I haven’t been shy of admitting to my kinky side online, but it’s been something that I’ve grappled with in my life for years. To the point where I renounced it entirely earlier this year. Until I saw this anime called Kill la Kill, a show I really got into and I think I know why: it is pure joyous kink. It also got me thinking about why its fetish elements work, about depictions of rape in media, and of my own difficult history involving both. It’s a brilliant show well worth discussing that’s rekindled something within me.
Standard NSFW and mild-spoilers disclaimer applies. We’ll also be covering rape and incest if that bothers you.
The above is four minutes of some of the finest introduction I’ve ever seen in a show.
Kill la Kill is both a satire of ‘magical girl’ anime, and the greatest ‘magical girl’ anime in creation. The show (produced by anime studio Trigger) revolves around Ryuko Matoi, a high school student (because of course she is) who transfers to Honnouji Academy to uncover the identity of her father’s killer. Honnouji Academy is located on top of a man-made private mountain in Tokyo Bay owned by the Kiryuin family. The only clue Ryuko has is one-half of a giant scissor she weilds as a sword. The entire social order of the island is dictated by Satsuki Kiryuin, the student council president. As with all anime, education is an afterthought because it’s hard to care about class when the school uniform gives you super powers. Ryuko is determined to get answers from Satsuki, but quickly finds herself beaten and bloody. Upon returning to her destroyed home her blood drips onto a sentient school uniform, who awakens and um… ‘partners with’ Ryuko so he can drink her blood. In the process he gives Ryuko access to abilities that will give her a fighting chance at attending school; the catch being that the uniform (named Senketsu, he’s adorable) transforms into this:
Part of Kill la Kill’s satire is that its characters are fully aware of what they’re wearing. When Ryuko reveales herself after ‘synchronizing’ with Seketsu her opponent wonders if it’s a ploy, to “distract me with your sexiness”. Ryuko is red with embarrassment, says she had no choice to wear this, and the opening episodes are an exercise in embracing humiliation. Ryuko and Senketsu’s relationship is a focal point of the series, and the adorable ‘clothes demon’ (what I called him before I could remember his name) is at the centre of some bewilderingly heartwarming moments. We learn about their personalities, desires, a shared bond with Ryuko’s father, as the two must learn to be a team in order to achieve their goals.
A new friend assumes that Ryuko is an exhibitionist, but instead of judging her she makes an impassioned speech to the entire student body that they should respect Ryuko’s desire to dress like a whore. In fact, this friend is one of the most accepting and non-judgmental characters you’ll ever find, and her loving family takes Ryuko in and treats her like one of their own (except when she’s bathing). This is where the satire of magical girl tropes meets with some heartwarming elements, where Ryuko starts forging bonds she’s missed her whole life.
As gratuitous as is Kill la Kill’s kink, it’s so naturally a part of the show that it slipped by my defenses. Like Kushiel’s Dart (a novel by Jacqueline Carey), the BDSM aspects of this show are so integrated that they are easily accepted as part of the whole. Even as Ryuko is aware of how she looks wearing Senketsu, it has a purpose and place within the show’s world. You accept it because it’s but one thread in an absurdly kinky tapestry. Contrast this with the game Bayonetta, which was never particularly interesting because it almost seemed desperate to proclaim its fetishism. It’s gratuitous solely for the sake of being gratuitous. Showcase’s Lost Girl is perhaps a better example, where the kink is solely used as a selling point; emphasized and shoehorned in. This led to an embarrassing moment when a sex-obsessed Succubus called a man a ‘pervert’ for enjoying bondage.
There is a reason for Senketsu drinking Ryuko’s blood, everything Gamagori is and does, fibers that can control people’s minds, and Ragyo’s approach to familial relations. All of which are related to the plot rather than being a sideshow- a shallow hook for attention.
Everything may be dialed to eleven but everything has its place, and this makes Kill la Kill a more interesting work. Although I’ll never argue that fan service in the name of: ‘Hot women fighting each other in fetish gear is awesome!’ isn’t a part of the show’s design. Kill la Kill has a lot to say, but it also enjoys the hell out of bodies on display. However that display allows us to (for example) explore Ryuko and Senketsu’s relationship as a whole; one influenced by exhibitionism and blood fetishism, but where Ryuko learns to embrace and love Senketsu’s presence and how he makes her feel. It may not have been what she was expecting, but she’s arguably the better for it. All the while her friendships with people blossom: she finds family, learns about her past and herself, and overcomes a helluva lot of past and present trauma. For Ryuko the kink becomes an aspect of herself, but only one aspect of her self among many that enhances the whole without becoming it. This arguably is how people experience BDSM themselves, albeit obviously in different ways… The world is not awesome enough to have high schools like Honnouji Academy.
