusion, and in a Christian context, it most definitely means that the life ahead is not guaranteed to be painless. Though it’s often a path of struggle, it’s also a path that ensures greater self-awareness, a greater ability to see oppression for what it is, and a promise that that oppression can be overcome.
Crosses appear in tons of anime, many times because they’re cool, and typically don’t represent anything too deeply religious. Kill la Kill goes over the top with the cross imagery, as with everything else, especially in the second half of the series.
There’s even a crucifixion scene.
I chalk the crosses up to two things: 1) the cool factor of using crosses/Christian imagery for funsies and 2) the fact that Hounnouji Academy’s crest is a cross and the whole school is actually Satsuki’s training ground to fight Ragyo. In this sense, Satsuki is reclaiming a religious symbol to fight against something that’s also using religion to achieve its goals.
The Crucifixion of Kiryuin Ragyo
I think it’s pretty obvious that this scene where Satsuki seems to kill Ragyo is meant to be a crucifixion. Ragyo is pinned on a cross-like structure and two barbs pierce her wrists. Ragyo is a symbol of an abusive, oppressive Church given the way she misappropriates theology for her own selfish purposes.
So, Satsuki killing her here is actually pretty powerful. Ragyo embodies so much systematic power that seeing Satsuki do this is liberating. Satsuki is both a perpetuator and a victim of her mother’s system and for her to bring an end to it specifically in a manner reflecting a significant religious event shows that oppression can be humiliated and killed. Christ’s crucifixion was meant to mock him and the power he claimed to have. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “It is finished” right before he dies and Satsuki says this same thing (in the Crunchyroll subtitles) when she delivers what she believes is the final blow to Ragyo. Furthermore, Ragyo is wearing clothes and clothing is power now made powerless in this moment.
However, even in crucifixion and her apparent demise, Ragyo is still a misappropriation of a Christ figure. Not only does she not actually die from this, but her “death” is not sacrificial and doesn’t really overturn anything since it’s not really her death. But again, all Ragyo needs is to look like Christ without truly being a representation of him. This ties into how she misuses the Genesis 3 story. She comes close enough to embodying religious truths and symbols to disguise all of her evil actions and ambitions with divinity.
The Crucifixion of Matoi Ryuko
Ryuko, too, experiences a sort of crucifixion, though it’s not quite as obvious as Ragyo’s. But while Ragyo’s crucifixion only mirror’s Christ’s in appearance, Ryuko’s is a little more closely aligned in significance. It has more of a story and ends with a mental resurrection. Ragyo’s crucifixion is one where power and control are put to death, but Ryuko’s is one where she is so severely stripped of control that she completely loses her sense of self.
It begins in episode 20 when Junketsu is first forced upon her. I discussed this part of the series through a queer theory lens in my first post and now I’m pointing out some Christian theological elements to it. I think episodes 20-21 introduce a lot of significant plot and character themes that can certainly be read in a hundred different ways.
Just as Ryuko is about to attack Nui (again), Junketsu appears (in a cross shape; fancy that).
Before she can even react, her arms are forced out to her sides and she’s pulled into the air.
And Junketsu is forced on her, resulting in the death of Ryuko’s own sense of herself. In this total powerlessness, Ragyo sexually abuses her and she goes on a rampage. The power of the kamui has completely overtaken her and while it feeds her illusions of happiness, her reality tries to break through to her. Specifically, it’s Senketsu’s sacrifice–his spilled blood, which is covenant blood, that awakens Ryuko and leads to this:
Complete nudity, Ryuko’s self brought back to life, and showers of that covenant blood washing over her. This atonement not only restores Ryuko to wholeness, but it also exemplifies the upturning of Ragyo’s social system. Nudity should be shameful, but here it isn’t because Ryuko is loudly and forcefully resisting the power of clothing–what wins in Ragyo’s system–and reclaiming nudity from shame and degradation.
Christ, too, was naked on the cross. His death was meant to be humiliating and final and take control away from him, but he resurrected, showing that oppressive systems do not win and that illogical events, such as rising from the dead, are catalysts for unraveling them.
I use a liberation theology approach here to talk about Christ’s death and resurrection simply because it’s a closer fit to what I see happening in Kill la Kill. As far as the individual salvation understanding goes, the closest hint is Senketsu standing in the line of fire to protect Mako when Ryuko attacks. However, I don’t think the personal sin and salvation interpretation is present in Kill la Kill. This doesn’t mean that the two concepts can’t fit together at all, just that Kill la Kill isn’t doing anything with the latter.
Ryuko isn’t a perfect metaphor for Christ. Her motivations are personal until she realizes that the fate of the entire world is at stake. She also readily resorts to violence and has no qualms killing anyone who stands in her way. Christ was angry and critical of his society, but he wasn’t violent. Also, at no point in the series is Ryuko framed as a sacrifice for anything, nor does she willingly go into something that she knows will kill her for the sake of the entire world. She may not have Christ’s attitude, but she certainly experiences some things that, in a way, align her with Christ.
Nudity and Clothing in Scripture
Besides Genesis 3 and Christ’s crucifixion, there are other instances in the Bible where nudity is tied with some sort of spiritual condition or is contrasted in some way with clothing. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) each contain a story in which Jesus heals a demon-possessed man and sends the demons (Legion) into a heard of swine. Mark and Luke both suggest that the man was naked while he was possessed. Mark 5:15 says “15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.” Luke is more overt: “27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” It also later mentions that once the man was healed, he was “clothed and in his right mind.”
