Published on September 2nd, 2014 | by Matt Wolsfeld0
To Boob or Not to Boob? Fan Service and Satire in Kill La Kill
Does Fan Service in Kill La Kill go too far or does it wander far enough into being a satire of anime to be good?
“Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.” – Poe’s Law
With satire being as common as it is in modern media, the above adage is more a word of caution than observation. Every entertainment medium has its overused tropes and conventions that serve as the fertile breeding ground for great satirists to adapt towards humorous or poignant ends. The lowest common denominator of television or movies is often apparent simply because of the medium’s large viewer base; meta-analysis of reviews and viewer demographics have allowed us to come to a reasonable consensus of what can fairly empirically be considered ‘trash’ (at least from within our own social circles).
But what happens when the medium consists of a smaller sample size? What if that sample size is generally biased to begin with? It is in these situations that extremism can become the norm and provide an ideal landscape for satire to crash through the walls of its tiny clichéd prison, confuse its own viewership, and reach out to new and untapped audiences to prove its worth. This has been the land of anime among North American audiences (and, from what I understand, even its native Japanese audiences) in recent decades as its fare has become more accessible through online distribution networks. Also at the root of this discussion is another element that was borne from anime itself, and though it can occasionally extend into other genres and mediums, generally still reigns supreme: fan service.
Fan service refers to material in a series which is intentionally added to please the audience. In North America, we are familiar with this practice through the presence of fan-favourite couples (will Ross and Rachel finally kiss? Tune in tonight!) or the hypersexualization of attractive leads (You’ll never guess what Kaley Cuoco wore on tonight’s episode of The Big Bang Theory!). The world of anime has been plagued primarily by the latter for years. Skin tight and overexposed outfits are the norm (especially on female characters) and locales are often tailored to provide opportunities for titillation (a day at the beach, anyone?). In a genre that remains fairly conservative in its values and retains a large male fan base, the use of fan service on female characters has become an overused and nigh-offensive trope in many series.
When the extreme end of forced titillation runs rampant in a genre, it is the duty of the creators to shine a satirical light on the negative elements of the genre. Kill La Kill, a recently ended series made by the writers of the widely successful Gurren Lagann, has quickly become my new favourite anime series despite its controversially over-the-top amount of fan service. The show has confused many a viewer, begging the question of whether its consistent and overt sexuality is meant in the name of simply pleasing the audience or as a work of satire. The fact that the show is so god-damned enjoyable adds further difficulty to answering the question: am I enjoying this because it’s lampooning the elements that have become tired hooks from every other series, or because BOOBS, GIANT EXPLOSIONS, SWORD FIGHTS, HOLY-SHIT-DID-SHE-JUST-BECOME-A-GIANT-WAR-AIRSHIP?!
To me, the answer is quite clearly ambiguous: Kill La Kill is brilliant satire, and it doesn’t matter at all. The use of skimpy outfits and nudity comes as a shock over the first few episodes, but is pushed aside by the side-splitting hilarity and outstandingly animated and over-the-top fight sequences. It should also be mentioned that though the two main characters of this series are female, if looked at objectively the vast majority of fan service in the show takes the form of male nudity; despite spending a large amount of time developing the leads, almost every episode involves shirtless and sparkling male characters being paraded around as more of a sex object than their female counterparts. As the show continues it becomes apparent that the viewer has become numb to the sexuality that still runs rampant in the episodes, and that it is now being used as a plot device in and of itself. Without giving spoilers for the series, Kill La Kill’s use of nudity to develop the character’s self-awareness and empowerment while developing upon an absolutely ridiculous plot that still manages to tug at the viewer’s heart strings is nothing short of brilliant satire. By the end of the series, the creators have actually managed to make the viewer see clothing as more shocking and scandalous than its absence, a feat that had me feeling exposed and overly-conscious of my own self-doubts.
And yet, none of that matters. From beginning to end, Kill La Kill is a fast-paced, non-stop thrill ride of action, explosions, boobs, and butts. The creators have managed to make you numb to the fact that you are witnessing a constant parade of artificial titillation and yet have somehow managed to still make it the most entertaining aspect of the show. Kill La Kill is an oxymoron; it is a show based around sexuality that somehow manages to be asexual in its aims, and while the outcome is engaging and rewarding the fact still remains that the show would be nothing if it weren’t for the fan service that built it.
By grabbing it by the horns, carefully directing it, and throwing its full might forward, the creators of Kill La Kill have taken fan service, a convention that at its heart is trite and overused, and turned it into a mighty engine that powers an analysis of human sexuality and our most base desires. It is offensive at its core and uses this to ask the audience why this material is intended to service the fans in the first place. It is as if J.K. Rowling were to say, “Here, you like Harry and Hermione fanfics so much? Here’s an entire miniseries of the two of them having a constant threesome with Voldemort. Still like it?” The truth is, if the foundation of concentrated fan service is solid enough, we still do like it. And to me, nothing better proves that it’s not the fan service that succeeds in the end, but rather the underlying creative efforts that triumph. Boob or don’t boob: just make it work.