Tiger & Bunny Ep. 21: Superman, the salaryman and Kotetsu

Whoever wrote Tiger & Bunny really likes superheroes. In a sense, that goes without saying, but I mean that this person really, really likes superheroes. Why do I say that? You can think of this episode as a refutation of Bill’s speech in Kill Bill.

Who is Superman?
Most comic book fans should be pretty familiar with the famous Superman speech from Kill Bill, but if you’re not, I’ll briefly go over the topic. To give the speech a little context, Beatrix Kiddo, the movie’s heroine, tried to quit her day job as an assassin to have a normal life, i.e. have a family, raise a kid, etc. Bill, her old boss, wants to convince her that she’d be living a lie and he uses Superman as an analogy. In his mind, Superman is really Superman. Clark Kent, on the other hand, is actually the alter ego. Bill goes on a little further to imply that Clark Kent is Superman’s critique of the human race and this is important too, but I’ll address this at the end. The point is that being a superhero is Superman’s actual nature. Likewise, Bill wants to convince Beatrix that she’s truly a killing machine; she would and could never feel comfortable being a normal person living a normal life.

Well, this speech caused a bit of an uproar with comic book fans. I won’t bog down this post with the final details of the discussion. I’ll just say this: Bill’s description of Superman might be true of an earlier age of the famed superhero, but the character has evolved since then. Most fans now accept the three identity model of Superman, i.e. he’s a superhero, he’s the bumbling Clark Kent and the farm boy. Superman isn’t dependent upon any one persona as Bill’s theory might suggest. For instance, imagine if the world no longer needed superheroes — Superman* wouldn’t just disappear. He’d still exist as the other two personas.

(*It’s a little different if you apply this thought experiment to, say, Batman. What would Bruce Wayne really do if he couldn’t fight crime anymore? That’s hard to say — maybe a philanthropist till he dies?)

Wild Tiger, Kaburagi Kotetsu and Dad
Maverick wants to destroy Kotetsu, but how does one go about destroying a superhero? Let’s say Maverick buys into Bill’s theory of Superman; he thus tries to destroy who he thinks the character really is: Wild Tiger. First, he replaces Wild Tiger with a robot. Not only does this bring the robot subplot full circle, but it also shows the emptiness behind the idea of a superhero. You’re just a concept — a symbol for people to believe in. As a result, a really good robot could do what you do. Without his identity as a superhero, Maverick assumes that Kaburagi Kotetsu, the alter ego, would soon follow suit. Since his “real life persona” is such a secret, Kaburagi Kotetsu is a man with nobody to turn to, i.e. a man identified by his job… or so Maverick thinks. More on this idea a little later.

The reason why Maverick’s diabolical plan is destined to fail — if you can disregard the fact that it is seemingly full of holes — is because, like Bill, he’s simply wrong about who Superman really is. This isn’t even much of an existential question; Kotetsu has already worked out and accepted his fate as a family man once he hangs up the mask. Like Superman, if Kotetsu no longer had to fight crime, he wouldn’t just disappear. He still has his daughter to go back to. Notice the parallels between Kotetsu and Superman: they both come from bucolic roots. Their alter egos are both kinda goofy, albeit in different ways. Kotetsu’s tale implicitly (or explicitly if the creators ever state otherwise) refutes Bill’s speech. Superman isn’t Clark Kent’s real nature, Beatrix isn’t just a killing machine, and Kotetsu’s existence doesn’t hinge upon his Wild Tiger persona. Kotetsu is also Dad from the country, and Kaede’s presence (and Ben’s to an extent) in the episode is a constant reminder of this very fact.

Buck up, salaryman of Japan!
It isn’t far-fetched to think Tiger & Bunny is also addressing a problem specific to the culture it comes from. Japan has been called a “nation of suicide.” There are plenty of reasons why people commit suicide in Japan, but the one most relevant to our topic is that of “salarymen” losing their jobs. I’m reminded of how an unemployed man in Tokyo Sonata could no longer take the shame of his failures and committed a murder-suicide with his wife as a victim. For a country like Japan, where a job can define a man much more than it does in the West, it isn’t surprising to hear someone take their life over a recent firing or layoff.

The parallels between a salaryman and a superhero is not as crazy as you might think. A salaryman is identified very much by the suit he wears. Likewise, a superhero dons a suit to fight crime. A salaryman spends a lot of time away from home to provide for his family. Kotetsu rarely sees his daughter as he has to fight crime in the city. When a salaryman loses his job, he loses the right to wear a suit. Kotetsu also loses his rights to wear the suit we commonly see him wear. I can’t find the source at the moment, but isn’t Super Sentai meant to glorify the salaryman? There is thus a long history in Japan of conflating the salaryman with heroism**. Anyway, this is where the similarities stop: unlike the salaryman, Kotetsu isn’t going to commit suicide.

(**This adds a new dimension to why Karina used to find her job unsatisfying. From the outside, i.e. to us, she gets to be a heroine! She gets to be on TV! She gets to save lives! Why would anyone give this up to be an idol? But this is a culture that glorifies the salaryman, remember? From her perspective, she was just toiling away at another job like a salaryman.)

