A World Cut From One Cloth: Personal Sin and Systemic Sin in Kill la Kill

Originally published on The Ontological Geek.

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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

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Ragyo is referring to Satsuki’s own Kamui, which she’s wearing in this picture.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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Satsuki (left) betrays Ragyo (center) by pinning her to a cross.

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

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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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.

Scream Queens is the Kill la Kill of U.S. TV

A young, headstrong girl starts at a new school in hopes of finding out what really happened to her dead parent. Upon arrival, she makes a nemesis of the campus queen who may or may not have something to do with it. However, the deeper the girl gets into the mystery, the more complicated, personal, and messy it becomes.

Does this summary describe Kill la Kill or Scream Queens?

Scream Queens is one of the few television shows I’ve kept up with this season. It hooked me from the start with its snappy dialogue, its over-the-top characters, and the numerous references to iconic films. After about the second episode, I realized that another reason why I liked the show was because it reminded me so much of Kill la Kill.

No, Grace does not walk into Kappa Kappa Tau with a giant scissor blade and demand that Chanel Oberlin explain the truth behind her mother’s demise, but her actions do progressively contribute to a change in a long-standing system. Much like Ryuko, Grace walks into a school where wealth determines status. Those with all of that going for them are tolerated, accepted, or maybe even lucky enough to become Chanels. The triviality of Chanel’s values combined with her near absolute power perpetuate a long-standing system in which acceptance is earned through fleeting, insubstantial things (money, attractiveness, and popularity). Like most of the other characters in the show, Chanel is an over-the-top caricature of a sorority girl: white, blonde, skinny, rich, pretty, selfish, racist, ableist, and homophobic. She is the embodiment of the misogyny that women experience from other women. Like Satsuki, she passes on that elitism to her immediate circle, her clan of Chanels that serve her and keep her reign intact (except when they plot against her later in the season).

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Chanel isn’t the only obvious caricature. Dean Munsch, Chad Radwell, Chanels #2-5, Sam, and Denise Hemphill are as well, creating an entire cast of parodies and exaggerations. Kill la Kill does this as well by weaving in and magnifying solidified anime tropes and character types. As an over-the-top parody, Scream Queens blatantly recreates and mocks famous scenes from past horror movies like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Kill la Kill is also, at times, a conglomerate of references and homages to past anime and other elements of Japanese pop culture.

Like Kill la Kill, Scream Queens has problematic elements that, due to how the show is constructed, may be easier to justify for some and twisted messages for others. Kill la Kill’s issues are with female nudity, sexualization, and assault. Sexuality and lewdness are also central in Scream Queens, but this show, filtered mostly through Chanel’s language, does a terrible job with queer representation and disability representation. Sam, the only queer WoC, is killed off; Chanel #3’s bi/pansexuality is hardly touched on; and it turns out Boone only pretended to be gay because that somehow made his cover story more convenient. A deaf character is killed off in the first episode and Hester’s disability was also just a convenient farce to add to her cover story. On the one hand, these actions should emphasize that Hester and Boone are the bad guys. Of course they would use marginalized identities as costumes just as they use the red devil costume. On the other hand, it feels like a narrative excuse to pass off problematic representation as all right. At least Denise and Zayday made it out okay and Chanel #3’s queerness was briefly confirmed.

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As both Kill la Kill and Scream Queens reach their conclusions, it’s clear that there’s some type of conflict with a long-established social system. In Kill la Kill, it’s the clothing=power/nudity=shame dichotomy, the direct connection between educational performance and economic status, and a capitalistic ruler who quite literally makes her consumers the consumed. In Scream Queens, it’s the Greek-life culture of vanity, hazing, popularity, exclusion, and douchebaggery that resulted in a dead girl in a bathtub and two children growing up in an asylum. The difference with Scream Queens is that it’s the antagonists–Gigi and the red devil killers–who are the most adamant about bringing down this system. Grace is, too, and so is Zayday to a lesser extent, but their primary focus quickly becomes finding the killers rather than changing the culture. This theme of structure change only becomes apparent again in the final episodes, and even then it’s clear that Chanel will never not impose a structure with herself as the queen. Kappa Kappa Tau might be better now without the Chanels–and seeing these characters get shut down in a court of law by a black judge is certainly symbolic–however, it’s clear that you can take the girl out of the sorority, but you can’t take the sorority out of the girl. Gigi, Hester, and Boone’s goal was to clear the university of those who benefited from and perpetuated toxic Greek-life culture, but even though the Chanels were punished, nothing else about them has changed.

