My Fave is Problematic: Kill la Kill

By: Riane Torres June 22, 20180 Comments
Ryuko and Satsuki crossing blades in their powered up forms

I discovered Kill la Kill when I recently learned about feminism in my early 20s. A PowerPoint showed up on my Tumblr dash called “Kill La Kill: A Visual Guide to Understanding Female Empowerment and the Male Gaze.” The PowerPoint implied Kill la Kill was a feminist anime and people should give it a chance. Since I was a feminist, I figured I could give my verdict on whether the anime was feminist or not—although in hindsight, that wasn’t the question I should’ve been asking.

I watched four episodes, and the anime sucked me into a fantastical over-the-top world full of fighting, nudity, and Mako’s inspirational speeches. When the series was done, I declared Kill la Kill officially feminist and it became one of my favorite anime. I didn’t think about it again until I revisited it four or five years later; then I had to learn how to deal with realizing my fave “feminist” anime was problematic.

If you don’t know, Kill la Kill is about 17-year-old Ryuko Matoi, who’s looking for her father’s killer. Her search leads her to Honnouji Academy, a place where students who prove their worth are granted Goku uniforms—clothes that enhances their strength, defense, and abilities.

When the students and the absurdly powerful student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin, refuse to answer Ryuko’s questions about her father’s death, Ryuko tries to beat the answers out of them. She’s aided by a Kamui (a sentient sailor uniform that talks) named Senketsu, who also enhances her strength, defense, and abilities. When Senketsu transforms into the most powerful (and skimpiest) school uniform, he gives Ryuko a fighting chance at getting her answers.

Ryuko being stared at by nameless students and Mako

What mainly attracted me to the show was its large female cast and shounen aesthetic. I can’t think of another anime that has those two elements together (if there are others, please recommend them to me!). I grew up on shounen anime but eventually got a bit burned out because of its lack or sidelining of female characters. So Kill la Kill was a great find for me.

That was five years ago, and I’ve changed a lot since then. I majored in feminist studies and took classes on women’s film narrative, representation, and cultural production. I got better at analyzing issues and critiquing media through a feminist lens. When Anime Feminist announced their watchalong, I decided this was a good chance to revisit one of my favorite anime and see how it held up.

One thing I realized during that time was that deeming an anime (or any media) “feminist or not” narrowed or oversimplified the discussion and prevented in-depth criticism. I wanted to rewatch it and really critique it this time around, to see if I still thought Kill la Kill was actually addressing feminist issues (sexism, agency, sex positivity, etc.) and, if so, how effectively.

Mako posing in her Goku uniform. caption: Fight Club President Mako Mankanshoku!

I knew I might feel uncomfortable, but I was prepared. The same thing happened when I rewatched Fushigi Yugi, but I still liked it in the end. Feminism gave me the tools to recognize, understand, and unlearn harmful patterns, stereotypes, and ideologies reinforced in media, but it didn’t destroy my ability to find value in the parts I’d identified with. I felt like I owed it to myself to rewatch Kill la Kill.

When I rewatch old movies and shows, I know I’ll feel both joy and discomfort while laughing at what I thought was good (or progressive) at a younger age. As much as I hate to say it, the uncomfortable moments in Kill la Kill were more overt this time around.

One of my initial favorite episodes, where Mako’s family becomes rich, suddenly felt like a cringe-fest. This is the one episode which focuses on Mako and shows she’s more than just comedic relief. She knows that being in poverty isn’t great for her family and wants to make their living situation better by giving them access to a safe home with basic amenities and actual food instead of “mysterious” trash food.

Mako and her family eating at a clean table. caption: to think we'd be able to live like this...

Yet the episode punishes Mako. She’s forced to give up everything she’s worked to give her family and go back to the status quo. While trying to tell a simple story about how “being rich makes you greedy and selfish,” the episode doesn’t leave room for why these characters might want to live somewhere between “completely broke” and “filthy rich.” The episode ignores the fact that when the characters live in the middle-class status, all their physical and emotional needs are met. It’s not an option for them to go back to that lifestyle permanently.

