Let’s ramble on and on about Kill la Kill

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Beware: a long, endless post incoming. I apologize for the length, but thirteen episodes are definitely a lot to process. Plus, if I had waited an extra day, I’d have to watch, consider and analyze an extra episode. In any case, I attempted to loosely organized nearly every single thought that came across my mind as I marathon’d through over three months of the series in just two days.

“Indeed. Clothing is sin. When Man ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became ashamed of his nakedness and covered his nethers with fig leaves. From the moment Man first gained free will as a human being, it has been his fate to cover his body in the clothing called ‘sin.'”

What is sin? From a layman’s point of view, we simply know it is wrong to commit a sin, but what makes it so? Since Ragyo references the biblical story of Adam and Eve, it would only make sense to begin this post with an understanding of the Christian conception of sin. Since God created Adam in his own image, any attempt to cover up one’s own “shame,” i.e. our naked self, implies a deliberate act against the will of God. We alienate ourselves against His image; we sever that which relates ourselves to Him. Within the narrative of Kill la Kill, we can postulate that clothing serves as a sign of our disobedience against God.

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So what are we to make of Revocs, a corporation with a monopolistic control over the entire world’s supply of clothing? If clothing is sin, and Revocs’s entire business revolves around selling clothes, is it fair to say that Revocs is in the business of spreading sin? Perhaps it would make more sense to say Revocs is guilty of the commodification of sin. The critique of commodification lies within the notion that not everything ought to be sold and traded as if it was a marketable good. For instance, take the problematic conclusion of commodifying human beings. It isn’t simply that there’s something inherently wrong with assigning an economic value to a person. The main issue lies in the fact that the idea of commodity naturally carries with it the implication of private ownership. What, then, is the private ownership of human beings? Slavery, is it not?

So again, what’s the problem with the commodification of sin? Sin is something for humanity to reflect upon and from that, we are supposed to repent. We are meant to feel guilty for our sins. This, however, doesn’t seem very likely in a world where sin is commodified, sold piece-by-piece on the market as part of our culture of conspicuous consumption. Revocs is perhaps merely a microcosm of our modern society, not much unlike the name brands that currently proliferate through our expressed desires for social status. We are compelled to worship at the false altar of Apple, Nike, Google, etc. Thus, this is essentially sin commodified: an excess of vanity fueled by our base desires borne out of greed. We alienate ourselves from God by denying His image and imposing our perceived superiority over our fellow man through the acquiring of vanity goods.

Clearly, this isn’t a problem in general for Revocs. Although Ragyo freely admits that clothing is sin, it certainly isn’t a source for consternation in her life. She even relishes in her extravagant wardrobe, seemingly embracing the social status afforded to her through her company’s commodification of sin. Rather, it is her daughter Satsuki who seems to find great dissatisfaction with Revocs’ apparent lack of aim outside of the ultimate pursuit of wealth. Throughout the series, Satsuki has made it very clear that she intends to change the world. Moreover, she is not to be controlled by her base desires and greed. Within her ranks of subordinates, she harbors great respect for anyone who can demonstrate tremendous resolve, even showing mercy for the losers as long as they haven’t shamed themselves upon the battlefield. It makes sense, therefore, that Satsuki would refer to the masses as nothing more than pigs disguised in human clothing.

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In comparing the masses to pigs, it’s as if Satsuki is invoking the age-old objection against Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the good. According to Bentham, happiness is the greatest good; the action that leads to the greatest net increase in the pleasure index is therefore the most just action. One of the most salient objections against this conception of the good asks us to compare the life of a miserable human being to the life of a perpetually happy pig. Which would you prefer? Most of us would prefer to be a human being over a pig regardless of whether or not happiness is factored into the equation. Surely then, there is more to being a good person than merely the pursuit to fulfill one’s desires. Human beings must necessarily have goals and ambitions that transcend our base animal nature.

“Clothing is the world! The grand will that binds the heavens, the earth, and mankind, covering it all.”