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Should Scream Queens get a second season, we might see how or if this “cleansing” affects the entire university. We might also see Chanel learn some more empathy. As it stands, the show wraps up enough to not exactly warrant a second season, but it does leave some space open should the series be renewed.

Anime Challenge #5: Favorite Male Character

There may come a day when I will chill la chill about Kill la Kill, but today is not that day, although I’ve already written the bulk of what I have to say about the series, so besides my most recent post from a couple weeks ago, I’m not sure when I’ll write another deep post about it.

Because Kill la Kill is my favorite anime, it’s only natural that my favorite male character would be from this series. It actually took me a long time to think of someone to write about for this post because I don’t take the label of “favorite” lightly. In fact, I was gonna skip over this one completely until I happened to think about this guy at work one day and realized that yes, he is my fave.

And that guy is Gamagoori Ira.

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Lady Satsuki’s iron shield has no chill and that’s one of the greatest things about him. He’s the very first example of Kill la Kill’s over-the-top flair and is just the embodiment of extreme. However, as much machismo as he exemplifies, he has no qualms with acknowledging that Satsuki is the better fighter or being under her command. Furthermore, this strict allegiance to Satsuki doesn’t seem to come from romantic feelings (the only obvious romantic feelings he shows are for Mako). It could, of course, as I suggested here, but I think Gamagoori’s primary motivation is creating and maintaining justice. Plus, IIRC, Gamagoori might’ve been the one of the first to hear Satsuki’s full plan. I headcannon that Jakuzure knew about the abuse from the start, but I imagine her plan became more real once she got Gamagoori onboard and she might’ve told him about the abuse as well.

This may be one reason why Gamagoori is so fiercely loyal to Satsuki. He has a strong sense of justice no matter what, but Satsuki is someone who has defeated him and who he respects immensely. The knowledge of Ragyo’s abuse of her, then, must infuriate him and make him willing to do anything to right those wrongs. Therefore, he plays his role in Satsuki’s imitation of Ragyo’s system. Like Satsuki, everything he says and does publically needs to appear as if it furthers Ragyo’s mission. That includes his attempts to mold Ryuko into an ideal student during their fight and his hypocritical praise of Satsuki wearing a kamui while calling Ryuko a slut in hers. Ryuko retorts that what he’s saying is bullshit and he knows it.

But really, he probably does know it. He needs to keep up appearances, so he has to say things that enforce the nudity=shame mindset. He might not know that Satsuki is forming Ryuko into an ally, but he does know what’s needed to practice Satsuki’s way of covert resistance.

This is why I picked him as my favorite. Like everything in Kill la Kill, the meaning of everything Gamagoori says and does becomes more complex and intriguing given the plot in its entirety.

Next: anime that never gets old no matter how many times you’ve rewatched it. I promise it’s not Kill la Kill (although the statement applies).

Kill la Eschaton: Partings and New Eras in Kill la Kill

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This might be my last Kill la Kill post for a while, but who knows? I may catch even more things once I get the DVDs and rewatch it for the third time.

I’ve found multiple examples of characters and plot elements in Kill la Kill aligning nicely with Christian theology or presenting interesting, perhaps irreverent, spins on it. Eschatology isn’t uniquely Christian, but Kill la Kill’s final episode and its OVA do fit with some basic ideas of Christian eschatology.

Already/Not Yet

When Christians talk about already/not yet, we’re typically referring to how Christ’s death and resurrection already brought God’s kingdom (or kin-dom) to Earth, yet it’s still not yet fulfilled since we’re living in a post-resurrection, pre-second coming time. In other words, we’ve seen a glimpse of a new era in Christ’s death and resurrection, meaning it exists and is present, but we’re moving ever-toward it. The United Church of Christ’s slogan “God is still speaking” succinctly states this concept.

This, more so than apocalyptic imagery, is what I find the most compelling about the themes in Kill la Kill’s final episodes (although some easy parallels exist between more literal interpretations of Revelation and Kill la Kill).

I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts that certain plot elements or character philosophies carry this weight of already/not yet. Satsuki, for instance, is firmly grounded in her present reality while her mind and soul fully embrace and espouse her ambitions, giving her beliefs about herself that spare her the subjugation of the system she runs and the system(s) that oppress(es) her.

