A Meditation on Kill la Kill

I never really feel equipped to discuss anything in any meaningful way. And despite all the analysis videos I’ve consumed in the past few years, no amount of reading or watching such excellent insights into such things as character and plot analyses, thematic dissections, creator intentions and studio histories, production values, etc. marks a strong enough impression to leave the information readily conscious to mind.

I feel lost in a sea of knowledge I currently cannot seem to retain, but I believe that is because I’m not thinking about it all that much. I’m reading and listening, but never feel like I’m taking it in and digesting the information being exposed to me. Having these encyclopedic juggernauts like Digibro, The Canipa Effect, and Pause and Select (among others) towering over me, seemingly molded by an enriching tapestry of knowledge of anime and anime production, is daunting to say the least. My experience is minuscule by comparison, and it’s kind of frustrating in a way.

Perhaps I’m paying too much attention to not knowing and am stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle of habitual thinking concerning my self-worth and whatnot, instead of focusing on one thing at a time and learning that way. All I can really do at the moment is profess my fanboy love for what I like and find interesting. Regardless I think by participating in the discussion, even with my limited knowledge on the subject, is the best way for me to learn more as I go, hence this meditation on Kill la Kill. There’s a lot to discuss here, due to how dense the show is, but I feel this is another case of so much already having been said and me left not knowing if I have anything to offer to the discussion. Though, I will attempt to be entertaining, I make no promises of coming even within the vicinity of a conclusion by the end.

kill_la_kill

With all that introductory fluff out of the way, I present my meditation on Kill la Kill. Here is a series that is an absolute favourite of mine for increasingly more awesome reasons the more I read about it. On the surface of course is the aesthetic, visuals, and character designs – in my eyes, these are all gorgeously perfect. Animation is remarkably fast and vigorous, and the action scenes are full of adrenaline with a lot of ridiculously awesome uses of transportation to such epic proportions, like crashing a cable car at full speed into a classroom! There’s a lot of momentum and energy packed into the show and it’s such a satisfying rush that I really appreciate it continuing with its narrative’s pace by speeding past parts that wouldn’t have added anything by focusing on them, such as Ryuko’s fight against the court full of clubs being made into a concise transition to the predictable outcome of her beating all of them, and Ryuko left feeling worn out due to the sheer amount of them.

Aside from the eye-gasming visual splendor and exciting use of animation, the music in this series is nothing short of amazing either. How did such a detestable villain get such a sublime score all to her own? Ragyo may be a terrible mother, but goddamn, I can’t help but explode with excitement at the sound of her extravagant score. It’s irresistibly charming and part of me ties that in with Ragyo being made out to be an irresistibly dominating force in the show. True or not, that is an amusing way of looking at it. And as much as it’s become a meme, I’ll happily shout “DON’T LOSE YOUR WAY” with heartfelt passion and fanboy glee any day of the week.

Now that I’m done praising the show for all its surface qualities, let’s move onto what’s really interesting: the themes. For the purposes of this post, I’ll only be looking at a few of the plethora of themes weaved into the narrative of Kill la Kill. Like its predecessors, Kill la Kill is chock-full of references to past works by the same studio. To the point where it could probably give Lucky Star a run for its money in terms of sheer amount. Not only does Kill la Kill include these references, it follows the legacy of its studio’s many works in consistent themes, such as anarchy, as expressed in this excellent reading by eyeforaneyepiece. A very fascinating subject and eyeforaneyepiece provides much great stuff to love and appreciate.

In most of Imaishi’s work, there’s this active chorus of anarchism as a way to resist oppression, and we see that present in KLK in spades. Given what we know from the final episode, I’d say it isn’t too much of a stretch to associate Ragyo with the specter of absolute dominance and authority. But is the natural opposition to authority anarchism? The answer is probably no, because complete anarchy is about the same as complete dominance: no order at all is in fact another form of submission that gives up on any hope of order in the first place and submitting yourself to utter chaos. Although it is a tempting choice in the fight against authority, it is not actually the one you should take. Nui’s character then can be framed in a context where she is the other end of the dichotomy that must be opposed: you must resist both absolute authority and absolute non-authority because they are both rob you of your agency. In the quest for emancipation, one must constantly fight against both extremes, and so Nui’s character is both a symbol of femininity and anarchy that must be actively opposed.

Watching Kill la Kill is a thrill in and of itself, but these extra layers of symbolism and meaning behind the narrative, as well as all the additional details in-between offer quite a lot to mull about. Instead of these characters being made to be relatable, they are used to represent higher ideologies, themes, and conflicts, with mirrors to real-world equivalent events. This passage for instance, shows a more thorough exploration of the rich symbolism Nui’s character represents (both femininity and anarchy), which as expressed previously in the same post, has been left absent in most of the discussions concerning the series. Additionally, her and Ragyo’s character both tie heavily into the thematic conflict of Kill la Kill as a whole in more ways than one. As mentioned in this case, Ragyo embodies absolute dominance and authority, and thus acts as the perfect antagonist for everyone opposed to her. But if Nui is anarchy and Ragyo is authority, what does the opposition represent? How can you fight both?

KLK bears some noticeable parallels to the times of Oda Nobunaga, first and foremost with Honnouji Academy. 

But we also see parallels between Nobunaga’s conquest to unify Japan and Satsuki’s plan to conquer all high schools. Nobunaga, over the course of his lifetime, managed to unify central Japan. His conquests were centered on the Kansai region and marked by intense brutality (especially against religious establishments). His catchphrase was “Tenka Fubu [天下布武]” (tr. “all under heaven through military might”), which symbolizes his use of violence as a tool to unify the continent. In a “I’m pretty sure this is intentional” parallel, Satsuki too aims to conquer this very same region of Japan in her Tri-City Raid campaign.

