Is there a theme to all this craziness?
Ten episodes into its run, has KILL la KILL become any easier to define as a series or find an underlying theme? Of course, it is a no brainer to describe the show as riotously entertaining, but finding other labels and themes for the show is a decidedly more difficult exercise.
At its core, KILL la KILL’s formula is unapologetically uncomplicated. It is a battle shounen with boatloads of fanservice, not too dissimilar to the popular series found in the pages of Weekly Shounen Jump. Unlike them, KLK so far has not padded its battles and fanservice with a grandiose plot filled with messages, morals, and themes, or with characters espousing complicated ideologies and giving even more complicated monologues. It is a simple and straightforward plot filled with simple and straightforward characters spouting – you guessed it – simple and straightforward lines. Through ten episodes, KLK fully embraces the idea that all readers really want from their battle shounen are battles, fanservice, more battles, more fanservice, and a barebones plot to tie it all together. And judging from the immense popularity that the series has enjoyed thus far, the people over at Trigger appear to know a thing or two about appealing to the masses.
For all intents and purposes then, is KILL la KILL just a show that lacks an underlying theme and so can be easily described by a pair of loathed and loaded words, mindless and meaningless? Or perhaps underneath all of the style is some substance as well, with a popular theory floating around suggesting that that KLK’s theme is one of female empowerment and the male gaze. However, this theory was formed only after three or four episodes had aired, so it is worth looking at how the theory holds up after ten episodes.
To sum up this theory (which can be seen in its entirety here), KILL la KILL is a portrayal of “the struggles women face as they mature”, told through a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist rather than the ubiquitous male leads of other shounen series, and central to this theory are the Godrobes and their effects on the two females who wear them, such as the “male gaze” that results. The theory’s ideas on the Godrobes and the male gaze are interesting but not as fully developed as they could be, so I will attempt to provide additional analysis.
Godrobes in their normal state are for the most part, quite par for the course when it comes to sailor-style school uniforms. Senketsu does have the exposed midriff and Junketsu has a more ornamental appearance than most uniforms, but neither one goes very far towards objectifying or sexualizing their wearers. For all intents and purposes, the Godrobes in their normal state are just utilitarian items of clothing. However, when given an offering of blood from the wearer of a Godrobe, it undergoes a drastic transformation that endows its wearer with fantastic powers also while hyper-sexualizing them. In essence, a Godrobe loses its utility as clothing in the traditional sense, but gains the utility of providing its wearers with superhuman powers and abilities. The comparisons to puberty are easy to make: prepubescent girls, who are traditionally (and hopefully) considered anything but sexualized, undergo puberty which transforms their body into a form that our society and culture increasingly sexualizes and objectifies.
It is also worth noting that so far, while all other uniforms made from Life Fibers are worn by both sexes, only the Godrobes are worn by females – both current and in the past (as mentioned by Kinagase Tsumugu). Even though all these uniforms require blood offerings, none come to mind that transform their appearance in a way that sexualizes them like the Godrobes do. The closest would be Gamagoori Ira’s Shackle/Scourge Regalia, and even then, its sexualization comes not from exposing body parts and objectifying its wearer, but from S&M imagery. Given what we know about Godrobes so far (limited number, limited to females, similar hyper-sexual transformations), it’s not too far of a stretch to think of their function in KILL la KILL is to portray the coming-of-age story and female struggles that the theory posits.
At the very minimum, Godrobes in their transformed state can be likened to when females confront their newfound sexuality, post puberty. It then follows that a possible underlying theme of KILL la KILL is empowerment through the acceptance of sexuality. Several events in the plot appear to support this theme. Satsuki accepts her newfound sexuality early on in episode three, granting her additional powers and abilities, as does Ryuuko soon after. The same could be said to be true for Gamagoori Ira’s masochism and the powers that came from his acceptance. Ryuuko seeing Senketsu as more than a plain old item of clothing and then forming a bond with him in episode five could also be an example of her acceptance of her sexuality.
Yet there are many events in the plot that don’t develop the theme at all or require more of a stretch to make them fit the theme. Episode four’s romp through the obstacle course barely featured Senketsu and instead was most likely KILL la KILL parodying the old shounen trope of a main character having to fight without their most relied upon powers/weapons. The rise and fall of the Mankanshoku clan in episode seven was similarly a parody of the common shounen coming-of-age trope of realizing the value of nakama and/or family.
There are also interpretations that require a lot of stretching with regards to Nudist Beach as well. For example, the name Nudist Beach could be an allusion to the ideal that the group is trying to achieve, which is one where everyone is naked and there would no longer be hyper-sexuality from revealing uniforms, and probably not a male gaze either. At the very least, the organization’s name does explain why Mikisugi Aikuro is prone to stripping. And what can be made of his fellow Nudist Beach agent, Tsumugu? Could his fear of Senketsu going out of control be interpreted as a fear of overt sexuality running rampant and unchecked? Or does Tsumugu merely serve the role as KILL la KILL’s “anti-magic” trope?
Ryuuko’s battle with Sanageyama Uzu in episode six also doesn’t appear to be related empowerment and sexuality, but it can be argued that his choice to sew shut his eyes and gaining powers as a result is KLK’s portrayal of what would happen if there were no male gaze. Speaking of “male gaze”, which was mentioned in the original theory, it is somewhat of a complicated concept that can easily be misunderstood. From as far as I can tell, it refers to the way that many works of media, from advertisements to films and television shows, are framed in a way to appeal to men by objectifying women (focusing on body parts such as breasts and derrieres). Further information on the male gaze can be found in these links: Wikipedia, Feminism 101, and TV Tropes.
It is obvious that with such a gratuitous amount of fanservice in KILL la KILL, the fanservice is a clear example of the male gaze in action. Within the show itself however, examples aren’t as clear. Probably the best representation of the male gaze are the male members of the Mankanshoku family, who probably lose a hospital’s worth of blood every time Ryuuko reveals more than a centimeter of skin than usual. They go out of their way to objectify her, and oftentimes completely lose track of whatever they are doing as a result of their male gaze. So while the case can be made that KLK is acknowledging the male gaze within the show itself, the argument is much weaker for the male gaze in the show being used to support an underlying theme of acceptance and empowerment, as was suggested by the original theory. Ryuuko may be accepting the sexuality that results from her Godrobe, but she is definitely not accepting the inevitable objectification as well.
After this further analysis of the original theory, it seems that there is an underlying theme that is taking shape through ten episodes, one of sexuality and acceptance, and likely empowerment as well. That said, it is a rudimentary theme at best, since not much depth to it has been developed by the show. For one, the theme has not been addressed with much consistency, although this might change with the Nudist Beach story picking up steam.
In any case, theme or no theme, there’s no denying that KLK has been one of the most consistently entertaining shows of the season. Ryuuko’s line in episode ten, “Make a crazy attack even crazier, and it’ll hit,” is a perfectly apt description of what Trigger is doing with KILL la KILL. They have made already crazy shounen action and fanservice even crazier, and as a result, made the show a veritable hit. Having an underlying theme to all this craziness would just be icing on the cake.