How very meta:
Masayoshi: “How does your death help Samurai Flamenco?”
Haiji: “After fighting street thugs, a national government, and aliens, has Samurai Flamenco-san finished doing good? No, he hasn’t. You have yet to become a dark hero… For that, you require emotional baggage and a dark past. My death will leave you scarred enough to begin a new fight as a dark hero. Samurai Flamenco Darkness will be born!”
Boy, does that sound familiar!
Haiji goes on to say, “I want to become your traumatic past… One that will never disappear.” You can tell where I want to go with this: I want to draw on examples from the West to help us understand Samurai Flamenco‘s commentary on the evolution of the superhero.
For the longest time, superheroes have always been viewed as, well, kiddy stuff. Superhero characters, superhero settings, and even superhero conflicts themselves have often been quite hyperreal in nature. Essentially, everything is colorful, and everything is simplistic. At the end of the day, the superhero defeats the supervillain and the world eventually returns to normal. Like I’ve said, this is kiddy stuff. The real world isn’t so clean-cut. Real world conflicts aren’t so simple in nature and neatly resolved. Real world characters aren’t paragons of justice. They’re as deeply flawed as you or me. But aha…! The prototypical superhero is a paragon of justice. He or she epitomizes everything that is good about the world. Ergo, he or she isn’t a real character. I mean, c’mon, Superman is a freaking Jesus allegory, for Christ’s sake! And yes, I know that recent renditions of Superman has also trended towards making him more human, but bear with me.
Again, my point is that our original superhero stories have always been seen by its detractors as kiddy stuff. Why? Because they weren’t realistic. So in order to rectify this problem, recent superhero makeovers have trended towards the grim and the gritty. Take Nolan’s version of Batman for instance. What makes his version of Batman so appealing to a lot of us? Why is it that Nolan’s Batman movies have managed to garner not just a buttload of money, but also critical acclaim. Now, money is always great, but that critical acclaim thing… that’s truly something else. For the first time, a lot of people actually started to take superhero movies seriously. Sure, sure, you could argue that X-Men or the Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman were the first superhero movies to kickstart this current bubble (seriously, did we really need a movie about Thor?), but no one ever thought that either of those two movies deserved to win an Oscar.
Regardless of whether or not you respect The Academy Awards and its judging process, winning an Oscar will forever be a big deal in the filmmaking industry. And Nolan’s The Dark Knight was the first time anyone ever said, “Wow, this movie might actually deserve an Oscar.” Did it? Well, let’s not get into that debate here. What’s important, however, is how Nolan managed to change public perception of superhero stories in just a few films. Gone are the blue skies. We’ll replace them with the downcast Chicago skyline instead. Gone are the paragons of justice. After all, is Nolan’s Batman a paragon of justice? Or a tormented soul that has never gotten over his parents’ death? Hell, just contrast Batman’s “The people are ready to believe in good” with Superman’s “I believe in the people.” Batman is that dark hero with a tragic past that Haiji is talking about.
