23 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: schoolgirls and Japanese history

The time has come. With three days left in this rundown of 2014 anime, it’s time to finally center a piece on the show that dominated my year, opened my eyes (and mind), and influenced me more than any other series I watched this year...or any year in recent memory. A wonderful blend of obscure references, flashy art, over-the-top characters and storytelling, and more fan-service than I am usually willing to indulge.

It’s time to write about Kill la Kill.

First off, I know for a fact that I’m not the only one writing about this show for this project. Kill la Kill is as synonymous with 2014 as Attack on Titan was last year, and Madoka Magica before that. It’s one of the most visible series to come out recently, and has creatively inspired countless cosplayers and artists. And anyone who has seen me at cons this year knows how big a deal this show is for me as well. I’ve practically (or literally) yelled about this show at some 19 conventions, podcasted about it, blogged about it (in one case, for an upcoming journal), and spent copious time putting my thoughts to paper for my first e-book. This show was lightning in a bottle for the flagging anime fan in me: it came around at the right time, and re-ignited my love for anime and all things Japanese. It literally was THE SHOW for me. 

But it all started with a single scene. 

By now, my story about watching Kill la Kill for the first time is old hat. Sitting in Starbucks, taking a breather from a massive tome on yokai and Japanese history, I decided to see what all the fuss was about with this new show. I’d read it was classic, evoking the same sense of wonder and enjoyment that brought a lot of my friends into anime in the first place. And of course, from that opening sequence with Gamagoori pounding on the No-Star, I was caught up in how much it reminded me of Gurren Lagann, and all those 90s shows that were my first experience with the medium. 

And then she appeared, the radiant goddess, most beautiful of all 2-D girls, standing there atop her citadel, and ready to enlighten her people to the “truths” of the world. She yelled at “me,” and I was forever hooked. Here was a modern, lovely, and compelling iteration of the Sun Goddess herself, and she demanded my adoration and respect. 

(And believe me, that doesn’t happen very often, especially with anime characters. You could say that at that point, Kiryuin Satsuki became my “waifu,” the strongest anime crush I’ve ever had, and one that persists even now.) 

A few posts back, I called attention to those moments this year when people have approached me and told me how my panels and lectures have influenced their lives and driven their own pursuits forward. How inspiration can be compelling, and can hit you like a truck when you least expect it. 

The idea for what would become Shuten Doji vs State Shinto happened in January, when I was mulling over Ryuko’s role in the series, and how it could fit into the State Shinto cosmology I had been assembling piecemeal for the Shitenno and their Radiant Sun Goddess. Somewhere along the way it got into my head that she looked, and acted, like an oni. The horns, the blood, the violent resistance to fascist order- it fit in with some lore I had read last year. But it hit me HARD. In a moment of clarity that could only have been made better by shouting “Eureka” at the top of my lungs, I grabbed my copy of Noriko Rieder’s excellent “Japanese Demo Lore,” began scribbling down ideas on a post-it note, and running home from the bookstore. Kit might still even have the text message. That was where it began.

Rieder’s book got me interested in the otogi-zoshi, Japanese Muromachi period folk tales. Research into those tales and their traits drove me to research both Buddhist concepts of emptiness, and the history of Inari in Japan (and particularly how Inari is approached and worshipped). A desire to know more about the Japanese “identity crisis,” hinted at in books I’d read years ago, led me deep into the Postwar period, a time I had only superficial knowledge of. That led me to Embracing Defeat and Japan Unbound, which clued me in to more books on Hiroshima and its fallout, motivated me to finally devour Showa-Shi, and spend real time speaking with Japanese friends about their own family experiences. 

As my knowledge of Japanese history increased, as points of information were challenged and changed, as my body of knowledge grew, so too did my relationship with the series that had inspired me. And in turn, so did the panel that had started at a way to focus and commit to text my ideas, so i could share them with my fellow fans. While all my panels evolve as I learn new things, with Kill la Kill that evolution happened rapidly, was spurred on by my ravenous consumption of new ideas, and transformed me just as much as it transformed my material. It’s been a year-long process, with those moments of clarity happening more and more as my reading list became longer and longer. 

