Kill La Kill: A Love Story

In the weeks following the Kill La Kill (KLK) finale, I’ve seen a lot of people weighing in on the show. Given it’s popularityover-the-top theatrics, and symbol-heavy plus textually-dense narrative, this isn’t anything too surprising. I really liked the show, and it’s inspired a lot of really cool discussion around the anisphere. People generally have a wide range of opinions on any given show, and it’s been fun seeing all the different ways people have experienced KLK.

That said, I’ve heard a lot of refrains that have been bothering me a little bit, which go like:

  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (TTGL) was just done better…”
  • “I couldn’t really relate to the characters, so I just never got into the story…”
  • “The show was thematically incoherent, so I’m not sure what was the point…”
  • “It was really entertaining, but I didn’t feel emotionally invested…”

And so on. All of these are taken as criticisms of the show and are viewed as negative qualities. Now, I’m not going to debate that they can’t be taken as (very valid) criticisms of the show, because they can. However, criticisms have to come from somewhere, and it is my belief that there is a big difference between critiquing a show from what you want it to be vs. what it wants to be. And, in my opinion, this difference is key in teasing out how exactly we should be looking at KLK. I feel like many people have been viewing the show colored by beliefs that this was supposed to be similar to FLCL or TTGL, with a central, tight narrative centered around a “coming of age” story that deals with all the issues of growing up (through high school fights and saving the world from total destruction, of course), when in reality this is not what the show intends.

Instead, I think the show is trying for something different, and thus should be viewed quite differently. Instead of being thematically centered around the “coming of age” narrative, it instead uses the coming of age story as a vehicle for other ideas and social commentary. Instead, KLK should be viewed as more like a superhero movie that is a cross between TTGL, FLCL, and some of Imaishi‘s more recent works like Dead Leaves and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (PSG). This key distinction, which I believe KLK actually tries to make clear, fundamentally changes how we should be viewing (and consequently judging) the show.

So: what is KLK, and what is it trying to say?

Note: This is by far my longest post, clocking in at ~8500 words. I’ve tried to keep everything clear and coherent, but as you can imagine with anything this length things can get messy.

Before I get to KLK though, let’s talk a little bit about criticism, since it really matters here.

Note: I might use the terms {show, story, text} and {interpretation, reading, criticism} interchangeably. Hopefully it’s not too confusing.

Critiquing Criticism

From what I’ve seen so far, I’d say most criticism can be divided into two categories: “subjective” and “objective”. “Subjective” criticism is when people interpret (and consequently critique) a show based on what they want to view it as, regardless of what the show seems to be trying to portray itself as. You throw away unnecessary information and focus on the reading that is most relevant to you. As an example, let’s take Naruto. To one person, the story be a narrative about social acceptance; to another, it’s really about the difficulty of dealing with talent; to another, it’s the difficulties of becoming an adult; to another, it’s a story about overcoming loss; to another, it’s a story about the meaning and value of friendship; to another, it’s about ancestry and familial/societal duties. Although it’s a typical “coming of age” story, many dedicated fans come away with very different viewpoints on what the story actually means.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with viewing a show this way, because this is how people derive meaning from what they consume: we feel connected to the narrative, get in touch with ourselves, and explore new ideas. In the process, we continually try to incorporate what we’ve learned and “better” ourselves as individuals. This is a beautiful thing that everyone does. However, when critiquing something from this viewpoint (or, alternately, trying to recommend a story to someone else), this type of reading can pose problems. What if someone feels differently than you about how to view a show? Then maybe the elements you thought worked really well and that make a lot of sense to him were wasteful and annoying. Maybe you even had polar opposite readings, which can often happen when dealing with themes like “effort vs. talent”: is X element a defense of hard work and persistence in the face of adversity, or a cynical commentary on how to get used to the fact that there will always be people better than you? Or was the real point that you should attempt to go beyond this simple dichotomy in the first place and start looking somewhere else? While this type of reading is fine for personal fulfillment, it tends to pose problems when discussing stories with others.

This inherent problem with subjectivity motivates a move towards “finding common ground”, and is the basis for “objective” criticism. Objective criticism, in it’s most basic form, assumes that this ground must exist somewhere. It moves the discussion from reading shows based on how you want them to be viewed and tries to view shows based on how they should be viewed. These two viewpoints are not mutually opposed to each other. Since we each exhibit biases in how we view things, true objectivity is a myth; on the other hand, there is usually some basis in the show for how people tend to view them (people tend to latch onto things rather than fabricating whole narratives outright), and so you can’t disregard those either. Objective criticism then seeks a way to combine these two elements together, taking the small “snippets” that people latch onto and build them up into some overarching consistent framework. The project of building this framework then starts to become more systematic: look at all the elements in a show and how they work together and try to use them to build up a model for how we should be looking at things. After you’ve established this common ground that people can agree upon (because anyone can do this and argue about how it’s done), you’ve established some grounds for objectivity.

The question, however, then becomes how to view such a project. Or, in other words, how much information you should be using to build up this “objective” reading. Are you limited to information about the internal story, such as the events that take place and the characters themselves? Or can you broaden your purview to include the “text” itself (aesthetics, dialogue/writing, etc.)? How does symbolism and imagery relate to “themes” or overarching motifs? And can/should you try and incorporate authorial “intent” into this framework? And so on.

How people answer these questions determine how they wish to construct such a framework. For some, these questions are fundamentally unanswerable, and really come down to questions of “taste”. As you can’t really “draw a line” between what should inform a reading and what shouldn’t (including emotional engagement and other personal biases!), you shouldn’t try to. According to this “subjectively objective” view of criticism, since we can’t really come up with an ultimate objective set of values to inform these “objective” frameworks, all readings and critiques become somewhat equally valid.

However, most don’t see this fundamental failure to construct an objective set of values as a fundamental failing of criticism that makes all readings equal. Instead, this is just another manifestation of the inherent unattainable nature of objectivity — we can still forge forward by doing our best to be objective, which just means we just have to establish some set of values that we can all agree upon as “fair” interpretation. Unfortunately for these “strictly objective” critics, establishing such a set of values is far from easy, as we each have our set of biases that tends to color our judgments (for instance, I tend to be biased towards the “abstract” in media, which affects how I perceive shows).

This failure to come to a consensus on values — on how much “the consumer”, “the producer”, and “the text” play into any given reading and how they all work together — is by far the biggest source of disagreement between criticisms of the same show. Often, critics fully agree on the elements actually present in each show and what they’re meant to be interpreted as — the problem is ultimately judging how well the show does at delivering on these things.

Besides a failure to agree on a core set of values, there are other pitfalls to this type of methodology. The biggest one is the risk of over-interpreting things: once it becomes permissible to use outside information to try and put a show in context (as well as a wider array of elements within a show), you run the risk of again reading your own narratives into the show. For (somewhat) recent examples where anime bloggers might be guilty of this sort of thing (I would argue these are actually fantastic analyses and not “bullshit”, but it’s up to you), we can look to discussions on the new Eva 3.0 movie, light novel (LN) adaptations, and Nisekoi. This type of thing becomes particularly problematic in a show as textually complex as KLK, which will come up later.

Before continuing, I want to point out one thing: these types of interpretive stances are more than just abstract theories, but also ways in which fans interact with media. This whole discussion about what quantifies criticism is both important as an abstract debate, but also because it determines how much you enjoy shows. As fans, our viewpoints and tastes color what we watch and how we receive it. And if a show seems to be in conflict with some of our personal biases, we don’t really like it. There are two ways around this sort of dilemma: go the route of the “subjective” critic so that the show becomes what you want, or change your point of view so you can watch the show on its own terms. I’m not advocating for either (because everyone is somewhat entitled to feel how they want about what they consume), but just pointing out that these types of thinking can have major impacts on how we view things. For me personally, I’ve found that following the latter piece of advice has led me to enjoy more media (as a “fan”) while also becoming more critical of it (as an “critic”).

I also really want to emphasize that I’m not telling you how to watch anime. Everyone is entitled to consume media however they want, and there is no intrinsic “better” way to do things when it comes to trying to watch anime. As Froggykun has recently arguedthere is no such thing as an “elitist” anime – it’s an entirely a socially constructed ideal. Similarly, when looking at and criticizing shows, you’re justified in having whatever opinion you want, because it all depends on what you actually want when you’re criticizing a show. This isn’t meant to be a “STAHP GUYZ UR DOING IT WRONG” type of post, even though it could easily be read that way. Instead, what I’m saying is that if you believe in some idea like “objectivity” in criticism, you should try and do your best to make sure enough people can understand where you’re coming from. And hopefully, even though everyone has their own biases, you can come up with a framework that people can agree on so you can look at shows from a similar perspective: at least getting a consensus on the elements present in a show and how they work together, even if you end up disagreeing with someone else how you feel about them. That’s always a good thing to strive for, right?

In ∑: Even though you can’t really be completely objective when you critique something, if you like the idea then you should still try because it matters.

Advocating for a “Fair” Way to Criticize

All this aside, however, I think that there is a way forward for the strictly objective critics — there, in essence, a “best” (or “fairest”, whichever you prefer) interpretation for any given text. Here’s my attempt to define this:

An interpretation that incorporates the most information from/about a text into a coherent, falsifiable narrative using the fewest assumptions (relative to other interpretations) is the “best” interpretation.

There are several elements to this definition that are important:

  1. Coherency: the interpretation has to make sense, even if that “making sense” is “the themes are meant to be disparate and unrelated to each other”. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t qualify as a useful interpretation.
  2. Falsifiability: the interpretation needs to have an inherent possibility to be proven false. It is first and foremost an argument, whose details can be argued for or against and which can ultimately be disproved given more evidence.
    1. For instance, if I use psychoanalysis to claim that Neon Genesis Evangelion (Eva) is really all about sex by turning most of the show into phallic symbols, that’s a reading that is actually non-falsifiable: as the Oedipus complex seeks to deny itself, any refutation of this reading in fact proves the existence of the Oedipus complex and henceforth actually supports it (wait what?).
    2. Or if I use historical materialism to construct a narrative about how TTGL is really about the subjugation of the proletariat (the humans) and the revolution of the working class against the bourgeoisie (beastmen and anti-spirals), you can’t really falsify that either: it’s a meta-narrative that can read itself into almost any story.
    3. Heavy usage of Christian symbolism in readings frequently are also non-falsifiable because of the ubiquity of certain symbols/elements (OMG JESUS FIGURE) across many narratives and cultures and the wide assortment of themes with some sort of Biblical connection. Note that this isn’t meant to discredit the use of religious symbols in any readings (I’m going to be using some later, for instance), but rather to point out that you need to be really careful when using really broad symbols to interpret texts. That said, that doesn’t  mean you can’t interpret things this way, and looking at KLK through a more or less “Christian” lens has given some interesting interpretations of the show.
  3. Simplicity: the interpretation needs to incorporate all the information together with the fewest assumptions and logical leaps, much like Occam’s razor. While some assumptions are always a given when interpreting texts, all logical progressions that exist should be well argued and supported by the text as much as possible. The best interpretation will do this better than any other competing interpretation.
  4. Nowhere here do is there a limit on what information surrounding the text you can bring in — I believe that the best interpretation should be able to include as much information as possible, regardless of direct relevance. Interviews, historical events, symbolism, characters, dialogue, color scheme: the best interpretation should be able to include them all in some way, shape, or form (or at least deal with them).
    1. In other words, this is just another way of saying that criticism should include all available elements, including form, content, and things that can inform that content. This definition thus inherently takes a stance on how we can answer those questions above: rather than retreating from their subjectivity, as the subjectively objective critics do, this view instead embraces it, and requires our interpretation to take this into account.
    2. This then leads into another point about falsifiability: the whole system upon which this “best” interpretation is structured can (and should) also be debated. By doing so, we can improve both the methodology and interpretation itself!

