16 April 2014

inspirations: kill la kill, state shinto, and the reinvention of divine imagery

Courtesy of Project-ICICLE
So this is a huge "rough cut." People who have seen my panels over the past month on Kill la Kill and the Transformation of Japanese Legend have been asking a lot about how that panel came into being. Well, this might be the first instance of me collecting my ideas, long before I even submitted it to Anime Boston, or began mapping the themes out for later use. It's still rough, written right after I watched episode 12 for the first time, before the third narrative slapped me upside the head, or my excitement into the series reached fever pitch. A collection of IDEAS, less one of practical explanation. 

This rumination is why I fell in love with the series, and why I adore Kiryuuin Satsuki as a character, and as a representation of a tumultuous time in Japanese history. 


As I’ve previously written, this past year will go down as a banner year for Shinto themed anime. From re-envisioning of classical myths, to fox spirits and tanuki running wild, fans and viewers curious about the nature of Japanese traditions and folklore have have a lot to choose from. But as the year winds down, and fans begin to look to the new year and new ideas, one more series debuted over the fall that might not appear to have much in the way of classical Shinto, but shares enough themes and situations to be a worthy exploration of some of the “darker times” that faith has gone through. 

Kill la Kill is one of those shows that remind 90s/00s anime fans why they got into the medium in the first place. It’s over the top, practically exhibitionist fun with little need for deep plotting, and a whole lot of explosions, skimpy outfits, and laughably horrible antagonists. Scissor blade swords, people losing the will to fight alongside their clothes, and arrogant student councillors lording their power over all the “lesser folk”- done up with style and panache by the same design team responsible for “Gurren Lagann.” What’s not to love about it? AND it’s also one of the best “f*** you” series of all time! 

Confused as to that last part? Let me explain a little bit. This will require a bit of a history lesson, so bear with me, I will try to keep this as brief as possible.

People familiar with 19th century Japanese history, be it through classes, jidaigeki films, or Rurouni Kenshin, are aware of the Meiji restoration. Thirteen years of bloody bakumatsu warfare, leading to the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate and the return of a government centered around the young Emperor Meiji. This time period is usually depicted artistically with sweeping idealogical battles, Western powers meddling in Japanese affairs, the introduction of “advanced technology” to the formerly feudal nation, and a breakdown of the “barriers” that the shoguns erected to keep Japan “strong.” As with any creative endeavors based on factual events, myths and exaggerations are a part of the storytelling, amplifying the contributions of some and marginalizing the limitations of others. 

A kami reclines
In addition to a massive change in social and economic policy, there was also a strong shift towards dispelling of superstitions and previously held folk beliefs, in favor of more scientific models of education and knowledge. Gone were the bureaus of exorcists dispelling demons and hostile magic. Gone was the fortune telling and divination that parents turned to when faced with an unruly child. Restricted were the practices of the miko and female mystics who spoke from esoteric traditions. Restricted also were the devout Buddhist shrines, falling victim to propaganda about the corruptive influences of the “Shogunate religion” and it’s role in weakening Japan over the two centuries of warrior class rule. 

What arose in its place was a new cult, built around something more than disjointed spirits and imported dogma. This new cult was centered around something as old as Japan itself, a native tradition that would at the same time elevate the nation out of regressive politics, and instill in it the fury of a galvanized Japanese people. This would be the resurgence of Shinto beliefs, long held at bay by powerful landowning families, and warrior-administrators. This was the deification of the Japanese Spirit. Gerald Figal might have put it best in his book “Civilization and Monsters,” when he said “Indeed the drive to forge a homogenous, national citizenry from disparate regional populations throughout the archipelago was accompanied by an effort to displace or identify diverse spirits with a Japanese Spirit...this Japanese Spirit was ultimately embodied by the newly constituted Emperor, a modernized supernatural being...The Meiji Emperor, who was a manifest deity, perhaps the most fantastic creature in all Japan.” (15)

As educational reforms and suppression policies stripped the formerly rich practitioners of folk and religious traditions of their status and influence, much of that same power flowed right back into the coffers of the Imperial throne. By harnessing the nationalistic spirit of Japan and magnifying/reinforcing it with neo-Confucian ideas, it allowed for a single, powerful cult to rise from the ashes of the former Shogunate, which in turn flowed through the physical and spiritual being of a man imbued with the power of the same sun goddess from which he was reputed to be a descendent. 

