Don’t Lose Your Way
We Have to Be As One
I gotta find out who killed my dad
I hear the voice of him in my mind…
The lyrics to the chorus of Before My Body is Dry, what is arguably the “action theme” of Kill la Kill, set the song up as a dialogue between the two principal characters, heroine Ryuko and her sentient suit of armour Senketsu. It is an unsubtle restatement of the series’ chaotic plot – for all the mayhem of armed invasions, ridiculous villains and fighting-tournaments, Satsuki Kiryuin and her family remain the series’ villains. Every incidental episode – from the ridiculous deathtrap-filled race to school to Satsuki’s plan to make Ryuko and Mako turn on each other via luxury and fulfilled wishes, is played out as a villain suddenly aware they might lose playing for time and trying to distract or slow down their enemy.
At first, with its focus on sexual politics in a very literal sense – women “wearing” or being “worn by” their revealing clothes, power being entirely based on one’s outfit, Kill la Kill seemed to be setting itself up as a very sexualised superhero series, playing on the imagery and topoi of heroines in animé to make some kind of statement about sexuality and maturity much like Revolutionary Girl Utena does. Utena visually homages previous school animé in its fashion and narratively homages it in its focus on the predatory nature of schoolgirl relationships – the sexual imagery of swords and literal deflowering to settle affairs of the heart, and the emphasis on duelling and creating and violating honour codes. Kill la Kill is, at first, a very different kind of commentary; it takes the sexualisation of school uniform to its logical extreme by marrying it to the revealing woman superhero’s outfit, and presents – in similar fashion almost to Adam Warren’s Empowered – heroines that must embrace being sex objects for the audience to become truly powerful. This reading of the Ryuko/Senketsu and Satsuki/Junketsu dynamic is so heavily implied in the early episodes that it seems to be a preoccupation of the series – and even later, when archvillains Ragyo and Nui enter the scene, the motif of clothing and the power that the body can hold over others remains. Even the hyper-masculinity (its own kind of sexualisation) of male heroes in comparison to female ones is mocked soundly with the bondage-themed villain Gamagoori of the Disciplinary division of Satsuki’s empire. He takes the hyper-muscled, fully clothed male warrior hero to its logical conclusion – a fighter whose outfit is a straitjacket to keep him focused.
Yet these themes never progress beyond motifs; they recur, and are referred to as plot points, but they are not explored in any depth. Kill la Kill is no Utena in its running with sexual matters to surreal and interesting conclusions; Utena had an episode about a girl’s first period dressed up as a comedy episode about an egg. Kill la Kill‘s closest analogue to those Nanami-centric episodes of Utena is probably Mako’s family-focused episode, and that was about politics. It is thus apparently politics and particularly imperialism and fascism – another pervasive aesthetic from the helmet-like hairstyles of the faceless thugs of the school and the initial dialogue being a lecture about Nazism right through to music-themed villain Jakuzure’s obsession with marches and Ragyo’s cultish corporate ethos – that are a key theme. Satsuki runs Honnouji Academy and the entire city beneath it on the strength of family connections and her handpicked henchmen, ruling from a close-to-literal ivory tower and, in the climax of the series’ first half conflating democracy with survival of the fittest with her absurd “Naturals Election”, a fight to the death for the right to rule with the odds stacked in favour of her own favourites. From there, her ambitions expand; she is ruler of her own domain, and immediately thereafter goes after her nearest rivals. Here, the fascist/nationalist imagery becomes more intense; in previous battles Jakuzure has used classical standards for her attacks with the general aesthetic being the absurdity of a majorette turning her orchestra into weapons. Her choice of song for an attack on an enemy fortress – bringing down the Walls of Jericho with trumpets, in fact, is Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 – better known to English audiences as Land of Hope and Glory. Land of Hope and Glory, along with Rule Britannia and to some extent I Vow To Thee My Country (words set to Holst’s Jupiter) represent a vision of British imperialism that to a modern perspective is unpleasantly militaristic and supremacist. Jakuzure is attacking a rival school based around religion and myth, and her two-stage attack – first using the help of the Film and IT societies to break down their illusions and then using Elgar to break down their walls. This is quite literally, then, progress and imperialism, presented in the most Victorian nationalist fashion (and arguably, tenuously, Christian fashion), washing away the superstitous savages in the name of capital (embodied by Satsuki’s corporation) and Empire. One short scene and perfectly chosen musical cue thus cements beyond doubt the political barbs of Kill la Kill.
Yet the whole is still a scattershot affair, of allusion and visual jokes and half-engaged-with sexual politics and culturally-distant jabs at nationalism. The same episode as Jakuzure’s use of Elgar has another battle between literally meat-headed footballers who wrap themselves in steaks for protection and Gamagoori’s rules-obsessed disciplinary committee, and a school which has established its own currency – the Bitcoin-like “Takada Buck” – to take control of local business and tourism. Kill la Kill is pretty much a grotesque series of absurdities, swiping at the aesthetics of sexual politics and fascism and never engaging with them fully. Thus it returns to the recurring song – Before My Body is Dry. “Don’t lose your way,” it repeats; “I gotta find out who killed my dad.” Ryuko is shown to be almost completely uninterested in the politics of Honnouji, playing them to her advantage. Ragyo and Satsuki’s plots are just obstacles in her quest for vengeance, and while there is the implication of a developed setting it is actively being sidelined by every main character because they are so single-minded. In many ways this is the strength of Kill la Kill, and its greatest joke; Ryuko, in her selfish, bloody-minded quest for vengeance, is inadvertently being a hero simply by opposing a broken and evil system – yet she does not want to do it.