Sentient Sailor Uniforms are Serious Business: Trope-Twisting in Kill la Kill

 Today, I’m very pleased to welcome a guest post from R. I invited her to write a post after our discussion in the comments section of my Queer la Queer post. R highlights Kill la Kill’s trope play and Senketsu’s vitality to the entire plot. Thanks, R, for writing this!

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If I told you that I ever expected to become so endeared to a fictional talking shirt, well, I’d be lying.

No, I never expected much from Senketsu, best friend and battle partner of Kill la Kill’s protagonist Ryuko Matoi, but then, I never expected much from Kill la Kill to begin with. My first experience watching it was right when episode four came out, and, butt pressed up against a friend’s blow-up Companion Cube, my buddies—already fans—decided to introduce the show to me before they watched the new episode. We watched one, and two… and then I told them to just skip to number four. The series wasn’t to my tastes; the comedy didn’t interest me, and it all felt “too anime.”

I can’t really tell you what exactly that means, but I can say that Kill la Kill isn’t a particularly fresh or original example of Japanese animation. Watch any one of the “Making Documentary” pieces that were included with the special, Limited Edition releases of the series on Blu-ray, and a recurring theme you’ll get is that the whole show is something of a love letter to older anime from the Showa period. And indeed, one of my initial thoughts as I was thrown right into Mikisugi’s classroom in episode one was that this thing didn’t seem like a recent anime at all—it had this older look to it, and was a far cry from the ultra-shiny material I’m used to seeing from studios such as Kyoto Animation. And though it’s something that went completely over my head, this series is also absolutely filled to the brim with homages to anime of the past, which savvier fans than me have documented in the form of quite hefty lists. Perhaps some of those examples are reading too much into it, but the fact remains that Kill la Kill doesn’t exist to be something totally new. Part Three of the “Making Documentary” has scriptwriter Kazuki Nakashima outright admitting that he “wrote cliché dialogue,” and that “part of the point of Kill la Kill was making clichés seem cool and interesting.” So, in one of the bluntest ways possible, we got Word of God telling us that Kill la Kill doesn’t set out to make something wholly original, but rather look at what already exists and what is already loved and utilize it in such a way that the audience gets something of a fresh experience using old and worn materials.

Transforming Clichés

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One of the best ways to accomplish this task of “making clichés seem cool and interesting” is to take standard, beloved tropes and absolutely flip them on their heads. Kill la Kill does this in some obvious ways, but the most blatant example is probably its relation to shounen anime.

Now, technically, the series is categorized as seinen—as in, for older male audiences as opposed to younger male audiences that shounen aims for—but the Power of Friendship speeches and over-the-top fights give it a very shounen feel regardless. Yet, instead of being a male-focused anime as is standard for shounen, female characters fill almost all the main roles in Kill la Kill, with the handful of males that are depicted serving as support characters for these female leads.

I say “almost all the main roles,” because just like in your typical shounen fare, Kill la Kill does include that one character of another gender whom proves to be very significant both to the protagonist and the plot. I’m talking Attack on Titan’s Mikasa, Fullmetal Alchemist’s Winry, Detective Conan’s Ran, Yu Yu Hakusho’s Keiko, Ranma ½’s Akane, Rurouni Kenshin’s Kaoru, Anzu/Téa from Yu-Gi-Oh!… the list goes on and on.

And, well, Kill la Kill’s very own Senketsu has a gender identity that’s certainly up for interpretation, but considering how he’s coded as male in the show proper, it seems fitting to associate him with this role. In a female-dominated series that contrasts the male-dominated series that is characteristic of shounen, Senketsu, despite (maybe) not being female himself, is arguably the second main character and of utmost importance to the plot. If Nakashima’s statement from Anime Expo 2014 that Kill la Kill is his attempt to “make a form of intimacy that transcends love and species” and is “about friendship” is anything to go by, there’s also the idea here that in many ways, Senketsu rather is the plot. After all, you can’t exactly have a story about “a form of intimacy transcending love and species” without that “other species” being present.