Specifically, Satsuki’s ambitions toward a world without Ragyo are so strong that she inadvertently denies the power of the male gaze that literally surrounds her as she fights Ryuko in episode 3. She conceptualizes a view of power in nudity (or bearing her breasts, as she says) that’s so subversive of the societal context in which she lives that it becomes liberative for her, and I think a part of her may be trying to convince Ryuko to adopt this same framework. In a post-Ragyo world, there is no shame in nudity. The shame or spectacle of nudity is, for Satsuki, a value of the masses that she has already surpassed in her own right, but not yet achieved for the rest of the world. It’s in this imperfection that audiences feel tension. Theoretically, Satsuki or any woman should be free to be naked (if she wants to) without the fear of harassment or sexualization and perhaps that could be a reality when eras shift, but is it the case now? No, not yet. Not in Kill la Kill’s universe and not in our own world.

Another such imperfection exists in Ryumako. As I’ve made clear in the past, I ship it, so I’m bound to see something positive or redeemable in it no matter what. However, you can see from the discussion in this post that Ryumako might not be as healthy, fulfilled, or complete as I initially analyzed.

Whether Ryumako is problematic because Ryuko’s dismissive of Mako and Mako idolizes Ryuko too much, or Ryumako is just at the beginning stages of something more substantial, I think it’s safe to say that their relationship is definitely in progress. But it already has elements of the illogical dedication that subverts Ragyo’s system while not yet being something they fully understand or the ideal queer relationship. Only when Ragyo’s system is upturned can this develop into something substantial, but this development has already started.

Senketsu/Ryuko

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It’s only in Kill la Kill’s last episodes that this theme of growing up surfaces and the clearest example of that is in Senketsu’s death. He urges Ryuko to find clothes that are cuter than him as he dissipates in a blaze. He dies with the old era while Ryuko lives on in the new era.

But by now, Ryuko and Senketsu have affirmed and declared their dual nature as both/neither human and clothing. This divine illogic of both and neither together parallels already/not yet. Just as we can’t understand how something could be both/neither, we also have trouble understanding how something can be already/not yet. If Ryuko and Senketsu are truly one in the same, then it’s not just Senketsu who dies, but also Ryuko yet at the same time, Ryuko lives. The loosest Christ parallel exists here (and I may as well point it out given that I’ve suggested it more strongly in the past) if only because Christ’s death followed by life signals a change in eras just as Senketsu’s death and Ryuko’s life is a transition into the next era. Plus, Senketsu isn’t truly dead if he is the same as Ryuko and Ryuko lives.

As you can probably tell, words and logic are beginning to fail me now either because I’m reading too much into this or because divine illogic is making its case (or maybe both). In anycase, talking about Senketsu’s death by brilliant flames reminds me of a line that mewithoutYou uses in a couple of their songs. Bear with me for a moment because I think this question “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” might further ground this interpretation I’m trying to make.

So, that line references The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, one of which goes like this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can

I say my little rule of prayer, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace

and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.

His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will,

you can become all flame.”

And in “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate,” which I did connect to Gurren Lagann, this question of becoming flame, or being utterly changed into fire, comes directly after the other insects on the Coconut Estate proclaim that “our beloved’s not dead, but his highness instead has been utterly changed into fire.” The King Beetle, basically, is a God/Christ figure who “dies” but actually is transformed (or perhaps transfigured) and this transformation leads to lasting change in the physical world. The King Beetle likely lives on, metaphysically, but his death/transformation may have placed him in that eschatological future. “Becoming flame” is a transcendent act rather than a strict death.

The same might be said for Senketsu who, quite literally, becomes fire. It follows that Ryuko, too, becomes fire. Yet she stays while Senketsu goes, making it so that whatever they are in their combined nature is both already in the type of world that’s to come, but also not yet there.

Undoubtedly, Ryuko’s time with Senketsu has permanently changed her and permanently changed the world. If Ryuko/Senketsu are understood as a Christ figure in any form, Ryuko embodies the “Christ still with us even after resurrection and ascension” while Senketsu embodies the “Christ who has already gone ahead to prepare the way.” The parallel isn’t perfect because it really seems like Ryuko and Senketsu split in episode 24 while most Christians don’t conceptualize that Christ split himself to both stay with the disciples and also ascend.