As a daughter of a CEO who runs the immeasurably influential Revocs, however, Satsuki basically has front-row seats to humanity’s own debasing through the commodification of sin. She thus strives for a greater purpose, something akin to a will to power. Satsuki intends to rise above the values and morality of society to affirm her own truth. Of course, we must take care to understand the nuances of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He was rather apolitical for a thinker of his day. In advancing the idea of an Ubermensch, he was not necessarily interested in rising above the masses and ruling over them authoritatively. Rather, the Ubermensch is more about self-overcoming, achieving Greatness through whatever means possible. That Greatness, however, is up to the individual to personally affirm. For example, we often point to how Nietzsche admired the likes of Napoleon, but we also neglect the fact that he pointed to both Goethe and himself as potential Ubermenschen candidates, neither of which are particularly strong or powerful in the standard sense. An Ubermensch need not necessarily impose him or herself upon a social hierarchy. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Satsuki does. What I’m trying to say is that we’re not exactly painting a complete picture by merely invoking Nietzsche here. There is something more at hand.

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Satsuki isn’t merely interested in wealth alone; in the seventh episode, she even loudly proclaims, “Prosperity leads to greed, and greed leads to [humanity’s] inevitable downfall.” This is why I don’t think she’s an Objectivist because an Objectivist would never say that. Moving on, Satsuki instead seizes the means of production privileged to her, and from that, she appropriates the clothing with a purpose. At the moment, that purpose remains somewhat vague. We know she intends to change the world, and we know the immediate steps she takes in order to achieve this goal seems to entail conquering rival territories. How this will change the world remains to be seen. Nevertheless, different uniforms are designated as 1-star, 2-star, 3-star, and so forth. A 1-star uniform is supposedly made up of 10% life fiber, the uniquely red string we see throughout the series. A 2-star uniform is thus made up of 20% life fiber. As most of us might’ve already known, the red string is a common motif throughout East Asian narrative as a representation of the red string of fate. In Kill la Kill, it is the number of red strings in your uniform that seemingly determines both your power and your social status within Satsuki’s society. Unlike her mother, she isn’t selling her clothing, and thus, one’s place in society isn’t determined by one’s wealth whatsoever. Rather, it is the other way around: the better you do in school, the better off your family.

Essentially, Satsuki is rewarding people for overcoming their base desires. After all, your rewards are proportional to your achievements. The life fibers, or the red strings of fate, thus seem to serve as a tool of self-actualization. The more fibers you have, the more capable you seem to be of achieving your aims or, at the very least, imposing your will upon others. This seems to make sense when we consider how Ryuuko’s finishing move strips her enemy of their will to fight. What really happens, however, is that our heroine somehow manages to remove the life fibers from the enemy’s uniform and absorb into her Godrobes. Mere clothing alone thus means nothing at Honnouji Academy. Rather, it is the life fibers that constitute your ability to exert your will and actualize your ambitions. At one point, we see Satsuki’s researchers attempt to affix a 5-star uniform onto a student only for the test subject to devolve into an uncontrollable beast and attack his surroundings. It is clear, therefore, that not everyone can handle such a high level of self-actualization, but why is that?

Again, Satsuki often harps on the idea that most people are weak, that they are ruled and controlled by their impulses. Those who demonstrate an adequate level of resolve can therefore attain the befitting level of attire that allows them to self-actualize their ambitions. So what becomes problematic for the average person at high levels of life fibers? Is it that most of us aren’t disciplined enough? Or that most of us are still ruled too much by our base desires? Perhaps a 5-star uniform is too dangerous for most people to wear because at the end of the day, we are driven too much by our Id. As a result, the ability to self-actualize at a 5-star level merely goes to waste, amplifying our stronger animalistic desires over the grander ambitions that Satsuki respects. Only those with great willpower and resolve, like Ryuuko and Satsuki, can therefore even wear something like the Godrobes, which are composed of 100% life fibers. Those with no life fibers whatsoever in their clothing seem to be nothing more than pigs in Satsuki’s mind, because they lack an element that she considers critical to one’s conception of humanity: the will.