By going right to the extreme, it makes a case that poor people are greedy for wanting their lives to be any better at all. The only good thing that came from this episode is Mako getting a kickass Fight Club Goku uniform.

Even my favorite girl, Satsuki, wasn’t immune. Watching her the first time, I loved her, and seeing her in a position of power was pretty badass. Even though she was framed as the antagonist in the beginning, the reveal that all her actions were a ruse to take down her mother, the true Big Bad, served as a reason and excuse for everything she’d done to get to that point. She did it for the “greater good.”

Satsuki posing atop the school. caption: Fear is freedom! Subjugation is liberation!

But during the rewatch, I realized her role and speeches in the series hadn’t aged well. She exploits a combination of capitalism, meritocracy, and social Darwinism to create her fascist community, which made me uncomfortable—especially since vocal support for these views has gotten stronger over the past few years. Even knowing in advance she’ll eventually turn out to be a hero didn’t really help ease my distress.

Nevertheless, she’s still one of my favorite characters in the series, because she fulfills a power fantasy for me. She has strength, badass sword skills, loyal confidants, and works to dismantle a corrupt system from the inside. But it gets complicated because she builds a brand-new fascist system while trying to take down her mother’s larger one. Even though her goal is to dismantle her mother’s system, she’s perpetuating the system and its ideas, and leaves many people suffering because she believes her ends will justify the means.

She doesn’t show any remorse for all the people she sacrificed to create this system, the no-star students, or those in poverty. The one thing that reconciled her character during the rewatch was her face-turn, where she betrays her mother and joins Nudist Beach in the end. From there, she starts to make actual changes to her mother’s corrupt system.

Satsuki and her mother Ragyo. caption: I've been against you for as long as I can remember

It wasn’t all cringe, though—there were joyful moments that saved Kill la Kill for me and reminded me why I liked it in the first place too. I discovered the sweet Ryuko/Mako ship that I missed the first time due to my heteronormative lenses. I hadn’t realized how important Mako was as a support for Ryuko. She cools down Ryuko when she transforms into a monster, cheers her on in her fight, and most of all, the two have a healthy relationship (except for a few problems in the early episodes, like Mako groping Ryuko and Ryuko convincing Mako’s family to return to poverty).

In fact, the vast array of female characters and their relationships still held up during the rewatch and remained my favorite aspect of Kill la Kill. They fulfill a bunch of roles and tropes: comedic Mako, aggressive Ryuko, powerful Satsuki, snarky Nonon, and the ever-fabulous villain Ragyo. Hell, you even have Nui, who is just annoying. It’s nice to see an anime that has a vast range of female characters represented as people (when the show isn’t sexualizing them, that is).

And the last six episodes, where everyone comes together to fight the Big Bad, reminded me why I loved this show. The shounen anime tropes where enemies become allies and join the good guys’ side is a bit cheesy (and lacks nuance) but still warms my heart. It’s exciting and fun to see everyone come together and cooperate. Combined with the amazing fight and action sequences, I was reminded of how good the show could be in its best moments.

Ryuko at the end of her kamui transformation

But despite those best moments, the negative elements overwhelmed me because I forced myself to critically rewatch. I kept thinking about how I’d defended Kill la Kill as a “feminist anime” and ignored its more troubling, sexist elements as a fan. Back then, I really believed I was watching a feminist show.

I wanted to consume anime that wasn’t problematic, so I acted like I knew better by picking out which anime was worth watching because they were Feminist™. I was also afraid I’d be labeled a “bad feminist” for enjoying something that had problematic elements, which I think is a common anxiety that fans (and feminists) go through when talking about their favorite media.

I probably wasn’t the only fan dealing with the “Kill la Kill must be/is a feminist anime” anxiety. Without training in reading visual media, I’d fall into excusing Kill la Kill’s sexist elements with a voice in my head that said: “you’re looking too hard into it” or “you’re being overly sensitive.”

