Samurai Flamenco and the Might of Heroes

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.

Samurai Flamenco

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…

Well… nothing.

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.

[HorribleSubs] Samurai Flamenco - 07 [720p].mkv_snapshot_21.11_[2014.04.05_08.32.15]

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.

Samurai Flamenco is a story about heroes.

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.

Samurai Flamenco

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.

Samurai Flamenco

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.

Samurai Flamenco

“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.

Samurai Flamenco

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

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.

Samurai Flamenco

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.

19 thoughts on “Samurai Flamenco and the Might of Heroes

  1. Desire for justice is a facet of love. Great text ! In the end Samurai Flamenco shows that heroes are more real then they may seem.

    • Still not 100% sure about the last boy goals. If it was entertainment why was he ready to kill himself ? If it was to continue ideals of pure justice inspired by heroes why did he wanted Masayoshi to become a dark grayer entity? Did he simply wanted to confront those silly ideals? He definitely got a kick out of thinking about it. Did he wanted to also contribute to those ideals by becoming ”part” of Samurai Flamenco, and to make him seem more real also ? Bit of everything?

      • I’m not sure he knew it himself.
        Heroes may be simplistic, but it made his life more complicated. Until now, he didn’t knew his life could be different. He never expected it to change.
        He is fascinated by Samurai Flamenco, in its own twisted way.
        Maybe he also wanted to be to Samurai Flamenco what Samurai Flamenco was to him.
        I think there is also the part of him who would like to be a hero, but feels unable to.

        Masayoshi is an extremely simple person, perhaps even simplistic, but his effect on people is far from being that simple. That may be the most interresting part of the show.

      • The last boy was one mixed-up kid, and I do think it was a bit of everything. He wanted to be important. He wanted to prove someone who cared about something wrong. He wanted to contribute to a narrative that actually made sense to him. He’s basically an amalgamation of all the ways people can take their inspirations to very dark places.

    • I’m not sure a layman’s explanation of nonrealist accounts of morality is really so dramatically insightful. For me, reading that was a total fucking wallbanger, actually: just because you can’t find justice on the Periodic Table doesn’t mean there’s no such thing, while there’s definitely actually no Tooth Fairy.

      • There’s context involved with that quote, in that the very people discussing it bring humor and irony to it: Death (all caps speaker) is talking to his grandaughter Susan, and the reason why Death is personified in Discworld, and thus able to have a grandaughter and talk to her, is because of belief in Death as a personified figure. Discworld itself runs off of beliefs, (If a crazy plan actually has a million-to-one chance, it will work, but not if it’s a 999,999-to-1 chance, and gods whose religions are purely dogmatic no longer receive power from their followers because it isn’t true belief) which is an exaggerated form and commentary on our world. In a society completely composed of cynical bastards, Justice and Mercy really wouldn’t exist. Death’s point isn’t that ideals don’t exist, but that they are inherently generated by the beings that believe in them. (including hypothetical deities that decree their existence)

  2. I’ve been lurking on your blog for a long time now but I’ve finally decided to comment.

    I agree with your interpretation that Samurai Flamenco is a show about how heroes are really just a means for people to inspire faith in others. However, do you think the way they went about showing this theme was effective? It seems like many people don’t hold the series highly because of the seemingly “randomness” of events. Although the overall message becomes clear once you look at it as a whole, I think they could have done it much more smoothly, which is why I’m struggling on determining how I view the overall series.

    I also want to mention how many review/overviews of shows you write seem to follow a “thesis and supporting evidence” type of format. I find this very impressive and very admirable seeing as how many people nitpick about shows instead of seeing the larger picture. However, sometimes looking at things from far away leads to ignoring some of the details. Would you say that because of the format you follow, you sometimes forgive a shows more minor flaws in favor of the larger intent behind the show? Shows like Gargantia and Gatchaman Crowds seem to be “OK” according to the public, but are viewed quite highly by you. But you also really liked The World God Only Knows, which I absolutely adore despite not really knowing why.

    • Thanks for commenting! As for your questions…

      Regarding the effectiveness of the show’s articulation of its themes, while I have small issues here and there with how specific details line up, I actually think it was quite effective in articulating its central messages. However, Samurai Flamenco chose to articulate this message by doing something very few shows do – living out its message through a series of large, abrupt genre shifts. This pretty much automatically lent an air of unreality to the show, which turned off a lot of people, and also meant that enjoying the show kind of required enjoying a wide variety of very disparate genres, which also turned off a lot of people. I think the choice was ultimately very interesting and effective, but it’s understandable to me why the show lost a lot of viewers as a result, or led people to not consider the show very seriously.

      As for the second question, this is mainly just the format I take for my essays. I ended up grading Samurai Flamenco an 8/10 largely because I think it has a number of aesthetic and pacing issues, but I consider that stuff pretty self-evident – what I find interesting, and what I like exploring at length, is what I think the show is ultimately trying to say. I spend plenty of pieces talking about various details of how to tell a story effectively, but when it comes to my series retrospectives, I tend to prefer just discussing shows I think were reasonably effective at exploring interesting ideas. I could nitpick shows all day, but my favorite shows articulate compelling points or start interesting discussions, and so that’s what I focus on for the long-form pieces.

      I don’t think that directly explains Gargantia or Gatchaman Crowds, though – I think there are specific, understandable reasons each of those shows received a less positive reception than I gave them personally. I’m a guy who’s clearly focused on what thematic points any given show is playing with, and I think each of those shows succeeded admirably in exploring a wide variety of such points – but Gargantia did a less extreme version of Flamenco’s genre-hopping, and Gatchaman Crowds almost abandoned its overt narrative for the sake of its thematic resolution, and not everybody is so forgiving of stuff like that. The reasons we like or dislike shows tend to be much more complex and personal than a simple poll of ratings could indicate.

      • Hm, I can see how the abrupt genre shifts can aid in telling the story. I suppose because it’s so rare that it wasn’t received well nor did people know how to deal with it. I also understand how you tend to view shows retrospectively from a thematic standpoint rather than a “is this a ‘good’ anime” standpoint. That makes sense considering your post titles. It also explains why you enjoyed Gargantia and Gatchaman Crowds more than others. It seems like you watch anime much like how you may read a paper: looking for the central idea. Not to say that you don’t watch for enjoyment, it’s just that you may focus more on distilling the essence rather than being fixated on the logic of the show.

        As for myself, I’m not really quite sure I’m looking for when I’m watching shows. On one hand I want to look at the larger picture, but on another I want to simply sit back and enjoy mindlessly for fear of losing what got me into anime in the first place. My recently started blog is an attempt to try to wring from myself what I find interesting. It’s my hope that writing will help me understand my own tastes better and thus myself better.

      • I’m seriously still waiting for the English sub of the property version of Gatchaman ending to come out so we can finally discuss its actual narrative conclusion. Believe it or not the final 12 minutes actually addressed a lot of the criticisms and further consolidated one major theme.

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