Spoilers for SARAZANMAI
Content Warning: Discussion of torture, toxic masculinity, ableism
A young person on the cusp of adolescence is running on the edge of a river. The camera flashes to the barren streets, the water below, and his miçanga, the symbol of his connection to others. All he can hear is his own thoughts: “Those connections can be easily lost,” he says to himself, as his brother calls out his name. “I know that better than anyone.”
To watch the opening scene of SARAZANMAI is to be pulled into a world of queer masculinities, a world of aching desire to love another person, even as you are told you both should not and cannot. Watching this, I could feel something rustle within me. This image of a child alone and afraid, told by society that that is the way of masculinity, spoke to my soul.
How can queer men resist the loss of love and connection which masculinity so thoroughly inscribes upon our souls? Masculinity, as defined by heteronormative society, is a prison. It is a trap, researcher Niobe Way has described, set through constant policing towards certain norms of behavior and thought: reduce women to sexual objects. Center yourself. Above all, do not care for another person. “You are an individual,” it says to men. “Do you want to be weak and dependent on others, or encourage that weakness in other people?” Friendship, the caring for the other, is not allowed. (This framework has been shown to not just exist in Western Cultures, but also in many East Asian cultures too.)
The boxes that Kazuki and Toi are trapped in are intertwined, and the way they both first emulate then escape toxic masculine roles can serve as a model for our work in undoing toxic masculinity. The roles each play seem diametrically opposed, with Kazuki basing himself on the idol Sara Azuma, hyperfeminine and designed to sell you an item a day, and Toi basing himself on his brother Chikai, hypermasculine and happy to kill to survive.
However, both emerge from similar circumstances of capitalism, oppression, and the hypermasculine coping mechanisms they’ve been given to deal with the pain of that oppression. It is only through learning to care for one another—and learning that they can care for one another—that they can both be free.
Toi and Chikai as the Masculine Ideal of Surviving Capitalism
SARAZANMAI, from its earliest scenes of Toi and Chikai, sets up a critique of capitalism in how it pushes Toi into the same cruelties as his brother to survive. In one of these scenes, Chikai and Toi waterboard and ultimately murder a rival gang member who discovered their illegal drug route, searching out the mole who revealed their secrets. The stakes of this are dire: in a country that has an almost 99% conviction rate and where being caught selling marijuana can lead to up to ten years in prison, having their drug route busted could ruin both their lives.
The scene sets up each’s relationship to the murder. From the first shot where Toi, blank-faced, pushes the man’s head under the water, nothing about his expression or body language suggests that he enjoys it. Chikai, on the other hand, seems to revel in the pleasure of domination, flamboyantly brandishing his sharpened ruler at the rival gang leader’s throat just before the scene cuts to Sara announcing a body has been found in the river.
The Japanese carceral state and capitalism constantly force Toi into positions where he must enact violence for his brother and for his own survival. However, he doesn’t perform these acts because he is indifferent to others. Quite the opposite, in fact; his love for Chikai and the desire for a stable life with him drive everything. Just before going out to look for his brother as he knows a gang leader is out to kill him, Toi looks longingly at a picture of his family before his parents’ death.
The memory of the days before his parents died by suicide, when his family was happy and together, spurs Toi to protect the only family he has left, chasing after Chikai and shooting the gang leader who would destroy their family. Only after this act of violence does Chikai offer Toi the only meaningful care he gives in the whole series, along with the advice, “Bad people are the ones who survive in this world.”
In this moment of alleged love, in Toi’s greatest moment of vulnerability, Chikai presents Toi with a stark choice: survive capitalism, receive his brother’s love and accept the idea that he is a morally corrupt person, or perish as a morally pure person unsuited for a corrupt world.
Chikai’s belief that only the strong survive and that they are the only ones who deserve to survive allows him to justify acts of violence, protect himself from the pain they cause, and avoid intimacy with Toi that would make him vulnerable to more pain. Chikai strives as Toi’s surrogate father to indoctrinate Toi into this belief and to shore it up in his own mind—telling him over and over again when Toi is most in grief, whether over the death of his parents or over the acts they must do to avoid incarceration or death, “Bad people are the ones who survive in this world.”
