Back of the Envelope: Kill La Kill and “Coming of Age”

For the longest time, I’ve been trying to work out what some of the more symbolic elements in KLK were supposed to symbolize. I mean, more academically-oriented/”high-brow” fans have known about Junketsu [純潔, “purity”] and Senketsu [鮮血, “fresh blood”] for quite some time, as well as some of the puns in the series that probably inspired the original motifs. Combined with clothing being tied with sin (which Ragyo Kiryuin makes explicit), observations on the main characters being girls, and a couple other similar leaps, you can make the connection between the two former elements to some overarching connection with menstruation. Combined with some observations about femininity’s relationship to original sin and other overtones, we arrive at a thematic invocation of the Garden of Eden, and possible “Jesus figures” in Satsuki and Ryuuko (both at this point have been “reincarnated” and serve as guides/symbols to their respective communities, albeit in different ways).* Then there’s the copious use of blood and nudity, relations of clothing and environments to authoritarianism/fascism, the subversion of the shounen paradigm (my favorite is early on during the “No-Late Day” episode) plus the use of stars

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But what the hell does this all mean in the larger picture? It’s all fine and dandy to invoke all this type of thematic/metaphoric imagery to make people go “look at how DEEP this is” or make a bunch of references to older works so people can go “man look how CLEVER this is”, but without some sort of connection to the underlying narrative it just becomes…empty. Obfuscating. An empty collage of things that ultimately doesn’t mean much. Kamina’s role as a Jesus figure in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was meaningful and fit well into the overall narrative. Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Christian symbolism, on the other hand, turned out to probably be fake, combining a lot of “thematic-symbolic gestures” in a way that encouraged a lot of people to go crazy constructing narratives but that ultimately might have been hollow.*

Could the same thing be happening here? Judging by what I so far have perceived as a really tight narrative (contrary to what some might argue, albeit with good justification), I’d probably say no. What if, instead, Kill La Kill is really entirely about ideas of coming of age, from almost every possible angle? For both the fans and the characters?

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First, the story itself is pretty clearly a “coming of age” one, considering both the ages of the characters (yay high school!) and the story’s overall progression. Ryuuko transitions from being a protagonist to a hero as she makes friends and finds her inner strength in the first half of the series. Likewise, in the second half she is forced to mature as she grapples with ideas about personhood and her inner nature (one might even go as far as invoking themes of “alienation” lololol), as well as what “happiness” truly is. I don’t think there are too many arguments against this here.

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This “coming of age” idea also makes physical sense and fits in well with the possible menstrual overtones we observe in the show. Menstruation is often seen as the first signs of “coming of age” (when a girl becomes a woman) and makes relevant (and provocative) imagery – such as those associated with the kamui and their transformations.

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It also fits with the common appearance of “wedding dresses” throughout the show, which are often a second sign of “coming of age” (getting married is also seen as a life event where a girl becomes a woman). We can see this both in the way it relates to Junketsu and Satsuki, as well as with Ryuuko in her post-Junketsu state.

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Both of these, I might add, are often tied up with sexual overtones. While sex can be read as a “dehumanizing”/”animalistic”/pleasure-seeking element to contrast with ideas of “happiness” in a personhood narrative (and fits well there), it also makes sense from a “coming of age” standpoint. Seeing as puberty/growing up also means becoming ever-more aware of your bodies (especially the way it is discussed concerning women), this tends to also fit with themes of exploitation. It also puts much of the masturbation-esque imagery in a very different light.

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As the show also points out numerous times, wearing clothes in and of itself is associated with growing up. Most notably, the changes in the clothes we wear serve as indicators of our “coming of age”, from suits (wearing them is one of the first markers that one has “entered the world of adults”) to wedding dresses (when one stands at the cusp of societal “adulthood”) to school uniforms (emblematic of teenage years, when we are transitioning from being children to becoming adults). It’s probably no coincidence that all of these are the main symbolic forms life fibers take.

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It also works with the idea of original sin, where mankind “comes of age” and imbibes the forbidden fruit of knowledge. In response, God banishes His children from the Garden he has made for them, and forced them to go out into the world and experience suffering…and essentially “grow up”.*** And so by following this thread we manage to come back full-circle to the Christian symbolism that partially inspired this idea.*

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This narrative also works with the oppression/resistance themes against authority that seem to permeate the show. Much of coming of age is rebelling against the confines of society and finding out your true self. Anarchy is the name of the game, and the conflict between Honnouji and the city that surrounds it can be seen as a physical representation of this conflict. In the same line of thought, the two different ways that Satsuki and Ryuuko rebel can be seen as two very different ways that one finds their true self through rebellion – through within and without. Creating order, becoming authority, and imposing your will on others versus trying to tear the system down and inviting freedom and anarchy. The show goes out of its way to accentuate this dichotomy among our two protagonists, and much of Satsuki’s past is especially obsessed with this idea of creating order in the name of resistance.**

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This thematic contrast carries into the ways that both also use their kamui (Override vs. Synchronize, although we learn later a more concrete reason why this is so).

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It also is two ways of viewing alienation (as apart from society or isolated within in), which is particularly emphasized in the show. Ryuuko’s loneliness and her quest for friendship is an enduring theme, as is Satsuki’s isolation within her “fortress” that is Honnouji Academy.

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I now want to try and focus on the other main type of imagery present in KLK, one that seems very reminiscent of TTGL: the frequent use of stars when it comes to life fibers. These not only serve as a very cool narrative device foreshadowing their alien nature, but also might be a more direct callback to the symbolic framework that pervaded TTGL. For one, KLK is not shy about paying homage to its predecessor: in the first episode, it makes sure to shove several drill symbols right in your face (along with stars!), although it seems to drop most of the more overt TTGL allusions later. Edit: I take it back – episode 22 brought it back full force (and I was even ignoring their ship!).