Return to Eden

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Ryuko falls to the earth completely naked, is caught by a naked Satsuki, and finally comes to rest in a naked cuddle pile of every major character in the series. While this scene is a little silly and over the top in true Kill la Kill fashion, it also presents the realization of two ideals about nudity: that it can exist, especially in the female form, without being subjected to sexualization, and that it can exist without being shameful or an indicator of powerlessness. This is what nudity was before the Fall and before Ragyo twisted Genesis 3 to enforce a clothes-power/nudity-powerless construct. The nudity in this scene signals the start of a new era without Ragyo where her values and methods are no longer dominant. However, while all the characters are already in this new era, many are not yet healed or ready for it.

Lingering Shadows

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The OVA shows us a Satsuki who has lost her spark. With her entire life’s purpose completed, she has no idea what to do with herself now. Likewise, Hououmaru Rei is still stuck in the past and uses the remaining scraps of Ragyo’s technology to create shadow versions of Satsuki and the Elite Four. These versions are their past selves and although they’re no longer the same people, they’re still integral parts of these characters’ identities, especially Satsuki’s. The truth is, Satsuki just isn’t Satsuki if she isn’t an eloquently spoken leader and warrior. So, these past selves are not only formidable opponents, but also tempting forms to return to.

But they, including Rei, are all products of Ragyo’s system and belong in an era that has already been upturned. Rei’s dependence on and reverence of Ragyo is a result of Ragyo’s role as a pale savior (another indicator that Ragyo represents the West). I say “pale savior” because as much as Ragyo adopts Western styles and economic practices, she’s still Japanese and therefore not white. For Rei to “grow up” from Ragyo like the others do, she has to realize that she’s an independent person and has value outside of what Ragyo provided for her and how Ragyo shaped her. CG of Black Girl in Media has a great analysis of Rei.

Onward

With Ragyo gone and Honnouji Academy decommissioned, everyone goes their separate ways to pursue new paths and we get the sense that things will be somewhat calm and normal. Satsuki’s hair cutting is a resolute acceptance of this change. While the slowdown will likely give Ryuko enough pause to actually face the losses, traumas, and abuses she has endured, maybe she’ll also have time to figure out just what exactly she feels for Mako. What already exists between them has space to grow now (unless a new enemy arises or Ragyo somehow isn’t dead).

All of the characters are still just at the beginning of this post-Ragyo world, so it’s not clear what will change or if this new world will more closely match the kind of world they all fought for.

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And that’s where Kill la Kill leaves us. We’re given a glimpse of a world without Ragyo and hints of how the characters will continue on in this world that they’ve both saved and created.

Anime Challenge #2: Favorite Anime You’ve Watched So Far

At the end of my last post, I dropped a lowkey, mediocre hint at which anime I’d talk about in this post. If you guessed it, then congratulations and thank you for putting up with how much of a piece of trash I am for this specific anime.

Favorite anime I’ve watched so far? Kill la Kill.

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This is hands down my favorite anime and I haven’t had many seasons in my anime fan life where I could definitively point to just one series that’s my lasting favorite. The five in-depth posts I’ve written about it (plus a guest post I’ve hosted and a forthcoming sixth post from me) is a testament to how intensely I responded to this series.

I think a lot of different factors came together to formulate that response. First, I’m three years out of college, but still do what I can to keep my analytical mind sharp. Second, I’m deeply entrenched and interested in both intersectionality and Christian theology. If Kill la Kill had come out while I was still in college or high school, I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or viewpoints that I have now, so I don’t think I would’ve responded the same way at all.

Ragyo’s speech in episode 13 to her corporate drones, where she invokes the Genesis 3 story, was the initial spark that made me open up a Word document, start over from the beginning, and actively take notes. Then I noticed other themes I jive with: feminism, queerness, and dismantling oppressive social structures. This combined with the most important characters being girls or women just made me engage with the story in a way I haven’t experienced with other anime.

All of that said, if I were writing Kill la Kill, I wouldn’t approach it the same way. It passes off some terrible actions, events, and behaviors as okay and while it may have some liberative elements, it’s hardly a poster-child for female empowerment (even though it’s easy to find female empowerment in the story).

I think even with its problems, Kill la Kill doesn’t present anything one-dimensionally, whether it’s nudity or kamui or other plot elements. That’s probably why I keep coming back to it and I see something new every time I rewatch a few episodes.

Next: Anime you’re ashamed you enjoyed. It’s not a trick question.

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?

seriously senketsu 8

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.