By framing Toi’s pain as pity for the undeserving and then avoiding intimacy with him at all costs, Chikai buries every reminder of both his own pain at losing his family and the anxieties aroused by their desperate situation. Believing his parents undeserving of life, he erases them from his memory like the Sarazanmai ritual erases its victims from the circle of existence; he tells Toi in the last episode, “It can’t hurt you anymore if it never happened to begin with.”
As Toi struggles to find a language for his pain, the only language Chikai provides is a twisted dichotomy where Toi must choose between cruelty and virtue, and over and over Chikai makes clear that, should he choose virtue, Chikai, whose love he so longs for, will personally kill him. The last episode of the show becomes an extended metaphor for Toi working through this dichotomy as he contemplates taking his own life, all while an image of Chikai tells him the world is better off without him.
Yet, the family photo from before makes it clear what Chikai is throwing away. Looking at this photo, Toi can imagine his family happy again, imagine when his brother could laugh. Toi longs for a reunion with his brother that encompasses care unafraid of loss and pain, care that trusts that even after enduring terrible suffering Toi and Chikai may laugh and smile again, together.
Kazuki, Adoption, and Azuma Sara as a Capitalist Construct
Like Toi, who believes that Chikai will no longer love him if he does not perform cold cruelty, Kazuki believes his brother Haruka will abandon him if he does not perform the role of Haruka’s favorite idol, Sara Azuma. Sara first appears projected on a billboard over the entire city street as Kazuki walks past, looking down with a god-like omniscience and telling the people below that if they find (or presumably buy) a box and take a selfie with it, they will be happy.
This command given from on high performs many different functions for capitalism: it tells you to box yourself into your assigned social role, demands you perform joy and glee even if you are hurting inside, and promises that false happiness will become real. This ethic is borne out in the way Kazuki interacts with his brother, believing that if he avoids intimacy by only allowing their relationship to exist as a series of Sara Azuma selfies, he will be able to keep their relationship safe from his deepest held belief: that he can never love anybody.
Like Chikai and Toi, oppression lies at the root of both Kazuki’s trauma and his unhealthy coping mechanisms. Just before the beginning of the series, Kazuki’s adoptive grandfather shames him from his deathbed, calling his mother a whore and revealing that Kazuki is adopted. The trauma of losing his grandfather becomes linked to the belief that his family and all the love they have shared throughout his life is based on a lie; after he meets his birth mother, he runs away from Haruka, believing the only right thing to do is to sever all ties to a brother he does not deserve to love.
This coping mechanism is only reinforced when Haruka is hit by a truck while chasing after him. Just like Chikai hides from Toi, who he fears losing like he did his parents, Kazuki feigns indifference towards Haruka to avoid his internalized guilt.
He projects all of his guilt over being adopted onto Haruka’s disability, sublimated into an ableist belief that being in a true relationship with Haruka can only lead to Haruka being further hurt, damaged, or broken—that he is personally responsible for Haruka’s disability. Because he looks through an ableist lens, Kazuki cannot fathom the idea that his cutting himself off from Haruka may be more traumatic than the physically disabling incident itself.
Sarazanmai: Breaking out of the Box
Despite the title of this section, I am not going to propose that the Sarazanmai ritual itself is what allows our characters to break out of the boxes capitalism and toxic masculinity push them into. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Sarazanmai ritual is a horrifying, potentially traumatic experience that is part of a long history of director Kunihiko Ikuhara using sexual assault imagery as a metaphor for unconsenting revelations. However, going through it together provides a space for Toi and Kazuki to, should they choose, unlearn the idea that they cannot care for one another.
Kazuki and Toi’s friendship and ability to see themselves in each other allows the ritual to transcend the traumatizing, horrific experience it could be. Paradoxically, by repurposing the oppressive roles that were forced on them and engaging in a process which Jose Muñoz calls disidentification, they are able to break out of the confines of toxic masculinity; by learning to believe in the other’s ability to love, they learn to believe in their own.
Like many drag queens, Kazuki repurposes his Sara Azuma persona by using it to create spaces where he can embrace the playful, goofy, feminine sides of his personality without it “corrupting” his performance of masculinity in the eyes of heteronormative society; ultimately, the series leaves room to interpret Kazuki’s gender and its fluidity. Toi plays an important role in this, as Kazuki takes pleasure in playing the role of Toi’s girlfriend.
