The Parallel Lives of Samurai Flamenco

Okay kids, who can tell me about the purpose and usage of narrative parallels?

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Get back here

As I was saying, narrative parallelism is when you use two similar moments, characters, etc. to induce a revelation in character or audience. This can range from a chick-flick type moment, where the lead sees a happy family just after running from The One and realizes he CAN’T live without her after all; to ‘facets of character’ comparisons like Batman and his rogue’s gallery, to thematic connections like the twin art-and-death undertones of The Wind Rises. But it’s rare that I see a show filled with as many deliberate parallels as Samurai Flamenco – from characters, to relationships, to the very tradition it honors.

In Life

Samurai Flamenco is, in many ways, a story about performance – about the masks we wear and the attempt to reach something genuine beneath that. It’s no coincidence that Masayoshi and Mari are performers, or that Kaname is a massive media star. Their lives are one big show, whether they’re before a camera on a set or captured by phone cameras on the street. Their professions force us to ask “what is a hero?” Is it a performance of ideals to be sold, as Kaname attempts in his ‘comeback’ in episode 3? Is it a performance of self-image, as Mari allows herself to ‘let loose’ outside of an industry with strict behavior codes? Or is it a performance for imitation, as Masayoshi increasingly becomes the metonymic model of his idolized goals?

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Or the next episode. Or five minutes from now

All of those ideas are urged out by the interplay of mundane and heroic jobs, and by the way the different shapes of one idea clash against one another. Neither are they static – Masayoshi grows proud and overconfident of his abilities, while Kaname becomes a mentor willing to take the back seat for the sake of being a model to his students. Every time a character comes to stand for a role circumstances begin to push at them, showing us how they change in relation to each other in order to remind us that life is not a push to become one thing but a cycle of being many things – once again the ‘variation on a theme’ concept pushes the underlying ideas.

Take as an example the Flamengers, who appear as one stereotype each and begin, slowly, to pick up pieces of subtlety once Masayoshi stops influencing the universe. We watch countless cases of grandiosity give way to little complicated things (and some very big ones) that the show goes out of its way not to fix. It shows them to us in different shades and forms – Flamenger Pink’s kind demeanor and quite socially unacceptable desire to pursue a married man, Konno’s opportunistic willingness to do whatever it takes for entertainment and frequent assisting of Ishihara, and Goto’s levelheaded demeanor just barely covering his deep mental trauma. It isn’t that these aren’t things worth fixing or that the characters don’t grow, but the niggling problems of everyday life are inescapable, and beyond the almighty reach of heroes. The show gives us a range of difficulties – not quirks, not weekly problems, but deeply ingrained character realities – and lets them hang around in the wake of Masayoshi’s talk with the Will of the Universe. Life isn’t so easily fixed that a justice-infused punch will do.

 

In Love

The show boasts three romantic couples of variously overt intimacies – none are exactly the same, but each holds aspects that tell us about one of the other two. The three seem chosen quite deliberately – a heterosexual, gay, and lesbian pair, each coming from different age groups and backgrounds. And yet there are constant connections drawn between them in happiness and strife, giving us a taste of love as universal force.

Early on, for example, Konno’s pursuit of Ishihara was quite the onesided affair (and a little bit creepy, by my estimation). But Mari is also often impassive to Moe’s affection, and yet makes the conscious effort to rekindle it after their big fight. And lo and behold, despite Ishihara’s complaints she becomes upset when Konno stops calling or actually acquiesces to her demands that he go away. Looking at one lets us read affection rather than annoyance in the other

Said fight between Mari and Moe is mirrored, nearly word for word and shot for shot, by the follow-up fight between Masayoshi and Goto (it is perhaps worth noting that no matter how closely they know one another, both Moe and Masayoshi continue to use Mari-san and Goto-san respectively). Both fights are resolved in places of immense past trauma for the couple (Torture’s lair and Masayoshi’s destroyed apartment) and involve a major step forward in intimacy (a long, mutual kiss and a marriage proposal). The first scene, in this way, tells us that both should be read as sincerely romantic despite Masayoshi’s flustered bumbling of his words and Goto’s usual verbal sidestepping.

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Directors: sometimes they do stuff on purpose rather than from laziness

And speaking of marriage proposals, there were two. Both occurring at extreme moments of peril at the hands of a villain. Konno’s is made as a kind of last request, one he claims to mean seriously but is partly due to desperation – he doesn’t bring it up again, and there’s no engagement. But he does continue to pursue the relationship even after the extreme scenario has passed – though his words were panicked the heart of them was not. The famous second proposal, from Masayoshi to Goto, is likewise made under a high pressure situation and not directly referenced after the danger has passed. In fact, the danger passes and the series ends. So how are we to read it? As an event of friendly desperation? Or as a true romantic confession, pushed into extremity by the heat of the moment? Leading questions aside, of course we need only look at the example the series itself sets – if the pattern holds as it has in the other parallel cases, no doubt the rushed proposal gives way to tentative courtship. Isn’t reading intent from the work’s own design neat?

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I promise to turn the sarcasm down now

In Legend

Of course, at the heart of it all are the heroes. Over 22 episodes Samurai Flamenco cheerfully makes its way through the genres – from real-world vigilantes to sentai and tokusatsu, from the wild sci fi and fantasy twists of the 70s and 80s to the grim-and-gritty style reboots that have been popular since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Each gives way to the next, and each time Masayoshi rediscovers a very simple fact – that at the heart of the desire for heroism is an impulse toward helping one another, and that the ideals of heroism come through no matter the genre in vogue at the time.

Over and over again, Masayoshi makes speeches. He tells Goto how heroes on TV inspired him to make heroism a career. He tells King Torture that the work of allies, and of the many, are the true examples of heroism. He tells a panicking public that there is a hero in all of them, pushing them to do good. He tells Alien Flamenco that humanity must grow at its own rate, that it will struggle and help each other to become better. And he tells Haiji that he wants to help him, a simple desire for one human being to save another. He tells Goto he wants to protect him, because that’s what love is. That’s what heroism is.

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Even the tsundere is moved by all this passionate talk

What seems repetitive is deliberate, what seems jarring and hungry for plot twists is merely a desire to hammer home this simple point – that no matter which facet of these stories we adore, we’re yearning for the same purpose. We’re looking to help each other, to connect and to make the world a better place. That’s what Samurai Flamenco loves about heroes, and what it shows over and over in different aspects to create a universal truth. Sit down – at heart, we’re all Samurai Flamenco.

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