I focus this post on Senketsu because he’s one of the more interesting and complicated trope subversions that Kill la Kill has to offer in more ways than simply that, as Kill la Kill doesn’t draw inspiration exclusively from shounen anime. Taylor has already mentioned it, but Kill la Kill also takes cues from elements more common in shoujo anime—namely, from the magical girl genre. Say what you will about TV Tropes, a website that has certainly received its fair share of criticism, but on the whole I find it useful for identifying patterns in fiction, and its page on magical girl definitely lends itself to some fascinating Kill la Kill comparisons.

Notably, consider what the site credits to have been pioneered by Majokko Meg-chan, a magical girl series from 1974 that allegedly “codified many of the tropes that would later become staples of the magical girl genre”:

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Kill la Kill has all of this. Ryuko Matoi is certainly portrayed as tomboyish, Satsuki is her rival, Ragyo is a really evil character, the fanservice is notorious and we have the Mankanshoku boys and dog as (supposedly)-lovable perverts, sexual abuse is present with Satsuki’s narrative, and Ryuko loses and faces humiliation, severe injuries, and shock. Combine all this with the magical transformation sequences that this genre is famous for, and Kill la Kill absolutely feels pretty magical girl. And one thing magical girls tend to have is what TV Tropes has coined the “Mentor Mascot,” which, at first glance, Senketsu seems to be a perfect fit for.

Mentor Mascot: Wisdom in the Form of a Cute and Cuddly Companion

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This “Mentor Mascot,” in simple terms, is the magical girl protagonist’s non-human sidekick, full of knowledge and wisdom to help her out on her journey and shape her into a great hero. Think Luna the talking cat from Sailor Moon, the stuffed animal-looking Kero from Card Captor Sakura, Hippo the talking penguin from Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch, Jama-P the cute and cuddly reformed devil from Wedding Peach—you might even consider Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica to be one of these, though he’s a famously villainous example who cares less about guiding the girls and more about accomplishing his own goals. Essentially, though, this character is a strange being who does not fit in with the “normal world” and who serves as the protagonist’s mentor and guide. Kill la Kill’s Senketsu, being a sentient school uniform, makes him look suspiciously like this trope immediately. Add in his attempts to coach Ryuko throughout the series and it’s almost blatantly obvious. Senketsu is Ryuko’s Mentor Mascot, ‘nough said. After all, he even won third place in the Newtype Anime Awards 2014 under the “Best Mascot” category.

Except, if Kill la Kill likes to do anything, it likes to take these common tropes and twist them. A closer examination proves that Senketsu doesn’t really fit this character archetype at all, perhaps most obviously in regards to his huge significance to the plot, but more subtly too in his characterization.

Not What He Seems

While Mentor Mascots certainly tend to be valuable friends of the protagonist, they largely hang on the edge of the action. Luna is more a guide for the Sailor Senshi than a Sailor Senshi herself, just as Jama-P isn’t a Love Angel and Hippo is not a mermaid princess. These characters watch and listen and provide guidance, and this is typically the extent of their roles.Yet with Senketsu, such is hardly the case. He’s Ryuko’s constant battle partner, with whom she shares a bond that can easily be argued to form the crux of the entire story. A couple of interviews point to this, from Nakashima’s aforementioned statement at Anime Expo mentioning that Kill la Kill was trying to “make a form of intimacy that transcends love and species,” to Ami Koshimizu (Ryuko’s Japanese voice actress) commenting that Ryuko and Senketsu’s relationship being “like family, like friends, like lovers” is what she “[thinks] this wonderful work depicted.”

The Original Soundtrack, too, points this direction, with three of the six vocal songs included—“Before my body is dry,” “Till I Die,” and “Suck your blood”—focusing on their relationship. Notably, the show’s main theme is “Before my body is dry,” which is a duet between the two of them and the only duet included on the OST. No way would Luna get so many songs—and the most crucial song—focusing on her relationship with Sailor Moon protagonist Usagi, and I could say the same for all the other Mentor Mascots I listed above.

But Senketsu does get this many songs focusing on his bond with Ryuko, because that—and he himself—are so crucial to Kill la Kill and its story. After all, while the series can certainly be said to be about a lot of things, it is very character-driven and its heart lies with Ryuko and her development. This development—and thus, Kill la Kill itself—focuses around a young and lonely seventeen-year-old-girl discovering who she is and where she belongs. Ryuko does this through what she learns from battles with Satsuki and other obstacles that stand in her way, but most significantly, she does this through our very shounen theme of friendship—namely, through Mako and Mako’s family, and through Senketsu.