When they are at the park, they are forced to hold hands and act like a couple, and, while both of them appear to object to this at first, through visual framing it becomes clear that Kazuki is having enormous fun with it, whether through the romantic, shimmering eyes, his twirling Toi around like a dancer, or through a series of still shots of Kazuki with a big goofy smile on his face.
While Toi is initially unaccepting of Kazuki’s Sara impersonation, his attitude softens as he begins to see himself in Kazuki. Up until they ride the sky lift, he is intent upon killing Kazuki’s cat Nyantaro to get his marijuana eighth back, but after Kazuki tells him that he’s protecting Nyantaro because of his brother, Toi completely changes his mind. Toi chooses to care for Kazuki because he understands what it is like to desperately want to connect with a sibling.
Although Toi has internalized the belief that should anybody find out about his past, they will abandon him (or rat him out to the police), Kazuki resists this way of seeing Toi. Kazuki displays love for him because of his willingness to engage in criminal acts to protect his brother, affirming to Toi that he can indeed love and already does.
Kazuki’s playful love for Toi becomes intermeshed with embracing what society views as criminal in him; in Sara garb, Kazuki playfully runs up, hugs Toi, and casually asks him to kidnap Sara Azuma. When the Sarazanmai ritual reveals Toi’s murderous past, Kazuki actually connects more deeply with him, giving Toi his silver dish.
This leads to one of the most fascinating moments of the whole anime, when Toi asks why Kazuki is giving him his Dish of Hope, and Kazuki says, “I hate Haruka.” While this statement seems like an enormous backslide, it suggests a moment of growth, as young men’s accommodations of oppressive ideologies often come right after they most resist them. When a young man begins to acknowledge to himself how much he cares for another person, he often immediately represses it to save face.
By giving away the dish, Kazuki is effectively admitting to himself that neither he nor Haruka are broken and that, while Toi would need Chikai to fundamentally change for their relationship to work, Kazuki has all the tools he needs to care for and love Haruka. But Kazuki immediately represses this realization, convincing himself that he only wants to love Haruka.
“All my life, I’ve been outside the circle,” he later thinks, as he tries to erase himself from existence. “Even if I can’t connect, I can make things right.” Kazuki projects all of his self-hatred onto Haruka, dehumanizing him into a symbol of lovelessness—after all, he thinks Haruka is the real child. Haruka never has to doubt his worthiness to be in their family. In this moment, in Kazuki’s mind, Haruka only exists to call attention to Kazuki’s unworthiness.
But the tiny instance before this, when Kazuki looks at Toi and acknowledges that authentic love is possible for both of them, is the moment that saves him. Because of this relationship, because Toi and Kazuki know the other is capable of love, they are able to protect each other: Toi uses the gun that he killed a man with, the symbol of his struggle to protect his brother, to stop Kazuki from sacrificing himself, and Kazuki resolves, “I won’t give up on Haruka or myself.” When Toi struggles to believe that, since his brother is dead, he will ever find love or a reason to live again, it is his relationships with Kazuki and Enta that save him.
To watch Sarazanmai is to witness the struggle of queer men to love each other under capitalist heteropatriarchy, but also to understand how important that love can be in resisting those structures. The astonishing thing about it is that this article just scratches the surface of the complex, interwoven relationships of the show.
Whole articles can and have been written about any of the other characters and their own struggles with oppression and the struggle to connect—and they would all reveal new truths about how to live our lives with more care, more compassion, and more resilience.
Sarazanmai asks all of us who exist within the strange, terrible realm of hegemonic masculinity to remember and enact our capacities to love and to be loved. Even Reo and Mabu tell us in the moment of their freedom, “Don’t let go of your desires.” The road will be hard—the interweaving of the cruelties of masculinity with every coping mechanism, every trauma, every moment of love lost and found, can make such a demand seem impossible. But Sarazanmai offers a model, a map for our impossible, joyous, bafflingly queer futures. Let it expand our imaginations, so we may one day, together, imagine and enact our freedom.