We live in a world beset by evil.
Thieves and murderers. Vile governments and villainous tyrants. Loiterers and litterers. Wherever you turn, evil is lurking, waiting, ready to spring.
Hazama Masayoshi is a man who won’t stand for evil. Be it the littlest jaywalker or the most fearsome dictator, he knows evil must be challenged wherever it lies, and as the hero Samurai Flamenco, he will never give up, never hide, never be defeated, never accept evil. Through the course of his own tremendously exciting and completely ridiculous show, he takes on petty theft, evil terrorists, giant monsters, pernicious governments, mysterious aliens, and his own evil shadow. And by the end, Hazama Masayoshi finally defeats…
I mean, not nothing exactly. He defeats a lot of things! But if his mission statement is to “never accept evil,” well, he’s got a whole long way to go.
Because frankly, evil isn’t something you can really defeat at all.
Samurai Flamenco (the show, not the hero) knows this. It’s obvious, a truism. From the very first episodes, the absurdity of Masayoshi’s quest is clear – you can work to change society, and you can try to be the best person you can be, but no matter how many jaywalkers you stop, there’ll always be another person wandering into the middle of the road. Samurai Flamenco isn’t really about what Masayoshi fights – it’s about what Masayoshi is.
Masayoshi knows a lot about heroes – in fact, they’re all he knows. As a child, Masayoshi was inspired by the heroes he saw on television. Good and evil, virtue and villainy, a strong force for justice – all of this appealed to him on a fundamental level. His grandfather encouraged this fascination, and as he grew into adulthood, Masayoshi held onto this belief in heroes in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In spite of his teachers telling him there was no job market for heroes. In spite of the practicalities of adult life demanding he hide his fascination. And eventually, Masayoshi became the hero he sought.
This is a laudable thing. Masayoshi isn’t alone in his love of heroes – everyone loves them! People are fascinated by the idea of those who go beyond mere mundane existence, who act as exemplars. They inspire us, they entertain us, they give us simpler realities to believe in. Masayoshi’s politics are a simplification, but not an extreme one. And framing the battle for justice as a cartoon show is basically the mission statement of most 24 hour news networks. Is believing in heroes that bad?
Alright, if you missed the sarcasm in those last couple sentences, I’m legitimately worried for you, because the answer I am leading you to is “yes, believing in heroes can be that bad.” Samurai Flamenco revels in hero lore and delights in unironically celebrating the fun of punching evil in the face, but it never forgets what our obsession with simple hero narratives really says about us. Heroes divorce us from reality. By framing tragedy as entertainment, we distance ourselves from it, and are able to go about our daily lives as usual.
This happens continuously and on an absurd scale in Samurai Flamenco. When a drug peddler suddenly transforms into a giant gorilla with a guillotine in its stomach, beheads a policeman, and announces the arrival of the malevolent King Torture, people are understandably concerned. But as King Torture’s minions continue their small-time rampage, people grow complacent. As this pattern repeats and the scale increases, the message only becomes more clear – just as we turn complex systems of justice into simplistic ideas of right and wrong, there is virtually no scale of danger and tragedy we are incapable of turning into a media narrative, into something that’s happening on the television to somebody else.
Speaking of right and wrong, our systems of justice are also far from exempt from “hero-ization,” from the simplification caused by our need to turn the complex events of our lives into narratives and entertainment. Characters like Mari and Konno embody this desire – both of them admit they find heroism appealing largely because it’s entertaining. And sometimes this message is highlighted through the narrative itself, like when Japan’s Prime Minister capitalizes on his people’s love of simple narratives to raise his own poll numbers. The Prime Minister isn’t defeated through an appeal to rationality or a more complex system of “justice” – he’s defeated when Konno, the master of entertainment, manages to reverse the simple narrative. It’s on the nose, but it’s also true – we live in a world where complex problems have to be reduced to simple narratives or the public will simply change the channel. People always prefer an empowering narrative to a grim reality.