Parental Substitute?

So, you might be thinking, if Ryuko’s development is accomplished so strongly through friendship, what makes her friendship with Senketsu stand out? The answer is a complicated one, and one that can begin by looking more closely at the Mentor Mascot archetype that Senketsu resembles.

Another noteworthy aspect of these characters is that they tend to be filled with wisdom. Mostly, they are older and more experienced than the protagonist and her friends, and in this sense, they may come off as rather parental. In terms of Kill la Kill, Ryuko’s strained relationship with her father—combined with Senketsu’s Mentor Mascot appearance and protective, know-it-all behavior in early episodes—creates a seemingly simple connection. Senketsu’s the father Ryuko always wanted, and he’s filled with all the wisdom and protectiveness that a father should have. Put simply, he’s the Mentor Mascot that doubles as a Parental Substitute.

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Yet, Kill la Kill is, once more, all about subverting clichés and common tropes, and a closer look reveals that this reading doesn’t fit Senketsu much at all. The idea of him having wisdom is thrown straight out the window as soon as episode 2 delves more into his first meeting with Ryuko, as it is revealed he’s lost his memory and is just as lost and clueless as she is. This also takes away the idea of him being experienced, as with no memory, he essentially has no life experience to speak of. We see here, then, that Ryuko hasn’t encountered some wise, experienced, older figure in her basement—as it would happen, we learn later that Senketsu is, at best, only months old, and that many of those months were spent unconscious. Rather than being some all-knowing adult, Senketsu is something of a blank slate, searching for himself and his place in the world just as Ryuko is. Taylor has already mentioned this idea of magical girls gaining their powers through a process of being tossed into situations where they don’t know what’s happening and have no control, and indeed, this does happen to an extent in Kill la Kill. Destiny and the red strings of fate are a huge recurring theme across the series, found obviously with the red, string-like Life Fibers and dialogue that is rife with references to being born solely for the sake of fulfilling a particular purpose, and Ryuko herself is certainly shoved into a “saving the world” narrative due to who she is and what was unjustly done to her.

However, contrary to the typical Mentor Mascot trope, Senketsu is not the one who pushes this upon Ryuko. Senketsu is, in fact, not the one that gives Ryuko her powers exactly, as it’s not of his own accord that they meet. Against expectations, it’s Aikuro Mikisugi who notes both in episode 3 and the episode 25 OVA (as well as the series overview entitled “Naked Memories” which he narrates) that he’s the one who brought Ryuko and Senketsu together. Aikuro, too, proves to be much more fitting as a mentor character, given that he’s the one who provides all the info dumps about what’s going on rather than Senketsu.

Of course, to address the elephant in the room, Ryuko and Senketsu’s first meeting is not pretty. I could write extensively about how its execution is in incredibly poor taste, but for my purposes here, let me focus in on the concept of control. As is typical of magical girls, Ryuko has no control in her initial scene with Senketsu. And yet, atypically of magical girl, Senketsu has no control over what’s happening either. Starving and being created from monstrous Life Fibers that view humans only as food, Senketsu loses himself to his primal urges and hurts Ryuko, similarly to what happens in episode 12 when Ryuko goes berserk upon learning that Nui Harime is her father’s killer and her anger is so great that Senketsu cannot hold himself together.

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We learn in that second example that Senketsu is so hurt by his loss of control that he cries, something that is unfortunately not expanded upon in regards to his first scene. Still, the character we see once Ryuko’s actually wearing him for the first time—and the character we see all throughout the rest of the series, who is very kind and respectful towards Ryuko—is such a stark contrast to this abrasive, aggressive thing present in Senketsu’s introduction that the only justifiable explanation is that he’s not himself and out of control. (Not that this makes his actions justifiable, mind you. It’s still wholly awful.)