All these definitions work together and enable each other to create the “best” interpretation. Now, I’m not going to deny that there’s a lot of “bleed-over” in this definition from similar ideas in physics and the sciences on what in general classifies the “best” working theory (and which I am heavily influenced by), and there are problems with similar ideas there as well (like debates surrounding the anthropic principle). However, I think that it’s a pretty good place to start if you want to treat criticism and interpretation a little bit more objectively and and establish some sort of “fair” criticism.

In ∑: My idea of what constitutes the “fairest” critique is one that most easily makes the most sense out of the most things without being impenetrable bullshit.

Building Up a Mindset for How to Go About Viewing Kill La Kill

Alright. So now that I’ve built that up, let’s talk about KLK, because there’s a lot going on that we need to make sense of, including but not limited to:

And I’m almost certain I’ve missed a lot of stuff. As the links show, these wide variety of elements have led to very different readings of the show. Many of them aren’t mutually contradictory, but many of them seem disconnected, instead focusing on specific elements in the show rather than trying to incorporate many of them as a whole.

But I didn’t intend to come into this debate to pick a side. Instead, I want to ask the question:

What is Kill La Kill actually trying to say? How does the show want to be read?

I think the answer to this question finally leads to a resolution to two of the biggest problems I’ve had with most readings of the show:

  1. They don’t incorporate many of the historical/mythological/religious references. Why are they in the show in the first place? The anime references can be chalked up to self-parody and/or genre subversion, but it’s difficult to justify the use of these other elements that aren’t explicitly grounded in the anime industry. (Again, I will get into more of these later.)
  2. Nui. In almost every reading I’ve seen (minus the feminist ones), she is a non-entity. Why the hell is she a character in the show? Ragyo is plenty scary enough and already had a willing aid (Hououmaru), so why did they include the Grand Courtier? And why portray her as they did, as a hyper-feminine, super-cartoony version of essentially chaos incarnate?

For both of these, I’m assuming there’s some deeper meaning besides “Let’s use some mythology!” or “Ryuko and Satsuki need an antagonist their age and let’s make her terrifying!” type of argument. Imaishi, Nakashima, and company have almost free reign to do what they want in these episodes. Given that evidence seems to point to them planning ahead, I’m tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In ∑: People have a lot of different ideas about what KLK means since it has a lot going on, but we should be asking what KLK wants to showcase itself as rather than how exactly it can be read.

What is Kill La Kill Trying to Say About Itself?

Given my long tangent on criticism and trying to figure out what a show wants to be seen as (rather than what we are tempted to see it as), how should we be looking at KLK? I think the final episode is a good place to start, because it actually drops most of the shows pretenses (wait the show had pretenses?!) and fires out random nonsense all over the place. In looking at the final episode, I’m going to try and do as little analysis as possible, except bringing in some more obvious concepts from the previous episodes as they are again re-introduced and put on display. By doing so, I want to let the show speak for itself, and do as little analysis as possible. I want to inject as little of my own pre-conceptions into what I’m seeing, except when necessary, and draw conclusions based on what I see rather than what I want to see. It’s a difficult line to draw sometimes, but I’ll try and do the best I can.

Note that most of the conclusions I draw from the show in the finale work when viewed in the rest of the show, but I want to just stick with the finale and see where it takes us…

First, let’s look at Ragyo: how is she portrayed in the final episode?

At first, she looks almost like a God.

At first, she looks almost like a God.

She is then shown basking in pleasure - the pleasure of subservience to life fibers.

She is then shown basking in pleasure – the pleasure of subservience to life fibers.

She then is pretty much Satan.

She then is pretty much Satan.

Ragyo is repeated related to Christian imagery, and  in addition is displayed as an absolute authority figure who promises pleasure in exchange for freedom (also seen in the whole “Junketsu dominating Ryuko” arc). This has been a running theme throughout the show, and Ryuko and company must resist such a call: they must fight for their emancipation from such a monster.

How about Nui?

Nui looks almost psychotic here as she tries to defend the transmitter.

Nui looks almost psychotic here as she tries to defend the transmitter, and is literally all over the place both on screen (in how she’s animated) as well as in the show (through her many life fiber copies).

But then she's shown as exquisitely feminine and submissive when she willingly takes her own life for her mother.

However, she’s also shown as exquisitely feminine and submissive when she willingly takes her own life for her “mother” (notice all the pink and hearts).

So Nui represents a few elements here, including anarchy/chaos (both in the show and on-screen), submission, and femininity (all that French feeds into this “refined” image). Plus she is emphasized again as being exquisitely non-human, as is Ragyo. Notice that Ryuko and company must not only fight off Ragyo, who symbolizes absolute authority, but also Nui, who symbolizes complete anarchy.

How about the other elements in the final episode? First, let’s look at some of the more comic scenes.

Ok - now the show's just dropping a huge-ass phallic symbol and making sure we know it.

Ok – now the show’s just dropping a huge-ass phallic symbol and making sure we know it.

At this point, I'm pretty sure it's ridiculing psychoanalysis.

At this point, I’m pretty sure it’s ridiculing psychoanalysis.

Ok - now it's REALLY just making fun of itself.

Ok – now it’s REALLY just making fun of itself.

And now the whole phallic thing turns out to be a total gag. Well done Trigger!

And now the whole phallic thing turns out to be a total gag. Well done Trigger!

So we have a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I have no idea where I've seen this before...

I have no idea where I’ve seen this before…

Second, we can look at scenes that reference other anime. The final episode’s chock-full of references to previous shows, most notably to TTGL, Eva, Gunbuster, and Dragonball. (Although there are a lot of others here as well.)

So this looks a lot like a drill to me. Good TTGL reference.

So this looks a lot like a drill to me. Good TTGL reference.

Why does she have golden hair again?

Why does she have golden hair like a Super Saiyan again?

This reminds me of a certain scene from a certain other movie...

This reminds me of a certain scene from a certain Eva movie…

And the final episode from Gunbuster that wasn't colorized...

And the final episode from Gunbuster that wasn’t colored…

So again we have this collage of previous stuff that’s archetypical of both previous Gainax work as well as shounen in general.

But there’s one more element to note here, and that’s the meta-awareness the show embodies by breaking the fourth wall.

Well, that sounds pretty meta.

Well, that sounds pretty meta.

As does that.

As does that.

So, in sum, we have a show that is chock full of references smashed together into a cohesive whole, constantly ribs itself, and also is very meta about everything it’s doing. Given that almost every main event in the show has been a repurposed archetype from the shounen genre or a smorgasbord of other influences, I’m hesitant to take any element of the show at face value at this point!

But wait: I’ve skated past our main duo! How do Senketsu and Ryuko fit into all of this?

So this looks a lot like a drill to me. Good TTGL reference.

As mentioned above, this looks like a pretty blatant TTGL reference.

And speaking of TTGL, look at those themes of evolution!

And look at those themes of evolution!

And nonsense - that was a big part of TTGL as well.

And nonsense – that too.

We have Ryuko and Senketsu standing as substitutes for mankind’s ability to evolve and take on new challenges, in an almost exact repeat of TTGL. Ryuko and Senketsu take their places among the ranks of Simon and friends as they fight for the human race, essentially fulfilling shounen archetypes (but in re-purposeful way!). 

But what else do they do?

Creating those dichotomies.

Creating those dichotomies.

Tearing them down!

Tearing them down!

Again, we have two things at work. First, is the standard “ridiculous speech stating the obvious” that occurs in most shounen showdowns. But it’s been re-purposed for more than that here. Instead, we’re coming back to a big theme of the show: tearing down dichotomies and barriers by subverting them. It’s also a great way of stating that we are both what we appear to be and yet more than that, and the ways that clothing both defines and yet does not define us. As clothing has been an important element of the show (most prominently, a symbol of oppression and conformity through wedding dresses, school uniforms, etc., rather than an expression of individualism), this seems to be a pretty big call to again resist such types of oppression. Again, I’m seeing more things related to resisting oppression, which I think is more than just me reading themes into the show…

Speaking of clothing and oppression, the post-fight scene is quite interesting…

Ah, so this is a coming of age story.

Ah, so this is a coming of age story about Ryuko!

And social commentary!

Ah, so this is social commentary about femininity!

I think, out of everything in the final episode, here is where KLK finally drops everything and just speaks its mind. This scene encompasses two of the main features about the show: it’s “coming of age” narrative and its heavy dose of social commentary (especially concerning themes of emancipation and resistance against authority).


Satsuki expresses her happiness at being freed from the familial duty she had to shoulder.

Satsuki expresses her happiness at being freed from the familial duty she had to shoulder.

But she still loves her family.

But she still loves her family.

And Ryuko loves her back.

And Ryuko loves her back.

We see a re-emergence of family as important, even though both Ryuko and Satsuki have been freed from familial duty (remember, Ryuko originally began wanting to avenge the murder of her dad but eventually moves beyond that). We are again shown that the sometimes oppressive nature of legacies and families can be overcome through the search of love and equality. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch.

There’s also one more element that bears consideration.

Growing up is not all fun and games.

Growing up is not all fun and games.

But in fact means a duty to help out others.

But in fact is taking on a duty to help out others.

There’s not that much explicitly said about growing up through the show — this might actually be the only line. So it bears consideration that it’s a statement about duty and responsibility given power. It’s a cliche (like everything in the show), but it’s a good one: with power comes responsibility. And that responsibility is to not to be a dick and oppress people but instead do your best to help others as equals. Because everyone’s equal when they’re naked!

Combining this, we get a reading like this:

(In a meta-aware, non-serious yet somehow authentic way) Ryuko/Senketsu (as reference-filled reincarnations of TTGL protagonists) defeat Ragyo (God/Satan/oppression/promise of pleasure in exchange for subservience) and Nui (chaos/anarchy/femininity/submission) while delivering social commentary about the desire for resistance/emancipation (through the oppressive nature of clothes/femininity and familial duties), the duties of adults/growing up (through nudity), and the desire to love one another in spite of everything (through Ryuko and Satsuki’s reunion).

