Kill la Kill = Exploitation + Empowerment?

Kill la Kill for all of its visual creativity is a pretty controversial show, if only for its main heroine’s outfit and how it’s used in the series.  Whether Ryuko’s uniform (or lack thereof) is a symbol of feminine power or yet another case of women being objectified in media is the point of contention. I find that it can be difficult to navigate the intersection between “exploitation” and “empowerment” in Kill la Kill, partly because when we think of those ideas we usually find them mutually exclusive to the extent that one can only grow at the expense of the other, whereas I actually believe Kill la Kill is honestly and genuinely trying to do both at once.

Kamui_Senketsu

One of the key examples of this duality is in Ryuko’s transformation sequence, which ends in the pose shown above. Her uniform is ridiculously skimpy, but her actual stance exudes power and confidence, sharing more in common with the type of posing done by a tokusatsu hero rather than the almost fashion model-esque poses common to magical girl shows (and also JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). It’s showing her body off to the world at the same time it shows off her will and determination.

Outside of Kill la Kill, of all the series I’ve seen which attempt this combination the one that tries the hardest is probably Shinkon Gattai Godannar. There, the fanservice is arguably more extreme and pretty impossible to avoid in its own right, but I find that its ideas and themes resonate with a desire for women to be the heroes of their stories. With either Kill la Kill or Godannar, it’s possible to “look past” the sexualization (or not), but neither the image of exploitation nor empowerment are necessarily merely in service to the other, as if one is an “excuse” and the other is the underlying true meaning.

It’s easy to think of the people who made Kill la Kill as perverts, and it’s maybe even true, but I wonder if the show is actually saying something along the lines of, “Hey, perverts can be feminists too!” Whether this approach is okay or not is of course still up for debate, and differs from show to show, or perhaps even episode to episode. Personally, I’m pretty okay with it but recognize the potential, positive or negative, in combining this imagery in that it can be appropriate and used according to the viewer’s wishes.

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9 thoughts on “Kill la Kill = Exploitation + Empowerment?

  1. Although there may be such mutual extent to Sanketsu’s pretense, We should think about the public who watch the show. How many people do you think that see Ruyko on that outfit thinking of the battles and her breasts/ass; and how many people (woman, or the ones who identify with femininity itself) do you think that see her thinking of their deepest and prettier power being emphasized? I guess you got it: it’s difficult for a woman that has proud of her femininity to accept something most of people watch just for the funny part without getting the sexist (and there are such jokes) stuff. Being ambiguous doesn’t make it any better. The ‘mahou shoujo magic’ that could be there isn’t trying to reach – or is really failing – the very good sales Ryuko and Satsuki’s figures will get.

    Topics apart; it doesn’t make the show worst.

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  2. I think the only time exploitation as empowerment has worked is with Bayonetta, she really owns her sexuality and knows how to use it.

    Kill la Kill doesn’t feel like it’s trying to empower Ryuko, it’s more just that it’s all the stuff the people at Trigger likes mixed together: they like sexy girls, they like transformation, they like big bombastic fights and so on.

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  3. It’s an interesting point that you bring up magical girl shows as a comparison. I’d wonder which of the transformation scenes are more feminist-empowering: Kill la Kill or Sailor Moon? Couldn’t you argue that they’re both equally legitimate, one going down the path of cutesy elegance and the other going for bold and brash exhibitionism (seems, by the dialogue, to be very anti slut-shaming)? Perhaps you could even take issue with the premise of “transformation” itself. This is a really fascinating subject, and I think Kill la Kill adds something wonderfully interesting to the mix in discussing feminism and anime.

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  4. I’ve increasingly come to think that “objectification” is a hollow claim, a way of shutting up opponents rather than a meaningful critique. Sex is a BIG part of most life on this planet, and seeing as we are mammals and not bacteria it’s a very big part of human life. So why is a sexy outfit bad, and why should being sexual be in conflict with being powerful? I’m starting to just think that the lingering traces of Victorianism have reassembled themselves in “feminist” garb.

    That said, I think Waffles is right, Trigger is just putting all the things they like together. I don’t think they’re purposefully trying to make a “empowered” or “exploited” character, they just want a tough, powerful, and sexy girl. And the sexiness feels like seasoning, I don’t really see a romance angle, so as powerful as it is there isn’t much substance. Panty and Stocking put it right in the center of the plot, in a really epic fashion in the last few episodes.

    I think a much more interesting issue is the issue of character archetypes in anime, of which the tough girl is one (and rarely is shown in any sort of serious romantic light). I would say the overly subserviant version of the “yamato nadeshiko” archetype is far, far more poisonous than any outfit, even one as extreme as Ryuko’s.

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  5. It’s an interesting thought. My gut feeling is that Kill la Kill is not really trying to objectify women, but rather parody the common attempt to do that in anime and transform it into something else. One thing that’s unique about Kill la Kill is that at the beginning Ryuko is embarrassed by Senketsu’s “true form” but in order for her to utilize all of Senketsu’s power, she has to own up to the outfit and really wear it. I think the point in the anime where this message truly started to come across was the first battle between Ryuko and Kiryuin. Ryuko doesn’t understand why Kiryuin is so complacent about the Kamui’s obvious sexiness, but Kiryuin just throws it back in her face. Kiryuin is more powerful because she feels no shame about her body being exposed (why should she? why should her own body be embarrassing?). Where most people would consider it a weakness, she turns it into a source of power. I love Kiryuin’s character, her strength, her femininity, her total confidence. It’s unusual to see a woman so in control of herself and in a position of power like she is. And the thing is, at this point in the series, the sexiness is not a point of weakness for Ryuko, nor does she feel ashamed about her own body anymore, so I definitely think that comes into play as well. I mean, obviously the exposure does operate as fanservice, but I think Trigger has an ulterior motive in using it.

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  6. partly because when we think of those ideas we usually find them mutually exclusive to the extent that one can only grow at the expense of the other

    I find this to be more of a problem than Kill la Kill. Partly because you are applying something that is perhaps more suited to describe, say, the role of a sex worker, versus an anime about, say, a sexy person, where things don’t quite play out the same way.

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  7. Japanese people dont have the concept of Explotaition or Empowerment we have, Its not rooted in their culture like It is in ours. A western studio would never had done something like Kill la Kill

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

  9. I never knew why, but I don’t care about Ryuko’s boobs being completely exposed, as in other anime. Now, I think it’s her overall design that makes me not pay attention to that and instead focus on everything else. She’s so cool, she’s so tough, that it’s as if her being essentially naked doesn’t mean that it’s to provide mindless fanservice.

    The fact that men often get undressed in this anime too certainly helped to make me love this series, of course.

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