Contradiction is Truth: The Divine Illogic in Kill la Kill

kill-1-5-kiryuin-satsukiIt should come as no surprise that I’m talking about Kill la Kill yet again. I will probably come back to this series several more times because, as I’ve said elsewhere, there’s so much to unpack. Today, I’d like to expand on my theology of clothing post and talk more in depth about illogic in Kill la Kill and Satsuki as a divine figure.

 

Divine Illogic

First, I think I should define (or attempt to) a phrase/concept I’m going to throw around a lot: divine illogic. What exactly do I mean when I say “divine illogic”? For a long time, I’ve understood that God exists, moves, and works outside of human logic. As useful, important, and insightful as logic is, and as valuable and sensible as it is to have logical beliefs, logic ultimately has its limits. At the end of the day, it’s still stemming from limited, human perspectives. Further limits on these perspectives include gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, cultural and historic context, and our own mortality. There is wisdom, I believe, in acknowledging that logic ends and that divine things are illogical. They can step into human experience and we can grasp what they’re all about on some level e.g., Jesus Christ in Christianity, but there will always be something beyond our understanding.

This might seem like a crisis to anyone who feels that faith has to make logical sense or that we can only trust in what we know, but I suggest that illogical divinity or spirituality is not a threat to faith, which is, admittedly, a very theistic thing of me to say (I am yet limited by my Christian perspective and my perspective of the Christian perspective). It also shouldn’t be alarming or threatening to the faithful to suggest that we believe in something illogical. I’m not meaning “illogical” as “wrong” or “idiotic” or “shallow.” I mean that it blows our minds because it unravels everything we think we know and radically changes us in ways we cannot describe. In Christianity at least, the illogic of God deigning to become human and later resurrecting from death is the mystery of our faith that compels us to humility and reverence. It’s the illogic of Jesus talking about a good Samaritan and healing on the Sabbath and appearing in his resurrected form to women first that compels us to challenge and unravel the oppressive systems we thought made sense (or even the much smaller things we thought made sense).

The divine illogic consists of these kinds of interruptions–these reminders or indications that the way we categorize and understand things is not exhaustive and can be upended, often for the sake of justice and well-being. Several of my other posts have sort of danced around this topic, but now I’ve come a bit closer to recognizing instances of it in fiction (not that it’s a trope or anything). And for the record, I’m 99% sure someone else has come up with this idea before I stumbled upon it.

 

“Contradiction is Truth!”

 Fear is freedom! Subjugation is liberation! Contradiction is truth! Those are the facts of this world, and you will all surrender to them, you pigs in human clothing!

In her first appearance of the series, Satsuki gives the first of many powerful speeches. This longer video shows that first clip in its entirety. The camera pans up to the sky and shows the brilliant light of the sun–or rather of Satsuki, who is so high above everyone else that they can’t fully see her face in the glow of her power. This imagery immediately reminds me of both the Good (Plato) and Christ’s transfiguration where his face is so bright with the presence of God that the disciples can’t look directly at him. Charles Dunbar over at Study of Anime wrote an interesting essay about Satsuki as a divine figure from Shintoism. Study of Anime’s work on Kill la Kill in general places important historical and cultural context in analyzing the series, especially regarding religious themes and imagery. This is context and knowledge that I admittedly don’t have, which is why I’ve been trying to make it clear that I’m not calling Kill la Kill a “Christian anime” or saying that the creators are trying to espouse specifically Christian themes or messages. If anything, they’re drawing from their own people’s culture and religion while using Judeo-Christianity as an interesting flair to keep the story unique (or as a critique). I highly recommend reading Study of Anime’s posts and looking out for their book on Kill la Kill due to release this summer.

So, I think there are a couple things to this notion of Satsuki as a divine figure. First, in presenting herself as such and using the rhetoric that she does, she’s subtly hinting at both her own betrayal of her mother and one of the show’s larger themes of illogical dedication triumphing over evil. Though her speech is strongly Orwellian, its construction and wording (in this translation) is a hint of divine illogic.

Take the first three sentences. They define the terms “fear,” “subjugation,” and “contradiction” as their opposites (or so it seems). We have a divine figure giving illogical declarations.

How can fear be freedom? Doesn’t fear trap us and breed hatred? However, this statement may make Christians think of the fear of God where “fear” is meant more as reverence and awe than something crippling, not that this is necessarily what Satsuki is going for. Although, if she is presenting herself as divine, then she could be commanding this type of reverence be given to her.