When I later gained skills on how to read visual media, though, I took notice of how long the camera lingers on Ryuko and Satsuki’s bodies when they transform, especially compared to how the camera doesn’t frame or linger too long on the Elite Four when they’re in Nudist Beach’s “uniforms” (or lack thereof).

an illustrated shot of Nudist Beach heading toward the school

Granted, the first time Aikuro strips, the camera does frame him in a way that sexualizes him. However, I gauged Aikuro’s stripping action more as funny, with a little bit of titillation. He invokes the “naked people are funny” trope, which usually only applies to naked male characters. Very rarely do we see a female character go through the same naked hijinks as male characters do. If a female character did the same thing like Aikuro stripping and saying “Nudist Beach,” she’d be framed as bad or perverted.

During this rewatch, I realized I’m not being overly sensitive by looking hard into how the camera is sexualizing the two heroines, because that’s exactly what’s happening. The reason I used to view Kill la Kill as a “progressive feminist” anime was because I was viewing it through the form of Enlightened Sexism, which is a subtle form of sexism that insists feminism and empowerment have been achieved and suggests it’s “okay” to resurrect old images of girls and women as sex objects. It was easy for me to buy into the idea that being sexualized is an empowering idea when I failed to see the nuances of it.

Kill la Kill often reinforces the ideas of enlightened sexism, especially with Mako’s infamous “GET NAKED!” inspirational speech and Satsuki’s speech when she wears Junketsu for the first time. Mako and Satsuki both claim that being sexualized is empowering, but this crumbles under further analysis.

Senketsu forces Ryuko to wear him even though she’s embarrassed about the scantily clad uniform. As for Satsuki, she decided to put on Junketsu and doesn’t feel ashamed to wear it in public, but she’ll do whatever she can to maintain power and order at the school, even if it comes at the expense of having the students objectify her in a more subtle way. They applaud seeing Satsuki, compared to when they slobber all over Ryuko.

From the audience’s point of view, we see both girls put into sexually humiliating situations, like Ryuko’s first fights and Satsuki being imprisoned by her mother, and in both cases the camera frames them for titillation. The show may claim the two are empowered because of the physical strength they receive from Senketsu and Junketsu, but in the end, they’re still being objectified by the rest of the people in their universe and in ours.

But despite all of this, I still like Kill la Kill. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s okay to watch and like problematic media. I’ve learned to have some humility and be honest with myself that I am not a pure, good person just because I liked a certain anime that I thought was progressive.

Anime is created by other people who have flaws, and those flaws can show up in the series they create. I have to set my own limits on problematic stuff I’m okay with watching (how much fanservice, sexualization, sexism, etc., I can stomach) and not compare my limits with other people’s or turn it into “I am holier than thou because I watched this anime.” And I need to remember that feminism should be used as a lens to analyze and critique anime (and media in general), not as a series of checkboxes to tick.

Mako monologuing in a spotlight with arms outstretched. caption: Just rip it off and get naked!

Treating feminism as a metric gives us the false assurance that, because an anime has an “It’s Feminist!” stamp on it, that means it’s A-Okay for uncritical consumption. It can prevent fans from doing real criticism and analysis, and instead just do shoddy ones that give an easy, quick answer.

‘Cause here’s the thing about analyzing through a feminist lens: its main use is to point out, acknowledge, and be aware of the problematic elements. It’s complex. It won’t offer a quick and easy solution like “Yes, this anime is feminist.” And everyone has to draw their own lines about what issues are deal-breakers.

Asking myself if Kill la Kill was “feminist or not” wasn’t the right question to ask. Instead, asking questions like “are there feminist elements or issues highlighted in this anime,” “how are the characters or issues framed by the show,” and “who are the people creating this show and how does that influence it” helps to think in-depth about the series.

Again, I still like Kill la Kill, even though it’s aged pretty badly, but it’s not in my top 10 anymore. It’s now somewhere in my top 20. I won’t insist it’s feminist or applauds it for its ideas about sexualization as empowerment, but I’ll happily defend it for its action scenes, Satsuki as my problematic fave, and Mako as Ryuko’s girlfriend. And that’s okay. I can criticize it and enjoy it. Realizing that may have taken me a while, but it was well worth the journey.

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