Japanese animation is an entertainment medium that’s often associated with geek man-children in spite of the fact that it often features complex stories with themes and metaphors that dwarfs most of what we consider adult entertainment here in America. Part of it is the lingering fallacy that anything animated must be for kids, but there’s more; specifically anime’s preoccupation with female anatomy. Bouncing bosoms of bodacious bulk and predictably polarizing portrayals of puerile pantyshots often turn viewers off of the excellent stories and characters. But is it really inherently wrong or immature to portray the human body in such a way?
Enter Kill La Kill, one of the anime hits of the moment and another instance of an overseas animated property being snatched up for streaming on the forever-ahead-of-the-curve Netflix prior to being dubbed in English (Attack on Titan was previously alone in that honor). Watching the early episodes of the show, it appeared to have been literally designed to both mock and celebrate some of the most damaging anime stereotypes: the ridiculously over-the-top action, the overly serious characters, the overly wacky characters, and yeah, the fashion choices of female characters.
Dressing women up in the most revealing of clothing and/or putting them in the most compromising position with the viewer given the most advantageous view is typical here. Naturally, there are plenty who don’t take kindly to this practice. Kill La Kill sets itself up as a self-aware parade of these kinds of tropes, but as the story finishes, it accomplishes more than it’s willing to give itself credit for in terms of providing context for this argument.
And occasionally less.
But first, let’s take a quick look at the history of women in anime. Japan has always been an abnormally patriarchal culture that outwardly favors meekness in their female population, but in spite of (and possibly because of) that fact, their fantasy entertainment has long been a stronghold of exceptionally powerful, independent female characters. In fact, it’s been standard operating procedure almost from day one to put the ladies on equal footing with their male counterparts, even in terms of physical combat prowess. What America is just now catching onto, Japan has been doing for decades.
And while anime is in fact much more upfront in how they go about sexualizing their female leads, can you even suggest that the West has done better? They may attempt to do so in less blatant ways, but is there an actual argument to be made for insidiousness over forthrightness? It’s possible that Japan’s rampant sexualization of strong women actually stems from their historical oppression of their own female population and represents an internal rebellion of sorts against that history.
I was reading a feminist blogger’s take on Robin Thicke’s idiotic Blurred Lines video –in which the R&B star and his producer Pharrell hang out fully clothed with some very naked and very bored-looking models. She suggested that the intrinsic sexism of the concept stemmed from the simple fact that the men were presented clothed and the women unclothed, which implied male sexual dominance. She was, of course, entirely correct. If equality is the goal, that is the exact problem, and it’s one well-represented in anime.
Kill La Kill attacked this problem by introducing something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before in animation: gender-flipped fanservice. While the ladies’ battle outfits are deliberately of the “armor that doesn’t actually cover any vital areas” variety and the story goes to hilarious lengths explaining why it has to be that way with its tongue practically bursting out the far side of its cheek, the males are subjected to even more obnoxious nudity, even as our heroines’ assets literally flap in the wind during their transformation sequences.
Yes, his nipples always glow like that. So does his….umm… “rear exit”. You’re welcome, ladies.
Now what? The men are also hilariously sexualized and even nakeder at most times than the women. Now it’s just a matter of good taste. While I personally find it very annoying when constant fanservice overrides an otherwise serious story and shoots the tone to hell (High School of the Dead, I’m looking at you; and let’s not even mention Queen’s Blade), when the show is actually about sex, it works. Take Colorful, for instance. It’s a satire that consist entirely of various male characters perving out on women in public, and it hits extremely close to home in terms of shameful masculine behavior when it comes to the opposite sex. And damn, is it funny.
Among the themes presented early in Kill La Kill is the characters’ embarrassment of these scantily-clad predicaments. “Oh my god, the human body! How scandalous!” Anyone out there who doesn’t have one of those? Anyone out there who doesn’t enjoy the sight of an attractive one belonging to somebody else? How exactly does it remain cool to pretend these aren’t facts of life? And for the love of god, what the hell is “tasteful nudity”? A director either makes the conscious decision to put someone’s goodies on display for us or not to. Is doing it deliberately and pretending it’s an accident or claiming it’s necessary for the art really more mature than acknowledging that they wanted T&A because people like it?
Over the course of the story, the heroine, Ryuko finds greater power as she learns to stop caring about what parts of her other people can and can’t see. You don’t find empowerment in other peoples’ view of you or society’s standards of propriety; it’s all about being comfortable with yourself. When that happens, nobody can hold you back. And that’s what Kill La Kill symbolizes in the end: a show that’s determined to be as childish, obnoxious, and nonsensical as it wants to be in the name of entertainment, everything else be damned.
I don’t think you’re getting the point across. Try larger lettering and a more intense expression.