This is a pretty cool thing that simultaneously fits in with a lot of other readings (destroying hierarchies, power of friendship, female empowerment, etc.). Note though what we don’t get out of this. We don’t get a lot of discussion about growing up: indeed, that doesn’t even seem to be the focus of the show, unlike TTGL. Instead, we see that the majority of the final episode as used as a vehicle for other means. This is a fundamental shift in how we are viewing the show: unlike TTGL or FLCL, where the coming of age story is seen as the primary focus that everything is built up around, in KLK it is instead a vehicle for other ideas!

In ∑: Looking at KLK more closely, a combination of elements seem to indicate that we should shift our focus: the show should be viewed as a coming of age story that serves as a vehicle for other ideas rather than ideas becoming synthesized into a coming of age story.

De-Emphasizing the “Coming of Age” Narrative: Broadening Our Scope

In the beginning, I pointed out several problems I had with current readings of KLK. The first couple concerned difficulties in incorporating historical/mythical information as well as Nui’s character into the readings, while the rest mostly involved me feeling uncomfortable that some of the critiques of KLK were justified (like not being able to “relate” to the characters). How does this new focus outside of the coming of age narrative solve some of these problems?

First, a lot of the discussion around KLK‘s heritage has noted that it pays homage to a lot of Gainax’s stuff. And most of these references are to Gainax’s really well known (and extremely well-done) “coming of age” stories, from Eva to FLCL to TTGL. Given that Imaishi and Nakashima were also the main duo behind much of TTGL (and the former’s heavy involvement in/influence from much of the former), and the fact that KLK also spends a lot of time making references to elements from these shows, this comparison is quite apt. However, by focusing on the Gainax-influenced aspects of the show, we miss a good chunk of other material that might be important to viewing KLK. Such as what Imaishi has done outside of TTGL.

Once we look at Imaishi’s other directorial work where he’s been given a lot of free reign to go wild, we start getting a different picture. Look at the craziness of Dead Leaves – is there anything relateable about the characters there (or the essentially nonsensical plot)? How about the OVA’s obsession with these two rogues demolishing everything to the ground?

Or PSG, which has a lot of parallels to Dead Leaves. Like the main duo’s names, Panty/Stocking vs. Pandy/Retro, or it’s intensely “crass” nature, or it’s crazy antics. Are Panty or Stocking “relateable” (and is that even a downside to this show)? Isn’t there an entire episode segment dedicated to song where the chorus is “ANARCHY“? Aren’t those also the surnames of the main characters?! How about the fact that, like TTGL (and KLK), it’s stuffed to the brim with references to other works? Doesn’t it actually deliver a decent amount of incisive commentary on pop culture and anime in general?

Or how about Inferno Cop? There’s a lot of crudeness there too, which also seems to work towards the series benefit. And a lot of “bringing together tropes to lampoon them but also make a ridiculous over-the-top story”. And a lot of craziness. And themes of anarchism.

There’s definitely a trend here, and it’s one that others also have noticed: Imaishi loves making shows which prominently feature “anarchy” as a leading refrain, for better or for worse. Many of these shows are themselves pastiche, honoring the genre(s) by cramming in as many references and styles as it can while at the same time poking fun at itself. And, in their most recent incarnation, you see these themes reappear in shows like PSG coupled with signs of social commentary and impulses towards ideas of emancipation.

This gives us a new way of looking at KLKas the latest incarnation of Imaishi’s emphasis on motifs of resistance/emancipation that begins with something like Dead Leaves and ends with PSG and KLK. Hell, this also gives us a new way of looking at the overriding conflict in TTGL, which actually echoes these very same things.

So what does this have to do with KLK‘s “unrelateable” characters or “scattershot” themes?

Let’s go back and look at some of Imaishi’s recent work like Inferno Cop and PSG. While both of these include a lot of references, it’s important to note where these references are coming from: Western media, ranging from children’s cartoons to superhero stories. Why is this relevant? Because look at the main characters of many of these stories, from The Powerpuff Girls to Superman: are they relatable? NO – many protagonists of Western cartoons are in fact not relatable at all! We can’t really connect with Superman, invincible superhero, or Batman, ultra-rich billionaire vigilante. While the movies go to great lengths to humanize these heroes so we understand that they’re people and can root for them, we’re oftentimes there to watch the spectacle. This situation is even more prevalent in children’s cartoons or old-fashioned comics (think like pre-Watchmen type stuff), where the whole point is to enjoy the spectacle. Are these all points against them being good? For me at least, they aren’t necessarily, although preferences might change.

However, this does give a way that we might want to be looking at the protagonists: more akin to “gods” or “superheroes” (modern mythology in action!). If we’re supposed to be viewing the show as more of a superhero series, then the fact that we can’t really relate to the characters isn’t really a bad thing. The show tries to make us see them as people, but that’s really the only important bit. We don’t need to empathize with the characters, but instead the conflicts they represent. This is at the core of most superhero movies I see today, and probably is a big way that Western influence might have had a hand in KLK.

If we now look at this central conflict, we also gain a new way of looking at the “themes” of the show and understanding why they appear to be so “scattershot”. Normally, in traditional narratives, themes are like arguments who are given their strength through the story itself. For instance, a resounding theme in most “coming of age” stories is the “loss of innocence“. This is often articulated in ways where the main character must learn to comprehend and face the difficulties of the world around them. These are illustrated by breaking down simple black/white formulations of morality, having characters encounter failure, and a host of other influences. As experience is always a better “argument” than something written down, stories help showcase these ideas by “bringing them to life” so we can experience them for ourselves. Looking at themes this way frames the question in terms of an argument: how well does a story get across it’s main message? Are the conclusions justified from the experiences? Is it nuanced enough? Did they resonate with me on an emotional level? And so on and so forth.

But what happens when this idea breaks down — when the “coming of age” narrative is no longer meant to illustrate these themes, but instead serves as a vehicle to deliver a host of separate ones? Themes then no longer can be arguments illustrated by the story, but rather should be seen as argumentative thrusts, ideological impulses characterized by an overriding mentality. Indeed, fleshing them out isn’t even the point (although it can be if the piece of media is centered around specific social critiques). In this view, themes in and of themselves are less important than the impulses that drive them. They become stabs at society, commentary meant to raise awareness and exemplify an attitude or “call to action” rather than a fully-formed argument. And they should be evaluated on how well they do that (if that is their main intention), rather than how well they are argued!

In ∑: By shifting our focus from that of a typical “coming of age” story, KLK looks a lot more like a mix of PSG/TTGL than older Gainax shows: the characters are more like Western superheroes (that we often can’t relate to) and the themes are social commentary, both of which are united by ideas of resistance against authority that we do empathize with. Common critiques thus seem to come from a viewpoint contrary to how the show wants to be viewed.

The Drive for Emancipation against Oppression and Anarchy

So we now know what the overriding theme of KLK looks to be: emancipation. Resistance against structure, against duty, against history, against society, against self-imposed constraints (very reminiscent of critical theory). In my first real attempt to integrate things together in the show, for instance, I noticed many of these themes but tried to subsume them under the “coming of age” narrative. In short, I was guilty of reading KLK in the way I just described above (although I was a little bit less critical about it as others have since been)!

However, given this new idea that the main driving force of the show is not the “coming of age” narrative but instead this impulse for emancipation, what can we say about our original two issues (myth/historical motifs, placing Nui in the story)? Nui actually turns out to be pretty easy — the key is the fact that she fits into a “the evil specter of femininity that Ryuko must defeat!” really well. This reading — one of the only ones that actually uses Nui’s character properly — works because Nui is transformed into a symbolic/ideological oppressor that must be defeated. Let’s take this idea and apply it to her whole character.

In most of Imaishi’s work, there’s this active chorus of anarchism as a way to resist oppression, and we see that present in KLK in spades. Given what we know from the final episode, I’d say it isn’t too much of a stretch to associate Ragyo with the specter of absolute dominance and authority. But is the natural opposition to authority anarchism? The answer is probably no, because complete anarchy is about the same as complete dominance: no order at all is in fact another form of submission that gives up on any hope of order in the first place and submitting yourself to utter chaos. Although it is a tempting choice in the fight against authority, it is not actually the one you should take. Nui’s character then can be framed in a context where she is the other end of the dichotomy that must be opposed: you must resist both absolute authority and absolute non-authority because they are both rob you of your agency. In the quest for emancipation, one must constantly fight against both extremes, and so Nui’s character is both a symbol of femininity and anarchy that must be actively opposed.

In ∑: By focusing on the underlying push for emancipation, we can extend Nui’s symbolic role as oppressive femininity to oppressive anarchy that must be opposed along with oppressive authority.

Unification, State Shinto, WWII, and Oni: Overtures to Historical/Mythical Japan

But how exactly can you do this? How can you fight against both authority and anarchy? Well, here’s where a little bit of history enters into the picture.

Note that large swaths of this section were informed by a panel at Anime Boston 2014 by Charles Dunbar and Katriel (Kit), so most of these ideas were originally theirs and they deserve full credit!

The Unification of Japan

KLK bears some noticeable parallels to the times of Oda Nobunaga, first and foremost with Honnouji Academy.

The names, like most things in the show, are puns using almost exactly the same characters with very different meanings. Note also that Honnouji is the end of Satsuki’s ambition, and where the final showdown takes place that essentially “burns” the building to the ground. Taken from

But we also see parallels between Nobunaga’s conquest to unify Japan and Satsuki’s plan to conquer all high schools. Nobunaga, over the course of his lifetime, managed to unify central Japan. His conquests were centered on the Kansai region and marked by intense brutality (especially against religious establishments). His catchphrase was “Tenka Fubu [天下布武]” (tr. “all under heaven through military might”), which symbolizes his use of violence as a tool to unify the continent. In a “I’m pretty sure this is intentional” parallel, Satsuki too aims to conquer this very same region of Japan in her Tri-City Raid campaign.

Notice that Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe (right where "Settsu" is, are smack dab in the middle of Nobunaga's conquest.

Notice that Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe (right where “Settsu” is), are smack dab in the middle of Nobunaga’s conquest.

Both of the main “Unifiers” (Nobunaga and his successor Totoyomi Hideyoshi) undertook large projects to centralize government, and enacted social policies designed to increase their political power. Nobunaga initiated land surveys that were later continued by Hideyoshi, both with the aim of establishing not only a survey of the realm, but more importantly their right and power to tax. Through this system, they established a coherent census and system of income while also flexing their military might. In addition, both Unifiers engaged in so-called “sword hunts,” where they attempted to disarm the peasantry to ensure they had a monopoly on violence. Finally, Hideyoshi actually implement a Neo-Confucian “class” system in Japan and promulgated decrees preventing social mobility between then. These four main classes (samurai -> peasants -> artisans -> merchants) were at the heart of Japanese society, with the Emperor of course on top overseeing the whole shebang (and by “Emperor” we really mean the shogun, because they held all the real power).

But what do we see here?

A 4-level class society...

A 4-level class society…

Where your standing is directly related to your place in life?

Where your standing is directly related to your place in life…

Led by "Empress" Satsuki?

Led by “Empress” Satsuki?

