The last post in this series. Today’s theme: how KLK’s oppressive systems work and how they’re dismantled.
Kill la Kill presents a very overt metaphor for systematic privilege and disenfranchising. At its core is a dichotomy between nudity and clothing. Nudity represents total shame and disgrace while clothing affords socioecomonic standing and respect from others. This is particularly exaggerated at Hounnouji Academy and the surrounding town. A student’s performance at school earns them a certain uniform level. The higher the level, the more resources their entire family gets.
This is the kind of system that Satsuki runs. Though we learn later on in the series that she’s trying to build herself an army to stand against her mother, she still perpetuates systematic oppression in order to do so. Episode 4, “No-Late Day” especially highlights just how arbitrary the system is and how much it burdens those who aren’t among its privileged.
If you want a really simple, yet over-the-top systematic oppression 101 lesson, you can find it in this episode.
“No-Late Day” puts the entire well-being of the lowest sector of society (the no-star students) on the line by threatening them with expulsion if they do not complete a test with the deadliest, most ridiculous obstacles imaginable. Said test determines their standing in society and where they can live. There are literal barriers to education in the form of deadly spikes, traps, ramps, bombs, and other ridiculous things barring the students’ entry into Hounnouji Academy. As for everyone above the no-star level, they get a nice, cozy, armored bus ride up to the academy. Not only do these barriers only apply to the no-star students, but the rules of the game keep changing as they go along. In true Kill la Kill fashion, there are 1,000 checkpoints to get through before the no-stars “pass.” The one-stars are even given orders to “prevent them from reaching school with extreme prejudice.”
By making this system so over-the-top, Kill la Kill presents some otherwise subtle issues in very obvious ways. It takes our discomfort with nudity and complex relationship with clothes and amplifies it into the foundation of the world’s social structure. Keeping people desiring clothing and fighting for better clothing makes it easier for Ragyo to achieve her objectives in the shadows. Of course, Hounnouji Academy needs to play up these extremes even more because of Satsuki’s true objective to rebel against her mother. “The power of my parents, of others, I will exploit everything to my ends!” she says. “But I am the one who uses it! I absorb all their power and make it my own!” When she makes this declaration (in middle school), she sees no other way to escape her mother’s abuse than to use those same methods.
Still, Satsuki plays the role of oppressor for the first half of the series. In a more sympathetic light, she’s a victim of the system made into an oppressor. While the latter may be the truest, her pride in her Hounnouji Academy/Town system isn’t something to brush off. She makes it clear in almost every episode that she has no regard for anyone who’s weak. However, Satsuki creates and maintains this system not for the sake of the system itself, but to destroy another system (her mother’s). This is why her own rules don’t apply to her–why things that should shame her and make her powerless (nudity) actually don’t. She is Lady Satsuki and she gets a free pass.
Like her mother, Satsuki needs to create illusions to maintain her power. In episode 8, she holds an election to “restructure” her system. Those students who fight their way to the top can earn a coveted spot on the student council. Aptly dubbed “Naturals Election,” it promises a change of social standing at the cost of selfishness and destroying each other. Whoever is fit to be privileged will gain privilege, but it becomes clear that the whole struggle is just an illusion. The Elite Four go off on vacation while all the other students fight. None of them are truly in danger of losing their positions. They are Satsuki’s hand-picked inner circle, people whom she chose to give the most powerful goku uniforms besides the Kamui. In the end, the same people are still in power, but they keep it under the guise of a fair competition. The audience is meant to see through this and so does Ryuko, obviously, but as far as the rest of the students at Hounnouji Academy go, they likely see it as just.
Why does this system work? How are Satsuki and her mother able to create such arbitrary social structures without challenge? Ragyo provides a basic analysis in Kill la Kill’s infamous bath scene. This scene is important for a number of reasons. It’s a follow-up to the main villain’s delayed, but powerful introduction and it’s one of the first scenes that reveal Satsuki’s own powerlessness. Ragyo says:
“Humans are such frail things, aren’t they? When they become naked like this, they become so unbearably uncomfortable. They are immediately overcome with the desire to cover themselves in the miraculous thing that is clothing. That is instinct. A species that defies its instincts will eventually meet with extinction.”