Fukuzawa Yukichi,
educational reformer
TL;DR- Out went the “quaint beliefs” and superstitions of the past centuries. In their place was a solid, highly regimented system of belief and practice, born out of the old Shinto and “shored up” with a healthy dose of neo-Confucian nationalism and bureaucratic administration that allowed for all the pieces to fall into their proper places. The aristocracy had their place at the top of the pyramid, radiating out a holy light bestowed upon them by virtue of their birth. Below them came the autocrats and the government administrators to keep the machine working properly, and at the bottom were the workers and commoners, who devoted their time and efforts to providing fuel and labor to make the massive machine run. 

State Shinto was a theocracy of both refinement and impeccable execution. It blew away any of the attempts made by Western religious institutions to control social and economic policy. It thrived off propaganda that emphasized the power and purity of both the Japanese nation, and its infallible Emperor at the top. it preached stability, honor, and glory for the nation of Japan as a whole, not for the individual who helped it achieve that goal. State Shinto was powerful, responsive, and completely in control...or as completely as was possible at the time. 

So why this history lesson, then, when I’m writing about an anime that debuted in Fall 2013, over a hundred and twenty years after the fact? State Shinto died off at the end of World War Two, when the Emperor Showa renounced his divine status and moved towards a democratic national policy. It’s been over 60 years since then as well, years full of diverse spiritual practices and freedom, and technological innovations far beyond what might have been attained had the Imperial Order maintained its positions. 

Simply put, Kill la Kill pokes fun at the idea of State Shinto, while incorporating elements of underdog stories and rebellion into a decidedly crazy (and for this fan, visually exciting) sequence of events. 

From the moment of its opening, it’s clear that Kill la Kill is more than an over-the-top anime. From the vivid squalor of the slum district, to the perpetual light of the sun surrounding a perfectly poised Kiryuuin Satuski standing above all in Honnouji Academy, the series smacks of the formerly advocated State Shinto philosophy. All below the radiant Satsuki (which is essentially everyone in the school- teacher, administrator, and student alike) must look up to her form, but cannot see her face, obscured by the blazing radiance of the sun itself. She is the final word on everything in their world, rewarding reverence, and controlling through fear. The images in those early scenes of the show align Satsuki with the power of the sun- glorious, mighty, and incredibly imposing. Satuski is more than just the student council president, she is the patron of the Ultima uniforms, the law and the order of the student body, and the vessel through which all policy and practice are dictated. She’s just a student, but she is the most powerful person in Honnouji, and everyone knows this. 

courtesy of AJ Martinsson
Lady Satsuki is one of the more interesting interpretations of Amaterasu to come along in recent memory. Unlike the playful hikikomori Sasami Tsukuyomi, or the metaphorical giant wolf of Okami, Satsuki embodies one of the lesser- aspects of the goddess- the authoritarian ruling from above. That she is beautiful is a given- Amaterasu is always depicted as a radiant being, just as the sun is radiant in the sky. But her position also implies a bit of cruelty. Like any maternal figure, she rewards compliance and excellence with gifts and a rare smile (well, maybe not Satsuki. Have we even seen her smile yet?). And she punishes disobedience with the coldest of efficiency. Failure means dismissal, which in turn forces her “children” to work harder to accomplish goals and earn her favor. When her order is threatened, be it by roving gangs or impudent transfer students, she draws her blade and cuts it down, maintaining order and keeping a peace among the populace. This is not a duty she enjoys per se, but one she has to execute, for the “greater good.” 

This vision of the autocratic kami folds itself into State Shinto, where she was the divine ancestor- the cold parental figure who was distant, but also widely respected. The Imperial Order, of which the incarnate Emperor was the pinnacle, must do what it must to keep Japan strong- it was a duty less than a privilege, and one that the commoner was expected to respect. In return, the Imperial family would provide the sacrifices and watch over the harvests, keeping the nation strong and maintaining centuries old traditions for the behalf of the entire nation. Which is ostensibly what Satsuki is supposed to be doing- uphold the glorious traditions on Honnouji Academy, and ensure that everything is operating smoothly. 

