The Purpose of Power: Satsuki Kiryuin in Kill la Kill

We’re going to do something a little different today! Usually when I talk about an anime or TV show, I do an overview what I liked about it, what I didn’t like, what themes I think it’s expressing, what I found interesting, etc. But with Kill la Kill, I’ve found that I can’t really do that. I really, really liked this show, and I want to talk about it, but the darn thing is just too weird to really fit into my conventional format. It’s both too complicated and too simple, a genuinely bizarre journey that takes everything far past the logical conclusion, but that’s also remarkably sincere at its core. There’s no subtext or irony, it just is what it is, and what it is is kind of incomprehensible. So instead I’m going to do a targeted analysis of one specific character and one specific plot point associated with her. Satsuki Kiryuin was my favorite character in Kill la Kill, and I want to talk about why I think she works so well as a character, why the choices she makes are so interesting, and how they fit into some broader narrative archetypes and tropes that I really enjoy. Needless to say, SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING, so if you haven’t seen this show and you want to, maybe don’t keep reading.

First some basic background: Satsuki Kiryuin is the Student Council President of Honnouji Academy, which she rules with an iron fist. She’s equipped the student body with Goku Uniforms, special clothing that gives the wearer super-powers, and forces people to ruthlessly compete for power and status. She’s training the students into an army, one that is conquering the schools of Japan for her. Our protagonist, Ryuko Matoi, arrives at Honnouji looking for the person who murdered her father, and she has good reason to believe Kiryuin knows who that is. Satsuki challenges Matoi—if she can defeat all of her many minions and triumph over all of the challenges set for her, she’ll tell her the truth. As the series goes on, it’s slowly revealed that Satsuki is merely working for her mother, Raygeo Kiryuin, and the Goku Uniforms are only the first step in a very complicated plan that entails feeding all of humanity to Life Fibers, alien clothing from outer space. But at the moment when Raygeo begins to put her plan into action, Satsuki (quite literally) stabs her in the back. She had never intended to help her mother destroy the world, but instead had spent her life building up Honnouji Academy as a weapon to use against her. Things don’t go as planned (Raygeo is kind of an un-killable alien-demon-monster), Various Stuff Happens, and in the end Satsuki and Ryuko are able to team up and save the world. I’m leaving a lot out, but I assume if you’re reading this you’ve probably watched the show. But the moment when Satsuki reveals her true plan and tries to overthrow her mother is, to me at least, the best part of the show.

Satsuki’s backstabbing of her mother is a twist in the best possible sense. It’s a genuinely shocking moment that upends everything you think about what’s happening—Satsuki has been Ryuko’s central antagonist thus far—but it also fits completely with the available facts. It recontextualizes the entire first half of Kill la Kill, but rather than feeling like something done merely for the sake of shocking the audience, everything makes a lot more sense once you realize it. Challenging the hero to series of tests in order to prove their worthiness is a classic thing for a supervillain to do, so it’s not surprising when Satsuki does it to Ryuko. Except—if you think about it—it makes no sense for someone as dedicated and committed to their goals as Satsuki is. She’s depicted as a ruthless, brutal dictator who will do anything to accomplish her goals. So when you learn the truth, it makes sense. All of those tests were quite literally tests. Satsuki was putting Ryuko through a series of challenges; physical, moral, psychological, trying to evaluate her strength and worthiness as an ally. Looking back at those early episodes, there are so many moments when Satsuki intervenes in a situation to give Ryuko more of a chance, or grants her leeway that she never would grant anyone else. And when Ryuko wins, she never seems particularly upset. She’s not trying to defeat her so much as she is evaluating whether or not she can be defeated.

It changes the entire structure of the story in retrospect, implying the existence of an entire hidden plot-line that never see except in brief glimpses. Instead of the story of Ryuko trying to take down Satsuki Kiryuin, we’ve actually been watching two parallel arcs, the story of two girls each dedicated to the same purpose but working with totally different methods and plans. (One involved a decade of careful calculation, the other entailed hitting a lot of people with a sword. To each their own!) The fact that Satsuki and Ryuko later turn out to secretly be sisters make this parallelism even more interesting.

Ambition is Satsuki Kiryuin’s defining attribute, the core of her personality. She is presented as someone who has dedicated everything to her Purpose, who had subordinated her entire life to accomplishing her goals, and who will do whatever she thinks is necessary in pursuit of power. “No matter who’s power it is, I will exploit it all. I will not share it with anyone. I will take it, absorb it, and wield it on whatever I see fit. My resolve is what makes me different.” This is so central to her character, that you don’t even really question the fact that……we don’t know what that purpose is. At one point, we get a series of flashbacks, explaining how Satsuki earned the loyalty and service of the Elite Four, her top commanders. Each one was a powerful opponent who she was able to convert to her side through pure willpower, awing them with her boundless determination. In each case, it’s her iron will itself that is so appealing. She has total confidence that her will to power can overcome any obstacles. Her actual objective goes unstated. Ryuko’s main goal in the first half of the show is learn the truth behind Honnouji Academy and her father’s death, and as she learns more and more—about the secrets of Life Fibers, about the Kiryuin family’s machinations, it’s easy to just assume that that’s also what Satsuki has been monologuing about. Giving long, fiery speeches that don’t actually mean that much is another classic anime villain trait, so that the fact that Satsuki has been very careful never to mention exactly what she means by “changing the world” doesn’t seem relevant. Until, of course, you learn what she does mean, and then it all becomes clear.