Both of the main “Unifiers” (Nobunaga and his successor Totoyomi Hideyoshi) undertook large projects to centralize government, and enacted social policies designed to increase their political power. Nobunaga initiated land surveys that were later continued by Hideyoshi, both with the aim of establishing not only a survey of the realm, but more importantly their right and power to tax. Through this system, they established a coherent census and system of income while also flexing their military might. In addition, both Unifiers engaged in so-called “sword hunts,” where they attempted to disarm the peasantry to ensure they had a monopoly on violence. Finally, Hideyoshi actually implement a Neo-Confucian “class” system in Japan and promulgated decrees preventing social mobility between then. These four main classes (samurai -> peasants -> artisans -> merchants) were at the heart of Japanese society, with the Emperor of course on top overseeing the whole shebang (and by “Emperor” we really mean the shogun, because they held all the real power).

Reading Satsuki’s aspirations and actions as the equivalent to Nobunaga’s unification of Japan is an extremely interesting parallel. Her conquest to take over all the schools could easily be interpreted as a smaller scale version of Nobunaga’s conquests over the Kansai region. “All under heaven through military might”? Sounds like something the visual motif of Satsuki standing high above with the sun beaming down from behind her as she asserts her own might upon those at Honnouji Academy could potentially be a symbolic parallel to. Also four main classes? As also noted in the post, this is mirrored in the Goku Uniforms, ranging from No-Star up to Three-Star, as a four-tier “class” system just like Hideyoshi’s for Japanese society (minus all the cool power-ups).

There are two interesting things to note here about the previous view:

  • Satsuki is looking quite like a god-like figure who lords it over the school. If we take the “class” system as historical parallel, that seems to support this idea.
  • Satsuki’s system looks really fascist and involves a centralization/monopoly on violence (through her Goku uniforms), very similar to those built up by the great Unifiers.

But Satsuki is more than just a God-like figure. Look at all the symbolic overtones present in the first episode, for example.

When Satsuki is first introduced, she stands as a radiant source of light from on high who shines down on those below. Even when we zoom in a bit more, we don’t even see her face. She’s essentially the Sun.

Going with the image of a God-like figure in mind, why would Satsuki be so often linked to the Sun? (I’m assuming her dazzling radiance is more than just KLK being ridiculous.) Well, in Japan, there’s one Goddess that actually is literally the Sun in the Shinto pantheon: Amaterasu.

This is the context by which I mean to establish how awesome Kill la Kill really is. Satsuki’s commanding charisma and ethereal presence throughout the first half of the series is made all the more nuanced and spectacularly profound through the symbolic overtones associated with her character. I focus on Satsuki here in particular, because she’s my favourite character from the series, and the more I read into the extra layers of meaning behind her and the show, the stronger I feel about both. Personally, I found the visual cues making her out to be a God-like figure incredibly apparent, but to specify that Satsuki is the Sun / Amaterasu is a step further than I would’ve suspected.

So let’s just assume, as a starting point, that all the god-like overtures and symbols in the show have been pointing to Satsuki as a symbolic representation of Amaterasu. You can actually make a lot of cool parallels with certain events in the story and the “Elite Four” relating a good chunk of their personalities to Shinto deities (Jakazure = Ame-no-uzume; Gamagoori = Hachiman; Sanageyama = Susano-o; Inamuta = Izumo Okuninushi; and Mako is some deity I forget; email Charles or Kit for more info on this), but for my purposes relating Satsuki to Shinto at some level is enough, since it inspires the following question:

  • How does Shinto and fascism go together?

The answer? As State Shinto, an ideology developed during the Meiji Restoration that placed the Emperor as descended from the divine (Amaterasu herself) that would bind the state of Japan together as it modernized and centralized. Under this ideology, the state essentially became a pseudo-fascist power.

What (partly) triggered the Meiji Restoration, and why/how did Japan modernize? It was mainly as a response to Western Imperialism, which forced Japan to finally end its long period of isolation from the West. Seeing how the West demolished China, Japan struggled to modernize as quickly as possible to prevent the same thing from happening to itself. Much of this modernization involved taking huge cues from Western powers as Japan essentially mimed the West to prevent being colonized by it, imbibing the ideas of their oppressor in order to resist them.

So now we have an analog for Satsuki and her system at Honnouji Academy as representative Meiji Japan.

It is notable and indeed cool that the “Elite Four” have enough in common to parallel the likes of Shinto deities, and not just Pokémon Trainers (lol). Though I feel this added historical context contributes to the aesthetics and excitement of the show in a very welcome way, filled with righteous hope and fury. Using the Meiji Restoration as an analog for Kill la Kill puts the show in an awesome new perspective, especially considering how Satsuki goes about organizing such a system with a good deal more leniency. All the hyperbolic speeches and reactions from characters add to the intensity of how the show wants to be read.

I don’t have much left to say as of yet. So I’ll just leave it there as something of a first attempt at this new kind of exercise I’m trying out here. It’s definitely a weird way of ending things, but I think it also acts as a good example as to how little I have to say by comparison right now. It’s clear between the difference in our writing, that eyeforaneyepiece is more analytical and well-read on the subject than I, and my input had very little to contribute to his side of the discussion. I’m sure if I spent more time mulling things over I’d have (a lot) more to say, however I’m more concerned with writing whatever comes to mind right now. But if anything, at least you know where I stand, as a Kill la Kill fanboy.

~ Ace

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