There are noticeable differences of course (you can move around in Satsuki’s system, not so much in historical Japan), but the similarities are a little bit uncanny (why did they pick four levels, specifically, after the other historical parallels with Japan’s unification?).

The Rise of State Shinto

There are two interesting things to note here about the previous view:

  1. Satsuki is looking quite like a god-like figure who lords it over the school. If we take the “class” system as historical parallel, that seems to support this idea.
  2. Satsuki’s system looks really fascist and involves a centralization/monopoly on violence (through her Goku uniforms), very similar to those built up by the great Unifiers.

But Satsuki is more than just a God-like figure. Look at all the symbolic overtones present in the first episode, for example.

When Satsuki is first introduced, she stands as a radiant source of light from on high,

When Satsuki is first introduced, she stands as a radiant source of light from on high who shines down on those below.

Even when we zoom in a bit more, she's shown to essentially BE THE SUN.

Even when we zoom in a bit more, we don’t even see her face. She’s essentially the Sun.

Going with the image of a God-like figure in mind, why would Satsuki be so often linked to the Sun? (I’m assuming her dazzling radiance is more than just KLK being ridiculous.) Well, in Japan, there’s one Goddess that actually is literally the Sun in the Shinto pantheon: Amaterasu.

Satsuki re-envisioned as Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun. Taken from:

So let’s just assume, as a starting point, that all the god-like overtures and symbols in the show have been pointing to Satsuki as a symbolic representation of Amaterasu. You can actually make a lot of cool parallels with certain events in the story and the “Elite Four” relating a good chunk of their personalities to Shinto deities (Jakazure = Ame-no-uzume; Gamagoori = Hachiman; Sanageyama = Susano-o; Inamuta = Izumo Okuninushi; and Mako is some deity I forget; email Charles or Kit for more info on this), but for my purposes relating Satsuki to Shinto at some level is enough, since it inspires the following question:

  • How does Shinto and fascism go together?

The answer? As State Shinto, an ideology developed during the Meiji Restoration that placed the Emperor as descended from the divine (Amaterasu herself) that would bind the state of Japan together as it modernized and centralized. Under this ideology, the state essentially became a pseudo-fascist power.

What (partly) triggered the Meiji Restoration, and why/how did Japan modernize? It was mainly as a response to Western Imperialism, which forced Japan to finally end its long period of isolation from the West. Seeing how the West demolished China, Japan struggled to modernize as quickly as possible to prevent the same thing from happening to itself. Much of this modernization involved taking huge cues from Western powers as Japan essentially mimed the West to prevent being colonized by it, imbibing the ideas of their oppressor in order to resist them.

So now we have an analog for Satsuki and her system at Honnouji Academy as representative Meiji Japan.

The Imperialistic, Christian West

But what is she trying to resist, and who is she taking from? Luckily, the show answers our question for us.

Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.15.49 Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.16.11 Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.16.46 Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.16.51 Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.17.01 Screenshot 2014-04-06 21.17.06

So Satsuki was trying to beat Ragyo by imitating her. Could that make Ragyo…the West? This idea is not actually too far-fetched.

Ragyo is strongly linked to gross capitalism (both in ideology and in position as the head of REVOCS), often a symbol of the West.

Ragyo is strongly linked to gross capitalism (both in ideology and in position as the head of REVOCS), often a symbol of the West.

Besides being strongly linked to capitalism, she essentially is imposing her own will on Satsuki, who then tries to imitate her to defeat her (much like Meiji Japan does to the West). She’s even more arrogant than Satsuki, looking down upon her daughter and all that she’s accomplished as inferior.

That seems pretty arrogant to me.

That seems pretty arrogant to me.

And, most importantly, if we make the same sort of claims over how she’s portrayed in the show relative to Satsuki, she’s pretty much God.

For instance, there's a lot of Christian motifs thrown around by Ragyo.

For instance, there’s a lot of Christian motifs thrown around by Ragyo.

If you actually pay close attention though, it's ONLY Ragyo who says these ideas - no one else makes such claims in the entire show.

If you actually pay close attention though, it’s ONLY Ragyo who says these ideas – no one else makes such claims in the entire show. This is something I missed last time around, since it explicitly ties Christianity to her.

If Satsuki = Sun -> Amaterasu, then by extension Ragyo = Rainbow -> God.

If the symbolic relationship is Satsuki = Sun -> Amaterasu, then by extension Ragyo = Rainbow -> God.

As rainbows are symbolic of a covenant between God and mankind, such symbolic language is fitting. Ragyo is making a promise that she reiterates multiple times throughout the show: sacrifice your freedom and I promise you unending pleasure in subservience.

Note: I also like the argument that because God’s so hella-badass he can’t be contained by just one color and so is a fucking rainbow, but the previous one makes more sense as I’m making an argument about symbols rather than colors.

World War II and the Occupation of Japan

Alright, so now we have Ragyo as the oppressive, dickish, imperialistic, Christian West that Satsuki has been trying to overpower. And about 2/3rds of the way through the series, Satsuki finally makes her move. She (i.e. now-unified Meiji Japan) rises up against her mother (i.e. the West).

First, the betrayal.

First, the betrayal.

Look at all those "preparations" Japan made in order to establish an empire to fend off the West!

Look at all those “preparations” Japan made in order to establish an empire to fend off the West!

Of course, this doesn’t end well — Satsuki is utterly demolished and her home fortress (i.e. Japan) is taken over (i.e. occupied) by her mother (i.e. the West) who starts running the show.

Nice try!

Nice try Japan!

I'm just gonna occupy you now have fun.

I’m just gonna occupy you now have fun.

Again, here’s another overture about trying to use fascism to defeat a “fascist” oppressor. I’m seeing something in common with these historical parallels…

Oni and “Old” Japan

But where does our protagonist fit in? We’ve talked about the symbolic representation of pretty much every single other character except for Ryuko, who is the main protagonist against all this crap! If Satsuki represents modernizing/Shinto/fascist Japan and Ragyo is the imperialistic/Christian West, the most likely contrast is that Ryuko is neither of these: not modern and not foreign. In short, she’s “Old” Japan, the one that loses out in all this fighting.

This reading is not completely crazy though, and it actually has it’s basis in something I’ve been wondering about for quite some time.

Why does she have horns?

During her transformation, why does Ryuko have horns? They’re a completely unnecessary part of the whole outfit and aren’t really tied to the clothes.

This little bit of innocuous information is a puzzle, and I think is the key to making sense of this reading, because there is one other Japanese icon famous for having horns: oni. Oni are yokai often associated with horns and righteous anger. In addition, the common usage is for those of “alien” origin, peripheral troublemakers outside the scope of the Emperor. Given Ryuko’s alien nature and her perpetual isolation throughout the narrative, as well as her righteous anger for the good first half of the show, I’d say she fits the bill quite nicely here.

A New History

So, the history of KLK seems to go something like this:

  1. Honnouji’s name and class system along with the Tri-City raid  draw parallels to the unification of Japan and overt references to rising centralization and fascism.
  2. Satsuki bears strong resemblances to Amaterasu, which, combined with her connections to fascism at Honnouji place her as a representation of State Shinto and the Western-based modernizing (pseudo-fascist) project of Meiji Japan.
  3. Ragyo represents God and the West, which are strengthened through her interactions with Satsuki. She is also modeled as an oppressor.
  4. Parallels to WWII and the occupation of Japan are evident after Satsuki’s failed rebellion, another example of attempting to rebel against an oppressor by using the same methods of oppression.
  5. Ryuko represents “Old” Japan as an Oni, a member on the periphery filled with righteous anger who has lost out in all of this.
  6. At the end of the show, “Old” and “New” Japan unite against a common enemy, Ragyo (i.e. absolute oppression), in order to defend their freedom.

Almost all the historical references made in KLK are of eras of centralization and modernization, of government and authority growing larger and more violent as they impose their will on those of the populace, and of how much of this is justified in the face of looming threats. We thus arrive at an answer to our original question: How can you fight against both authority and anarchy? According to KLK, we can’t look towards repeating history — imitating the methods of the oppressor in order to fend them off is not the way to go.

So what can we do? What we’ve always done: love others like family, help them out when necessary, treat everybody as equals, and try and live your life the best you can.

Together, we can support one another.

Together, we can support one another.

And I think that’s the message KLK wants to drive home to us. That’s the reading that all the evidence seems to point to. And it might be simple, but I think that’s what makes KLK so great: using such amazing complexity to deliver an impassioned call for all of us to love one another.

Until next time ~

Until next time ~

Edit: To be as thorough as possible in rounding up good or emblematic KLK impressions/reviews/analysis in one place, I have added in additional links to other posts that either I missed the first time around or were written after this post was published. If anyone has any other posts to add, just send me a quick email or let me know in the comments!

42 responses to “Kill La Kill: A Love Story

  1. Holy shit can’t believe I read all that. Nice. I’m not quite sure how you get to Ryuuko being “Old” Japan. I can completely see her as being a rebellious spirit not fitting into the existing system, akin to an Oni. But why would that be associated with the “old” Japan? I don’t see that as being particularly rebellious…

    Also… I am not very familiar with these things so correct me if I’m wrong… but isn’t this article about *interpretation* more than *criticism*? I thought criticism involved some kind of value judgement.

    • In retrospect, I think “Old” Japan was a poor choice of term. Maybe something like “Folk” Japan would’ve worked better, since I think she represents the elements of Japan that didn’t really “fit in” to the whole modernizing project.

      Yes, it is a little bit more about interpretation than criticism, but the two are strongly connected — you criticize something based on how you’ve interpreted it, and how you see a show can directly weigh in on what types of judgments you’re passing on it. So the point I guess was more that people have been criticizing KLK from a position I don’t think the show wanted to be viewed from, so it’s important to make sure you’ve gotten a good handle on how you’re looking at things before you start criticizing it from not living up to those standards.

  2. Although being someone who thoroughly dislikes KLK, I have to commend your article here. Defending something from criticism is more difficult than making criticism, and you clearly put a lot of effort into your ideas here. This is the first serious article on KLK, positive or negative, that I can respect.

    That said, I disagree.

    1) I think you’re reading of the anarchy/liberation/etc. themes are correct…for the final arc. And while it is true that Imaishi’s shows generally have this chaotic freedom vs controlled authority theme, how it manifests itself in KLK is very schizophrenic. Many plot strands serving this end, like the initial invocations of fascism, the original descriptions of life fibers, Nudist Beach and so on, are dropped or heavily altered as the show progresses. This isn’t unexpected, as in the spring Newtype article where the show was unveiled, Nakashima reveals the script for KLK underwent >4 revisions and had significant input from non-writing staff (compare this to TTGL, which had 1 revision and little non-writing staff input). When people are complaining about KLK being thematically incoherent or scattershot, they don’t mean the themes themselves aren’t clear, but that how the show expresses them is muddled.