I discussed before how Ragyo reinforces this idea with an appeal to Biblical texts (that she misappropriates), but her system, and subsequently Satsuki’s, works by manipulating a basic fear of or shame in nudity. Here, Ragyo tries to naturalize it by suggesting that not feeling discomfort in nudity or explicitly denying the inherent discomfort or shame is a fast track to death and destruction. Not only does she exaggerate the shame in nudity, but she makes that shame normal and acceptable. This fits with her larger agenda to make sure COVERS spread all over the world. Normal, upstanding, healthy people are ashamed of their nudity and will naturally wear clothes as a response. Ragyo ensures that those clothes are her company’s clothes, embedded with life fibers that will awaken and consume the entire human race.
Satsuki, who has declared that she will use her parents’ methods or any means necessary to achieve her goal, imitates this in her own microsystem of Hounnouji Academy/Town. To increase the value of clothing, she creates the goku uniforms, adds ranks to them, and attaches those ranks to an individual’s standard of living. Theoretically, it’s possible for someone to move up the ranks. Practically, it takes Satsuki’s blessing or a sheer disregard of the system altogether.
“Will they destroy this academy, or be assimilated into it?”–Satsuki
In episode 7, Satsuki temporarily grants her blessing to Mako and Ryuko in the formation of Fight Club. She lets it go on simply because she’s interested in seeing what comes of it. If she couldn’t reap any benefit, then this “exception” wouldn’t have occurred at all.
“More stars mean a better life,” Mako tells Ryuko in this episode, hinting not for the first time at how desperate her situation really is. Her family lives in a cramped house in a dumpy neighborhood because Mako is a terrible student and therefore doesn’t have a goku uniform. Her lack of a powerful uniform translates into a lack of socioeconomic power which keeps her family more concerned with just getting by than critically thinking about the system that rules them.
However, everything changes when Fight Club attacks. Mako and Ryuko form this club as a response to Satsuki’s command for all club presidents to fight Ryuko. Since Ryuko is too busy fighting to manage the club, all of those responsibilities fall to Mako. Of course, to become an “official club”–to start gaining power and privileges in this society–Mako must fill out an ungodly amount of paperwork and constantly prove the club’s legitimacy.
Yet Fight Club presses on and as its success continues, the Mankanshoku’s economic standing improves. In a matter of minutes, we see the family’s quick rise up the financial ladder and how much they lavish in their newfound riches and comfort. Now, they benefit from the system and have the security they’ve always wanted.
But something’s off and Ryuko is the first to notice it. The more material wealth the family gains, the more distant they are from each other. They forget where they came from and how they related to each other before they gained financial privilege. Ryuko misses the family dinners, crazy as they were, because she never had those connections growing up. Perhaps on a deeper level, this entire situation helps her understand that playing in Satsuki’s system doesn’t work. It’s not enough of a goal for Mako’s family to simply climb up the ladder. The ladder is useless in the first place and even if Fight Club persisted, Mako would probably never make it to three-star rank because Satsuki has an entirely different code for who gets to hold those positions, and it all has to do either with who impressed her in her childhood or who she felt had enough resolve to fight for her real objective. Though the rules of the system are simply that a better performance grants one a more powerful uniform, and therefore a better standard of living, those rules fall apart when you go higher up the ranks.
Mako’s not necessarily trying to get to the top rank. Her main concerns are first helping Ryuko fight all the other club presidents to meet Satsuki’s challenge and then, once her family secures financial wealth and stability, to preserve that position at all costs despite how it’s changed the dynamics of her family. Mako is desperate not to go back to being poor. As the episode reaches its climax, they all turn against Ryuko to protect their life of privilege and luxury. To make Mako even more reluctant to resist the game like Ryuko is doing, Satsuki gives her a two-star uniform. With that uniform, Mako has more power to protect her newly gained privilege and her drive to fight for it makes it clear how desperate her family’s normal situation is even though they put on all smiles.
Satsuki puts a more pessimistic spin on it:
“Observe, Matoi! This is human nature in its purest form! Prosperity will lead to greed, and greed will lead to their eventual downfall! Once they have a taste of worldly pleasures, they’re enslaved by them forever! They’ve become slaves to this academy I have created! Truly they are pigs in human clothing! Pigs! Which must be tamed by force!”