One of the best things to come out of this entire project wasn’t the panels, or the books, or the long discussions I’ve had with people- it was how Kill la Kill motivated me to read more about Japan than I ever had previously. I watched fewer anime this year, read fewer manga, played fewer games, than in the past five at least. But at the same time I discovered more about Meiji, Postwar, and contemporary Japan than I’ve ever known.

And honestly, it’s been one of the most validating years I’ve ever had. Prior to discovering Kill la Kill, my interest had been in yet another slump, as burnout slapped me silly and kept me trapped in a little bubble of ennui and old video games. All it took was one moment to motivate me, and subsequently turn my year around. Half the fun has been the lectures and the book writing, but the other half has been the welcome craziness of discovery and strengthening my knowledge of Japan. That same sense of seeing things in a new light that attendees have told me my panels brought them, brought to me by skimp clothing and a massive crush on an anime girl. 

On the tenth day of anime...I found my inspiration, dressed in a sexy school uniform. 

As an aside / addendum:

We've talked about this before, but the idea that Satsuki represents perfection and Ryuko doesn't partly explains why they appeal to me so much. They contain both harm and well-being individually, but it takes both of them working together to balance each other out. 

Bear with me here.

Satsuki is the ideal of the person I want to be: she is a survivor, but skilled against manipulation and mental/emotional tactics. That's not to say that Ryuko isn't a survivor either: but where Satsuki excels in the mental and emotional sides of things, the "skyscraper in your mind" technique, Ryuko excels in being more physical. She is more stubborn and manages to keep standing despite everything that's (quite literally) thrown at her. She's blunt, and wears her emotions on her sleeves - if anything, she's too passionate, to the point of Senketsu pointing out that she's going to run herself into the ground if she's not careful. When Ryuko despairs, it takes physical things like food and shelter and clothing to soothe her: when Satsuki despairs, it's not so much the physical chains as the metaphorical ties that bind.

And yet, when they work together, they find balance. Satsuki realizes she needs to take more full-frontal action, while Ryuko starts understanding the more emotional sides of things - that Satsuki was expressing her own sincerity and desires just in her own quiet way. 

I'd presented with Charles before on panels, but the Kill la Kill panel was really the first one we'd built from scratch with both of us in mind. And even though it can use some polishing even now, it is balanced. Not too passionate, but not too subdued. Accessible, and yet awesome.

It even helped me remember my Japanese, and to be more confident - things I'd thought I had lost.

So thank you, Studio Trigger, and Aniplex, and everyone. I found balance and  harmony in a story about two sisters who needed each other all along. - Kit


  1. Hey Anime Anthropologist.

    Thank you for your passionate, invigorating and insightful post!
    I apologise in advance because mine is a very long one
    Your blog has triggered a lot of ideas and thoughts which I can't help but type out right now for fear of forgetting them later.

    Firstly, there was one anime series which left a rather powerful impression on me, even though I can't say it's that good production-wise. It's actually based on a VN, and the name is "Air".
    I couldn't help wondering whether there were certain elements in that series which are tied to traditional elements of Japanese culture; particularly the persona of a travelling storyteller perhaps stemming from similar characters in reality? (the thought crossed my mind when I saw your post on the Kamishibai.) The symbolism of the sky in "Air" also interests me, although I'm not sure whether that's a folklore thing or a personal association for the creators.
    I'd be happy if you took a look at it and shared your thoughts (if you have the time, of course.)

    Secondly, I have to say that I have been looking at some length for a person who studies anime in a more or less academic context (in fact that's something I've felt the desire to do before), so I'm quite excited to come across your blog. I do wish you could explore a broader range and larger number of series, because I feel the potential for research in this medium is almost endless.

    I've noticed that up to this point you have mostly concentrated on the expression of Shinto and folklore elements in anime, such as the incarnations of kami in anime series.
    Those were very enlightening, but what truly caught my attention were the posts on the more ubiquitous and contemporary; for example, the way Japanese use silence in social situations (thus explaining the specifics of emotional turmoil in romance manga) and gift-giving within the concept of "gi", (which sheds light on Mikasa's determination to save her brother in SnK). I understand that you've written a lot about Kill la Kill because of its wit in combining and intertwining (and satirising) so many ideas within one series, and it's difficult to find another series that would be that interesting to analyse.
    But I would like to see more posts about the if you will, more "general" and pervasive aspects of Japanese culture, in the same vein as the examples above: the ones that explore Japanese mentality as a whole.

