They Fought Aliens and Fell in Love: Why Samurai Flamenco is Important

Of all the things people were expecting from the Samurai Flamenco finale, a naked marriage proposal probably wasn’t at the top of the list. But I can’t think of a better way to cap off a show that thrived on plot twists both totally out of left field and bizarrely true to the characters and world of the story. It’s not the events of the ending I want to talk about so much (though I pushed back another post on Samurai Flamenco as a whole to stage a discussion on recent events). The show isn’t rare for having romantic tension between its two male leads – KyoAni will tell you that that’s a pretty sweet way to fund your retirement. What’s damned unusual is that they followed through on it, a move so unprecedented that not to talk about it would be to miss a golden opportunity.

love-is

I see that you and the audience are having the same realization, Masayoshi

Would you like to know how rare this overt love confession is? So much that a not-insignificant portion of the viewing audience has tried their hand at arguing that it isn’t a real confession at all, but rather a situational bit of confused-friendship, played to earn the dollars of the Free! audience I alluded to above. I find this fact deeply disturbing. Now, I could talk about a number of things that point to Masayoshi’s feelings as definitively romantic (even if the proposal itself was spur of the moment, as befits the character), as well as Goto’s implied reciprocation: the deliberate visual and scripting parallels between the Mari/Moe (who are explicitly shown to be physically intimate) and Masayoshi/Goto fights and reconciliations, not to mention visual imagery such as umbrella sharing (shorthand for romantic intimacy in Japanese culture, not unlike writing initials inside a heart); the use of romantic lyrics pertaining to the characters’ situation in the epilogue (and deliberately cutting to a second verse to time the lyrics in that way), or the official supplementary material that describes their relationship in overtly romantic terms. Even putting all of those things aside, the show was perfectly clear in its intent from early on – it’s just that no one took it seriously.

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spoken1spoken2

I’m going to tell you a romance staple now: if third parties are continually remarking on how well-suited for each other the two leads are, there’s probably a revelation coming in the third act

With all that in mind, it’s fairly mind boggling to see the amount of backlash and attempts to turn the relationship into something ambiguous. What on earth’s going on, you might say, where an overt proposal is painstakingly interpreted as platonic affection?

To answer that, let me step a bit sideways: in the English edition of trans* manga Wandering Son, translator and cultural anthropologist Matt Thorn includes an excellent essay called “Transgender in Japan.” In it, he discusses Japan’s cultural outlook toward the LGBT community and the often strange disconnect between the thriving underground BL/GL markets and the relative dearth of LGBT content in ‘mainstream’ media. Simplified, there’s a cultural eschewing going on. Gay characters are fine as flamboyant comedic relief (whether it be the “Hard Gay” macho man or the effeminate okama type) or as unreal fantasy objects in erotic manga, but there’s a distinct discomfort with the idea of including them as relatable, ordinary characters. It’s always someone else who’s gay, never your child or your relative. It’s…well, it’s not unlike the mentality that you find in English speaking anime communities. “Ugh, I didn’t think this was going to be gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that).” Or “I just want to watch a normal anime.” I would wager good money that most of those people would say they have no problem with gay people/romance – just not in Their Anime.

You end up with gay romance stories where the entire universe seems to be made up of one gender, as though the relationships are so precarious and fragile that a single member of the opposite sex might throw the whole thing out the window; you have romances where nonconsensual sex isn’t just common but expected as a means of bringing the lovers together, and the characters fall into stereotypically masculine and feminine roles; stories where the romance almost always makes up the majority of the plot, marginalized to a safe corner with limited budgets where they can be ignored.

And if you venture outside the walled garden of genre romance? You find gay characters who are the comic relief characters, who at best will never get anything resembling a romantic subplot the way straight side characters might, and at worse will be a running gag for the ‘normal’ main characters to be weirded out by. You get villains whose homoerotic interest in the main character is used to add deviancy and threat to the implication of their character. You have whole shows that revolve around homosocial bonds between the main characters while coyly denying the actuality of romantic interest, implying borderline romantic attachment that will attract fans of BL and GL (and more importantly, their wallets) while also being able to tell the ‘normal’ audience, ‘ah, how strange that they’re reading those kinds of things into these heartwarming friendship stories.’

meeting

Samurai Flamenco doesn’t settle for implying. It doesn’t couch itself in stereotypes (in fact, it brings up the villain-obsessed-with-hero archetype and then deliberately separates it out as different from Masayoshi’s feelings for Goto). Instead, the anime weaves a story about a dumb, idealistic kid who wanted to be a hero, and who finds himself faced with the complexities of what that might mean. He makes friends, screws up, is brave and funny and sweet, and grows into a mature young man before the audience’s eyes. And then he tells his best friend that he loves him, because being queer doesn’t mean living within the straightjacket of set-in-stone stereotypes. And people have been reacting against that, trying to put the story back into the box of friendship-with-subtext. But there’s no box anymore, and the number dissenting is, perhaps, a bit smaller than the group accepting.