Even better was the moment when watching Kill la Kill felt like Trigger got ahold of a list of my fetishes, and made a show out of all of them. To the point that seemed that every episode was going down that list checking them off one by one. Blood fetishism, masochism, school uniforms, maternal domination, mind control, rape, the list goes on.
Masochism is particularly well handled. Gamagori’s is interesting because he’s a very powerful man in a submissive position, both aspects enhanced by his nature. Formerly a student council president when he was in junior high, Gamagori now devouts himself to being ‘Lady Satsuki’s impenetrable shield’. He’s even the chair of the Disciplinary Committee and uses a pair of whips to discipline students. Yet his Goku Uniform is the Shackle/ Scourge regalia. While using the Shackle form, he delights in the pain people cause him and sees it as his duty to take it, begging for more- which is how most masochism is portrayed, before establishing dominance over his opponents in spectacular fashion (with about twenty barbed bullwhips). Gamagori’s masochism is an asset, making him the second masochist in fiction I’ve seen to have this trait. In a prior article on Final Fantasy XIII, I wondered if Lightning was a service submissive, someone quite powerful but desires to be at someone’s command. Gamagori fits this description far better than Light ever could. He carries himself with pride and embraces his nature. He is also an example of how masochism may make you stronger: he’s able to overcome intense opposition because of his pain tolerance, and in carrying out Satsuki’s will he’s a highly respected leader in his own right. I feel good for the guy, as he gets to enjoy his nature while putting it to good use. That good use even includes torturing Ryuko, given that he’s responsible for knocking Ryuko down and flogging her ass. I wholeheartedly endorse that scene, and it’s the moment which began to remind me of the good times, and made me miss them.
Update Dec 10, 2014: Seriously, Episode 9 (‘A Once in a Lifetime Chance’) is almost entirely hardcore BDSM. I could base a whole article off of those 22 minutes. After re-watching it, I might have to sometime.
Update Apr 27, 2015: Someone already wrote it! This article’s a wonderful breakdown of Episode 9’s BDSM elements, as well as the psychology behind Gamagori and Satsuki’s character.
Earlier I said Senketsu ‘partnered with’ Ryuko, because the scene plays out like this:
Kill la Kill has been heavily criticized for its depictions of rape. Senketsu forces himself on Ryuko, and that in order to for her to do anything she needs to submit to being symbolically sexually assaulted day after day. I won’t debate that, because that’s what it is, but I don’t hate this scene- in fact I love it. Kink can involve a lot of dark fantasies, rape being one of them; where the idea of having someone force themselves on you, take what they want, and perhaps leave you even enjoying it a on a level is very prevalent. Ryuko essentially climaxes after Senketsu meets/ forces himself on her. I used to be in a sexually abusive relationship, and for years afterwards suffered PTSD and couldn’t tolerate seeing anything related to rape. Now that I’ve recovered I find I seek out rape fantasies. Emphasis on ‘fantasy’, but it’s one that’s become very powerful. Watching Kill la Kill is like watching a damn good rape fantasy. (Trigger is welcome to use that quote as part of their marketing material) The sequence where Ryuko transforms/ syncronizes with Senketsu, and her blood is drawn before being put in that outfit is on its own quite appealing- but mix in knowing what’s going on, how their bodies become one as Senketsu feeds off of and humiliates her… It’s hot as hell.
However it’s not at all mean spirited. Ryuko and Senketsu do become close friends, he’s hardly predatory. This might make the fantasy more enjoyable, in that they come to sympathize with each other- and you even make a life-long friend out of the ordeal. Perhaps that scene replaced a lot of the horror with something kinder; while I want to butcher the man who raped me, the fantasy of forging a bond like Ryuko does with Senketsu appeals. Rape fantasies vary wildly between people, but I like that touch. By the end the two of them are pals, and arguably with Ryuko embracing Senketsu the humiliation and sexual assault undertones drop off a ways through the show.
