Kill la Kill Review (Anime, 2013-14)

In an unidentified future, there sits an elite academy on top of a city. Student council president Satsuki Kiryuin holds power over the school, establishing an elaborate militaristic caste system defining every student's role. Level 2 and higher students receive technologically advanced uniforms that transform into battle-ready suits tailored to their individual skills. Students become super soldiers inspired by music, tennis, and even juggling. A new student, Ryuko Matoi, arrives on campus to avenge the death of her father, the inventor of the fabric used for the super suits. Kill la Kill is a low budget anime series written directly for television. The lower budget and shorter production schedule give it a nostalgic animation style that makes the satire hit even harder.

While the content is extremely uncomfortable, Kill la Kill aims to take down the over-sexualization of young female characters in anime and manga. Ryuko stumbles (literally, stumbles--she falls into a trap door triggered by a teacher and lands on a pile of uniforms) upon a super suit built just for her by her father. It transforms by absorbing her blood into so little clothing that she's practically naked. She is extremely uncomfortable with the attention the uniform receives and is constantly mistaken for an exhibitionist.

The first few episodes are pure exploitation. Ryuko only deals with the constant attention from her host family and peers because of the fighting power the suit, called Senketsu, provides. For so little clothing, Senketsu becomes an essential part of Ryuko's finely tuned combat skills with the scissor blade used to slay her father. Being self-conscious is the price she is willing to pay to discover her father's killer at the academy.

Then President Satsuki, her nemesis, also dons a similarly revealing super suit and the tone and context shift. Satsuki is not ashamed of her uniform or her body. Since the fabric is defined by her abilities and her needs, she wears her scandalous uniform with pride. She refuses to let others define how she feels about herself. No one will make her feel that her incredible strength, speed, stamina, and beauty should be hindered by a less efficient uniform. Not only does she reject body shaming and judgment over her sexual nature, she refuses to let society define her role as a leader and a woman by her appearance alone.

In order to become a better fighter and stand any chance of completing her quest, Ryuko must learn to embrace everything about her identity just like Satsuki. She cannot let her strength, her uniform, her body, or her thirst for vengeance define her life. When she fights against her appearance in a battle or rejects the whole of her identity, she fails every time. Only well-rounded students succeed in this academy and Ryuko struggles to find that level of self-acceptance.

Kill la Kill subverts many tropes that plague modern anime series. The ridiculous magic girl transformation is treated equally for women and men on the show, stripping the student down in a shiny beacon of light and slowly recovering the body with the transformed uniform. Anyone who uses a super suit undergoes the same kind of transformation and must sacrifice the same amount of blood to earn their power.

The older male characters in actual authority positions are not making sexual advances on their students. They have their own kinks and perversions, but they're not groping or threatening to sexually assault young women for laughs. The only men who do treat Ryuko or Satsuki like that are swiftly punished every time for their arrogance and inappropriate conduct.

Contextually, Kill la Kill succeeds in attacking many insidious elements of anime. In the moment, though, it is still problematic. Ryuko and Satsuki are scantily clad teenagers shown off from every angle in lingering close-ups as sexual beings. The young men who really need to absorb the messages in the show about consent are most likely going to be distracted by breast physics and hemlines to really learn anything. The female characters are controlled by the whims of their uniforms, which were designed by a much older man to take those shapes. The two leads sacrifice bodily autonomy in exchange for strength and are punished with shaming and unwanted sexual advances. Senketsu takes it a step further, berating Ryuko for her weight when her physical appearance never changes.

Kill la Kill has a fascinating story to tell and attempts to tell it with a strong critical voice. It doesn't quite strike the right balance between satire and sensitivity to really drive the message home, but it is an incredibly beautiful and entertaining action/sci-fi anime. I can only suggest trying out the first episode and seeing if you can handle the...inventive excuse for battle armor.

This post is part of AniMAY 2014. Click through for more great anime/manga content.

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