    I see you also have a series of posts discussing mythology and the way mythology changes, adapts and persists to this day in a different form. That immediately reminded me of the works of a Russian "neo-folklorist" called Konstantin Bogdanov, who analyses these ideas at length. For example, in one of his works he analyses the phenomenon of sneezing and the way sneezing was "seen", interpreted and reacted to throughout the ages in different cultures.
    In another he analyses the social semiotics of dreaming and sleep, and the way those were associated with death in Slavic culture (and how those ideas have persisted through certain lullabies which reference telling the baby "to die" for a while).
    These works are very engaging and I was thinking how fruitful it would be to combine your analytical work with those of Bogdanov or similar researchers (Here's the title of one of his works - not sure if they're available in English: Everyday Life and Mythology: Studies on Semiotics of Folklore Reality.)

    Finally, have you ever read the famous (sometimes considered infamous) "The Enigma of Japanese Power" by van Wolferen? I haven't read it myself, but I've read that it provides deep insight into the dynamics of the power structure in Japan (what one could perhaps call the "kokutai"). I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it, especially considering your whetted interest in Japanese history.

    Thank you very much for your work!


  2. Oh, here's a few things I forgot to mention in the other post.

    When I was reading your analysis of Kill la Kill, and the implementation of State Shinto in Meiji Era Japan, I was reminded of an article by the Russian Japanologist Alexander Mescheryakov, who is an expert on the Meiji and Taisho periods of Japanese history. This article centered on traditional Japanese views of the body that stemmed from Confucian ideas.

    In brief, the article referenced a story from the Confucian tradition that illustrated the ideal relations between a parent and child (perhaps you could tie this to the idea of "gi" or "social duty"). The story highlights the lengths that a child must be willing to go to for the sake of his/her parents, with particular emphasis on the act of sacrificing his body to this end.
    The story is about a poor family of three (a youth and his parents) whose house is plagued by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes keep stinging the parents and causing them suffering. The youth, exhibiting the Confucian ideal, takes off his clothes to attract the mosquitoes to his own body away from his parents, in effect, using his own body as a tool to save them. Mesheryakov underlines that this story was in line with the Confucian concepts that the body of a child belongs to the child's parents: they are the "creators' and "owners" of his body, and thus the child "owes" it to them until their death.

    Mesheryakov then asserts that this idea persisted throughout the Tokugawa period all the way until the Meiji period.
    The highly developed system of social etiquette in Tokugawa Japan is also a testament to the idea of maintaining the body's maximum spiritual and physical capacity. There were treatises on what position to sleep in, what (and how) to eat, how many times to comb one's hair, etc. Each guideline supposedly had both a physical and a spiritual/symbolic benefit, all aimed at both keeping the body in good shape for serving one's parents, and also highlighting the superiority and refinement of the Japanese body and spirit in contrast to all others.

    Anyway, the main point is that during the Meiji restoration, the Emperor assumed the role of the "ultimate parent", or more closely to what you said, the ultimate "guardian deity" of the Japanese people. Thus, the body of a person, which traditionally belonged to the parent, now belonged to the Ultimate parent, i.e the Emperor, and by extension, the state.

    What you said about Meiji Japan "nationalising" the country's regional folk beliefs and myths into one standardised Shinto system immediately reminded me of similar processes occurring, literally, with the bodies of all Japanese.
    This idea is present in such famous documents as the "Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors", which stressed the duty of soldiers to serve the Emperor with body and soul.
    A more crude example of this is the existence of kamikaze bombers.

    Kill la Kill, in comparison, centers a lot on the human body, its relationship with clothes, which for example, can either "wear" the body or vice versa. The clothes (life fibers) are in a sense an extension of the authority of the ruling body, Honnouji academy, which is itself symbolic of the Japanese Empire. The semiotics of the human body and its status in the world of Kill la Kill is way too deep for me to explore in this post, and I think you would be much better at expounding on this topic than I would.