    2) A solid thematic framework does not a good show make. A big part of the reason KLK is being criticized is for things unrelated to plot; bad storyboarding, bad soundtrack, bad action choreography, etc. I’ve gone into it a bit more in depth on my own blog, but I found the direction of KLK to be lacking. There’s also the issue of the show’s pacing, which is all over the place. Like, how can you justify the lengthy and ultimately pointless King of the Hill arc? Imaishi is a divisive director to be sure, and this route of discussion might be fruitless if we fundamentally disagree as to his merits, but I think it’s hard to argue that KLK isn’t disappointing in light of TTGL. Besides the occasional Sushio/Yoshinari/Honda cuts, KLK is an incredibly ugly show.

    In any case, good post, will definitely subscribe to your blog.

    • This is the first serious article on KLK, positive or negative, that I can respect.

      Besides your own, of course ;). Which is really good because it pulls from a lot of information outside the show I hadn’t looked over and comes from a very different perspective. Since I think it’ll make it easier and many of the points you make there are the same you make here, just take my response to the comment as my response to your original post.

      …for the final arc.

      I’m glad you agree with me in the final arc, but I would argue they’re pretty present throughout the majority of the show, even with the scrapped plotlines (which I now totally can see). The whole arc of Ryuko against Satsuki (which I’d say is the majority of the first half) screams resistance against fascism (I mean, just look at everything to do with Honnouji!), even without some of the other plots with Nudist Beach and co. hanging around.

      When people are complaining about KLK being thematically incoherent or scattershot, they don’t mean the themes themselves aren’t clear, but that how the show expresses them is muddled.

      I think it’s a little bit of both, actually: a lot of people complaining that there’s just too many themes going on that just are never really fleshed out, as well as people arguing that the expression of the themes is muddled. Given my take on how things look, I think I’ve argued strongly against taking the former view and at least somewhat against the latter. That said, in retrospect things weren’t really perfect (although I guess for me the point is as long as they come across loud and clear that’s really enough), so the latter’s a valid critique I can agree with.

      bad storyboarding

      As you’ve argued/pointed out, there are some inconsistencies in KLK, which is definitely not a good thing. That said, I think there is more consistency than the show is given credit for, which comes from some of the things I pointed out in the post concerning historical/mythological parallels, etc.

      bad soundtrack

      But…I liked it…

      bad action choreography

      Again, I liked it, although I definitely can see where you’re coming from.

      I found the direction of KLK to be lacking

      Imaishi is a divisive director to be sure, and this route of discussion might be fruitless if we fundamentally disagree as to his merits

      As you mentioned in your post, you’re not the biggest fan of Imaishi’s stuff. While I think you do a great job point out most of his tendencies, as someone who really does like his style (and thinks he’s a bit better than you give him credit for), we’ll probably just have to disagree. That said, you’ve clearly got much a much stronger background in directorial style, history, and filmography than I do, so this is not meant to be a knock on you but just a statement of personal preference.

      Like, how can you justify the lengthy and ultimately pointless King of the Hill arc?

      Several things. First, an initial justification would be through the way KLK pays homage to the shounen genre and previous work. What shounen doesn’t have a “King of the Hill” arc? Therefore, KLK must have one! Second, it’s a decent parallel if you’re viewing Satsuki as Amaterasu — it mirrors a lot of the traditional story where Amaterasu enters the cave and the world descends into chaos, so it could have been intended as a double parallel there to increase the historical/mythological callbacks. Third, I thought it was pretty entertaining and didn’t really have a problem with it. While that’s not a real justification for overall pacing (if you’re looking at the development of the story as a whole, while I think we should be focusing a little bit more on individual elements), it does at least show it wasn’t a problem for everyone (including most fans I’d take it). Finally, it’s not completely pointless: throughout the fights, we see Ryuko and Senketsu “evolve” too quickly (so that TTGL-esque theme gets hinted at again) and witness her descent into rage at the introduction of Nui (which involves some elements that get totally ignored but by itself is relevant to the plot).

      I think it’s hard to argue that KLK isn’t disappointing in light of TTGL

      I will agree here: the very fact that I wrote this whole post is proof of this. However, for me I find KLK to be in a different class of show, more interesting as a textually rich spectacle (I’m not a subscriber of “turn your brain off and enjoy” myself, but I’m not going to dock it) and less as a cohesive “coming of age” story. So to me they have their own merits. I still revisit key scenes from TTGL to this day on random occasions and feel the emotional impact, so I’ll just have to wait and see how well KLK looks 1-2 years from now.

    • I’m just responding to you’re second point which I just really disagree with.

      Bad storyboarding? Are you referring to the breaking of the 180 rule or something because that’s clearly intentional. In fact most of the erratic storyboarding is done to help match the chaotic and disjointed world of kill la kill.

      Bad Sountrack? well this is the first time I’ve heard this complaint, almost everyone seems to love this soundtrack including me. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and again it completely matches the chaotic world that they’re building.

      Bad action choreography? All the action felt really intense and read really well, I wasn’t ever really questioning what I saw on screen.

      your post is literally the first time I’ve seen the show criticized for these reasons, so no that’s not a big part of why it’s criticized, it’s a big part of why it grabbed so many people into it though.

      King of the hill arc? Easy to justify, it was entertaining and it gave us a look at the elite four in battle as well as Ryuuko, and that’s really all you need, it’s a battle anime afterall.

      Ugly? UGLLYYY??? goddamn are you blind? Sorry I’m not trying to offend you or anything but man it kills to see someone just outright call a show that has some of the best visual direction in anime EVER, ugly. It really hurts…
      (seriously though, those compositions, those backgrounds, the character designs, the spunky energetic animation, and the colour direction… just beautiful, eye catching stuff)

      • If I’m the first person you’ve ever heard complain about Sawano or the storyboarding in KLK then you need to open your ears more

        Bad storyboarding means bad use of the constituent aesthetic elements to convey themes and tone. KLK had several great animators on board, and there are several scenes that stand out: KA done by Yoshinari, Honda, Amemiya, Sushio, but all of it feels like a big waste when the action choreography, layouts, etc. don’t unify them in a satisfying manner. Even at the most generous, to claim that KLK has the best visual direction in any anime ever is ludicrous. Fights are repetitive DBZ style power-ups, most of it rather undynamic flailing (sometimes they blatantly used looping during climatic fights). I’m actually surprised that you think that KLK stands out animation-wise when most of the show’s defenders don’t and instead argue that the myriad animation shortcuts were a stylistic choice. The show also has difficulty deciding whether they want to be taken seriously or play things off as jokes. Similar problem to FMA:Brotherhood, in that the comedy bits and the serious bits are at odds with one another and eliminate a lot of the stakes during fights. I probably would’ve liked it better if it didn’t take itself so damn seriously. If you want a better sakuga conduit, watch Space Dandy.

        It’s a rather poorly made show by any metric. KLK easily has the worst visual direction out of all of Imaishi’s shows, and a number of factors can attest to this (bad scheduling, less control over the script by Nakashima, Imaishi recycling ideas). At least P&S was tonally consistent…

    • Sorry to butt in, but this was unexpected… A person with supposedly rich knowledge background in storyboarding and direction calls KLK disappointing in the light of TTGL. You’ve piqued my interest, because I actually love TTGL but have been rather disappointed by its development. I mean, I would’ve agreed with you completely had its story actually concluded upon defeating the Spiral King, but mind telling me how exactly does TTGL remain the more tonally consistent show with its post-timeskip arc basically doing an inexplicable tangential turn and hopelessly trying to combine darker mood with even more hysterically flamboyant power-up sequences? You know, when it suddenly decides it isn’t a coming-of-age story anymore (Simon’s general character arc is long complete by then, and there’s little to no character development going on from that point onwards) and becomes an anything-goes story which endlessly regurgitates the ideals and concepts already established in the first two main story arcs—manliness, selfless resolve, responsibility, faith in one’s strength, and so on—and turns them up to eleven with a ridiculous power-up curve. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy gawking at battle robots flinging galaxies at each other as much as the next guy, but is that really the example of directorial consistency to you?

      And this is beside your pacing complaint. TTGL clearly has a non-zero amount of both not-very-well-used downtime *and* battles for the sake of battles. KLK at least gives a viewer the courtesy of fast-forwarding through virtually all fights that don’t advance the plot or a character arc. The King of the Hill being the most contentious example, but I’d argue that it’s needed for two things: 1) to establish the Elite Four’s abilities, personality quirks, and approaches to fight, which otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be properly exposed, 2) to drive the stakes up and increase the tension that culminates in Senketsu’s overload by Ryuko’s boiling rage. Had the lengthy fight sequence not been there, Nui’s appearance and the subsequent meltdown wouldn’t have made a comparable (or at all significant) impact. I hope you at least somewhat agree with me on that point.

      Re: “bad soundtrack”, ehhh… Well, I guess you didn’t like it. That’s perfectly OK with me. How’s it bad exactly though? Would you elaborate in your own words? I’m genuinely interested because, while only couple of the tracks suit my general tastes in music, I do regard it as well done at the least, and definitely memorable (at least tracks such as Until my body is dry and Blumenkranz). I don’t like or listen to that many anime soundtracks, including the shows I adore otherwise; this one I rather liked both in and outside the show; could listen to the first part of Kik9=KELL or Sanageyama’s theme for hours easily.

      Re: bad action choreography, again, please elaborate.
      I think I understand where you’re coming from, in that fights aren’t exactly very cleverly written nor are the movements particularly elaborate themselves, and I do agree that it could’ve been better on that front. However, I’m fairly sure it boiled down to budget constrains more than anything else, because rigging and keyframe drawing in battle sequences easily take more amount of time and effort (= money) than the rest of the episode, and more often than not is the first thing to be dropped. (Although one could also construe an argument that only two of the characters are actually established as martial art pros that know the more complex moves in the first place, the rest just being brawlers relying on relatively simplistic powered-up/speeded-up attacks). With the fights in general being very flashy and well-animated in KLK, it does look like in its case more elaborate choreography was the last thing to be dropped, since all the non-action sequences were already heavily stylized and sprinkled with dadaist comedy to avoid looking outright cheap (a commendable effort to creatively mask budget holes if you ask me). That being said, pretty much all the shows I remember that rival or surpass KLK in terms of action choreography had greater budgets (Soul Eater), and/or had shorter/less frequent fights (Samurai Champloo, Seirei no Moribito), and/or took even more shortcuts and not-well-used liberties with general pacing/fight scene animation quality (cue every single long-winded shonen fightfest here). Is it even that bad in the first place? I mean come on, they actually use enviroments and don’t stop to discuss matters after every blow exchange as much as it would be typical for the genre roots. Calling it unwatchable or anything close to that at all is being unjustly harsh.

      I would say Trigger deserves respect, if not some slack, by the sole virtue of them milking every last drop of quality within the limitations they had. I don’t doubt for a minute the show would have had better choreography and animation quality had it had a better budget (hell, any show by a half-competent director would have!), but it was created as an all-or-nothing showcase of Trigger’s creative and productive capability so that they could have easier time raising the needed budgets for the future projects to begin with… And now that they’ve done it, they seem busy filling their portfolio with garbage light novel adaptations, which is the part I find kinda sad. :D Hopefully that won’t be a trend.