“But that’s not the fault of heroes! Heroes fight for good!” Masayoshi might cry. Well, yeah, that’s true – but that doesn’t mean they necessarily inspire good. Heroes inspire people, and people bring their own hangups to the table. Masayoshi is startled to find this is the case when he finally confronts King Torture, a man who has realized the world is far too complicated for simple ideals of justice. Torture doesn’t respond to this by giving up, though – his heroes have inspired him too deeply for that. He responds to it by embracing evil, and seeking a world where the only “pure” morality is a reality – the purity of total chaos. And though Masayoshi defeats Torture, his final foe ends up being an even more pure articulation of this truth – the boy who was inspired by him specifically to commit evil. The boy who saw all the great deeds of Samurai Flamenco and didn’t think “that inspires me to do justice as well” – the boy who saw all that and instead thought “that entertains me. How can I keep being entertained?”
So perhaps heroes aren’t good. Does that mean they’re evil? No, of course not! Samurai Flamenco inspires great acts of charity as well, and doing great deeds should always be encouraged. So if they’re not good or evil, what are heroes?
Heroes are powerful.
They can inspire us to great deeds. They can excuse great acts of evil. But like the media world they inhabit, they are inescapable – they are a fact of life. Not just because that’s the folly of media and inspiration. And not because they are needed to fight evil. Though Samurai Flamenco’s nemesis scoffs that “once evil is gone, there isn’t a need for Samurai Flamenco anymore,” he could not be more wrong. We don’t need heroes because evil lurks out there. We don’t need heroes because they’re an easy way to be entertained. We need heroes because we need heroes.
We have to have heroes. They give us hope. They make us strong. We need role models, we need champions, we need targets of love and faith and obsession and hope. We need to feel there is something greater than us, something that really will never give up, never hide, never be defeated, never accept evil. All the rest is a byproduct of this – our recontextualizing of tragedy, our simplified narratives of good and evil. As children we may want to become heroes, but even as adults we understand that faith is real. It is powerful and dangerous, but also personal and capable of great things. We need heroes because in a world of complexity, chaos, and loss, something simple and true can inspire us to the certainty of heroism as well.
Throughout the course of Samurai Flamenco, Masayoshi has his faith in heroism, in “justice,” tested. He learns that heroes are not universal forces for good. He learns that his simplistic world is possibly unachievable. But that doesn’t matter – because Masayoshi’s power to change the world is never important. It is his faith that it can change that is. And that faith is his greatest, most enduring quality.
Samurai Flamenco doesn’t encourage disconnecting from reality, of course. Masayoshi is a cautionary figure even as he is a hero – the show likes Masayoshi, but it doesn’t idolize him. But the show’s cynicism about the “purity” of heroism ends up being reflected in its certainty that heroism is important. It doesn’t matter that belief is of ambiguous merit – belief is, and we have to go from there. Even when Masayoshi wishes to give up his mantle, he can’t – as Moe states directly to her own idol, “nothing you can do will stop you from being my hero.”
And we shouldn’t discard our heroes – they really do inspire us to greatness. Whether it’s a sentai hero teaching us that stealing is wrong or a local samaritan helping out in his community, we are all heroes to each other. Even if we don’t mean to, we can be important to each other. Humans are weird, and we find inspiration in strange places, but in the end, our belief in heroes is ultimately based in our faith in people. In a world where narratives are skewed, justice is a myth, and heroism inspires villainy as well as greatness, Samurai Flamenco itself ultimately ends not in a heroic showdown, but in a confrontation between friends who care about each other. The media world we inhabit and come to reflect is really just a pale mirror of how we all influence each other – how Masayoshi’s grandfather instilled justice in him, how Mari almost accidentally gives Moe a cause, or how Masayoshi’s own faith renews Goto’s sense of purpose when his belief is nearly gone. We are all heroes, because we all give each other something to believe in.
Masayoshi does battle with all manner of monsters and aliens throughout Samurai Flamenco, but in the end, I think the series’ most inspiring moment is also one of its smallest. On the run from the government, no longer the darling of the media narrative and isolated from his friends, Masayoshi at one point finds himself taking shelter in a local park. The homeless man who lives there offers him a place to sleep, and ends up revealing it was one of Masayoshi’s own local adventures that inspired this spirit of charity. Though this man had become disillusioned with the world, a small act of selflessness by Samurai Flamenco gave him hope – and this hope inspired him to further action, instilling in him a faith in people that gave his world meaning once again. Masayoshi’s own heroes might have been fabricated, convenient narratives, but the faith they instilled in him was real. And if that faith can inspire others to believe in people, then perhaps justice really is something worth fighting for.