In the end, we are left not with a mentor who knows everything and who pushes Ryuko into a role because he knows it’s her destiny, but rather someone who has also been thrown into some great plan and is just as puzzled by it as our protagonist. Senketsu didn’t choose this just as Ryuko didn’t, and he can offer her no answers—only more questions. In this way, they are not playing the roles of mentor and pupil, but rather sharing a role as “because-destiny-says-so” heroes, a concept that only becomes clearer as the show progresses. As Ryuko and Senketsu learn more about themselves and each other, they discover that they were both created as weapons by Ryuko’s father and are essentially one in the same as a result, both being “human and clothing” and “neither human nor clothing” at the same time.

This all has the effect of making Senketsu entirely unlike a mentor in that he’s not above Ryuko in any sense. He’s also searching for answers, and is mentioned time and time again to be Ryuko’s equal and partner, from Mako saying in episode 24 that “neither one of them is the boss of the other! They’re the best match of people and clothes ever!,” to Ryuko herself noting that she and Senketsu are “two in one” in episode 15. Rather than be the one to provide Ryuko with the wisdom and guidance of a parent, Senketsu is her kindred spirit who learns and grows with her, ultimately establishing a level of mutual understanding between the two that Ryuko shares with no other.

Growth and Development

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Ryuko and Senketsu’s very prevalent status as equals not only makes the Parental Substitute  reading for Senketsu’s character seem ill-fitting, but it also creates someone Ryuko can so easily bond and connect with. There’s a reason Ami Koshimizu and Kazuki Nakashima and the OST and the final volume cover and the last moments of the last episodes all emphasize this relationship above all others in Kill la Kill, and that’s because Senketsu’s character arc and development are so intrinsically tied to Ryuko’s that it makes up a hefty portion of the plot.And the why for this goes hand in hand with Senketsu’s characterization. Kill la Kill’s huge story element that focuses on Ryuko and Senketsu evolving together as equal partners would never work had Senketsu already been wise and experienced and a mentor to Ryuko. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a know-it-all attitude at times—he most certainly does—yet, this behavior isn’t coming from a place of any experience, but rather from something very mechanical: his “programming.” Designed as Ryuko’s combat uniform and support, early episodes have him simply go through the motions, warning and advising Ryuko very robotically and dispassionately. This drastically changes as the series continues, however. As Senketsu learns more and more about the human world and his own emotions, he often melts into a crying mess, overwhelmed by his feelings.

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If I’ve gathered anything from shounen anime, it’s the power of friendship. Kill la Kill is the story of Ryuko’s growth and development, but it’s not a journey she’s taking by herself. Senketsu, too, is figuring out who he is and where he belongs just as she is, and he has one of the most compelling character arcs of anyone in the series.Just as Ryuko, Senketsu’s character begins in the same place: confused and alone. Essentially nothing more than a lost robot at first, Senketsu learns quickly that talking sailor uniforms don’t have much of a place in the world. No one can hear him save for Ryuko, so his entire existence as an autonomous being is mocked and ridiculed. When this is combined with the knowledge that the Life Fibers he was created from are monstrous and parasitic, it only makes sense that Senketsu develops into a character who constantly dismisses his own significance. Come episode 5, he certainly knows and understands love and emotions—after all, how could you describe his self-sacrificing displays of devotion towards Ryuko as anything but?—yet he finds himself unworthy of such things. In his mind, he’s important to Ryuko purely because he’s her only outfit, and her sentiment that he’s her friend is one that comes as a great shock. Even later in the series he’s shown to be overwhelmed by this concept, hence his repeated bursts of emotion whenever Ryuko reminds him just how important he is to her. In the end, through being with Ryuko and acting as her partner, he discovers who he is and gains a sense of self-worth. Fighting the final confrontation against Ragyo in the show’s climax, both he and Ryuko proudly scream to the stars that they’re not human and not clothing, yet are both human and clothing, are everything.