I can’t stress enough, while there’s yet air in my lungs, how important that is. To create stories that have queer characters without the story being entirely about their queerness, to write those characters like real human beings in emotionally relatable situations and let audiences who might not have thought about it realize ‘oh, we’re not so different I guess.’ And if that’s a sappy sentiment it doesn’t make it less true – a phrase that sums up Samurai Flamenco just about as well as anything I can name.

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Part of me fears that the show will now be marginalized, in hindsight, as ‘that gay superhero show.’ That it will fade into obscurity, away from the audiences who aren’t already open to same sex romance. That the landscape of anime will return to the mediocre timidity of fan-baiting plausible deniability. But I choose to be optimistic, to marvel that the show exists at all, and to hope that even as a cult phenomenon it might provide a meeting ground for anime of the future to explore (and perhaps more often than the gap that separates this show from the likewise naturalistic queer romance No. 6). With enough time, maybe we can take an open declaration of love between two men or two women (and I haven’t even touched on the Mari and Moe romance, which I found equally appealing and well used as a foil) at face value.

Those screenshots above, where Goto’s teased about having feelings for Masayoshi? Those are common as the day is long in anime. The difference is that Samurai Flamenco followed through on it. Because that’s the kind of anime it is – it might be strange and occasionally nonsensical and never stop for breath, but it is completely earnest in all of those things. It isn’t clueing you into Goto’s feelings or Masayoshi’s disinterest in girls because it wants to sell merchandise. It’s doing it because they’re falling in love, and it wants you to know it before even they do. And to those coming in because they’ve heard about the romance? Stick around for the heroics and aliens, too. I promise it’s a ride well worth your time.

duo
Because watching them save the day after all the sappy stuff makes it that much cooler

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15 comments on “They Fought Aliens and Fell in Love: Why Samurai Flamenco is Important

  1. captaintigglesworth says:

    SO MUCH YES
    I thought it was kinda of cute how they both got embarrassed during the argument, and the fact that all of that nonsense, which wouldn’t have meant anything to anybody on the outside (Sawada Haiji being a good example), was just what it took to get Goto out of his “blind rage”.

    It’s true that Masayoshi and Hidenori are good friends, but that’s exactly what gives the romantic side of it more substance, because it’s more realistic than just throwing them into a lofty, fluff-filled relationship.

    I just love this pairing to death and the way it was executed in the show makes me love it even more. >3<

    • Vrai says:

      I’d agree wholeheartedly! The friendship is really what sells the romance as so endearing – a lot of the romantic stories I enjoy most/find most effective (Howl’s Moving Castle, No. 6, When Harry Met Sally, Utena, Clerks 2, so on) all take great pains to establish a sense of camaraderie between the lovers-to-be. It’s so important that an audience be able to look at a couple and say, ‘well yeah, but what would they do once the honeymoon period is over? Would they even want to talk to each other without the Grand Tragic Adventure going on?’
      And Samumenco executes that exquisitely, laying friendly and domestic groundwork with those early episodes before layering in the Dramatic Confession you’d expect from someone as action-before-thought and influenced by fiction as Masayoshi.

  2. Okeanos says:

    Thank you, wow. I think I needed to read that.

    As someone who reads a lot of BL, looks for the fan-baiting, and still tries to be a socially conscious person it’s easy to forget that anime can do this. That anime can be up-front about queer relationships and honest and real. Watching Samumenco I never really looked past all the hinting (until the last episode when it did become blatant); it never occurred to me that Samumenco might actually come out and have homosexual characters that aren’t characterture/for the merch/just a joke. But then it happened, and you’re damn right that it is important. It’s important to look at everybody exactly the way they are and accept them. We’re all just people, and we’ve all got problems. I think Samumenco is amazing for being able to express that so well.

    • Vrai says:

      It’s a tough line to balance, isn’t it? As snippy as I was to it in this piece, I had fun watching Free. I had fun watching K. Tiger & Bunny is one of my favorites, and it’s never going to be bolder than ‘we left this deliberately ambiguous’ (though they have a marked sensitivity that might get its own essay).
      The fanbaiting shows mostly become problematic when they become a substitute for actual queer characters/relationships.
      The thing that truly horrifies me is what we get in the things that ARE BL/GL – that rape is fetishized and expected as a means of starting intimacy, that ‘seme’ and ‘uke’ are words used at all ever, as if a person’s entire personality and self is based on what they like in the bedroom (which is rarely set in stone, at that); that relationships are constantly being mutated by these paradigms until they are closer to the romance novel expectation than anything like real people. It’s toxic, it’s terrible, and the sooner it can be stomped out the better.

