The Complex Role of Women in Japanese Media

When looking at representation of women in modern media, it is easy to default to the paragons and the villains. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is often lauded for its fantastic main female character Chirio, and the incredibly popular Death Note is often criticized for its one dimensional stereotypes of women. In a country that still retains conservative social ideals, much of its media reflects the complexity of gender relations in the modern world. I wanted to dissect two noteworthy examples: the anime Kill la Kill, from renowned director Hiroyuki Imaishi, and the manga series Bakuman, from writer Ohba Tsugumi and artist Takeshi Obata. Both tackle two elements of women in different ways: women in relation to their sex, and women in relation to societal expectations.

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When Kill la Kill had its initial run in the fall of 2013, it ignited a firestorm of debate across the internet. The anime received both harsh condemnation and extreme praise for its portrayal of women, mostly through its main protagonist Ryuko Matoi and its main antagonist Satsuki Kiryuin. The story is set in a world where a school is run as a quasi-fascist state by Satsuki, who uses school uniforms infused with power to keep the student body in a rigid hierarchy. Ryuko arrives at the school, swearing vengeance against Satsuki for the death of her father. Both use incredibly powerful seifuku (traditional Japanese school uniforms) called kamui to battle it out over the fate of the school.

One thing that immediately stands out to the viewer is the astounding amount of “fanservice”, nudity intended to please a largely male demographic. The uniforms transform into what can barely be recognized as clothing, and the various poses the two characters strike as they battle could easily belong to a soft core pornagraphic catalogue. Many of the beginning scenes can be incredibly uncomfortable to many viewers, and some are borderline rapey. The case against Kill la Kill is incredibly easy to make.

The longer the series went, the more holes began to form in the case against Kill la Kill. A variety of blogs began to comment on the deeper meanings behind Kill la Kill, and the commentary related to the female perspective seemed to fall into two general categories: self-confidence in sexualization and weaponized femininity. Both ideas play of off and strengthen the other. At the onset of the series, Ryuko is incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of her kamui. Many of the characters go out of their way to comment on how shameful and indecent it is (Atelier). This is in contrast to Satsuki, who views the kamui as a necessary and powerful tool to help achieve her ambitions. Satsuki exclaims “Exhibitionist? Nonsense… the fact that you are embarrassed by the values of the masses only proves how small you are!” (Atelier). Satsuki sees the traditional views of the “pure” woman as something only valued by the hive mind of society. If something empowers women, why should they care what others have to say about it? At the beginning of the series, the sex appeal of Ryuko’s outfit comes not for her “confidence or ownership of the outfit”, but rather “from her being overpowered or ashamed by it”(Atelier). Following the declaration from Satsuki, Ryuko embraces the the outfit and the power that comes with it. She rejects the conservative view of the “purity” of women for the power that comes with self-confidence in yourself and your body.

The various outfits Ryuko wears throughout the series. Created by barfingprince/Tumblr

The power that comes from these school uniforms expresses the idea of “weaponized femininity”. The title of the anime, Kiru la Kiru, is actually a pun on キル, the Japanese writing for the English word “kill”, 切る, to cut, and 着る, to wear (Romano). To quote Romano, “Perhaps the strongest way in which the narrative actively resists being slotted into a box marked ‘gratuitous fanservice’ is the way in which it actively focuses its plot on the way its female characters react to and contend with the experience of being looked at and forced to strip down in order to fight.” Ryuko’s and Satsuki’s femininity is represented by what they wear (or lack there of), and their appearance expresses the power they possess. Navigating the world of female fashion successfully empowers the women of Kill la Kill (Romano).

While Kill la Kill focuses on female empowerment through embracing sexuality and femininity, Bakuman stands in a different corner of the gender relations spectrum. It focuses on the societal expectations of women, and breaks some of these expectations while supporting others.

Bakuman follows the quest of two young men Akito Takagi and Moritaka Mashiro as they devote themselves to becoming the best manga artists in Japan. The pair are not only motivated by the various rivals they encounter, but also by their respective love interests, a clumsy but cheerful Kaya Miyoshi and the pure, beautiful Miho Azuki. Much of the story revolves around a promise Miho and Moritaka have between each other: when each achieve their dreams (Miho as a voice actress and Moritaka as a manga artist), they will get married. Much like Kill la Kill, the beginning of the series does not seem promising: much like the “damsel in distress” archetype, both Kaya and Miho are seen as goals that drive the plot of the male characters Akito and Moritaka. Both of the characters make comments that support conservative views of gender relations: women are best as wives and caretakers. Kaya remains in this expected role, spending most of the series supporting the main male characters in their endeavors. But many other women appear in a variety of roles, some even as direct competitors to Akito and Moritaka. Later on in the series, after Akito and Moritaka have become successful manga artists, it is up to Miho to win a competition to achieve her and Moritaka’s promise from the beginning, while the male protagonists can only helplessly watch. This reverses the traditional “damsel in distress” narrative, where a woman serves as an object that requires rescuing from a male protagonist. Instead, it is Miho who must use her skills and abilities to fulfil her end of the promise, a modern and egalitarian end to an otherwise conservative narrative arc.



Romano, Aja. “Kill La Kill: How the Year’s Most Polarizing Anime Became a Smash Hit.” The Daily Dot. 3 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <>.

Atelier, Emily. “What (Not) to Wear: Undressing Kill La Kill’s Wardrobe [NSFW].” Atelier Emily. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <>.


Discussion questions:

  1. Both of these examples were Japanese media mainly targeted toward young men. How are gender relationships portrayed in Japanese media primarily targeted towards women? Do romantic stories rely on classic gender roles? Do any dramas or shojo manga break these trends?

  2. Much of the criticism against Kill la Kill stems from its use of gratuitous nudity and from what many see is the sexual exploitation of its main characters. Could Kill la Kill have the same themes without the use of nudity? Could it have been toned down or eliminated while still having the same effect?

Mark Zuschlag

I’m Mark Zuschlag, a computer science major and senior here at William and Mary. I’ve always had a love of a variety of cultures, but Japan has been of special interest since I’ve entered university. I hope to continue my study of Japanese after graduation, where I’ll be teaching English in the JET program somewhere in Japan.1383477_1081940785154116_632082206340257621_n