Kill la Kill and being a nerd, or why it’s good to seriously joke around (WARNING: SPOILERS)

Kill la Kill is finally over. For those who don’t know about it, Kill la Kill was the first serialized anime by the newly born anime studio Trigger, founded by Hiroyuki Imaishi and other animators and creatives previously working with Gainax and who were behind the most beloved classic Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Hailed like the “anime that was going to save anime”, hyped to the point of making it nearly impossible for it to live up to the expectations, Kill la Kill has been extremely divisive – it’s been called great and awful, epic and silly, very smart and very stupid, empowering towards women and demeaning for its shameless use of female nudity. So, all said and done, what conclusions can be ultimately drawn about this crazy mess of a show? Probably, that it’s a bit of all the above. Let’s find out why, and how does that tie to the very core of nerditude!

One of the biggest debates among the community of viewers since the first episodes of Kill la Kill has been whether the anime was following consistently some sort of theme or whether it was just a random mess that the writers were making up as they went. On one hand, we’re talking about a show that’s about a wandering transfer student – the tomboyish Ryuko – who dons a superpowered sailor uniform to fight off the fascist student council of Honnouji Academy while searching revenge for her murdered father. From there on it only gets crazier, featuring nudists, aliens, and the world’s deadliest fashionista. On the other hand, however, there have always been signs of a more careful craft under the colorful, hyperactive surface – and boy, does this show have a serious case of ADHD! In a good way, that is.

Mako is happiness

Ryuko’s best friend, Mankashoku Mako, caught in a moment of deep reflection on the fundamental themes of the show.

The shots and the direction were always impeccable and meaningful; the animation, while clearly cheap, made it up with a lot of stylistic flair; the dialogue could be hammy as all hell and yet let through the occasional brilliance (like when then Student Council President, Satsuki Kiryuin, announces her absolutely Orwellian motto: Fear is freedom! Control is release! Contradiction is truth!).

Most importantly, just like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann had a central leitmotif built around spirals and drills, Kill la Kill is obsessed with clothing. Uniforms, dresses, threads, woven fabric and the visual language of fashion dominate the imagery of the show, as odd as it sounds for an action flick; while the title reads in Japanese as “Kiru ra Kiru”, kiru meaning both “to cut” and “to wear”, and the creators themselves admitted that the central idea of the show was inspired by the similar sound that the words “fashion” and “fascism” have in their language.

Ragyo doing her thing

If real fashion companies CEOs don’t have rainbow glowing hair I will be sorely disappointed.

Ultimately, it’s undeniable that there is some sort of thematic consistence to this mad, mad romp. In TTGL, drills and spirals were a thinly veiled metaphor for virility, as well as an overt symbol of mankind’s potential for evolution. This didn’t prevent the series from going to some crazy places, and to this day it’s more likely to be remembered for its galaxy-sized robots bashing each other while wrecking whole universes than for its deep themes. With a nice symmetry, in Kill la Kill, clothing reverses the whole concept. While drills pierce, clothing protects; while drills are phallic symbols, Kill la Kill‘s Kamuis feed on the spilled blood of young girls and have a definitely feminine design; and while the spiral energy was the embodiment of the positive drive of human evolution, clothes in Kill la Kill embody every tool that civilization has to repress individuality: hierarchies, societal expectations, and shame. Which shows multiple times during the series.

At the beginning of the story, Satsuki uses uniforms to create a rock-solid, near fascistic society where ruthless competition pits everyone against everyone else as they try to obtain the favour of their leaders and climb the ladder. Just like armies, some organized religions, and last but not least, actual Japanese schools do – though none of these institutions, unfortunately, provides super-power granting clothing. Ryuko Matoi challenges her wearing Senketsu, who has a duplicitous nature – on one hand the sailor uniform that every good girl should wear when going to school, on the other a ridiculously skimpy armour that she’s ashamed of at first, yet gives her an unrivalled power. And as Ryuko learns to accept Senketsu and being not ashamed of it (beating ludicrous amounts of people to a pulp to the point of making her near-nudity not so funny any more helps), we slowly find out that the proud, unwavering Satsuki, who wears herself the Kamui Junketsu, is actually struggling to keep it in check as it tries to take her over. Junketsu is, after all, destined to be her “wedding dress” – a term that recurs often in Kill la Kill, and always in an ominous way. Wedding is a ritual sacrifice here, a ceremony meant to further the plans that Satsuki’s mother, Ragyo, has for her daughter(s).

(what isn't shown here is how she knocked out cold the groom with a door handle)

Crashing your best friend’s wedding to a living thread bundle, Mako-style.

The theme is thus recurrent – clothes are someone’s face in front of the rest of the world: they determine both social position and attitude. This gets more and more evident as the shows plunges into its second part, with Ragyo becoming the true villain. Life Fibers, the threads out of which all the super uniforms of Honnouji Academy are woven, are actually parasitic aliens: they induced evolution in human beings in order to be able to come back one day and feed on their nervous impulses. So basically, clothes are synonym of civilization. Evolving and covering oneself are one and the same. Ragyo uses a biblical reference: clothing are original sin. As humans gained knowledge of good and evil, they started to cover themselves in shame. Does this mean that there is no way out of this? Is the only choice to be evolved, civilized, yet perennially ashamed in front of your peers and the judgement they may pass on you? Nudists seem to object – they just scrap everything and undress, going back to an idealized primordial purity, and appropriately, they end up being comically ineffectual most of the times. The only weapon that truly works against clothing is clothing of a different cut. And while this thread occasionally loses its way (see what I did there?) and is less marked through the last quarter of the series, the finale satisfyingly wraps it up: Ryuko defeats Ragyo and saves mankind from the alien Life Fibers, not by refusing clothing, but by accepting it, at her own rules.