  3. striffy says:

    Just commenting to let you know- wow- this is really good.

    I’ve always found there to be an odd disconnect between the BL/GL market and the actual cultural views of mainstream media representing the LGBT community. The weird thing is that people will say they’re okay with homosexuality, but any hints at it are just “too gay”. And to make matters worse the only forms of homosexuality acceptable are the overtly flamboyant gay characters whose gayness is more or less viewed as a joke, or vaguely homoerotic antagonists (because omg noooo a guy likes meeee and this somehow attacks my masculinity– like calm down dude, your masculinity is still intact. I don’t understand how being gay accentuates your evil. I just don’t).

    Anyway I applaud Samurai Flamenco for not letting the two leads fall into the whole male/female roles that seem to exist even for gay relationships in anime (which I suppose exists to give people a sense of the heteronormative values they can find comfort in- but it still doesn’t make any sense). I know a lot of people called Samumenco fujoshi bait straight from the start- which really isn’t fair because that’s not what it was aiming for. It’s been an honest ride from the start and had we had our eyes open we would have caught onto it from the start- especially considering all of the hints. The most amusing thing about the anime fandoms is that they will complain about the lack of appropriate LGBT representation in anime (which I agree with), but when presented with an actual story where the main themes aren’t the romantic points (and instead the focus is on the main characters as PEOPLE) the entire fandom sweeps it under the rug because there’s no way their relationship was anything but platonic. There’s no way that someone so normal could actually be gay!! Love confession? What love confession? That was just an ode to their bromance. A bromance I tell you!!

    • Vrai says:

      It’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it (that last platonic bit, I mean)? The optimist in me says that it’s just because fans are conditioned toward cynicism on the subject, and self-deny rather than have their hopes crushed. Which is sad, and not good, and why there need to be more shows that take this approach.
      American media’s had its trouble with this sort of thing too, back in the early 2000s – where you could sort of have gay characters but they should be ‘hilarious’ sidekicks whose lives (in the case of romcoms) revolve around the heroine. But baby steps are improving things, and I’m hoping anime will head that way too (I didn’t mention it in the post, but From the New World deserves some credit too).
      And thanks so much for your kind words! This post ended up being a lot of impassioned feelings, and I’m rather fond of it. Though it seems I haven’t covered 100% of my bases, so I’ll still have to do that ship manifesto down the line…

  4. utsu says:

    This is wonderful. Your analysis is absolutely wonderful. It makes me love this show even more; I’m so glad I stuck around to the end.

    • Vrai says:

      Rollercoaster survivor high five! I have to admit, while I fight it with all my might (because elitism does no one any favors, and prevents good things from spreading at worst) there’s a small bit of me that’s quite proud of picking the show out as something special from the word go (though like everyone, I had no idea where it would end up).

  5. Johnb460 says:

    Keep working ,impressive job! kebackadekcd

  6. Cam says:

    Oh, so true! I loved your article, every word of it! You know, I have a thing for BL manga, however, I have not found yet a satisfying anime adaptation of that genre. Then, Samurai Flamenco came to me, and not being yaoi, shonen ai, BL in general, it’s now one of my favourite “gay” stories, because it’s so true to life, even though the story itself is crazy, but in the feelings floor, it’s pure quality. It can’t compare to the fake idea fujoshis tend to have about gay love, but it’s not crude or “shocking”, it just… flows. As you said, denying the signs bravely showed by its creators is ridiculous; the world has yet to come and accept shades in their anime, movies and stories in general. Your vision is so accurate and mature, I loved it!! 🙂 Kudos!

    • Vrai says:

      You’re too kind! It really is a lovely little show in its blend of absurdity and emotional honesty (….whatever weird foot in mouth the creators might’ve said about it after the fact. I simply can’t believe they really think that none of the characters grew or developed). Hopefully, there will be other shows in future that take from its example.

  7. *Snaps vigorously in approval*

  8. Neffie says:

    I just recently finished Samumenco, and I have to say you summed up my feelings exactly with this. There were people complaining that it ended with a “twist” like Masayoshi having romantic feelings for Goto, saying that they should have made it clear from the beginning what his orientation was.
    And then those same people complain that there arent any queer characters whose main plot isn’t about the romance. It kinda got on my nerves.
    Anyways, thanks for this brilliant analysis!!

  9. Eliott says:

    I couldn’t agree more !! Now Im gonna make all my friends watch it. One things thouhg, gay that love manga is not really common. So it make sence that there is not a lot of it. But maybe if girl would be more into it they would make other good animes like this one. Oh and i thouhh the anime Ajin was about a love story between Kei nagai and his best friend kaito. It was a great one too this one.

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