Giving Masayoshi a grimdark past is definitely one way to make his superhero tale seem realistic. Having said that, let’s take a step back and take a look at Samurai Flamenco as a whole. At first, the story really did try to convey a realistic sort of superhero story. And apparently, a lot of people loved the first six episodes of Samurai Flamenco. A lot of you guys totally wanted that down-to-earth superhero that you could relate to. Unfortunately, you couldn’t really say that the original Samurai Flamenco was exciting, could you? Hell, this was what I initially wrote when I first blogged about the show:
But at the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but yearn for something more. There can be something beautiful in capturing the humdrum-ness of our everyday lives if you have a unique perspective on it (see: American Beauty), but, well, what can I say? Most of us are thrill-seeking adventurers by heart. I want to get emotionally invested like when I watch Batman. Masayoshi fighting street thugs is cute, but it doesn’t scratch that itch. Even when that “dark, painful past” trope showed up, and our hero learned that his parents were actually murdered, the show still played the whole thing off in its own subdued way…
So how do you deliver excitement? Well, battling aliens sounds exciting. Battling monsters from another dimension also sounds pretty exciting too. Masayoshi yearned for it too; he wanted to be the same superhero he had idolized in his youth. As a result, the story started to veer towards the hyperreal. Yes, Samurai Flamenco did a commendable job in aping the Super Sentai series of old, but now there was a new problem. While the action was arguably more exciting — I mean, we’re in freaking space! — the show was no longer realistic. And because it was no longer realistic, it also became kiddy. Let’s face it, few people love that kind of stuff anymore. People these days want heroes that they can relate to, not faceless guys in color-coded uniforms doing battle with Miami Ballerina. Former fans of Samurai Flamenco griped and whined that our hero wasn’t realistic. He was cartoony. Battling monsters from another dimension? Battling aliens from outer space? C’mon, that’s totally kiddy stuff. But it’s as if Manglobe had heard everyone’s complaints, so in the end, Masayoshi had to grow up a bit. The universe offered to continue Masayoshi’s superhero narrative, but our protagonist turned it down so that he could return to his normal life. After all, he couldn’t keep imperiling his friends just to make himself look good.
But let’s face it… had Samurai Flamenco stayed realistic in the same sort of way that it had started out, it just wouldn’t have been very exciting to watch. Running through traffic to retrieve Goto’s umbrella? Coming to terms with your parents’ murder? Lecturing some kids for being hoodlums? C’mon, that’s just mundane! And as we can plainly see from the West, the only other option left for Samurai Flamenco is to become cynical. For the show to be both realistic and exciting, Masayoshi would have to become the dark hero that Haiji wants him to be. But do we really want someone as innocent and naive as Masayoshi to become another version of Bruce Wayne? After all, Nolan’s The Dark Knight is very cynical. To root for the latest film version of Batman, you must implicitly agree that the world is fucked up. I want to demonstrate why this is the case, but if you’re not interested in a short analysis of The Dark Knight, you can just skip the next three paragraphs.
Take the infamous scene with the two boats in The Dark Knight. For those who aren’t familiar with the movie, one boat is filled with civilians, and the other boat is filled with convicts. A bomb has been planted on both boats, and each side has been given a detonator to the other boat. In other words, the convicts can blow up the civilians, and the civilians can blow up the convicts. Basically, to ensure that you won’t die, you’ll have to blow up the other boat. Otherwise, you’ll just have to trust that the people on other boat won’t blow you up first. But who wants to trust a boat full of convicts? Now, most people after watching this scene will think that the Joker eventually loses and humanity’s goodness ultimately prevails. The Joker wants to prove to Batman that society is inherently barbaric, but neither side votes to the other boat up. But here’s an alternative interpretation, and I’ll let you decide which of the two you find more convincing.
The civilians haven’t actually empathized with the convicts; they are just too scared to actually pull the trigger, so to speak. And from this, we see society’s hypocrisy at its best. After all, the civilians actually agree to blow up the convicts, and hell, this is basically what happens everyday anyway. We vote to incarcerate people by the millions, but do we actually care what happens to them once they go to jail? Do we care that many people end up being raped or killed in prison? Of course not! They’re criminals! They wouldn’t be in jail if they didn’t deserve it. All of a sudden, however, the civilians on the boat must now make a conscious decision to actually kill the convicts. Ah, but the civilians don’t pull the trigger. And why don’t they? Precisely because they’ve noticed that they themselves haven’t been blown up yet. The civilians are thus faced with the harsh truth that they would’ve gladly blown up the convicts when the convicts had not actually done the same to the civilians in return.