At first it didn’t occur to me to wonder why Satsuki was so ambitious, so determined to stamp her will upon the face of the Earth. She’s the villain, villains want to conquer the world, that’s how it works. Maybe they have some backstory that explains it, but I mostly took it for granted. But then you learn the truth. You learn that when Satsuki was five years old, she discovered that her mother was a monster, a human fused with Life Fibers, who had murdered Satsuki’s younger sister and father, and who sought to exterminate mankind. And then she decided to do something about it. This is just genuinely amazing character development, in my opinion. It explains everything about Satsuki, showing us in a single instant why she is who she is. Since she was five years old, she’s been preparing herself for a war for the sake of humanity, forging herself into a sword, planning and manipulating and scheming, waiting for the day she can strike. It explains everything about Satsuki’s personality and character in a way that doesn’t invalidate what we’ve so far but instead elevates it. Instead of telling us that everything we’ve seen so far is a lie, it shows us a new perspective on it that infuses it with meaning and explains why it happened the way it did. It makes it better.

Among the members of the Kiryuine clan, Satsuki is unique, lacking the Life Fibers woven into her flesh that gives her mother and sister their extraordinary abilities. But she can still hold her own against them, relying on pure resolve to compensate for her lack of special powers. And by the end of the show we come to realize that her will is a stand-in, a proxy for the will of ordinary humans everywhere who will die before submitting.

I especially love the fact that Satsuki is someone born to and raised, trained, and groomed by by her extremely evil mother who nevertheless holds true to her basic decency, her fundamental moral compass. I deeply dislike the idea of predestination in narratives, or the idea that people are doomed to follow their fates. The fact that Star Wars has done two separate stories now about Darth Vader’s grandson also falling to the dark side is ridiculous. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there’s a character widely rumored to be Voldamort’s son, and it drove me crazy that everyone (even his friends!) just take it for granted that if he was he’d be evil. Satsuki doesn’t even have to be redeemed, like Zuko of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Adora and Catra of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. She knows what right and wrong is, despite her cursed heritage, and she sticks to that.

There’s a specific moment during Satsuki’s attempted coup that I want to highlight. Charging at her mother, sword unsheathed, she screams “This is for my father! And my baby sister!” Satsuki, as we’ve seen her so far, is a cold person. Not emotionless, but cold. Everything she does is calculated, planned, ruthless. Unusually when she appears, it’s on a pedestal located hundreds of feet above the academy, bathed in golden light, giving orders to the students below. The main emotion she displays is contempt—contempt for weakness, for those who cannot meet her exacting standards. And then, in a single moment, we see how much of that is a facade. A mask she’s worn for over a decade, locking away her true feelings every minute of the day, subordinating every fiber of her being to her Purpose. Because under all that ice? She’s furious. She is enraged about the death of a child she never knew, and has been bottling this hatred inside her for years, waiting for the moment she can reveal it. It’s such a great scene, developing the character’s complexity so much with just a single line.

Traditionally, ambition and hunger for power are not attributes that are looked kindly upon. In most narratives, the people who embody those traits are, y’know, the Bad Guys. To take Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as examples (chosen because, at least when I was a young lad, they were the most omnipresent pieces of the pop cultural landscape): In Star Wars, Anakin’s downfall is specifically blamed on his quest for power, his inability to accept that the rules of life and the Jedi Order have any sway over him. He wants total control, over his own life, the lives of those he loves, and the Galaxy. In Lord of the Rings, the narrative is explicitly about humble Hobbits rising up to save Middle-earth before returning home to their estate, a la Cincinnatus. The person who gains power is whom who is entitled to it by birthright, i.e., Aragorn, and Sauron’s turn to evil was explicitly linked by Tolkien to his desire for control, his refusal to submit to his betters. Heck, even Kill la Kill has a whole episode about the importance of a simple life and the dangers of greed. It’s a very popular narrative.

But because of that, I am endlessly fascinated by narratives that pose counter-examples, characters who seek to overturn the world, who are consumed with ambition, who dare to look at the world and say “It is wrong. I will change it. Help me or get out of my way.” Lady Eboshi, Lord Asriel, Reinhard von Lohengramm—all characters defined by their determination to reshape a broken world. Satsuki Kiryuin is another one of these, and I really love that the narrative of Kill la Kill doesn’t condemn her for those qualities. Satsuki doesn’t need to be redeemed from her world-spanning ambitions, nor are they simply a lie she tells to obscure her noble objectives. They’re an integral part of her. The fact that she’s the kind of person ruthless enough to crush anyone who opposes her, dedicated enough to devote her entire life to her goals, arrogant enough she’s willing to defy everything her mother taught her—those are the same qualities that ensure that she can help save the human race from extinction.

That’s not to say Satsuki Kiryuin is perfect. Her coup fails after all, and later she admits to Ryuko that part of the reason it did was that she had been too resistant to trusting other people. She’d seen Ryuko as a useful tool and tried to manipulate her, never considering that it would have better to simply ask her for help. She grows as a character, but she isn’t forced to reject the parts of her personality that don’t fit with the more typical hero’s journey. It’s a story that frames her brutal subjugation of her enemies and establishment of a paramilitary army of students as, if not good exactly, than at least understandable. Which, given that her mother wants to exterminate humanity, it is! It’s the Carnation Revolution of anime villain plots, a military coup staged for the best of reasons. Because, look, the pursuit of power may be inherently corrupting and unseemly, but it’s necessary. To change the world requires engaging it with it, and requires a willingness to grasp the reins of power, whether or not you’re entitled to them. The purpose of powers matters too. Ryuko is a more typical protagonist, someone thrust into a world she doesn’t understand, who fights simply to protect her friends and avenge her father’s death. But the world needs Satsukis too.

None of this is to say that this is what Kill la Kill is about. Honestly, I don’t think Kill la Kill is really about anything more complex than “clothing shouldn’t eat people.” Like I said, it’s a show remarkably devoid of subtext or irony.

But this is what I took away from it.

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