  3. Eh, i don´t know if someone is going to read this, but how Ishiin/Soichiro fits in all this?, what is his role in all this?, He saves and grows Ryuuko (the Folk/Old Japan) in hiding and then just leaving her alone for most part of her life, while developing the gifts/weapons that are in her advantage to accomplish HIS, not her, HIS mission, of course that is if she choose to do it, while just leaving Satsuki (Amateratsu) with a mortal warning, Satsuki decides to do something about it since very young age, workings with things that are against her goal from being Ragyoo´s daughter to have to accomplish Revocs whishes to have a very limited number of people she can trust, to have to make a system to allow the growth of of strong people for the great battle against an almost god, oh yeah and she was fueled for the dead of her father and sister (Ryuuko the Folk/Old Japan), What Ishiin/Soichiro simbolize in the life of both Amateratsu and The Folk Japan?, Was Amateratsu while being fueled by the dead of her younger sister The Folk Japan starting a war against The West to liberate the world of its oppression?.

    Both lives of Amateratsu and the Folk Japan were determined by Ishin/Souchiro, who resembles the “old man who ties red threads of fate the people’s pinkie”, in one case Amateratsu chose to do something even if at the end it was beyond her own humanity, meanwhile in the other, Isshin/Souchiro hopped that The Folk Japan will accomplish his goal. How does he fits in all the Amateratsu, Folk Japan and The West allegory?

    But then, in the end Amateratsu was a human and her army was human too, and humans efforts are useless against gods, so humans don´t have a place in a battle of the gods “The Folk Japan” and “The West”, how the “Folk Japan” could stop the very end of the world?, by taking the submission that “The West”(Ragyo) imposed over the world and made ​​it her own strenght, by the way that was what Satsuki claimed when she was young and what she did to build her army, taking the power of Revocs and made it her own power, what does this means in the end for The Folk Japan? she ended loosing her parter, friend and parental figure, was that the price of imposing her own will over the world, even if it was for a great and noble cause? What does this mean for humanity or in this case, Japan?

    Also, was the “fascist” system of Satsuki wrong?, in the end only people that grow in that system were able to fight the life fibers, that includes from the one stars, the two stars, the 4 Devas and Ryuuko herself. was “Fascism” or it was “Tough Love”?, well this last thing was more like a joke.

    Eh, well, if you end up reading all this, thanks.

    • I’m a little bit confused since you seem to answer many of your questions with your own readings, but let me have a go. Before I get into anything though, let me note that oftentimes readings and parallels don’t apply to every single character in a story. In this case, I’ve argued that certain events and characters are meant to be more thematically symbolic than actual “direct” parallels, and are used to offer up a warning that in our desire to be “free” and defeat the “Other” we must avoid becoming them.

      That said, Isshin/Soichiro probably fits into this reading in some way or form. As you and others note, he is the one who ends up motivating Satsuki to resist the life fibers and also prepares Ryuuko to accomplish his mission of resisting the life fibers. Both sisters are motivated by the loss of their father. And he has symbolic parallels to the “matchmaker” figure.

      Given these signs, most likely he would be a stand-in for the late Tokugawa/early Meiji Japan that is forcibly opened to the West (Ragyo). His downfall is what “creates” the idea of a “traditional” (Ryuuko) and “modern” (Satsuki) Japan (ideas of Japanese culture, Japanese-ness, etc. only came as reactions to the influx of Western influences) and spawns their conflict both against each other and their oppressor (Ragyo). In addition, he (Isshin) is also forced to work together with the West (Ragyo) against his will. It’s pretty coherent with the rest of the narrative and fits the symbolic imagery he represents, so what do you think of this idea?

      But then, in the end Amateratsu was a human and her army was human too, and humans efforts are useless against gods

      Okay, I would take a step back here and note that this reading is not a 1-to-1 correspondence: KLK has it’s own narrative that does things, and (to me) seems to use historical callbacks to make thematic points. While Ryuuko and Ragyou are portrayed more or less as “Gods” in the series, this is because they have been combined with the alien life fibers, not necessarily because of their historical symbolic status. In addition, I think the whole point of the narrative (and the historical analogies) is that humans (like Nudist Beach or the Elite Four) can (and probably should) rebel against “God”, or any seemingly invincible opponent, in their desire for emancipation.

      by taking the submission that “The West”(Ragyo) imposed over the world and made ​​it her own strenght

      But Ryuuko does not do this! Her power comes from her friends that she’s made, who give up their power willingly to her. That’s what enables her to really “power up” and face Satsuki: the power of friendship and love. [Note that this scene also has a lot of parallels to a similar scene from the more recent DBZ film where Goku becomes a Super Saiyan “God” through the power of his friends.] So it’s not Ryuuko emulating Satsuki or taking the power of REVOCS – this is a fundamentally different thing.

      she ended loosing her parter, friend and parental figure

      This is a little bit more straightforward to understand. Given the whole theme of the show about fascism, power, and emancipation, we have several ideas floating around: 1) you shouldn’t simply emulate the oppressor to oppose it – you’ll “lose your way” doing that, 2) instead, you should use the bonds of fellowship and love between humanity to build up the strength to do so, 3) however, that doesn’t mean you can’t consolidate power among a small number of people. This last one is important, because it frequently is necessary against foes. However, after the crisis has passed, such power cannot remain, because that contains the seeds for such a fascist system to rise up again and enslave the populace. Thus, the death of Senketsu (who has taken literally all the power and is imploding, plus is a symbol of both alien oppression and militarism!) is a necessary sacrifice. In this sense, I think it’s not really so much like “punishing” Ryuuko for imposing her will over the world as it is more of a sacrifice necessary to protect it. It’s also a pretty big coming-of-age thing — don’t forget that part!

      was the “fascist” system of Satsuki wrong?…well this last thing was more like a joke

      Haha yea – I think the show pretty clearly comes down on the side of “this isn’t the way to go”. ;)

  4. So, I’m still only halfway through this show, for some reason (odd because I kinda fell in love with the first half), but seeing as this post’s about a wee bit more than just Kill la Kill, I figured I’d pitch in. Disclosure: what this means is that I skimmed (at best) parts of the post that seemed like they were more about the show itself (usually recognizable by the screenshots!), and concentrated more on the earlier bits, which seemed to be more about your, uh, methodology. (‘Approach’, perhaps?)

    ….go the route of the “subjective” critic so that the show becomes what you want, or change your point of view so you can watch the show on its own terms.

    I really like this, but—there’s the painfully obvious fact that what we see in a show and how we change our view of it, etc., is always already a result of what we want, of our personal backgrounds, etc. Funnily enough, though, the bit where you talked about character identification seemed like a good way (if not out of this quandary) past this dilemma, in that you took what was ostensibly a criticism of the show in terms of its quality and looked at how this can be interpreted; it became a starting-point rather than a conclusion.

    As for watching a show on its own terms, I agree. (Though with some reservations, which might become apparent below.) The obvious question is what exactly this means, and I like your answer (to make the most sense out of things without becoming impenetrable bullshit, I believe you said?), but I’m gonna put on my pretentious-guy hat for a second and try to rework this: a book is a collection of words in a certain order, a song a bunch of sounds, an anime a collection of images and sounds (usually some combination of sound-effects, music, and words). Trying to interpret a piece means trying to understand what orders these elements: what appears, what doesn’t appear, and why things appear in the structure and order in which they do. So a good critic (I, sadly, am not one) would be able to explain why one word follows another, or why one scene follows another, and so on. An analogy: as a scientist tries to determine what links certain phenomena together (say, what makes something move the way it does), so does a critic try to link certain phenomena together. You could perhaps even say that what you’re trying to do is to determine what causes what in the work. The best interpretation, then, is the one which offers the most comprehensive (it should explain as much as possible) and coherent (both in the sense of not contradicting itself, and in the sense that symbols, motifs, changes in style, and so on that appear in one place shouldn’t be limited to that one place) explanation of the work’s laws of motion (so to speak) as possible. Related to this is the fact that a piece of art will often feel incomplete in some way, needing to refer to or to suggest something continuous with its world but absent from the explicit text in order to be complete.

    I was a little dissatisfied with the word “falsifiability” above, and wasn’t sure why, so ended up trying to reformulate what did make sense to me. Just so you know where I’m coming from. Now, a couple of words on what might constitute “bad” interpretations, and how we can interpret these (see what motivates them and perhaps take them on their own terms, once we understand what these terms are).

    “Subjective” criticism is when people interpret (and consequently critique) a show based on what they want to view it as, regardless of what the show seems to be trying to portray itself as. You throw away unnecessary information and focus on the reading that is most relevant to you…. Now, there’s nothing wrong with viewing a show this way, because this is how people derive meaning from what they consume: we feel connected to the narrative, get in touch with ourselves, and explore new ideas. In the process, we continually try to incorporate what we’ve learned and “better” ourselves as individuals. This is a beautiful thing that everyone does. However… this type of reading can pose problems. What if someone feels differently than you about how to view a show?

    Niiice. What I’d elaborate about how this works, though, is this: one of the great things about art is that by marking off a set of images, words, or sounds, you make it possible to create a sort of shared experience, which then can give us a point of reference for explaining our own particular personal experiences. A lot of the better interpretations of this sort (usually the sort I personally traffic in, which frustrates me to no end) can feel sort of like little works of art in their own right; I would never want to see this sort of poetic misinterpretation abolished completely. Of course, the problem, as you point out, is that it can be sort of incomprehensible if we don’t have some level of common understanding as to what it is that we’re using as our reference (the show).

    —The flipside of this, I’d say, is readings of the sort you mentioned that use, say, psychoanalysis or historical materialism (I thought of Slavoj Zizek here; he uses both, the ass.) for reading their text; the point when people do this is often to use the text as a way of explaining some particular idea rather than treating the text as an end in itself. Often this’ll be symptomatic, too: understanding why this author fails to give voice to some particular truth about the world, and so on. Yet again, it has its uses: this sort of symptomatic reading even appears in somewhat less bullshitty guises when people use stories as examples of the culture those stories came from, or as ways of talking about the author’s work as a whole. And ultimately, this is what I’d say we do when we disagree with a work, especially when we do so from either a historical or a moral standpoint. And we need to be able to do this. Closely related is the fact that people will often construct whole interpretive frameworks for judging art as a whole, usually with particular criteria as to how to assess quality. What I think ties most of these strategies together is that they tend to be theories of art as a whole, but can, in so doing, lose sight of what is particular in individual works themselves. Not every work tries to, or needs to, make its characters relatable.

    One last note in this overly long comment: as you might have noticed, I am actually pretty sympathetic to these styles of misreading. Another couple styles I’m sorta sympathetic to: what I’ll call incomplete and incoherent misreadings. This is sorta related to your conversation with tamerlane, who argued that your readings of certain themes are mostly applicable to a certain section of the show. While I agree with your judgement that they’re apparent throughout (they’re all over the place in the way the characters interact in the first half; it’s worth paying attention to exactly how Satsuki subjugates others), I’d say that even if it weren’t true, it wouldn’t necessarily render this reading useless—there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a particular section of a work and seeing what’s particular to that section. You see this all the time when people analyze specific anime episodes; often, the ideas they find might be completely absent from the rest of the show, with no apparent explanation as to their absence.