The insane plot of the show ends up with an alien race of clothing forcing themselves onto the world’s populace to take over the planet and purge it of the nonsensical scourge of humanity. The heroes are a resistance movement called Nudist Beach; the last bastion of free will, refusing to submit to someone else’s taste in fashion for the sake of conformity. See the metaphor yet?
Maybe the fact that people enjoy fanservice and other over-the-top crap is reason enough for it to exist. Is it a human flaw to like stupid things? Maybe. But if the goal of those opposed is to impose their will to eradicate everything they don’t like on everybody else, the obvious end result is the end of everything because as a defiant Ryuko states, nonsensical craziness is what we’re all about as a species. One form of aggressive discrimination is arguably no better than another.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with mocking that which exists to be mocked. Kill La Kill is a comedy when push comes to shove; and not a highbrow one. But even utilizing every cheap, juvenile trick in the anime playbook, it’s able to piece together a fairly sophisticated philosophical analogy about freedom and tolerance that is difficult to argue with in an intellectual capacity.
Like I said before, anime has a long, long history of putting its female characters in positions of strength and authority while characterizing them every bit as well (if not better) than male ones. Still, female characters are a lot more likely to end up naked for our viewing pleasure, thus invoking the evil of the “male gaze” (not to be confused with “male gays”) in which testicled individuals see stuff that is pleasing to the eye and enjoy it like the filthy apes they are.
This is a clear inequity, but then again I’d say a medium that’s routinely gone out of its way to make women effective military commanders, formidable warriors, competent villains, wise and compassionate leaders, and loving wives, sisters, and mothers since before most of us were born probably deserves a little credit too. For most characters in anime, it’s not the size of their breasts that’s the focus, it’s the quality of their personality and abilities. Anything else is just eyecandy-flavored icing on the cake.
Could I list a crapload of shows I think could do with a little less focus on sexualizing their female characters to the point where it distracts from the story? Indeed I could. But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I am compelled to avert mine eyes from the sight of a scantily-clad female form, and I wouldn’t suggest that the ladies run out of the room when Taylor Lautner or whoever takes his shirt off onscreen just ‘cause either. You enjoy it, there’s no good reason to pretend you don’t, and anyone who’d be impressed by the pretension probably isn’t worth impressing.
It sounds like I’m suggesting that cartoonish displays of sexuality represent societal progress and not regression, as many claim; and maybe I am. Repression of any kind is universally damaging to the human psyche. And with sexuality being at the very core of our evolutionary being, fighting it possibly causes more problems in society than putting it on display as an outlet and accepting it as part of what we are. The alternative comes from the same mentality of those who insist there’s a cure for homosexuality. Sorry, folks. We are what we are.
Kill La Kill may not ever make my list of favorite anime series, but I’ve got to admit it left a big crater on my previous perspective on the fanservice issue. It won’t change my disappointment with shows that could have been better if they’d reined the boob jokes and pantyshots in a little bit (High School of the Deeeeeaaaaaad!), but it definitely gave me a lot to think about in spite of its focus on ridiculous sex and violence as pure spectacle. Plus, Harime Nui is one of the most delightfully psychotic villains ever, so even if I hated everything else about it I’d still watch it, satire or no. But I’m glad it added that extra layer of thoughtfulness to its parade of superficiality anyways.
Not the face of mercy.
Luscious Jackson once sang “wearing nothing is divine/naked is a state of mind” and that seems to mirror this show’s overall message. With no outward covering to put on display for the world’s benefit, all you are is there for everyone to see with no barriers. But the ultimate question here is whether this liberated point of view is a legitimate excuse to justify men’s continued objectification of women.
My answer? Well, objectifying another individual is always wrong. We should always take into account other people’s thoughts, feelings, and personality. But does taking an individual’s value as a fellow human worthy of respect into account mean viewing them in an entirely asexual manner? I don’t necessarily believe so. Appreciating the visual aesthetics of another’s physical form doesn’t have to be divorced from viewing them as people. In fact, I’d say the two are intrinsically linked.
Maybe some immature fratboys can judge a woman based entirely on appearance and appreciate boobs for boobs’ sake, but I’ve found that personality and attractiveness go hand-in-hand. In anime, this is referred to as “moe” (pronounced mo-eh), and it essentially classifies the appeal of feminine archetypes based on their personalities.
So my final thought here is that while anime is no doubt guilty of routine oversexualization of their female characters, their simultaneous focus on the personalities and prowess of those characters beyond the T or the A also represents a refreshingly straightforward approach in entertainment. It’s often lowbrow for sure, but there’s also something to be said for giving the fans what they want to see so long as it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the story. And in Kill La Kill’s case, the integrity of the story actually depends on insane amounts of skin. It’s a clever idea, and it’s pulled off pretty effectively. But it’s still a hell of a long way to go just to tell people to lighten up.