Essentially, the Joker is forcing people to make a painful choice, and the civilians admit that they are unable to make that choice without feeling immense guilt. Of course, neither boat blows up, but the point has nevertheless been made. Harvey Dent’s complete fall from grace merely reinforces the Joker’s argument: “All it takes is a little push.” As a result, Batman takes the blame for Dent’s murders in order to preserve people’s false sense of their own goodness. They no longer have to make that painful choice. Instead, Batman will make it for them. To illustrate this same point, take a look at another example in the same movie. Lucius Fox morally objects to Batman’s unethical surveillance system, but Batman assures Lucius that no matter what, he’ll take the blame. As such, Lucius can aid Batman and still walk away from the incident without any guilt. Again, Batman becomes the scapegoat. You won’t have to feel guilty because he’ll be making the decision for you. But as you can see, this is a hollow victory because society’s deep systemic problems still remains. But between a greatly flawed liberal democracy and Joker’s total embrace of chaos, Batman feels as though his choice is the lesser of two evils.
So there you go… to make a superhero story realistic and exciting, there has to be real problems for the superhero to tackle. The nature of the world must be both cynical and depressing. You can’t just have your hero pick up trash. But you can’t have him fighting aliens and monsters from another dimension either, because that’s the cartoony shit that so many people didn’t want when the series started to go all nutty on us. So instead, our hero’s only remaining option is to face society’s problems. But again, is this what we really want for Masayoshi? Do we really want him to “grow up” even more, and become that dark hero with loads of baggage just so that we can have our gritty, realistic cake and eat it too? In a lot of ways, Masayoshi is still the author of his own story, and that is why he ultimately rejects the dark hero narrative. This is why he strips himself down to the nude. After all, if he truly becomes a dark hero, is it likely that a dark hero could continue to share happy-go-lucky moments with his best friend? Of course not. So for Masayoshi to become a dark hero, he would also need to sacrifice Goto, which we know he would never, ever do.
So faced with the prospect of becoming a realistic superhero, i.e. a dark hero, Masayoshi chooses the only alternative at his disposal: reject being a superhero entirely. At first, Masayoshi even considers killing himself: “If I died, you would no longer have any reason to do evil.” But this is too extreme. He doesn’t actually need to die in order to kill off Samurai Flamenco. After all, a naked Samurai Flamenco isn’t really Samurai Flamenco at all. It’s just Masayoshi. Naturally, this is what Masayoshi ultimately opts to do: go completely naked. And thematically, this fits in with the final arc perfectly. Goto’s trauma is not something that a superhero can fix. Batman can crack as many skulls as he desires, but he’s never going to help someone like Goto get over a missing girlfriend. And likewise, a superhero can’t fix Haiji. A superhero might detain Haiji, and get the kid locked away for good, but he or she wouldn’t actually solve Haiji’s problems. Can Masayoshi do it? Who knows? But with love, he can try.
So what’s love got to do with it? Call it whatever you wish: a romantic love from Masayoshi to Goto, or just platonic love between two close friends gone a little nutty because Samurai Flamenco as a whole is a little nutty–… it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, you still have one guy’s genuine expression of love for another human being. As a paragon of justice, this isn’t really possible. As Masayoshi, however, this is totally possible. Our protagonist then extends his love to Haiji in spite everything the kid has done. Again, this isn’t something Masayoshi could’ve accomplished as a paragon of justice who is only concerned with black-and-white morality. This is something he can only do as a one flawed human being empathizing with another flawed human being. And yes, this conclusion isn’t really exciting in the sort of way that one might expect from a contemporary superhero story, but the beauty of Samurai Flamenco is that Masayoshi now accepts his normal life. He accepts that he can’t have an equally exciting and grown-up superhero story. He accepts that his real life more resembles the first six episodes of the series than any other superhero narrative, and that’s perfectly okay.
Near the end of the episode, both Masayoshi and Goto get into a shouting match, and our protagonist rattles off “baka” over and over as if he was a child. Considering what I’ve just written above, this is hardly an accident. The show’s basically saying, “If staying innocent and not falling prey to cynicism means Samurai Flamenco won’t be as exciting to a lot of people, then fine!” So what’s the very last shot we see in the story?
Someone litters from a car as they drive by, and this causes Masayoshi to rip open his shirt a la Superman. The mundane, slice-of-life Samurai Flamenco is back.