    The thing that makes this sort of incomplete reading interesting in particular is how speculative it is: we all talk about shows before they’re finished, so these readings often function as attempts at predicting what will happen in the future. This isn’t necessarily limited to plot events, but can also involve how certain themes will play out (what the work will ultimately “say”, so to speak). And we’ll often be wrong, or the show can turn out to be about something completely different.

    Or the show can come around and explicitly disagree with our readings, or change its mind on us, thus rendering this sort of reading incoherent. Your sort of comprehensive reading, which I do ultimately think is the best approach (you’ve probably noticed me agreeing with a lot of what you’ve said, but with slightly different emphasis?), does seem to me to rest on the following duality: either certain elements in a work are coherent with each other, or they are unrelated or one of them is in some way false. And while apparent contradictions can often be a route to finding deeper coherence, or for discovering our errors (one of the things that discredited phlogiston theory was that phlogiston would’ve had to be one of the only things in the world with negative weight), I would say that art, unlike reality, is under no obligation to be coherent. Certain sections of a work may be like complete pieces of art in their own right, irreducible to the whole. And while it’s best, when possible, to see what rule explains these incoherencies, the lack of such a rule doesn’t invalidate them. There’s a lot to be gained, I think, by seeing how a show might, in the end, disagree with itself.

    • Oh man, what a beast of a comment. Let’s see what I can do…

      is always already a result of what we want

      Yea, which is inevitable. However, unless we try and get past this fundamental lack of “real” objectivity, we don’t really go anywhere XD.

      it became a starting-point rather than a conclusion

      Trying to figure out exactly certain conclusions are seen as such I think is a pretty good way at arriving at something a little more “objective”, so thanks!

      The best interpretation, then, is the one which offers the most comprehensive (it should explain as much as possible) and coherent (both in the sense of not contradicting itself, and in the sense that symbols, motifs, changes in style, and so on that appear in one place shouldn’t be limited to that one place) explanation of the work’s laws of motion (so to speak) as possible.

      THIS. I guess I had rolled up my thoughts on coherency into the definition I gave in the post, but this is essentially everything I think interpretation should aspire to!

      I was a little dissatisfied with the word “falsifiability” above

      Haha, I gotcha. In your formulation though, such an idea is implicitly included: there needs to be some metric for comparing which interpretation is the most comprehensive and coherent. In psychoanalysis or historical materialism, the explanations are 100% coherent and 100% comprehensive in almost all cases (they alone explain everything), and so this type of comparison can’ really take place.

      I would never want to see this sort of poetic misinterpretation abolished completely

      Me neither – that would defeat the purpose of art and interpretation! :)

      for reading their text; the point when people do this is often to use the text as a way of explaining some particular idea rather than treating the text as an end in itself

      I actually wrote a whole (messy) post motivated by just this sort of observation, so I’m in 100% agreement with you here. Like you, I’m also pretty sympathetic towards them, as long as they are transparent about what they’re doing — when people aren’t, it’s deliberately misleading and can create all sorts of problems and misunderstandings. In the end, I think it’s fine to use a text as a end-in-and-of-itself or as a foundation where an idea is manifest, and that it’s the way that these two modes of interpretation interact that create a lot of variety in what I see and read about.

      The thing that makes this sort of incomplete reading interesting in particular is how speculative it is

      Going off this point, these types of readings are amazingly interesting because they often tell you a lot about the mindset of the person who makes the interpretation in the first place, which can give you valuable insight on a wide range of things (see Froggy’s post on Hyouka, for example).

      I would say that art, unlike reality, is under no obligation to be coherent. Certain sections of a work may be like complete pieces of art in their own right, irreducible to the whole. And while it’s best, when possible, to see what rule explains these incoherencies, the lack of such a rule doesn’t invalidate them. There’s a lot to be gained, I think, by seeing how a show might, in the end, disagree with itself.

      100% agreement here, and really well said. In my (our?) idea of a “best” interpretation though, this type of thing is implicit in the definition. If you overreach in your desire to find a “unified” reading, it’ll be bullshit. Likewise, if you don’t go far enough, you’ll leave too much unexplained and your reading will be incomplete. It’s in trying to balance all these different elements (the limits of coherence, the limits of objectivity, the role of the author/viewer, the motivations behind why/how we interpret, etc.) that we can attempt to make progress on coming up with a common basis people can agree upon (and of course argue over). [Also necessary mention of POSTMODERNISM OMG because yea.]

      • One final thought that occurred to me just now: I think that my thoughts on the incomplete reading are partly inspired by your use (I’m hung up on it because it’s the first time I’ve seen it in this context, not because it irks me) of the word “falsifiability”: if we know a scientific theory’s correct because it can be proven false, and because it has predictive power, then it’s interesting to see how the notion of predictive power can translate onto interpretation. Hence, the concern with the ability of an interpretation of one part to predict what the rest will be like…. I probably originally misunderstood (misinterpreted? heh) you here, but it may have been productive in the end.


        Dammit, I tried to avoid this word, just as I tried to avoid the word “dialectic”. I’m sure you can see where I would have used them. Shou ga nai.

      • So, the problem I think is that there are two different (sorta) kinds of “prediction”. The first scenario is that some “theory” can say “well we expect X”, and if Y happens then that kinda sucks. The second scenario is more along the lines of a “well, we just observed X — is that compatible with our theory?” type of thing. They’re both in a sense predictions, but its the second sort of “prediction” — one centered on coherence and not necessarily specific elements — that I’m focusing on. So when I rag on, say, psychoanalysis, it’s because it doesn’t meet the second scenario because EVERYTHING is compatible with it. For instance, if during an interview Imaishi and Nakashima mention that the Nudist Beach movement was centered on, say, the communist movement in the Meiji era, then that’s something that fits with this interpretation. If, however, they confirm that the entire second half of the show was re-written and not based on history in the slightest, or that Nui’s design was more an aesthetic choice for maximum creepiness than any “big statement”, then my interpretation is false. Make sense?

      • Ah, I think I finally get it now. Cool. Also: did they really say that about Nudist Beach? Because I could believe it—it comes sorta close to my reading of (what little I’ve seen of them in) what they might stand for in the first half.

  5. Pingback: Kill la Kill and Grounded Conflict | Wrong Every Time·

  6. I don’t have an awful lot to say about Kill la Kill itself – I was following along just fine and then got a bit lost at around the Amaterasu part, but that’s probably what I get for consuming this anime so passively. I wasn’t as engaged with it as you evidently were, and as a result was not very interested in the various interpretations floating around about what Kill la Kill essentially means.

    What I really like is how detailed you were spelling out your logic and your methodology. Poststructuralist theory all the way, man! Actually, I was struck earlier today, as I was rereading parts of this post, how closely your ideas about the ideal interpretation parallel the accepted theories of what makes the ideal translation. Translation is a very specific kind of interpretation that succeeds best when it draws from the widest range of influences surrounding the source text and channels that into a single coherent package.

    There are plenty of things that will be lost in translation, but plenty of things are also gained. Any time you attempt to interpret a work of art, something be lost. On the upside, you can also gain things that were never present in the original text. I assume this “gain” is what makes interpretation – and of course, translation – so worthwhile in its own right.

    I’ve been thinking of writing about translation theory when I finish up with my own translation of Henneko. Probably the most practical and most comprehensive experience you can ever get in interpretation would be through translation. A great literary translation requires critical understanding of the text of the level you’ve displayed in this post. While it’s not something I understood so much on a theoretical level until very recently, it’s something I’ve grappled with on a practical level every day.

    This post convinces me that fair, critical interpretations should always be sought after. So, bringing this post back to Kill la Kill, I feel like I should rewatch the anime when I can, because my appreciation of it will undoubtedly be much enriched. And then I can go back to this post and appreciate it even more. A win-win situation!

    • I’m with you on translation (despite having had sadly little experience with it), but I’m just gonna say: it’s interesting where we pull our metaphors on interpretation from. You said that

      Probably the most practical and most comprehensive experience you can ever get in interpretation would be through translation.

      while Josh said:

      Now, I’m not going to deny that there’s a lot of “bleed-over” in this definition from similar ideas in physics and the sciences on what in general classifies the “best” working theory (and which I am heavily influenced by), and there are problems with it there too (like debates surrounding the anthropic principle).

      which is pretty interesting, because as metaphors both illuminate and hide, the different ways we conceptualize interpretation can have a huge impact on the different ways we interpret. Which is a pretty good basis for comparing interpretations to begin with. (And yet another good reason for making one’s approach explicit.)

      And I’ll come out and share what I suspect (I’m not sure, to be honest) is my main lens: theatre. I’ve got a big of experience on stage (high school and college—nothing fancy; I didn’t major in it or anything), and in wondering and talking about what makes for the best performance, I came to the conclusion that every performance is going to be an interpretation of the original text, and will in some way be different and even autonomous from the original… actually, what you said about translation pretty much had me going, “hell yes!”, though I wish I could’ve put it as well as you. But now I’m wondering where the differences between interpretation-as-translation and interpretation-as-performance would be (and for that matter, interpretation-as-scientific-theory), and how this would change things….

      • There’s definitely a strong link between adaptation and translation theory. Like you said, performances are interpretations of the original text and should definitely be appreciated in their own right. The biggest difference is that adaptations (especially for film and stage) tend to place more emphasis on what the director brings to the table. They’re allowed more leeway in that respect. Translators usually see themselves as having this moral obligation to stay as close to the text as possible. Which is fair enough, because unless you’ve studied translation, you’re not really going to care about who the translator of a text is.

        So I think translation as an art does hew a bit closer to Josh’s definition of an ideal interpretation. Translation sees itself as a bit more… methodological and precise than adaptation does, I guess? But both are an excellent way of looking at interpretation as a whole. To me, at least, they both put criticism into perspective, and makes the interpretations within criticism look less like “someone’s random opinion” and more like works of art in their own right.

    • Poststructuralist theory all the way, man!

      Wait, did I just inadvertently replicate poststructuralist theory?

      how closely your ideas about the ideal interpretation parallel the accepted theories of what makes the ideal translation

      Yea, I think they both have a lot in common: when you’re goal is to try and get as “objectively” close to the original work as possible, the outcomes are bound to be similar (in a good way!).

      I’ve been thinking of writing about translation theory when I finish up with my own translation

      I would love to read this. And definitely – a good translation needs to incorporate all of this information at the same time, so it’s great way to really put this type of stuff into practice!

      I feel like I should rewatch the anime when I can

      I’d say it’s worth a shot. You also could probably take the opportunity to try and look at it from several different perspectives on a second run-through (like through the lens of film/media theory or watching what are certainly left-over plot points from older storyboards). I’ve actually been trying to do more of this to broaden my perspectives a little bit (thanks to my short conversation with tamerlane), and it’s been a good experience so far.