Subjugation is liberation? How can this be so when those who are subjugated are oppressed? What liberation is there in subjugation? Again, a Christian might think of full submission to God’s will and the liberation gained from giving oneself entirely to God. We can easily run into problematic territory by using this kind of framework to describe knowing God, but nevertheless, it’s a common belief among Christians. Plot wise, I take this statement as Satsuki attempting to say that she is actually protecting her fellow students from Ragyo by subjugating them to her will, which is fighting against Ragyo and preventing her from taking over the world with Life Fibers. By training them to fight with Goku uniforms and imposing her own rules, Satsuki is trying to give them all a chance to defend themselves. At the same time, she has to appear to be fully onboard with Ragyo, so her methods must imitate Ragyo’s.

Contradiction is truth? This doesn’t make logical sense either, yet this is where I think Satsuki drops her hint. She’s intentionally referring to her planned betrayal of Ragyo, but this statement also ties in with later plot elements that Satsuki doesn’t yet know when she gives this speech. First and foremost is Ryuko and Senketsu’s nature as both clothing and human and neither clothing nor human. In my theology of clothing post, I likened this to Christ’s nature as both human and God. Clearly, all of these are contradictions and yet, in Kill la Kill, it is true that Ryuko and Senketsu have this dual nature that doesn’t neatly fit into the structure or rules of their world. This is divine illogic. Another reading of “contradiction” is the illogical dedication that exists between the Elite Four and Satsuki, which she recognizes with awe late in the series.

In summary, these statements declare how things are while hinting at what’s to come. Yes, the students do fear and revere Satsuki, perhaps to their detriment. Yes, she subjugates them and imposes her rules on every aspect of their lives. But she could also be saying something like “Be in awe of me and no one else for the sake of your freedom. Follow my ways and fight for me for your liberation. I will upturn an evil system by contradicting my blood ties.”

Of course, this assumes that Satsuki knows exactly what she’s doing from the start, and for the most part, she does. However, we see how quickly the tables turn when Ragyo arrives and how she admits to Ryuko that her methods may not have been right. It’s likely that she couldn’t think of any other way to make it all work and resorted to imitating Ragyo.

 

Satsuki the Imitator

In some of my previous posts, I called Ragyo a misappropriator and explained how she twists a concept from Judeo-Christianity to suit her own needs of building an oppressive social system. Satsuki imitates this type of misappropriation. She creates her own microsystem of Honnouji Academy/Town, pits herself as a divine figure, and uses rhetoric from Western religion to further solidify her position at the top, though not to the extent that Ragyo does. One of Satsuki’s more famous lines is “Ask not the sparrow how the eagle soars!” which she delivers as she dons Junketsu for the first time.

English

Japanese

This line is actually a direct quote from A Course in Miracles, a book published in the 70s that’s in the New Thought/Christian Science realm of Western religion. Frankly, I didn’t even know about this until I Googled the line with a suspicion that it had to come from something religious.

Turns out, I was right. As far as I can gather, the book gained some amount of wider cultural attention upon its publication. Many Christians at the time condemned it as demonic while other critics noted that it’s really just Eastern spirituality with Christian words slapped onto it. I think it’s fair to say that its framework is a deviation from what most Christians believe and what they’d call Christianity. In this way, one could call it an imitation of Christianity, or more negatively, a misappropriation. So, Satsuki quoting it falls in line with the notion that she imitates her misappropriative mother. But where Ragyo takes canonical Scripture and twists it for her own needs, Satsuki takes something that already isn’t Christianity proper and uses it to assert her ambition. It’s an imitation of an imitation, in a sense (very Platonic, too).

Put another way, if Kill la Kill is in some way critiquing Western influence and power, then Satsuki drawing from something that’s closer to Eastern thought than Ragyo could be a sign of her eventual rightness and triumph over Ragyo.

 

Pasta la Pasta

We can frame this imitation idea using a pasta sauce metaphor and a play on words. One of my favorite jokes that has come out of the Kill la Kill fandom is calling Ragyo “Ragu” as in the pasta sauce. Anyone who is serious about Italian food likely detests store-bought sauce and will strongly advocate for genuine, homemade sauce. Homemade sauce is the true sauce and any store-bought brand is a shallow imitation or misappropriation. So, we have Western religion as the homemade pasta sauce and Ragyo’s twisting of it as the mass-produced imitation brand (Ragu). Ragu can claim that it’s classic, traditional, or authentic, but those who make their own recipes and know what pasta sauce should really be would likely disagree. Still, Ragu is everywhere and even those who don’t use it have at least heard of it. Ragyo, too, has created a brand that’s mass-produced and everyone in the world has at least heard of it: REVOCS.