Episode five (appropriately named ‘Trigger’) features a man traveling to Honnouji Academy in order to destroy Senketsu. When he tracks Ryuko down, he overpowers her and demands that she take off her clothes.
Some people see this as promoting ‘rape culture’ (an irrelevant and asinine concept). I’m not going to deny the sexual assault element; only that this show, which is clearly a kinky absurdest fantasy, presents it in the context of just that: a kinky absurdest fantasy. We are not dealing with or glorifying the real evil that real-life rapists enact, nor is this in any way an examination of Ryuko picking up the pieces of her life after the fact. Context is everything. Images of sexual assault are not inherently evil and a show may use them to various effects. Kill la Kill’s fantasy plays with subjects a little dark, but it hardly condones it. I have a lot to say on the discourse around ‘rape culture’ and other radical feminist concepts (and the movement in general), and will get into more detail in another article. For now I am not arguing “It’s a cartoon, get over it”, rather that Kill la Kill is more interested in portraying a sexy taboo fantasy, or at least giving its audience a taste of one.
Speaking of taboo fantasy, let’s talk incest! Kill la Kill might be the first show I’ve seen where basically all outright sexual contact happens between blood relatives. Ragyo and Satsuki in ‘that scene’ are the best example. The scene where there is zero ambiguity about Ragyo laying with her daughter and giving her an orgasm. There’s two sides to this one. First, the sultry and confident maternal figure playing with her daughter fantasy is quite common. The second side is that this could be considered abuse, and helps explain Satsuki’s motivations a few episodes afterwards. Satsuki does come away hurt from this, and it implies a long history of abuse, but the question is if shows like this are allowed to explore themes of this sort. In this context, I say indulge all you like. While the theme of sexual assault is heavier than in Ryuko’s case it serves to give the villainess a sadistic edge, and provides motivation and backstory for a principal character. For Satsuki, it creates a desire and hurt surrounding family that compliments Ryuko’s experiences. Ragyo’s actions aren’t glorified, she’s clearly fucking evil, yet you can enjoy watching it. It’s a bizarre element that does inform us of the trauma Satsuki endures, while being a curious glimpse into incestuous fantasy.
That said, I don’t want to underplay the trauma Satsuki faces. In fact, watching her enact revenge that had been a lifetime in the making- and just seeing the look of absolute fury and hate on her face… It was cathartic. For someone who feels like she’s spent the last five years of her life training for a fight against her abuser, that’s likely not coming… Episode 18: Goddamn did it feel good to watch Satsuki take action against Ragyo- and made what happened after so crushing. While I’m talking about rape fantasies and incest, and even a level of enjoyment from engaging with those fantasies- I must affirm how much Kill la Kill nailed Satsuki’s motivation, and how it was treated with the respect that it deserved.
Still, part what makes BDSM so appealing is because you can explore fantasies that otherwise would be monstrous acts. It’s an environment that doesn’t condone rape, but where many are happy to explore it in a consensual context; for sexual thrills, or a way to process past experiences. For me, I love this show because it helps twist my trauma into something positive that I can take moving forward. To see that kind of abuse, but without the man who did it, without the place and way it happened, is oddly satisfying. Real abuse like that and what happened to me will never be enjoyed or accepted, but there’s a separation of good and evil that occurs when experiencing fantasies like that.
Ragyo’s also involved in (relatively) more conventional/ accepted kinks. Bondage is a big one from the half-way point on, but more interesting is the mind control. I’ve always had a fetish for it, but it’s likely one I’ve talked about the least. Honestly I feel ashamed of this one more than anything else, and despite it being number one on my list, I have to work to accept it. So seeing Ragyo dominate Ryuko’s will in a couple ways was a nice treat. This show features a maternal domme-type reaching into the mind of a young girl and manipulating her memories to suit an end. There’s something enrapturing about knowing that no matter how strong you are, or how hard you fight, you will always be at the mercy of your mind. Especially when someone reaches in there and changes it.