And it’s the whole of the show and the nature of their characters that allow them to reach such a point of shared character development and power. They begin a bit strained, sure, but Ryuko easily connects to Senketsu right away due to their mutual desire for answers. Though initially shy and bashful around Mako’s family, Ryuko is not so when it comes to Senketsu, openly trying to reach out to him the first night they spend together. Episode after episode, fight after fight, they grow closer as they learn more about one another and more about themselves. Indeed, Senketsu is the one Ryuko confides in the most—seen perhaps most obviously when she openly discusses her fears with him in episodes 13 and 17—and entire episodes (5) and episode arcs (the Naturals Election arc of episodes 9-11, and I’d also make a case for the Raid Trip arc in episodes 13-15) are dedicated to this depiction of their evolution.

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Ryuko finds comfort in Senketsu not for his wisdom per se, but because he’s someone just like her who is also learning, growing, and discovering who he is. Had Senketsu been the typical Mentor Mascot he appears to be, so much of this story would simply not exist.

Seriously?

I mentioned in the beginning of this long thing that I didn’t care at all for Kill la Kill when I first watched it, and it’s true—I really, honestly didn’t. It was crude and unfunny, and the plot didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. (In retrospect, I find it a real shame I skipped over episode 3 upon my first exposure to the show.)

But then I was cajoled into watching episode 5, and my interest was piqued. Here we had a character I never expected much of anything from proving himself not to be just an irritating Navi rip-off with hardly more significance to the plot than to give Ryuko superpowers. He wasn’t merely a weapon or a know-it-all sidekick, but a vital character whose devotion to the protagonist helped create one of the most intense and emotional scenes Kill la Kill has to offer. With Ryuko’s life in danger, Senketsu leaps to defend her, telling her to get away, to run as he distracts the enemy. But Ryuko couldn’t go, and neither could I.

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I’d never seen anything quite like it. This was not the role I ever expected a cutesy, non-human character to play. This was like the shounen character I mentioned earlier—but in a form I never would have expected them in. The whole idea of a cutesy, non-human character playing out this huge, intense role felt strangely different, unique, and enticing. And, long story short, I quickly became one of the biggest fans of Kill la Kill afterwards.

And with all I’ve written here about Senketsu’s character, it’s probably expected that I’d be irritated with the show’s ending. After all this time dedicated to showing that Senketsu is vital and important to the plot—that he’s an equal to Ryuko and one of her very best friends—doesn’t it just boggle the mind that he’s killed off spouting out that he’s nothing more than a sailor uniform that Ryuko must leave behind? It goes absolutely against everything else the series has been saying, and his “growing up” sentiment ignores the fact that he grew up just as much (if not more) than Ryuko did herself.

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But this ending is actually very complex and meta. It doesn’t matter how great or compelling a character Senketsu is. It doesn’t matter that his arc about overcoming prejudice and learning to find a sense of self-worth as he grows up is so hard-hitting, and it doesn’t matter that Ryuko considers him to be the very same as her. At the end of the day, Ryuko looks like a human girl, and Senketsu looks like a talking shirt. You can’t take a talking shirt seriously—it’s ridiculous and silly. Childish, even. And just as so many coming-of-age stories end with the magic and silliness vanishing—from Ed losing his alchemy come the finale of Fullmetal Alchemist to Daisuke of the magical boy anime D.N. Angel losing his mystical alter ego upon the conclusion of his story—Ryuko must too lose the silliness and magic of her sentient school uniform who understood her better than anyone. Whatever Senketsu accomplished, he can’t escape his role as the seeming Mentor Mascot. To conclude any other way would be too absurd, even for this show.

I’m kidding.

But I do struggle to grapple with such an ending to Ryuko and Senketsu’s story. In a series all about defying fate and destiny and which prides itself on its twisting of classic tropes, to play the “Mentor Must Die” concept so straight—and when it’s completely unfitting—is absolutely baffling. Worse still, it’s outright disrespectful, happening mere minutes before the show ends, with hardly any time at all dedicated to Ryuko coping with the loss.

The OVA, too, which was rife with possibilities to wrap up this story tastefully, utterly squanders its potential. Though there’s a profound message here about moving on from the death of a loved one, we’re hardly presented with anything that would make such a message meaningful. Though this is a girl who considered Senketsu to be greater than a friend, who had a recurring nightmare about losing him, who put Senketsu above her initial—and extremely passionate—goal of learning about her father in order to protect and save him when he had been torn apart, who’s so overwhelmed by grief upon his death that she falls unconscious… there’s hardly more than a few glimpses of her mourning. How is the concept of “moving on” supposed to be impactful at all if we’re not seeing Ryuko struggle?