      • Wait, did I just inadvertently replicate poststructuralist theory?

        You sure did! You’re saying that the text exists separately from the author and from the consumer and that it’s informed by outer perceptions beyond merely just the text’s form and structure. You’re also saying that the fairest interpretation takes into account all of these things and puts them into perspective. That sounds a lot like poststructuralism to me.

  7. Great post! This is a thing I need to say first.
    To keep my comment short I have two points I need explained:
    a. falsifiability or that comparison meter you mentioned (it’s still not clear to me, sorry)
    b. Nui is the feminism that should be eradicated? And anarchy? How do these things go with one another? If by feminism you imply feminine power this comes with certain rules, not through anarchy :S And why would the defeat of feminism be a good thing?

    • Sure – sorry about being unclear.

      a) I just answered this sort of question in the comments with The Kenosha Kid above, but it’s just the idea that an interpretation can actually be wrong once you have access to more information. For instance, if you heavily base an interpretation of Evangelion around Christian imagery only to find out in a later interview that the entire use of Christian imagery was entirely random (as it might have been), your interpretation is likely wrong.
      In the same line of thought, you also want a way of determining which interpretation of text is better the “best”. In order to do this, you need a way of “comparing” interpretations and judging which one is better. My definition is my attempt to do this sort of thing.

      b) Whoops – just realized how weird that sounded. I meant to say that Nui is the femininity that should be eradicated [I’ve just updated this in the post, so thanks!] — the typical “feminine” symbol that “oppresses” women. Hopefully that clears up that confusion.
      The whole anarchy thing is because Nui stands in for two symbols at once. On the one hand, she’s ultra-feminine, and so her position as an enemy (and the story’s focus on clothes) seem to indicate pretty clear that she is the idea of “the feminine” that Ryuko must defeat. On the other, she’s pretty much chaos incarnate — she breaks the fourth wall, is absolutely nuts, and is (often literally) everywhere at once. So she also symbolizes complete anarchy. That said, although she appears to represent both of these things at the same time, I don’t think she is meant to be a link between them (i.e. femininity = anarchy).

      • Ok, thanks for the explanation :3 Sorry that I didn’t go through all the comments, but you get some long ones :P

        As for the falsifiability, uhm I’m not sure it’s always possible, no? We don’t know if and what the creators will comment about :/

      • Haha yea – they’re pretty intense, so I understand :).

        And it’s not necessarily that the creators will comment, but more that it’s always a possibility – you have something that COULD be proven wrong with more information or a different perspective, rather than something that’s right no matter how you look at it or whatever information you throw at it.

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  9. Finally got around to reading this all the way after seeing the Japanese Legend panel at Otakon and finally feeling I understood what Kill la Kill was about. You filled in exactly where my other thoughts on the series were going–that the show is all about breaking down dichotomies and trying to unify them. I caught on through thinking about how the nudity in this show all serves a thematic purpose, yet is also obviously titillating for the fans. People can debate over whether it’s “Fanservice” or not, but what the show is doing by tying these two things together (fanservice and symbolism) is showing how the dichotomy between them is pointless, and all of it should be embraced as a part of the human experience. Forget highbrow or lowbrow–this show is UNIBROW.

    • The unibrow analogy is actually perfect here, and you’ve summed up the main points really nicely nicely in both of your podcasts! I’m not sure if this type of thing is going to be a running theme through Imaishi’s future work (in addition to the “unify all the debris present within a genre into one unified project” type thing), but I’m really looking forward to seeing his next project.

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  11. Amazing article; perhaps the best analysis I’ve read on KLK so far.

    Interesting point on juxtaposition of Satsuki/Ragyo’s radiance colors—hadn’t thought of that before! I can’t really say I buy the Christian God idea wholeheartedly—Ragyo does cite biblical myths but hardly resembles a Christian deity (at least more than any other monotheistic one—I mean they’re all about being submissive and suppressing individuality to a large extent) in her image or motivation—but the rainbow encompassing the entire spectrum does point to a higher order of hierarchy at the least.

    The conclusion about love is really good as well; I admit I haven’t really considered it before, but it just falls into place brilliantly and ties every major theme and concept together without contradicting any of them or seeming like reading too much into it—which I found GoomyPlz’s analysis from KLK Reddit to be somewhat guilty of, although brilliant and well worth reading in its own right.

    The only thing that feels kind of left out is Nudist Beach, but the show itself pokes fun at that fact at the end. :)

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  18. Thanks for taking the time to construct this insightful, thorough article. I’ve been a lot more into consuming media analyses these last few years, but this article really pinnacles the entrancing heights to which both creators and consumers can appreciate the artform of anime. It was a pleasure to read!

    However (and I don’t mean that in a “it was good, but…” sort of conflictory tone), I have a few points that I would like to bring up (hopefully you don’t mind such a discussion three long years after this article lol).

    First, what do you think the scissor blades themselves represent or symbolize? I know you said in another comment that not every element of a work needs to neatly fit a read allegory (with all the thread/cloth motifs, using scissors as a weapon is both super cool and fitting in its own right), but their prominence in the story seems too high to be ignored. I think it’s particularly intriguing how for several episodes Ryuuko was in possession of both scissor blades, but only in the final fight with Ragyou did the two blades merge together to form a complete pair of scissors.

    (Disclaimer: I admit I am not experienced in making –
    much less, conveying – literary analyses (although I certainly love reading them and, perhaps somehow conceitedly, I often feel capable of understanding them), but I will try to anyways. Also, I dislike the use of disclaimers as a means to absolve responsibility for one’s words, so I will not use it to shamefully dismiss any criticisms that return my way; I only hope my disclaimer fosters understanding of where I come from.)

    In my opinion, the blades represent some sort of reconciliation between Ryuuko’s feelings of independence and revenge (dominance) and authority (submission).

    The red blade Ryuuko initially wields was used to kill her father, Isshin, and in her quest to seek revenge over his death, she wields the same blade with righteous anger. When Ryuuko first enters Hououin Academy, she comes with the main intention of finding the other half of the scissor blade – and thus, her father’s killer – no matter the obstacle. To the militaristic, codified society of the school, Ryuuko and her blade represent a force of independence determined to disrupt the fabric of their society. The fact that Ryuuko’s blade is the only object known to effectively cut through Life Fibers (and thus, Goku Uniforms – the symbol of the establishment) is also taken as a surprise to Satsuki, the Four Kings, and the other “enemies” in the school, which further supports this idea. (Later on Satsuki’s blade is also shown to have this power, but only once she too reveals herself as a rebel force – with her own reasons for righteous anger – against the establishment that is Ragyou/REVOCS).

    For the majority of the show, the complimentary purple scissor blade was in possession of Nui, the symbol of submission. In the episode where Ryuuko eventually defeats Nui and reclaims the purple blade, she had been under the control of Junketsu and fought for Ragyou against the rebel forces which sought to tear down the establishment. Albeit unwilling at first, Ryuuko submitted to the pleasures of service, and in her dreamscapes portrayed herself in imagery befitting of a traditional, “pure” woman (wedding dress, lying with other women, etc.). She eventually breaks out of this submission, but only because Mako and Senketsu literally jump inside her and show her the light. Ryuuko is no longer subservient to Junketsu/Ragyou, but she does become, in a way, subservient to higher, nobler cause – kindred spirit. It is only after Ryuuko’s submission and release from Ragyoi that she develops the resolve to don Senketsu and fight once again with Satsuki and Mako, and in a act that symbolizes her acceptance of this new rule to submit to, she takes the purple blade from Nui and makes it her own. Ryuuko has accepted subservience on her own terms.

    Together, these two blades form the great pair of scissors that Ragyou had thought were the ultimate weapon Isshin had designed to sabotage her before the events of the main story. However, in the final fight the scissors prove to be useless against Ragyou. Ryuuko cannot simply win over Ragyou with dominance (red blade), nor can she simply lose to her in submission (purple blade); she must find another path to victory. And so, Ryuuko takes the middle path between domination and submission – acceptance. By latching herself into Ragyou’s body, Ryuuko draws out the power from her mother and leaves her naked, bare, and most importantly, alive. Despite her old desire for revenge, she shows mercy; despite her old desire to reject ancestry/tradition, she takes in her mother’s essence. The only reason why Ragyou dies is because she commits suicide. She wholly believed in domination over the world, but also wholly refused submission to Ryuuko’s terms by deciding to die on her own terms; she had no in-between.

    In the end, the scissor blades were useless against Ragyou; they left not a scratch. But they were never the ultimate weapon Isshin had designed: that was Senketsu (one of the characters directly states this). In order for Ryuuko to fully unlock the power of Senketsu, she had to accept him in mind, body, and soul. As a natural rebel it took Ryuuko a long time to understand the power of acceptance, and the steps to reach that goal were many: accepting a new friendship, accepting a new household, accepting Senketsu, accepting her past, accepting the forces of dominance and submission, and accepting her family.

    And on that last point, I want to talk about the story element that best shows Ryuuko’s power of acceptance: the symbolism of blood. Senketsu, Junketsu, and (presumably) all the other Life Fiber clothing require blood from their host to work, and this way the relationship between clothing and human is symbiotic (not counting those cases where the humans were merely consumed). During the time Ryuuko is controlled by Junketsu, both Mako (Ryuuko’s “sister” as an adopted member of the Mankanshoku family) and Satsuki (Ryuuko’s blood sister) wear Senketsu (Ryuuko’s best friend, according to Mako) and try to use its power to free Ryuuko. In using Senketsu they both infuse the clothing with their blood, a fact that, interestingly, is explicitly mentioned by Ryuuko soon before fighting Ragyou atop her aircraft. Satsuki also mentions in return that she feels Ryuuko’s blood within her own Junketsu, and that it also makes her feel fired up and ready to fight with Ryuuko as a team. It is in this brief, yet powerful moment that we realize that Ryuuko has accepted Mako and Satsuki as her family.

    And as Ryuuko fights in the last fight, she fights against Ragyou, not her mother, for although Ragyou may be of the same blood and conposed of the same Life Fiber flesh, KLK emphasizes there is more to a mother than just biology. In possessing Mako and Satsuki’s blood, Ryuuko symbolically chooses to instead accept them as family, and, as the old saying goes, “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Rather than taking the easy choices forced by biology (becoming a Life Fiber monster and destroying humanity or following Ragyou as a loyal daughter), Ryuuko makes the hard choices to accept various aspects of her life as her character developed.

    Sorry for the long post, but these are just points and questions I wanted to share with someone before the detaila of the show left my immediate memory. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about the scissors, or more about what you thought about the blood motif (I read your other posts, but I may have missed some points); I’m also open to other interesting articles you’ve found on the subject (I haven’t checked the list you compiled on this post yet… ). Or, especially since your post is over three years old and possibly out of your memory, feel free to just read and move on without a word. I’m happy I could at least flex my writing and analytical muscles. Thanks for reading this far though.

    P. S. I love your tags!

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