Kill la Kill is a bizarre combination of disparate elements. It follows the genre expectations of Shonen manga, with semi-constant fighting, growing friendships, and that strange running theme of turning one’s previously defeated foes into new allies, but it replaces the normally male leads with female ones and does the same for many of the villains as well. Despite this refreshing gender-reversal, the show still drips with male gaze and fan service; there are a few moments where the show mentions how ridiculous this is (as the protagonist rages against the stupidity of her outfit), but Kill la Kill still falls into the same visual patterns and doesn’t really change that paradigm.
Kill la Kill (careful, spoilers) excels at the absurd, as one might expect from the same creative directors who brought us Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and offers a look at fascism and fashion. Or maybe it’s fascism by means of fashion? The story begins as one young woman’s quest to avenge her father’s murder, as she sets herself against the leader of Honnouji Academy, whom she suspects of having arranged his death. This school is a fascist dictatorship in which power-augmenting school uniforms are used both as a reward and as a means of control. Things only get weirder from there. I think it’s quite enjoyable in the end, but you should probably read at least some of my mixed feelings below.
Before I go any further, I should warn you: there’s an early scene in which the protagonist is assaulted by newly found sentient clothing. I’m not saying this to show off how crazy the show is. Even though there’s no explicitly sexual content to the scene, it’s definitely nonconsensual and made me deeply uncomfortable even as I gaped in shock at how ridiculous the idea of it was. Looking back, I suppose I can see how it fits with all of the later themes of the show, and I can even accept that there is some merit to including it, but I thought you should know. Though I like it as a whole there are parts of this show which are very uncomfortable.*
I feel that I should give credit to the show’s creators for bringing up the problematic nature of ridiculous fan service and absurdly scanty battle-clothes, but I don’t think I can go much further than that on that front; despite mentioning the problem, they’re perfectly happy to leave it a central place in their setting. I’m glad that at least someone in anime is willing to have characters who are perfectly aware of how stupidly inadequate fan-service-oriented women’s combat uniforms are. I just wish that they could do more than mention it and then continue to exploit it relentlessly.
On the plus side, everyone who likes seeing scantily clad men will also find some good eye-candy in this show. While the mostly naked men aren’t anywhere near as frequent as the scantily clad female characters, they are a consistently recurring theme. I can’t say that their presence magically makes all the previous blatant fan service totally ok, but I’m far more willing to accept the fan service when it clearly goes both ways. Without spoiling too much, I think I can also say that this is the only setting I’ve seen in which much of the fan service has deeper in-setting rationalizations that more or less explain why you get to see so much skin.
I know I mentioned earlier that this is basically a Shonen genre adventure with all-female leads, but I didn’t mention one of the fascinating corollaries: Kill la Kill passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. You routinely have scenes in which two female characters talk with each other about the villainess, for example, which is nearly unheard of for this genre. Given that the Shonen genre is generally the province of young boys, I’m pretty happy with this state of things.
So, in conclusion? I think Kill la Kill is an over-the-top, absurd, and rather enjoyable show. Where Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann felt like an enthusiastic parody of the Shonen genre that was still definitely in the genre, Kill la Kill feels like a successful experiment in expanding the range of the Shonen genre to include female protagonists and main supporting characters. I don’t think it accomplishes all that much in the way of changing the conversation around fan service and scanty fighting uniforms, but it does (eventually) engage in equal opportunity fan service with great aplomb. Better yet, it manages to be a good show despite its uncomfortable moments. There’s also more to be said about the amalgamation of fashion and fascism, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Speaking of not ruining anything for you, if you do watch the show be sure not to skip through the end credits. You’ll miss a considerable number of small details if you do.
*I’m not talking about Gamagoori