This makes Satsuki the generic grocery store brand, an imitation of an imitation for the sauce purists. Though Satsuki also uses Life Fibers and mass-produces Goku uniforms, she doesn’t have a brand name that’s known throughout the world. Her “brand” is a house brand, something you’d only find at Honnouji Academy.

Meanwhile, Ryuko is Alfredo sauce and has no regard for things made from tomatoes. However, she later makes the unfortunate discovery that Ragu also makes Alfredo sauce.

 

“Ask Not the Sparrow How the Eagle Soars!”

Here is the context of Satsuki’s reference:

Those who choose freedom will experience only its results. Their power is of God, and they will give it only to what God has given, to share with them. Nothing but this can touch them, for they see only this, sharing their power according to the Will of God. And thus their freedom is established and maintained. It is upheld through all temptation to imprison and to be imprisoned. It is of them who learned of freedom that you should ask what freedom is. Ask not the sparrow how the eagle soars, for those with little wings have not accepted for themselves the power to share with you. (T.20.IV.4)

 

When this power has once been experienced, it is impossible to trust one’s own petty strength again. Who would attempt to fly with the tiny wings of a sparrow when the mighty power of an eagle has been given him? And who would place his faith in the shabby offerings of the ego when the gifts of God are laid before him? What is it that induces them to make the shift? (M.4.I.2 )

 

I can almost hear Satsuki declaring this from the highest tower of Honnouji Academy. This is exactly her mindset for most of the series. The first quote brings us back to this idea of freedom and how Satsuki understands it. She may consider herself as one who has learned of freedom and therefore knows what it is. So, she can state that fear is freedom. With this freedom, she will not be imprisoned by her mother’s abuse, even while she has to put up with it until the right moment. She can persevere because, in her mind, she has already chosen freedom. All the power and agency she needs is already in her grasp, and she has no time for the sparrows who haven’t flown to her heights. In taming Junketsu, Satsuki has seized that god-like power and bent it to her own will–a gift laid out before her for her own taking. Anything less than this is a value for the masses and the sparrows.

On a side note, I find it really interesting how the cover of many versions of A Course in Miracles is blue and Satsuki’s primary color is blue. The original edition, according to Amazon, has a cross with four extra, smaller points intersecting the larger lines. Some instances of cross imagery in Kill la Kill add some smaller lines to the cross (though it’s not exactly the same), especially the cross on which Satsuki crucifies Ragyo. Of course, this particular cross is also the same design as Honnouji Academy’s logo and is a symbol of resistance, yet it’s also another example of Satsuki drawing from Western religion to meet her own goals.

Another Biblical Reference to Nudity

Sabine_and_Ryuko

This Lenten season, I’ve been reading through Isaiah and I came across a section that certainly has some loose ties with Kill la Kill. Isaiah 32: 9-15 addresses complacent women and urges them to “strip and make [themselves] bare and put sackcloth on [their] loins.” They are to “beat [their] breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine, for the soil of [God’s] people growing up in thorns and briers.”

These are all likely references to the work and commitment involved in restoring justice and ending oppressive regimes. Chapter 32 overall promises a peaceful future after a time of judgment and subjugation. The book of Isaiah is full of references to justice for widows and orphans, i.e. people who are powerless, although it’s also full of condemnation for Judah.

What I get from these verses and this whole chapter is that complacency has to end in order for the peace of God’s reign to begin and in this case, that seems to start with action on the women’s parts. Stripping bare and covering only their loins is perhaps a sign of that complacency ending.

In Kill la Kill, we have two women wearing powerful outfits that don’t cover much more than their loins and with these outfits, they upset the structure of their world. Satsuki immediately recognizes the power in this. She knows that this type of nudity resists the power of Life Fibers and secures her freedom while also giving her a fighting chance against her mother. She’s not going to sit around and let things continue as they are. She quite literally strips, dons Junketsu in the skimpiest way, and sets her plans into action.

Choosing nudity is an illogical act in Kill la Kill. Nudity is meant to be equivalent to powerlessness, yet Satsuki says that she will proudly bare her breasts for the world to see if that means fulfilling her ambition. She will choose illogic and espouse it as a divine figure, disguising it all in her mother’s methods to secure her freedom.