That’s not to say that Senketsu is completely dismissed, because with how both the main series and OVA end, there certainly is care given to the fact that Senketsu means a lot to Ryuko, and that their bond is important. Why else shove the two of them hugging on the last volume cover, after all?

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The issue lies, then, in how this is done. Rather than be treated as a beloved friend, Senketsu is reduced to nothing more than an object. He’s the sailor uniform Ryuko cannot wear forever, the sailor uniform Ryuko is done with for good, the sailor uniform that’s gone and now Ryuko has to wear new clothes because he is. Not a friend and not a partner, Senketsu is watered down to what he looks like.

Had any other heroic character died instead, I cannot imagine such an insensitive response. Mako, Satsuki, Ryuko—even if Gamagoori had died in the finale as it (maybe almost) seemed like—we would see mourning. We would see characters coping with the loss, and the deceased would not be reduced to a symbol or an object, but treated with the respect deserved. Senketsu’s significance isn’t diminished per se with how his death is handled, but his humanity most certainly is—something that is both disappointing and aggravating, given that so much of his character arc is about his recognition that he, too, is human.

But Seriously?

All I’ve rattled on about doesn’t change the fact that Senketsu is still a talking shirt, however, which is, undeniably, quite ridiculous and silly. Perhaps the fact of the matter is that there is no way to sensitively handle the death of such a character without being too corny, too much, and too impossible to take to heart.

Yet, a quick peek at fanart of Senketsu’s death shows—to me, at least—that such is not the case. It doesn’t matter that Senketsu’s a shirt; these pieces are beautiful and evocative. (SeriouslyTake a look.) Similarly, Transistor, an indie video game that’s oft-compared to Kill la Kill, also features the somewhat-silly concept of a talking sword, yet I never found anything ridiculous about the story this game was trying to tell, and I especially didn’t take the sword/human relationship that forms such a huge aspect of the plot this way. (And its ending tore me apart.)

Maybe it’s all a matter of tone, and maybe that tone’s not Kill la Kill. Maybe Kill la Kill was too exhausting and the team simply didn’t want to edit an ending that allegedly was already decided early in development. Maybe a talking uniform really is just too silly.

Maybe, as P!nk would say, I think I maybe think too much.

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5 thoughts on “Sentient Sailor Uniforms are Serious Business: Trope-Twisting in Kill la Kill

  1. The way I justify it is that Senketsu, the mere sailor uniform, died, but his body became a star in the OVA (to be specific, he becomes Sirius). Ryuko has never stopped wearing Senketsu, they are still together even now. Senketsu being in Ryuko’s heart has an added layer of complexity than the normal trope of living on in someones heart since there’s an actual world inside Ryuko’s heart, and Ryuko’s soul is a character there, wearing Senketsu. Because of the life fibers, their bond can’t be severed even by the scissors of fate. And that bond goes all the way up to the stars.

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  2. Senketsu’s death is still a raw nerve for me, but I think that said death wasn’t really so out of place.

    Ultimately, I don’t see his death as a Mentor Must Die trope; as you previously covered, he doesn’t really qualify as a mentor. If he and Ryuko are in a sense a singular entity – neither human nor clothing, and at once both human and clothing – then Senketsu is the obvious personification of that entity as clothing, and Ryuko the personification of that entity as human. It -does- follow that in unleashing every last iota of their power to wipe out clothing as life forms on Earth, the bullet wouldn’t miss Senketsu; his absorption of a massive malevolent Life Fiber entity in order to master and destroy them ultimately poisons him.

    In the end, though, Senketsu *is* a clothing life form – he is a person, but biologically he is not a human. Nevertheless, he goes up against and takes out his entire species – even himself – in order to protect humanity.

    I don’t disagree, though, that the abrupt ending after Senketsu’s death, and the OVA, were probably poor substitutes to a proper resolution.

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    1. Yeah not to mention that I take an eschatological view of Senketsu’s death (which I will get to in a separate post)–something that occurs to allow Ryuko to step into a new era or something along those lines.

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