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There is a moment early on in the series when Ryuuko finally manages to embrace Senketsu by ridding herself of her shame. This has been interpreted in many ways. Some have felt that it is a demonstration of sexual empowerment, i.e. not allowing societal norms to dictate how a woman should feel about her clothing. I’m not here to dispute this whatsoever. I just want to offer a reading that is consistent with the analysis of Kill la Kill that I’ve been advancing thus far. If the Godrobes are 100% life fibers, and thus allow for full self-actualization of one’s own goals and ambitions, then the only impediment to one’s success would be society’s norms and inhibitions. For me, it’s more about the authenticity of one’s own actions. Both Ryuuko and Satsuki are overwhelmingly strong with regards to their resolve: the former is in search of truth (and perhaps justice) and the latter aims to change the world. When Ryuuko feels shame over her appearance, however, she is not affirming solely her own set of values. Her actions become inauthentic because she is bound by what she has been told, i.e. that we should be shameful of our bodies. Once she manages to get past this shame, and achieve clarity in her purpose, it is then that Senketsu, i.e. her self-actualization, is no longer inhibited.

When Nui shows up, however, and confesses to being responsible for the murder of Ryuuko’s father, Ryuuko’s clarity of purpose becomes clouded once again by her emotions. Nevertheless, she remains dangerously strong due to her resolve for vengeance. It is for this very same reason, however, that she loses her form and becomes monstrous. Although she continues to self-actualize her own goals, it is now fueled by hate and anger rather than a higher calling. After all, Ryuuko’s stated purpose this entire time has been to get to know her late father, who she never really got to spend much time with, and by extension, achieve justice for her father’s untimely death. The desire for revenge threw a wrench into these grander ambitions, which is why Satsuki expressed such disgust and disappointment in Ryuuko’s monstrous state. This crucial scene also, I think, clues us in on the motives of Nudist Beach. Tsumugi clearly isn’t a fan of life fibers and the Godrobes. Although Aikuro isn’t quite as hasty as Tsumugi in dispensing his judgment, he clearly doesn’t fully trust Ryuuko to control Senketsu, which is why he doesn’t hesitate to subdue her in a fashion that might end up taking her life. It is too early to tell, but I feel as though Nudist Beach is as cynical as Satsuki with regards to human nature — perhaps even more. To them, humanity is might always be too flawed to bestow upon it the will to power, whereas Satsuki at least believes that she by herself is worthy.

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In any case, I want to return to discussing Satsuki’s grander schemes. As I’ve already stated, she has reappropriated the school uniforms with a greater purpose: they are now uniforms of war. After all, she points out in the second episode that school uniforms have always been modeled after military uniforms, a trend since the start of the Meiji era. At our current point in the season, Satsuki has begun the mobilization of her “troops.” Her actions are extremely reminiscent of the rise in Japanese militantism during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It starts, of course, with campaigns against rival regions like Osaka and Kobe. This, in particular, calls back to the dissolution of the feudal state of affairs in Japan right before the establishment of the Meiji government:

“After the successful overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (bakufu) and establishment of the new Meiji government modeled on European lines, a more formal military, loyal to the central government rather than individual domains, became recognized by the general populace as a necessity to preserve Japan’s independence from western imperialism.”

I personally found it rather humorous how the introduction to several of the episodes referred to Hitler and the rise of fascism from a democratic government. It’s a little too on-the-nose. It is also too cursory and shallow to serve as any sort of substantive commentary. So why was Hitler even brought up at all? We have to realize that to this day, there are still vocal factions within Japanese politics that feel Imperial Japan was justified in its actions during the first half of the 20th century. It is thus doubtful in my mind that a mainstream anime would come out and openly criticize the late Empire of Japan. Nevertheless, this is what the show does on a more subtle level. From the way Satsuki has reappropriated Revocs to churn out military goods, the blatant example of how school uniforms resemble military uniforms, the use of education as a tool in preparing Japanese youths for war, the conquering of rival regions to establish a hegemonic Japanese empire…. Sure, we could draw parallels to Nazi Germany, but perhaps the anime did so to as way to conceal its actual message. Again, to compare Satsuki to Hitler is just too on-the-nose when Japan’s own history and legacy looms large.