So, Satsuki sets Mako against Ryuko, paralleling how oppressive systems always seek to make the oppressed fight among themselves. In response, Ryuko only defends herself and then she completely resigns, letting Mako beat her up until sundown.
Then, something clicks for Mako (it could be Ryuko’s cute smirk or something deeper) and she remembers what’s really important to her. She then willingly gives up her power and strips her uniform to let Ryuko destroy it, resulting in a nudity that subverts the values this system needs to thrive. It’s a slap in the face to everything Satsuki has built and maintained.
Nudist Beach: Reclaiming What is Shamed
Nudist Beach is the only organized resistance against Hounnouji Academy and against the Kiryuin conglomerate. Of course, they are over-the-top with their ideology and methods. From their name to their methods, Nudist Beach exists as an extreme and for much of the series, they don’t come across as a very substantial threat to the established order. This is typical of radical groups. Nudist Beach’s ideology seems downright crazy, yet it’s a radical response to a radical power structure, and can be summarized in this quote from Marcella Althaus-Reid’s The Queer God: “We are proposing an end to the worship of clothes or, as in Klossowski’s novel, locations of power.”*
This is why Tsumugu believes so strongly that people and clothing can’t be friends, and why his first reaction is to resort to extreme measures to get rid of clothing. He saw Life Fibers–power–destroy his sister and he sees it destroying the rest of the world.
To combat this kind of destructive power, one has to deny their pleasures altogether and then seek to undo the rest of the world in that same fashion. This is Nudist Beach’s goal in reclaiming nudity and turning it into a place of power. We see this become a reality later on in the series when nearly every major character standing against Ragyo dons a Nudist Beach outfit.
As far as Nudist Beach is concerned, they can’t accomplish much by working with the system other than spying on it, though they eventually recognize Ryuko’s role and nature as being in the system but not of it. They are not taken seriously because their starting point is so abnormal. Why take pride in nudity? Those who become naked in Kill la Kill tend to arrive in that state via a stripping of their power. Someone else takes their agency, their social position, etc. away from them and they quite literally have nothing left.
But what about those who choose nudity–who choose shame? By choosing it and being proud of it, clothing loses its power and threatens Hounnouji Academy and Ragyo. Mako resists like this as I described above. Ryuko and Satsuki accept this in how they wear their Kamui. Nudist Beach actively lives this and aims to get their message across in whatever way they can.
Don’t Lose Your Way (of Resistance)
Kill la Kill presents several different ways of resisting power structures. The most obvious is Ryuko’s way (amplified by a catchy, memetic theme song), which is a vocally non-compliant, non-hesitant challenge to every rule she encounters. Even her character design reflects her utter disregard for structure.** The more power she gains with Senketsu, the more asymmetrical her hair gets and the more jagged shapes appear on her outfit.
Nudist Beach’s way is an active and vocal resistance, though they have a sense of staying on the down-low and finding ways to sneak into the system without being noticed.
Satsuki’s way is subtler and she doesn’t reveal her true motives until the second arc. She tries to change the system from the inside, which is the whole purpose of Honnouji Academy. In doing so, she must pretend her allegiance is to her mother and later admits that perhaps this was not the best way to go about it. Comparing sister to sister for a moment, we get a clue about Satsuki’s subtle resistance via her gigantic, glorious eyebrows (and I’ve touched on thick eyebrows being signs of resistance). Though not as extreme in shape as various facets of Ryuko’s character design, these eyebrows stand out enough while not drawing too much unwanted attention, which is exactly the position Satsuki wants to play until she’s built up her army against her mother.
These ways of resistance work to varying degrees, but ultimately, all parties come together to bring down Ragyo and the Life Fibers for good. In the last few episodes, when all secrets are revealed and everyone’s on the same side, this theme of beauty in the illogical and indefinable surfaces, which is the mindset that ultimately tears down this structure.
The World is Not Cut From One Cloth
In Satsuki’s apology, she admits that the means to her end were not the best. She sees Mako’s dedication to Ryuko, Ryuko’s dedication to Mako and Senketsu, and her own Elite Four’s dedication to her as something inexplicable, something that doesn’t make logical sense yet is nonetheless reality.