This has been her goal all along- to restore the once prestigious Academy to its former splendor...or at least how one reading of the show can view it. Whether or not Honnouji existed before Lady Satsuki cleared out the rabble has yet to be seen, but what can be inferred from the story as it is presented runs not too dissimilar from the Meiji period: gangs composed of fighters allied with the captain of the kendo club (samurai, much?) encounter Lady Satsuki and her supporters- all three of them. With a skill that belies human ability, this young upstart vanquishes all the rabble, and lays down their leader, when then spends his life attempting to match her in skill. This is all open to debate, but sounds eerily similar to how the “patriots” of the Meiji era swept away two centuries of rule by warrior-class rabble, who drove Japan backwards while hoarding their own power. It was not until the restoration of the Emperor, and by association, Amaterasu, did that former rabble be cleared away and replaced with a much older, much purer leadership that had Japan’s best interests in mind, rather than family goals and the accumulation of wealth and power. Satsuki’s defeat of the “warrior class” allows for her own order to ascend and ensure stability and a greater glory where one might have existed once, but not anymore. But as I said, that’s just one reading of it. 

Mori Arinori
Themes such as these were commonplace in the early years of educational reform- the government (and by extension, the Emperor himself, if common belief was to be taken literally) dictated what students learned, and that education was central to the elevation of status within Japan, and within the bureaucracy. This was hardly a Meiji-specific practice- as far back as the Heian period, education was a mighty force hovering above all other facets of life as the key to success- but it was only with the 1891 reforms of Mori Arinori that a standardized curriculum, based around science and the new cult, that established the academy as a powerful tool of Japanese nationalism. Students were taught sciences to increase their viability in the workforce, and were taught State theology which emphasized the honor and responsibility of using those skills for their Emperor’s benefit. 

Lady Satuski takes this idea to new heights: club presidents, the administrators who hold the keys to many specialized skills and abilities, are all part of her system of government within Honnouji. They are far more powerful, both politically and physically, than “no-star” students, who are all seen by them as pretty much a single, homogenous unit that exists to serve their whims and interests. Honnouji itself is portrayed as the top of the proverbial mountain- the keeper of the knowledge that is paramount in this world the students live in. Excel at the skills Lady Satsuki decrees are important, and be rewarded by her. Gain the power, and the right to live in the district directly under the Academy. Fail at those skills, and live among the slums, your usefulness existing only as fodder for those who have excelled. It’s a meritocratic system, one that has been utilized in Japan, in other countries, and even in other video games and shows prior to this one. But Kill la Kill is one of the first to mix this idea of political education with a figurehead who is herself associated with the sun, and thereby with Amaterasu herself. 

From the context of the series narrative, we do not know much about this world, how it came to mirror this system, and how it was organized into such a class-conscious ordering of both dwellings and peoples. All we can truly do is speculate how this world works, based around what we glean from the layout, and how the people interact. Gurren Lagann was based very heavily on the community, building autonomous units and dwellings deep into the earth- the exact opposite of the world Kill la Kill inhabits. They build up, not down, and focus on hierarchy, not group survival. The emphasis on hierarchy alone is one of the markers that tie it in with a general representation of State Shinto, as is how much attention is paid on marking the leaders of this group as “evil.” Not evil in the classical definition, but evil in their execution of ideas, and preoccupation with honor, veneration of a human vessel, and building their “empire” on the backs of the faceless student body. Their motives, while still mysterious, perpetuate this system of practice, and leave viewers with strong empathy for the population Matoi Ryuuko finds herself among. 

Within this underclass of underclassmen, there still exists a framework for community survival. The masses rely on each other, or at least we are led to believe that they rely on each other, until something in the story proves otherwise. Instances of backbiting for the sake of social climbing are rare, and usually shown as futile acts. The “no-stars” need to work together to survive Honnouji- the fact that the back alley doctor’s sign is so visible while still ostensibly a “secret” shows that the people themselves are more appreciative of him, even if the establishment is not. And even if he and his family are but a single example of passive resistance and community cohesion, it is one based around assistance and aide, two of the hallmarks of communal culture. 

Further Reading:
Gerald Figal, "Civilization and Monsters" (1999)
Marius Janssen, "The Making of Modern Japan" (2005)

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