Kill la Kill begins with Satsuki echoing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Freedom is slavery.” It’s a common but often accurate belief that part of why BDSM appeals is because normally powerful people want to submit. Having your will dominated is the ultimate surrender, and some people do find it quite liberating- to be at another’s whim is to be free of anxiety of opinion, guilt, shame, and to be wanted. To be free and powerful is to be subject to endless decision and judgement. Morris Berman’s book Dark Ages America describes that a society of unlimited choice ultimately enslaves us:
“…the promise of freedom in America is precisely to be liberated from the past. Not for Americans the suffocating restrictions of class, history, religion, and tradition, but rather the absolute weightlessness of choice. This remains the lure of America for many traditional cultures, or at least for many individuals in those cultures: the world of limitless possibilities. The irony for Americans, however, is that in the fullness of time, the limitless possibilities and the absolute weightlessness of choice became as suffocating as the social restrictions of the Old World. American citizens cannot choose not to participate in the utterly fluid, high-pressure society that the United States has become. Liquid modernity is, in short, quite rigid: a world of compulsive self-determination. But since it is norms that make life possible, when normlessness becomes the norm, the social order turns into a hall of mirrors. This way of life, says Bauman, may prove to be the greatest discontinuity in human history.” (15).
While this doesn’t address BDSM and mind control fetishism directly, it’s interesting to consider the freedom that comes when someone else is in absolute command of your being. The show’s fixation on uniforms and fashion (and how that word sounds similar to fascism in Japanese) is another hint at mind control themes. Uniforms bring the freedom that comes when you don’t have to worry about what to wear in the morning. I honestly miss having a school uniform for that reason, but generally wear the same thing every day anyways.
Ragyo manipulating Ryuko by filling her mind with memories of a touching childhood was also a wonderful way to emphasize how much Ryuko longed for one. There’s a few beautiful sequences two-thirds in that revolve around the familial void in Ryuko’s life and that mind control is an interesting part of it.
I also like how pervasive kink is in Kill la Kill’s fandom. From casually (2+ hour stretches) browsing Tumblr and Ao3, the BDSM undertones were far more present than in other fandoms. It isn’t surprising, but I like seeing a lot of Ryuko/ Satsuki work embody some D/s power dynamics. Not to say that everyone in the fandom is into kink, but the bleedthrough is quite something, and has produced some wonderful stuff.
Kill la Kill has this infectious joy which pervades even its darkest scenes. Surprisingly heart-warming and fun, the show knows that hot girls (and guys) doing magical girl transformations, in kinky outfits, before engaging in epic bloody physics-defying battles are fucking awesome. All this alongside many characters and situations that I didn’t want to spoil here. Kill la Kill’s sincerity allows for it to punctuate moments of joy, despair, love and loss, far better than ‘gritty and mature’/ ‘grimdark’ fare because it never pretends to be something it’s not, which shows a level of respect for its audience. It’s more engaging to watch something where the creators want to share what they love, rather than one where they merely show you what you love.
It was because of this that when Gamagori had Ryuko bent over and was flogging her ass that I thought back to my own masochism, and missed it. After swearing it off I missed having needles pierce my chest, and standing in front of a crowd in a slutty leather outfit, and being tied down, and slapped across the face, and enduring crack after crack of a cane across my ass.
Kill la Kill is kink in a pure form: the pageantry and pain, without baggage. I was reminded of how I felt while being in a dungeon, dressed up (down) and existing in a place where my masochism was embraced. Those experiences were good things, and Kill la Kill managed to sever and liberate those experiences from the abuse surrounding them. For a moment, the man I was with wasn’t present, only the exhibitionist thrill of being tortured in front of a crowd. Likewise, pain existed without the heartache, and while my relationship with a dominatrix may have been difficult and complex (she was also my therapist at the time), there were positive elements to it. Kill la Kill helped rekindle my passion for BDSM, a flame that I might struggle to accept but would never want to see snuffed out.
Trunchbull on Ao3 wrote a Ryuko/Senketsu slashfic ‘Thread Loose’, and it’s one of the hottest things I’ve read in recent memory. They also wrote a brief fic ‘Ragyo’s New Daughter’ which scratches my mind control fetish itch like nothing else. This is the first time I’ve seen someone not only touch on my top fetishes, but hit them hard and with nuance. Currently gathering the courage to message them saying: “You say you have some strange fetishes, but they’re awesome, and now I know I’m not the only person who has them!” They’re way more talented than me, go read their stuff.
A lot has been written on Kill la Kill’s themes. While I focused on BDSM, there’s far more going on and many different interpretations to be made. A good place to start is this article on The Daily Dot, which summarizes some of the controversies and discourse around the show.
I watched ‘Kill la Kill’ on Crunchyroll, but I’m certain it’s posted on other sites of that kind.