It’s natural for Maverick, the father of Hero TV, to believe that the suit makes the superhero. To him, a superhero is just a concept and he’ll prove this by having Barnaby crush Kotetsu in a brand spankin’ new armor. Likewise, a salaryman is just another Japanese drone in a business suit. A company can replace an employee with any other schmoe — it doesn’t matter to them. This reminds me of when Scrubs’ Dr. Bob Kelso reprimands a young doctor for failing to follow his orders: “Dr. Dorian, do you not realize that you’re nothing but a large pair of scrubs to me?”

Kotetsu will prove, however, that he’s not just a superhero — that taking away his costume won’t also destroy who he is as a person — which is why Kotetsu dons his old outfit: “Look, you can take my image away if you want, but I’m still me no matter what I wear.” I dunno if any recently unemployed and depressed salaryman will watch Tiger & Bunny, but maybe they should! There’s more to them than just being another corporate drone in a suit.

So to tie everything back to the original topic, if, according to Bill, Superman’s alter ego is a critique of the human race, Tiger & Bunny is an affirmation of the human race. So what if you couldn’t fight crime anymore? You still have a wonderful family life to live. Kotetsu fights on even when things look as bad as they do, because even if he couldn’t be a superhero anymore, he still has his daughter.

Everything else
Since this post is long enough, I’ll just skip this part.

13 thoughts on “Tiger & Bunny Ep. 21: Superman, the salaryman and Kotetsu

  1. Ando

    Great review. I’d never thought of superheroes like that, but now that you mention it there’s a lot of truth in it. It’s really interesting to think about where they believe their identities lie. I always thought the reasons Kotetsu refuses to hang up his shoes (even though his daughter is lonely at home) were pride, his sense of justice, not being able to let go of his wife, and not wanting to grow up, but I suppose an even bigger part is that he’s so invested in his superhero identity.

    Incidentally, I do think this show was originally targeted at buisnessmen (despite it being a massive hit with fangirls), hence the middle-aged hero and old-school goofiness, and I’ve actually seen promo material refer to Kotetsu as a “salary-man hero”.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Kotetsu is slightly more complex than your average anime hero and I think that’s part of the show’s charm. I think people like to see a confident protagonist. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what got the fangirls’ attention. No one wants to date the whitebread, a-million-blushes-a-minute shounen of other anime.

      Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          I don’t think Kotetsu will ever come close to the attention Spike got though. He had all the typical nerd fantasies like a mysterious past, the attention of hot babes (Kotetsu has Karina, but nothing on the level of Spike), space ships, mercenary day job, evil rival, an easily recognizable form of martial arts, etc. Oh yeah, Spike also wasn’t a dad. Few people fantasize about being a single parent.

  2. Mira

    You touched on some very fascinating points here. Interesting comparison with the superhero and the salaryman. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pilot but in the pilot included with the Blurays, Kotetsu and Barnaby are referred to as ‘strongly motivated salarymen buddy heroes’.

    I suppose the ‘salaryman’ allusions have been watered down a bit when the series premiered but after reading your post, it makes so much sense.

    I dunno if any recently unemployed and depressed salaryman will watch Tiger & Bunny, but maybe they should!

    I agree. Whatever you throw at Kotetsu, this guy just keeps on getting up on his feet. He’s a bit of a doofus at times,but this is something I’ve seen lacking in a lot of many main (mostly the male ones) characters these days. They’re passive and defined by one or two personality traits.

    Great post on T&B, it’s so hard to find insightful posts on T&B.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Kotetsu and Barnaby are referred to as ‘strongly motivated salarymen buddy heroes’.

      Ooh, that’s cool. I’m going to insist I never knew this to make my analysis seem more profound! No, really, I had no idea.

      Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Sort of bad form to quote myself, but I’m too lazy to dig up an article:

      From 1975 and through the 80s, The Super Sentai Series defined heroism for a lot of Japanese young boys, whose closest male models were their dads. What is it about these costume-clad fighters that could possibly relate to Japanese dads? The answer lies in their relative lack of distinguishing features. When corporate culture started to take over Japan, male beauty standards changed even then. Starting in the 70s, which (not so) coincidentally is when Super Sentai started, there was a shift of the desired male types from “scholar types or athletes to the salaryman as the preferred marriage candidate.” Take a look again at the heroes above and the salaryman below.

      It isn’t rocket science. A hero (salaryman) must shed his individuality and put on his costume (business suit) to selflessly fight against evil (be the sole breadwinner of the family). Corporate culture quickly de-eroticized men, preaching a “productivity ideology of standardization, order, control, rationality and impersonality.”

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    A very interesting analysis of this episode. When you think about it, the idea that the a person can have many different identities is somewhat of a recurring theme in this series. Episode 16, as you pointed out in your respective post, was a great example of that with the contrasting ways Lunatic and Kotetsu viewed Legend.

    I was surprised that you didn’t see the same thing in episode 18 though. You weren’t too fond of that episode but it gave some humanization to both Kriem and Jake. The latter even got the ”Legend”-treatment seeing as he was a monster in the eyes of Sternbild’s citizens yet a savior in the eyes of Kriem. I know it’s a bit late to bring it up but aw well.

    Reply
  4. Ryan R

    Very thought-provoking post. I definitely think that you’re on to something here. And I agree that Tiger and Bunny would be a great show for a recently fired/laid off salaryman to watch to try to realize that just because he’s lost his job doesn’t mean he’s entirely worthless.

    Reply

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