Originally published on The Ontological Geek.
Ragyo’s grand entrance in Studio Trigger’s Kill la Kill (2013) marks the beginning of a changing tide in the story. Up until this point, Ragyo’s daughter Satsuki is the main villain. Satsuki rules a high school called Honnouji Academy with a similar brilliance to her mother. There, clothing is literally power as some students are granted special uniforms imbued with Life Fibers that give them super-human strength. The higher you climb up the academic and extracurricular ladder, the stronger your uniform. Matoi Ryuko arrives at this strictly structured high school with only one goal in mind: avenge her father and take Satsuki down. With her giant scissor blade and her own Life Fiber uniform called a Kamui, Ryuko cuts her way through club leader after club leader, determined to reach Satsuki for a proper showdown.
Yet much more unfolds in the world of Kill la Kill, and Ragyo’s introduction sends a clear message that she is the real villain to contend with. Ragyo’s goal is to spread clothing enhanced with Life Fibers around the globe so that she can create a world “of one cloth.” She wants all of humanity to be swallowed by Life Fibers, forever resting in a beautiful silence. To achieve this goal, she experiments on herself and her own children to enhance the bond between humans and Life Fibers. We learn through flashbacks that Ragyo experimented on Satsuki at a very young age, but those experiments failed, so Ragyo decided that she needed to begin with a much younger child. That next child is Ryuko, who does actually become a perfect blend of human and Life Fibers. However, when Ragyo doesn’t see immediate results, she literally dumps baby Ryuko in the garbage. So fixed is she on her ultimate vision of the world that she strips away abundant life, love, and community from her children and everyone else she interacts with. She sexually abuses Satsuki and Ryuko. She uses the power of her clothing company to build her wealth and ensure that every single person experiences subjugation via Life Fibers. Of course, she would frame that as “the bliss of being worn by clothing.”
These acts are sins. Some of them are personal, meaning Ragyo commits them as an individual against other individuals. Others are systemic, meaning they stem from Ragyo’s position of power (specifically through her company REVOCS) and affect large groups of people, if not the entire world. Ragyo shows us how these personal, one-on-one sins connect to systemic sins.
Sin and Violence
Most of us don’t think about how our personal interactions with each other on a daily basis can contribute to systemic oppression. The systemic and the personal often seem entirely separate. After all, a single person cannot take on all of the burden and responsibility of a system. The more privileges we have, the more difficult it is to see this connection. This is apparent in Christian religious life, as not many churches clarify how personal sins contribute to systems. Part of that comes from different emphases on sin and salvation.
If you were to walk into a church and stick around for a few months, you might come away with one of two general understandings of sin and salvation.
- Sins are personal wrongs we commit against one another and God, such as lying or stealing. There’s a heavy focus on individual piety and morality, particularly around sexual practices and addictive behaviors. Because this is the understanding of sin, the atonement (or salvation) theory that follows is that Jesus’ death and resurrection forgives those personal sins, restoring us to God and to one another.
- Sin is the systems of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and so on that deprive people of abundant life with each other and with God. There’s a greater emphasis on social justice and dismantling the collective, systemic ways we harm each other. This understanding of sin leads to atonement theories framing Christ’s death and resurrection as an upheaval of the oppressive, first century Roman government. It paves the way for liberation from all such systems. This liberation restores people to God and community by allowing them to live fully and abundantly.
Rarely are these approaches connected in a clear-cut way. Grasping sin, its implications, its consequences, and its forgiveness is a vast subject within Christianity. Shirley Guthrie makes this connection clearer in his book Christian Doctrine. He emphasizes that Christianity’s main purpose in discussing sin is to reveal the forgiveness of sin. “The basic truth is not that we are sinners but that we are human beings created in the image of God. Sin distorts, twists, corrupts, and contradicts this truth, but it does not change us into something other than what God created us to be” (213).
The notion that we are created “in the image of God” means that the intended goal of our lives is to live fully, abundantly, and healthily both with God and with one another. Sin breaks that connection. “[Sin] is not only murdering other people but simply letting them starve to death physically or emotionally because we decide that social welfare and foreign aid are ‘money down a rathole’” (215). The act of one person murdering another is an example of personal sin. It happens on an individual level and defies the goal of humans living fully and abundantly with one another. Neglecting to support social welfare and foreign aid is an example of systemic sin. Its consequences affect entire groups of people and maintain a mindset that poor people should just work harder and people in other countries are not our problem.