Just a mother-daughter moment, IN SPACE!

Just a mother-daughter moment, IN SPACE!

As she plummets back to Earth after the climactic battle, Senketsu burns in the atmosphere and admits she’s outgrown it – her prize for victory is that she can now go out with her friends and wear what she likes. No more uniforms, no more skimpy armours: Ryuko is finally free to decide on her own terms how to show herself in front of the world.

Yet this thematic, undeniably present, if not especially deep by itself (all in all, what fundamentally boils down to “be yourself” hardly is an original Aesop), is somewhat lost in the midst of all the madness surrounding it – Mako being nearly deep fried, Mako being bashed by a thousand tennis balls, Mako firing a machinegun from the roof of a school bus (basically, Mako, Ryuko’s best friend, is source of 70% of the madness in this show).

Kill la Kill is first and foremost a frenzied mess of jokes and outrageously funny ideas, which is a good part of what makes it so enjoyable – as Ryuko puts it in the second to last episode, “not making sense is kinda our thing!”. However, I’d argue that far from weakening the message this is, in fact, part of its core.

There’s a quote I especially love from one of Imaishi’s previous works at Gainax, Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. The nerdy sidekick, Briefs, complains “You’re always joking around! Are you never serious?”, and the aptly named Anarchy sisters answer “We’re always serious – we’re seriously joking around!”. This feels like it’s the underlying motto in Kill la Kill as well. There’s some kind of message to be told, true, but first and foremost, the writers know best than let any kind of message stand in the way of a good joke or an epically cool moment. Which is incredibly coherent: how could a show tell you that it’s okay to break other people’s expectations and be yourself if it’s too concerned with telling you how is it that you should be? Screw that. Madness rules.

Which leads us to how this ties in with the whole “being a nerd” business. Identity is a strong issue for anyone who is part in some way of a minority group that enjoys specific things. Being a nerd, a hipster, a metalhead, whatever, is first and foremost an expression of liking certain things that usually aren’t as much liked by the general public. It is, in a way, a form of escaping the “standard” expectations that society at its biggest scale has for what you should like or do. But each of these groups constitutes itself with its own habits and customs, and clothing is often a strong signal of belonging to a specific community – funnily enough, in a very meta example, one of the first Kill la Kill cosplayers in Taiwan risked being arrested for indecent exposure when an old woman called the cops scandalized by her skimpy outfit. Always on the edge is the risk to take one’s own community a bit too seriously; to become exclusive and non-accepting (hello, Fake Geek Girl memes!); in other words, to reinstate your own codes to replace the ones you refused. So what I truly find liberating is Kill la Kill‘s otherwise common message is how it doesn’t just preach freedom: it lives it. It screams joyously that what makes the world fun is that it’s full of “strange, incomprehensible people” and runs with it shamelessly, making you pretty sure that whoever wrote this incredible ride was as strange and incomprehensible as it gets, and that’s great.

It also has guns that fire money. A masterpiece indeed.

4 responses to “Kill la Kill and being a nerd, or why it’s good to seriously joke around (WARNING: SPOILERS)

  1. That’s an amazingly deep analysis on the show you’ve done here! I can’t greet you enough for this job.
    The only thing I’ll have to do when someone ask me “what is this shit meme/reference/picture with a almost naked girl you’re posting on your twitter?”, is just to cut off the spoilers (or not) and start the counting… and another fan was made.

  2. Thanks! I was losing hope that someone would actually read this piece XD. I’ve not been the most constant writer here on Nerditis but when Kill la Kill ended I felt like I *had* to write something – not that little e-ink has been spilled on the topic, of course. I’d say it’s probably been one of the most controversial shows of the last year.

  3. “At the beginning of the story, Satsuki uses uniforms to create a rock-solid, near fascistic society where ruthless competition pits everyone against everyone else as they try to obtain the favour of their leaders and climb the ladder. Just like armies, some organized religions, and last but not least, actual Japanese schools do – though none of these institutions, unfortunately, provides super-power granting clothing” I understand the point but we actually do have clothes that symbolizes power and grants it too… Look no farther than Generals and the subordinates that dare not question them. The Stars of the Goku uniforms are the Stars of Generals in various military institutions, more stars, greater power, which leads to more stars…

    • Agreed! And I have a good guess that this meaning was also implied by the text…
      Going further on the concept uniforms and “power”, beyond military uniforms as you put, we can also put in the line today’s formal suits, as the standard dressing code for business man and politicians all over the world. What do think? Digging too deep on this makes me think on a Foucaultian’s view of power at dressing styles… but HEY… let’s not loose our way here: this is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness (as some guy said about 80’s anime).

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