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Really though, the show shares a lot of structural parallels to TTGL. Both involve protagonists who are “outsiders” going up against the oppressive system in an attempt to free first themselves and later the rest of humanity. Both have similar guiding figures (I mean, am I the only one who thought that Aikuro Mikisugi looked a lot like Kamina?!). And both involve a plot twist of the form “well it turns out that the establishment I was fighting against was actually trying to save us from ALIENS OH GOD HELP US”. And in both, the only way to beat them involves getting past your own limits (here: embarrassment; there: fear; in both: self-imposed limits, not actually physical training to become stronger) and physically combining with a significant other to out-compete the enemy (who can use the exact same stuff as you, except better).

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If we assume that KLK might be paying more homage to TTGL than we originally thought, then maybe the similarity of KLK‘s stars to TTGL‘s spirals and drills might actually be intentional, meant to invoke many of the same motifs and concepts. TTGL is of course also fundamentally a “coming of age” story about breaking self-imposed limits and doing the impossible. And ends with a line (that still moves me to tears sometimes) like “All the lights in the sky are stars.” Edit: We could take this idea further by looking at scenes from the first few episodes that parallel scenes from FLCL, which seems to cement further that this will – at its core – be a coming of age story.

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When we consider that many stories in the shounen genre are also typically “coming of age” ones, the fact that KLK parodies/subverts the genre extensively also makes sense. It then might not only be clever, but show itself as a show in a genre (or possibly industry?) that has finally come of age. If we start looking at KLK as having a message for the entire community in the same vein, we end up interesting places.

For instance, is this meant to be a similar call to the genre? Is it telling shounen – or the entire anime industry for that matter- to “grow up”? To move on past the fetishization of women and the undue emphasis on clothing (and of women to do the same), or to get past the nostalgia that is high school? Is it too an angry call to stop partaking in the “animal” nature of database consumption (or at least a call to look at yourself)? Is it meant to call on us to re-imagine the ways we talk about coming of age or sexuality or the female form or how we even view or consider these concepts?

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Or – broadening out – is KLK meant to be commentary on the authoritarian nature of (Japanese) society, or of the typical schooling process? Or of education in general and its (over)emphasis in our current social system and huge impact on one’s standard of living? A political statement regarding censorship?

Note that these aren’t meant to be preachy “calls to action” on my part, but are just questions I think the show might be targeting at its viewers.

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Early on, wendeego from Isn’t It Electrifying hypothesized about some of the symbolism present in KLK and its overall messages. He ends by saying, among other things, that:

The truth, though, is that Kill la Kill may be all of these things at once.

I think he ultimately was right, and that none of the questions I pose above have any solid answers — there’s a lot going on here besides the reading(s) that I, he, and E-minor have come up with (among a host of other viewers). Regardless of whatever the “right” answer is though (I’m almost positive there are actually several real big narratives worked in), I really do believe that KLK is clever and deep — and much more than just meets the eye.

Anyways, this isn’t meant to be a solid, drawn out argument on how we should view KLK, but merely a couple stabs at seeing where this kind of viewpoint might lead. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*As with anything that involves Christian imagery, the problem with coming up with a thematic interpretation is that it’s just too easy to make all the pieces fit. Like psychoanalytic interpretation or historical materialism, you can essentially read any narrative in a way that makes sense with Christian symbolism (or, on the flipside, read Christian symbolism into most narratives). This is easy to do because there are just so many disparate elements in Christianity to draw upon, from themes of authority, sin, rising up, equality, resurrection, man above himself, alienation, the dialectic between humanity and the divine, empathy, salvation, etc., that almost anything can work. For instance, look at this essay on the matter, or this response. I also can easily come up with a (in my opinion really good) “man transgressing against God” narrative that works in the Angels, the Eva units, original sin, Rei’s cloned character, etc. that reads pretty well, complete with the Shinji-Gendo as a possible stand-in for man’s strained relationship with God and the reasons his transgressions. Is this narrative acceptable given the information above? Depends on your view of how sacrosanct outside information about the author/work  is, whether there are “correct” interpretations, and how much “meaning” we can/should read into things. Regardless, the point is that Christianity has enough “symbolic-thematic signs” that it is relatively easy to attempt to tie them into an overarching narrative, and hence why I tend to be a bit skeptical of such things on occasion (and have pointed them out here as best I can).

**Obviously the conflict between authority and anarchy can be viewed as its own narrative apart from just a “coming of age” one (and is a running theme in much of Imaishi’s work), so the incorporation of it into my narrative here can be taken with a grain (read: large chunk) of salt.

***Little Busters!~Refrain~ (along with a host of shows, books, and other media) makes grand sweeping motions tying together themes of sacrifice, pain, and loss (of innocence) with growing up, which are implicitly tied together in most coming of age stories.

Edit: Since this post, I’ve done a lot of thinking and believe I didn’t aim big enough in this post in terms of trying to tie every available piece of evidence together. My subsequent thoughts (via tweets) are below, and will hopefully be incorporated into a new post at some point in the future.

3 responses to “Back of the Envelope: Kill La Kill and “Coming of Age”

  1. I think the most obvious hint that this is a coming of age story is Ryuko biting into the sour taste of the lemon in the first episode, not unlike Naota who drinks the sour drink at the beginning of FLCL, because he longs for adulthood.

    • That’s true – there were a lot of FLCL callbacks early on, which I probably should’ve noticed beforehand (only saw them in retrospect, and then forgot to put them in the post) given that it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. Which actually also involved an iron…

  2. Pingback: Kill La Kill: A Love Story | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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