Avenged Seven Billionfold
Theologian John Dominic Crossan connects personal sin to systemic sin by talking about escalatory violence. Violence increases with succeeding generations and causes more sin on a wider scale. A biblical example of this appears in Genesis 4 when Cain kills Abel. Cain laments once God discovers what he’s done and says “anyone who meets me may kill me.” Yet God says, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” A few verses later, Lamech, a descendant of Cain, says “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
What began as a one-on-one occurrence between Cain and Abel transforms over time into something with much higher stakes and greater consequences. If someone from another tribe kills Lamech, then his own tribe will kill 70 people from the killer’s tribe. The threat of violence and its escalation prompts the creation of systems meant to keep societies in order, and to avenge seven hundredfold and seven thousandfold any threats to that order.
Honnouji Academy is a system born of escalatory violence. Two of Ragyo’s personal sins, sexually abusing Satsuki and abandoning baby Ryuko, are the ones that cut Satsuki the deepest. What is the result of these particular one-on-one sins? Satsuki creates her own system to avenge them seven billionfold, in true Kill la Kill style. That system is Honnouji Academy, which establishes its own hierarchies and perpetuates its own injustices. Even though the school’s true purpose is to rebel against Ragyo, it’s still a system created in response to personal wrongs.
For the first half of the series, Satsuki has to keep up appearances for her mother, which is a big reason why she’s so authoritarian. Under this facade, she tests Ryuko to see if she has what it takes to fight Ragyo when the time comes. Ryuko, of course, is entirely unaware of Satsuki’s true plans. Even so, Satsuki reveals some of her beliefs about human nature in one of these early tests. Satsuki has manipulated circumstances to pit Ryuko and her best friend against each other. When a fight seems unavoidable, Satsuki victoriously spouts her views about humanity. “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!”
Some of this rhetoric may be part of keeping up appearances, but it does declare that there is something innately flawed––perhaps sinful––about humans. Therefore, a deified ruler like Satsuki must exert her power and leadership over them. This is the way to their salvation, as she intends to use Honnouji Academy and all the schools it conquers to defy Ragyo.
Honnouji Academy’s rebellion against Ragyo sparks an all-out war between humanity and Life Fibers. It’s only resolved when Ryuko and everyone fighting with her eschew the nudity/clothing dichotomy and show illogical love and dedication to each other. Such dedication maintains their humanity and fosters community.
Religion and Empire
Religion has played a vital role in the establishment and maintenance of empires throughout history. Christianity specifically was used as a tool for conquest and often provided theological justification for colonialism. Christianization often went hand in hand with oppression and exploitation in Africa, India, and Latin America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This type of Christianity is, in my view, a distortion of the faith. Yet those in power often succeed in presenting a distorted version of Christianity that ultimately serves their own purposes and thousands of people will go along with it.
This is precisely what Ragyo does in her grand introduction. When she retells the events of Genesis 3, she takes a theological position that clothing and sin are intertwined. Humans had no desire for clothing until sin came into the picture and made nudity shameful. This declaration adds religious fuel to the discomfort of nudity and provides the groundwork for an entire collective mindset: to be clothed is to be accepted, powerful, and privileged while to be naked is to be disgraceful and powerless.
Ragyo’s actions closely follow Crossan’s description of empires.
- Religion––provides the groundwork and justification for achieving a certain eschatological vision the world. This is why Ragyo’s first significant appearance involves her tying a religious story to her own company’s story.
- War––an inevitable trial that must be dealt with and overcome to achieve the eschatological vision. Ragyo is so confident in total success that the perfect version of her plan doesn’t involve much blood, death, or pain. Rather, it involves swift domination followed by total silence. However, Ragyo is prepared for war and nearly crushes the rebellion from Satsuki and Ryuko.
- Victory––the reward for persevering through the trial of war. Ragyo is certain of this as she watches Life Fibers cover the world in the series finale. Her eschatological vision is unfolding before her eyes.
- Peace––the final state of things, with the empire calling the shots, of course. This is the eschatological vision itself, the initial promise from the religion fulfilled. Ragyo’s vision of peace is for Life Fibers to cover everything in a beautiful silence. Humanity will fulfill its destiny of feeding the Life Fibers so they can reproduce and scatter across the universe. To Ragyo, this is right because humanity evolved to wear clothes in the first place.
Personal and systemic sins have us repeat this process. One-on-one violence escalates into trends and we’ll use our sincerely held religious beliefs to justify the ways we try to dominate each other, whether it’s through violent wars or covering everyone in silence. Although Ragyo is a fictional character in a show from a country where Christianity has a tumultuous history and is not a dominant faith, her actions can still help us understand how the personal connects to the systemic. Sin prevents us from treating ourselves and each other like we’re beings created in the image of God who are meant to experience abundant life. When we can’t view each other like this, we’re prone to perpetuate both individual and systemic harm.