In this story, the man’s state of nudity is directly related to his possession, or his spiritual state. He is naked and isolated from society and overwhelmed with evil. His state is despicable, decrepit, and arguably shameful. This story would fit very easily into Ragyo’s framework of making a state of nudity something to avoid at all costs while making clothing signs of right-mindedness and power. There are even some loose ties between this story and Satsuki’s oft-repeated mantra “You pigs in human clothing.” Pigs were considered unclean animals for the Jewish people (based on the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy), so a story of demons being sent into a whole herd of them reinforces this idea. Though the man should not be defined by the demons, they were in him for so long that they could’ve just became who he was (in a sense) and Jesus casts out who he was into a bunch of pigs. And afterward, will the other villagers see him as anything more than that? Will he always be a man whose evil essence was cast into unclean animals? “You pigs in human clothing” comes off as derogatory and connotes uncleanliness/unworthiness. It most literally refers to how all of humanity becomes food for the Life Fibers, but Satsuki is always saying it with some more figurative meanings. Since she has been resisting her mother from the start, perhaps she understands that something about the people around her/below her needs to be cast out in order for all of them to truly fight for their freedom. This doesn’t mean that Satsuki is right or that her methods are justified, but this phrase of hers is certainly one of many examples of her balancing her resistance with making sure Ragyo doesn’t suspect her. So while the phrase sounds like something that perfectly fits Ragyo’s ideology, it could have other implications.
I don’t think Kill la Kill is really trying to overtly do anything with stories in the Bible aside from Genesis 3, so these connections I’m making here are really more the result of connotations.
Other parts of Scripture equate stripping clothing with reverence to God or being so filled with God’s spirit that they tear off their clothes.
- In 1 Samuel chapter 19, Saul becomes overwhelmed with God’s spirit and strips.
- In Isaiah, God commands the prophet to walk around naked, which in context seems to be about both obeying God and warning of things to come.
- Many Biblical figures tear their clothes in anger or despair.
- Sometimes, tearing off clothes–willful nudity–is a resistance against whatever might be happening.
Though the tearing of clothes is certainly a cultural thing, it’s clear that the Bible contains some important, complex relationships between clothing and nudity. If Ragyo wanted to, she could easily find more accounts from the Judeo-Christian tradition to further support her vision of the world.
Fully Clothing, Fully Human; Neither Clothing, Neither Human
One of Kill la Kill’s major plot twists is the revelation that Ryuko is made of Life Fibers, which explains why she stays alive when she should be dead, why she heals so quickly, and why she can sync perfectly with Senketsu. After first discovering this, Ryuko understands herself as neither human nor clothing and has an existential crisis. Yet later on when she and Senketsu are flying into space for their final confrontation with Ragyo, they both declare, “We are neither human nor clothing. But at the same time, we are both human and clothing! We are everything!” These illogical statements not only contribute to the overturning of Ragyo’s logical world, but they also parallel dominant theological understandings of Jesus: that he is both fully God and fully human. Jesus needs to be fully human to triumph where Adam failed and restore all of humanity to God. He needs to be fully God to actually not fail where every other human has. It’s a difficult concept to grasp and opens up a host of other questions because it’s illogical. The nature of Jesus and God goes beyond human logic, but we can sort of grasp what it means with our limited perception and understanding. Likewise, Ryuko and Senketu’s nature as fully clothing and fully human, but also neither clothing nor human, reaches beyond the limits of their world and the structures Ragyo has built.
Ryuko and Senketsu accept that they were born in a world where Life Fibers-clothing–would eventually rule. Though they were both created for this purpose, they fully deny it in their nature. Ryuko especially struggles with accepting that part of her identity is that which she’s been fighting against this entire time, but she comes out of that struggle knowing that her nature–who she is–is not what she was initially made for. She may be clothing, but she defies the seemingly inherent part of clothing that is parasitic and can be coopted for oppression because she is also human. Senketsu is also more than clothing as he has free will, empathy, and the same drive to preserve humanity that Ryuko does.
This is how they can simultaneously identify themselves as both and neither. They exist as a paradox, something unpredictable that cannot fit in the kind of world Ragyo wants. In Kill la Kill, this idea of illogical, crazy, and unpredictable people/plans foiling Ragyo’s objectives becomes a major theme in the later episodes. In the end, these things that don’t make sense triumph and humanity is freed from the Life Fibers. Ryuko and Senketsu need to exist outside of Ragyo’s framework for them to have any chance of defeating her.
Ryuko’s entire fight throughout the whole series, while rooted in personal revenge, becomes a fight to uproot a very messed up social system. In some ways, she’s not too dissimilar from Christ in that she’s a revolutionary and openly challenges the status quo without pulling her punches. There’s her dual nature as human and something more than human, as well as her blood covenant with Senketsu. Her father even acts as her John the Baptist. He’s eccentric and head-hunted by Ragyo, just as John the Baptist was a target for Herod Antipas. Most importantly, he prepares the way for the only one who can truly defeat the Life Fibers–the one who is fully life fiber and fully human.
Ryuko and Senketu’s true nature cannot be confined by the system of their world and that nature gives them the power to bring about the end of it–to remake a world without Ragyo and without Life Fibers, and take the first steps into a world where oppression is over.
Next week, the final post: Kill la Kyriarchy: Building and Destroying Power Structures