The 2013 animé Kill la Kill has invited a wide range of comparisons to past series as a result of how widespread its references to other fiction are. Its story – and indeed its aesthetic – are very strongly reminiscent at first of Revolutionary Girl Utena – a black-clothed girl defies tradition and enters a surreal school to fight its white-clothed elite one-on-one both to protect a close friend and reveal some greater mystery. Yet Kill la Kill has taken this idea in a different direction; Utena explored matters of sexuality and love via exaggerated versions of the sorts of dramas seen in shoujo animé and school stories, with characters like Nanami and her friends fitting exactly the archetypes also illustrated in a series like Dear Brother.
Kill la Kill has transplanted the traditionally hyper-masculine and macho world of the fighting-tournament animé into the school setting and mixed it with the duelling and secret clubs of Utena. It is no less sexual – the core premise involves possessed clothing which must be “dominated” by its wearer – but its emphasis is on a different kind of self-discovery. While Utena tried to learn what being a “prince” meant, Ryuko in Kill la Kill is fighting both to resolve her own mysteries but also to – as becomes clear – bring down the plain villains of the piece. Satsuki and her henchmen are painted time and again as tyrants who have fought their way into power through the corruption of good intentions – it is a clear conflict from the start of Ryuko demanding a new, equal world versus Satsuki’s unequal status quo. As a result the school setting becomes almost meaningless; Kill la Kill is not a school story despite early enemies being tennis-players (in an episode parodying shoujo classic Aim for the Ace) and other school societies. This is made clear in an episode focusing much more on Ryuko’s sidekick Mako – scenes of Mako eventually being tricked into fighting Ryuko and visual jokes parodying Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure became immensely popular out of context as the comic relief character becoming empowered in a way which embraced the quite homo-erotic genre to which Jojo belongs. The ridiculously macho world of martial-arts animé is frequently about strong men bonding over masculine matters and true brotherhood in the face of adversity; Kill la Kill simply changes some of the characters for young women. Ryuko and Mako have the same kind of love-hate relationship as Jojo and Speedwagon might. Satsuki is the same one-step-ahead kind of idealistic villain as Dio, rather than the seductive schemer of Akio in Utena.
Yet the “Mako episode” of Kill la Kill, despite its clear demonstration of the series’ roots in fighting animé, was significantly more than a simple visual reference. It was a comic-relief episode which told a simple moral message – precisely like the many Nanami-centric episodes of Utena such as the curry or cowbell ones. Mako in her guise as a delinquent evoking Jojo was the punchline to an episode-long joke and elaborate scheme of Satsuki’s; to offer the incidental sidekick the chance to be the heroine and thus turn her against Ryuko. The plot was simple – Ryuko, in trying to turn the tables on Satsuki, pretended to comply with the school’s arcane and unfair rules and thus ingratiate herself within it. Mako took the role of chief henchman in this deception, and as a result received significant wealth and status beyond her usual role as physical punchline to the enemy’s visual jokes. What followed was the expected tale of wealth corrupting – as Ryuko fought her way towards Satsuki under Mako’s sponsorship, Mako’s family became richer and richer and eventually more distant until come the end of the episode, when Satsuki ordered Mako to kill Ryuko in exchange for more wealth, they came to their senses. It worked well as a moral message about how compliance and tacit acceptance of injustice is the enemy of revolution, with Ryuko’s attempts to stop fighting as an outsider and subvert the status quo from the inside undermined.
Yet beyond this obvious textual message shown plainly in the narrative progression, the visual reference of Mako in her delinquent’s outfit underpinned a broader reading of the episode’s theme. On a simple visual level Mako as anti-heroine embodied the archetypal tough guy of Japanese youth fiction – the combination of hat, jacket and knuckledusters was a visual shorthand for juvenile delinquency and countercultural activity. It was a “uniform” in the same way as in the UK media a hooded tracksuit and baseball cap has become the stereotypical “uniform” of the working-class youth up to no good, but it was one provided by the establishment. Mako was given the chance to be a rabble-rouser and reactionary in order to strengthen the establishment’s position, and visually this was depicted by a stereotypical rebel’s outfit. Clothing is key throughout Kill la Kill, since the enemies use superhero costumes called school uniforms to fight Ryuko – and in this case, Mako’s school uniform is that of the student rebel. It perfectly undermined the idea that Ryuko and Mako could undo Satsuki’s empire from the inside by presenting a safe, commodified rebellion – even punk spirit has become something to be neatly packaged as a uniform. If anything, this reading of the episode makes the out-of-context presentation of the visual joke of the hapless Mako dressed like a tough punk ironic; the episode’s message was about how revolutionary and countercultural spirit is best crushed by commodification and its enduring image is of the character embodying this. Indeed, the youth delinquent outfit Mako is presented with is a quite archaic visual shorthand – it is a fashion that was most popular some time ago. Satsuki is thus giving her a nearly packaged, yet anachronistic and toothless form of power.
It was ultimately this episode that set Kill la Kill apart; at first it had been a visually impressive series of madcap fights and visual comedy involving Mako – cleaving closely to the mould of heightened action that viewers associate with Go Nagai and the Jojo series, just replacing the exaggerated striving for manliness with an amusing, ridiculous spin on female sexuality via the (male) sentient superheroine’s outfit Senketsu’s relationship with unwilling heroine Ryuko. Yet as it progressed, since this episode, it has moved into more interesting political ground with its approaches to revolution – the action is still the draw, but the justifications for it, and the characterisation of Satsuki and her henchmen, are equally interesting.