Social systems present themselves very logically. Dividing people into classes based on some easily measurable factor makes understanding others a much simpler task. Social systems present acceptable patterns of experiencing life. I discussed in another post how Ryuko’s blissful illusions while wearing Junketsu were an example of this logical system. Heteronormativity is the vision where she has no sense of her real self while queerness is her reality. Her reality is illogical because it exists outside of a prescribed pattern of life that, because it’s accepted as the norm, doesn’t often lend itself to challenging systems.
Mako’s willing act of stripping her two-star uniform and asking Ryuko to destroy it is illogical given the world that she lives in. Satsuki’s seizing of power to ultimately destroy that power is illogical. Ryuko’s desperate tearing away from Junketsu’s power, resulting in her nudity, is illogical. Nudity itself is illogical. The power that all the characters gain from being unexplainably dedicated to each other is illogical–think of how Mako powers that giant ship just on her determination to reach Ryuko. When this kind of love is present, no harmful, oppressive system can stand in the way because its logic cannot win.
All of these illogical things come together in the end to render Ragyo and the Life Fibers powerless. Ryuko and Senketsu, as the embodiment of humanity and Life Fibers while also saying that they are neither, take all of this illogic upon themselves (in the form of Ryuko wearing everyone’s goku uniforms), and fly up into space to confront Ragyo one last time. All she needs to do is command that the Life Fibers release humanity and they do so, resulting in everyone’s nudity. This time, however, the nudity is freedom from all-consuming power and again, this doesn’t seem like a logically desirable thing on the surface, but it’s how the threat of Life Fibers ends.
So then, what does the world look like in this eschaton–this ending of one era and stepping into a more perfect one? What’s left when the structure is dismantled and everyone is freed from its grips?
A World Without Life Fibers
Kill la Kill ends not with Ryuko violently killing Ragyo for good as we would expect, but with Ragyo pulling out her heart and killing herself. It’s her final act of stubbornness and an attempt to not totally submit to Ryuko. Still, Ragyo’s demise means the end of her system and is a rather strong metaphor for what must ultimately happen for oppressive systems to end: the perpetuators must purge their own selves. The oppressed can fight and fight for their entire lives, but they are still not the ones who created the system in the first place and the system can keep going so long as those with power and privilege don’t yank those actions and mindsets out of themselves and squeeze them to death.
The very end of the series and the OVA present this theme of growing up–growing up from wearing sailor uniforms (as Senkentsu prompts Ryuko to do upon his death), graduating, and growing up from the effects of Ragyo’s oppression. In the final minutes of the series, we see Ryuko and Mako heading off to a different school in a different town while the mess of Hounnouji Town is repaired. With no more Life Fibers to worry about, they’ll lead a normal life. Satsuki’s class has graduated, Honnouji Academy has closed, and things seem to be peaceful.
Yet the OVA is a reminder that the past doesn’t always stay in the past. Even when a major oppressive system ends, its shadows remain and the fighters, like Satsuki, feel that absence of the fighting spirit that defined them for so long. The OVA is an example of living in an already/not yet state. Already, the world has been freed, but it’s not yet perfect. No doubt the shadows of this Life Fiber social structure will linger and the characters will have to face it again in some other form. At the very least, Satsuki and Ryuko will come to terms with the abuse they experienced and will actually have the time to deal with the complicated psychological stuff going on inside of them now that they don’t have to fight anymore.
But there’s hope because the fact remains that they changed the world and stopped something truly terrible from happening. In this sense, they all brought everything one step closer to perfection, some illogical, unidentifiable thing that, in Satsuki’s words, make this world beautiful.
So there it is, all my main reactions to Kill la Kill. This blog post series is over now, but I could find something to expand upon after a rewatch. Thanks to everyone who has read and commented! I’d especially like to thank my friends Kit and Becky who have put up with me reading way, way too much into this wonderful series for the past few months.
*This random quote inclusion is dedicated to my friend Kit, who said she had never seen such an accurate summary of Kill la Kill.
**This idea is also dedicated to Kit, who, like Ryuko, has no regard for structure.