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A further twist to the state of affairs is how the spectre of capitalism continues to watch over Satsuki with keen interest. Regardless of her actions, she seems to operate within her own bubble that is wholly separate from the Real World that we only get brief glimpses of. This is the world beyond the confines of Honnouji Academy and its concerns; this is the playground for Revocs and powerful adults. You always get the sense that the main story still very much revolves around mostly kids and their play, while the adults like Ragyo are just watching with bemusement from afar. In Satsuki’s world, her ability to don Junketsu inspires idolatry. To her student body, it is amazing that anyone can tame a garment with 100% life fibers. For Ragyo, however, the fact that Satsuki is wearing Junketsu seems to be nothing more than an entertaining aside; she even teases her daughter about it. There’s no hint of fear or reverence whatsoever. After all, “[l]ife is droll. … Matters should be settled youth against youth, Godrobe against Godrobe.”

I feel as though since it is Revocs that supplies the capital necessary for Satsuki to achieve her ambitions, the corporation can just as easily turn on her. If she crosses a line, I don’t doubt that her own mother would take the necessary steps to cut her off: “Do as you wish. As long as you continue to act in the interest of COVERS (Revocs in reverse), the world will remain your ally.” The anime cuts to a screen of Revocs’ market share throughout the entire world. There’s the implication here that capitalism doesn’t care what really happens with society as long as it is allowed to continue unimpeded. Go against it, however, and the entire world will turn against you. In the end, fascism isn’t necessarily opposed to capitalism anyway. Satsuki’s conquest will only help to sell even more Revocs uniforms. But we have to wonder if this is merely what she says to placate her mother. Someone as smart as Satsuki has to know she can’t just say whatever she wants. When she reports to the CEO of the company that fuels her conquest, Satsuki will no doubt pay lip service to the bottom line: profit. Nevertheless, attaining profit doesn’t necessarily change the world, which is what Satsuki is truly aiming to do.

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I suppose there’s only one last thing to address, and that’s the contradiction inherent in Mako. By all definitions offered to us by the anime’s narrative, Mako should be one of the weakest characters in the Kill la Kill universe. First off, she’s powerless; she has no ability to engage in the sort of mortal combat that determines one’s place in Satsuki’s society. Nevertheless, Mako humorously gets caught up in the war effort anyway. Secondly, Mako has no real ambitions or aims — her life seemingly devoid of any real direction. She has a great compulsion to attend school every day and on time, but it doesn’t seem as if she does so out of a desire to climb the social ladder or anything of that sort. Rather, she’s just following the social norms that says every kid should go to school. Lastly, she is blatantly oblivious of the events surrounding her. Mako takes a keen interest in whatever happens to Ryuuko, but she certainly does not grasp the greater implications of the tempest around her. Rather, Mako is akin to the lumpenprole, “the working class that is unlikely to ever achieve class consciousness and is therefore… of no use to the revolutionary struggle….” Let’s throw in another definition for good measure:

“Marxian and even some non-Marxist socioilogists now use the term to refer to those they see as the ‘victims’ of modern society, who exist outside the wage-labor system, such as beggars, or people who make their living through disreputable means: prostitutes and pimps, swindlers, carnies, drug dealers, bootleggers, and bookmakers, but depend on the formal economy for their day-to-day existence.”

This description sort of reminds me of Mako’s entire family. Her father and her brother are nothing more than swindlers, with the former being quite proud of the fact that he’s a back-alley doctor. At one point in the story, through exploiting Ryuuko’s strength, Mako’s family manages to climb the social hierarchy to the point where they begin to live a rather rich and decadent lifestyle. When Ryuuko realizes that familial happiness — in particular, the joy in being able to feel as though Mako’s family is her own — is now gone as a result, she tries to bring the family back down to squalor (it sounds worse than it actually is). In reaction, Satsuki offers Mako a 3-star position if she defeats Ryuuko, knowing that Ryuuko would never willingly hurt her friend. What we initially see is how Mako’s family has assimilated perfectly into the bourgeoisie, and thus actively encourages Mako to crush Ryuuko in a duel. This calls back to how in the fourth episode, the 1-star neighborhood actively tries to prevent Ryuuko and Mako from reaching school, suggesting that the bourgeoisie and the petit-bourgeoisie strive to preserve the current social order. The poor girl, on the other hand, actually breaks down and cries, “Dad, Mom, why aren’t you trying to stop me?!” She is incapable of achieving class consciousness, but the anime doesn’t see the label ‘lumpenproletariat’ as a pejorative whatsoever. Rather, the anime suggests that there is a quaint sort of bond that can form between the people from this social class, and this bond is stronger than one might expect.

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It is through this same unknown strength that Mako also manages to even approach the corrupted Ryuuko in the twelfth episode. Everyone’s going on about how powerful the fighters are, and how dangerous Ryuuko is in her monstrous state. But at the end of the day, a simple friendship pierces through all the nonsense to revert Ryuuko back to normal. Is this not a demonstration of a powerful resolve? Isn’t Mako’s will to save her friend from the brink of death something to admire? What separates Mako from everyone who can fight? We can even see that she herself can fight when she wears a starred uniform. Nevertheless, Mako’s purpose in the anime is to not fight, and it’s more than just because she’s a comic relief character. One thing for sure is that Satsuki really buys into the Hobbesean state of nature, where without society’s rule of law, a man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Man is only concerned with “preserving one’s own life.” The sovereign, however, can step in, unite the people into a singular commonwealth (or Japanese empire) and compel them to act in the name of the common good, i.e. whatever Satsuki thinks is the grand aim of humanity.

But Rousseau takes a markedly different stance: “…people did not know each other enough to come into serious conflict, and they did have normal values. The modern society, and the ownership it entails, is [to be] blamed for the disruption of the communal and natural state of nature….” In the eighth episode, when Satsuki abolishes much of the student body — naturally, she protects her own place in the social order — all of the students begin to fight each other, i.e. perserving one’s own life.” It is a zero-sum game. But is this the case because man is inherently evil? Or is it not the fact that the starred uniforms are on the line, and thus the prospect of wealth and social status that comes along with the outfits that causes mass chaos to break out? Most importantly, Mako is not remotely interested in participating: “Nah, I’m a No-Star. I don’t have anything to lose.” But by that logic, she has everything to gain. Nevertheless, she’s happy, even if it’s for something as benign as being able to enjoy a one-week vacation. Mako’s existence is thus a seeming contradiction to Satsuki’s beliefs, and perhaps “[c]ontradiction is truth,” as the latter would say. So again, what is Mako’s grander purpose within the narrative? She’s too important… no, too powerful to be simply comic relief. I think this is actually the most crucial question as we head towards the series’ conclusion.

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10 thoughts on “Let’s ramble on and on about Kill la Kill”

  1. I enjoy your writing so it’s always a pity when you take a break and stop blogging for months, but the upside of that is that you start marathoning shows and churn out long analytical pieces like this.

    So yes, please watch NnA.

      1. Actually, thinking about it now it feels like a series with little to write about, since there isn’t much to analyse. Oh well. But I guess if you’re looking for a coming-of-age drama with magical realism you can give the first 3, 4 episodes a try; the protag goes through substantial development within that span of episodes, and character development is really one of the main draw of the series. Uchouten Kazoku is something similar as well, but has a heavier focus on family bonds instead of romance. Uchouten’s also written by the same author as Tatami Galaxy, so you might be interested in that.

  2. Great post!

    As an aside about Mako’s role, I’d like to mention (maybe you’ve already read it) this post: http://formeinfullbloom.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/mako-as-the-greek-chorus-of-kill-la-kill/ about how Mako’s role is also that of a commentary on the action, compared to the Shadow Girls of Utena (a show to which Kill la Kill surely pays a huge debt and that it often homages).

    I think in your representation, the sexual undertones of the show mix well with the overall symbolism if one considers them to be used more as an easy stand-in for what societal norms/expectations are. Surely the expectations about sexual behaviour are amongst the strongest conditioning that we can receive from the rest of society (especially for women, and considering how this show’s main cast is prevalently female that makes even more sense), and with Ragyo’s speech, that ties well in the original sin theme – as the sin that the clothes wanted to cover up was both one of pride/ambition (disobeying God and achieving independent moral judgement) and one of a sexual nature (there are indisputable sexual overtones in the whole Adam/Eve thing, and it was the genitals that they immediately covered up afterwards). There’s a whole host of parties confronting the world in different ways here:

    – Ragyo is fine with the status quo, of people both having pride (sinning) and being ashamed by it, because it allows her to sell clothes to cover them, the end. She’s a straight-out amoral capitalist.
    – Satsuki wants mankind to get free of shame and “sin” openly – she’s ambitious and thinks man is realized only when he thinks big. In a sense, her planned society – strictly positivist, where the strong advance, everyone receives according to his merits, and the whole body of mankind collaborates to an end – resembles some twisted form of socialism – a Stalinist vision. This resonates even more with the Orwellian references (“Contradiction is truth” sounds like it’s been lifted out of 1984, while “pigs in human clothing” quotes Animal Farm).
    – Nudist Beach seems to advocate a return to the primal state – no sin, and no shame. They’re a certain brand of anarchists – today some extreme de-growth neo-tribal movements could well sound similar.
    – Ryuko is as individualist as they come. She doesn’t care about anything except her own values and aims. She doesn’t like power from either end of the stick: doesn’t take orders but doesn’t want any of the responsibilities deriving from command either (seen in her refusing presidency of the Fight Club, as well as her reaction to the fake free-speech advocate in episode 13). The destruction of her Godrobe is to me a consequence of this limited approach: without help from others and a broader view of the world around her she just can’t overcome the enemies she has to face.
    – Mako is a natural stoic; freedom to her comes from peace of mind, not from changing the external world, but from learning how to be unaffected by it (sometimes in an hilariously literal way, like when she was struck by a shower of tennis balls without flinching).

    1. She doesn’t like power from either end of the stick: doesn’t take orders but doesn’t want any of the responsibilities deriving from command either (seen in her refusing presidency of the Fight Club,

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, but I think it’s even more than this. It’s not that she just doesn’t want the responsibility; she seems to be completely apolitical. As I watch the show, I’m hardpressed to consider her a heroine. She’s certainly the protagonist, but is she someone I should cheer for? Not at the moment. So far, Satsuki definitely represents the fascist end of the spectrum. Ragyo is definitely unregulated capitalism run amok (as an aside, I’m not bashing capitalism as a whole but the sensible among us can agree that capitalism without any sort of oversight is dangerous). I agree that Nudist Beach is, to put it simply, anarchist. There is, therefore, a gap for an ideology that the audience can embrace — something that avoids the extremism demonstrated by all the different factions — but unfortunately, Ryuuko is unequipped to fill that void. Now, I’m not advocating for any particular political theory here, despite what my usage of Marxist terms throughout the post might imply. My point is merely that Ryuuko doesn’t stand for anything. She’s just looking for truth, but that’s rather nebulous as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure Satsuki believes she’s in pursuit of truth too.

  3. Wow, this is a very interesting analysis. At first I thought the show might be a jab at the idea of fanservice in anime, since Mako says that Ryuuko must be proud to become naked in order to be strong and gain full control over Senketsu; fewer clothes = better, sounds like fanservice to me (like female armour in video games). And there’s also the fact that the ending theme is full of images of Ryuuko looking at clothes through shop windows. But as the show went on I dropped the idea, since it was only that one scene that made me think that in the first place.

    So it’s interesting to hear this interpretation instead, although I also like the idea of Ryuuko’s bond with Senkentsu representing sexual empowerment.

    1. But as the show went on I dropped the idea,

      Well, it is fanservice though. But it can also mean whole lot of different things. I mean, it’s not like we have to find the one true answer and stick with it. The show is blatant about its fanservice and you can be offended by it or not. At the same time, I offer my additional interpretation and I hope my support of it is compelling. I’m sure it’s the same for other bloggers.

      1. Fair enough, it’s just that I’d only considered that one way of thinking about it. I’m sure everyone else has their own ideas too.

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