Content Warning: Discussion of misogyny/gendered violence, maladaptive trauma response, queerphobia, queer erasure, and transphobia.
Spoilers for all of Samurai Flamenco.
Samurai Flamenco is infamous twice over: what started out as a grounded slice-of-life series about tokusatsu addict and male model Masayoshi Hazama dragging local cop Goto Hidenori into living his lifelong dream of becoming a superhero took a sharp turn into the supernatural halfway through its first cour, hurtling through genre parodies at the speed of sound against ever-decreasing production values. It became the very definition of a hot mess, with the remaining viewership predominantly tuning in just to see what weird thing would happen next. So poorly received was the series that its production house, Manglobe, would make only one more series over a year later (and, at that, it was the likewise troubled production Gangsta) before closing its doors.
What finally got eyes on the show, for a brief and shining moment, was its finale: the series climaxed with an impassioned marriage proposal between the two male leads. It gained a second life of notoriety as queer fans who’d stuck around for the subtext rejoiced at an overt declaration of love between two male characters in a non-BL series, and cis male-dominated fandom spaces like Reddit and TVTropes drummed up endless excuses for why this Didn’t Count as Gay. Yuri!!! On ICE fans may be familiar with this cycle.
Except that unlike Yuri!!!, whose director fought tooth and nail for it to be the groundbreaking series it was, the director of SamFlam turned out to be on the side of the no-homo crowd. A magazine interview made the rounds in fandom, where lo and behold, a member of the creative team parroted the exact popular line of denial: Masayoshi is an idiot, he didn’t realize what he was doing, and it’s not “that kind” of relationship.
That the statement flew blatantly in the face of the onscreen content and came across to many as a last-minute attempt to salvage the show’s legendarily abysmal ratings (its home video sales were so low they outright failed to chart) didn’t make it less of a bitter pill to swallow. Many fans were driven away and it’s very hard to blame them, as overt support from creators can seem like the one foolproof defense against straightwashing and online harassment. I will also be the first to admit, loudly and often, that Samurai Flamenco is an uneven mess backed by a creative team that didn’t seem to understand or embrace their own work. It has a problem with misogyny and its writing is intensely uneven.
But here’s the thing: I love it. I followed it faithfully from week one and watched the disbelieving giddiness at the finale unfold in real time. The intensity of emotions as part of what felt like a very, very small club of people paying attention to the show has guaranteed that I’ll basically never be able to separate myself from it. At the same time, I maintain that in the midst of that hot mess is some genuinely good meta commentary about hero stories—and that not only are Masayoshi and Goto a great couple, but that it does not matter one bit that the creators don’t recognize this fact.
Pride, Punishment, and Patriarchy: The Flamenco Girls
It’s important to start by ripping off that misogyny band-aid before we get to the good stuff, because it leaves a sour taste regarding the work as a whole. Early on, the series introduces idol Maya Mari as a foil for main character Masayoshi. She’s also a lifelong otaku who’s trained to become a real-life vigilante; but while Masayoshi is a puppy trying to embody the concept of justice, Mari is a violent thrill-seeker looking to blow off steam. She’s a fun character in a lot of ways, but she’s also a jerk who puts other people in danger and fails to appreciate Moe, her coworker/girlfriend/person-she-makes-out-with.
The problem isn’t that the series gives her a comeuppance for her flaws, but that it goes out of its way to humiliate her.
The “King Torture” arc overall is characterized by its deliberate contrasting brutality to the slice-of-life episodes before, but Mari’s treatment is still distinct from how the male characters are handled. When Masayoshi loses sight of the principles of justice, becoming a diva who believes fighting monsters-of-the-week is beneath him, his comeuppance is the fact that Goto abandons him, shocking him back to his senses. Tabloid journalist Konno, initially captured by King Torture, ultimately decides to betray the heroes to sell more papers, but he is neither ashamed of nor forced to face consequences for that decision.
Meanwhile, Mari is kidnapped and brutally tortured by the new, very real Big Bad and berated for failing to embody the ideals of heroism; the first cour ends with her stumbling on stage for a concert in her ripped clothes, singing anguished and off-key as the credits roll. She essentially spends the rest of her time in the series recovering from the post-traumatic stress of this event. The final straw is the moment King Torture bows in deference to Moe for selflessly sacrificing herself to be tortured in Mari’s place. While Mari is overdue for a reckoning at that point, it is difficult not to notice the subtext of a domineering woman (a literal ball-buster, in fact) being put in her place while a faithful, uncomplaining, self-sacrificing woman named Moe is held up as the feminine ideal. And King Torture’s sneering comment that Mari is disposable, unlike a lot of the meta-commentary in the series, ends up being simple fact when she and the other Flamenco Girls are promptly sidelined for the entire middle arc.
Then there’s the portrayal of Mari’s queerness, which depicts detailed scenes of physical intimacy but is extremely sparse on emotional dynamics. Moe (who I do love very much) might be the most selflessly devoted lesbian since Daidouji Tomoyo, but Mari is more interested in stalking a loudly uninterested Goto and blows off Moe’s requests to spend time together outside work. It’s bad from a whole kaleidoscope of angles: Mari and Moe’s intimacy is allowed to be physically demonstrative but not emotionally deep compared to the exact opposite dynamic of Masayoshi and Goto, Mari’s bisexuality is tied up in her disinterest in commitment and disregard for others’ boundaries, and this very cavalier female character doesn’t so much grow as get “put in her place.”
Adding insult to injury is Flamenger Pink, a parody of the token girl in sentai shows. The sentai arc is the nadir of the show overall, but while Flamengers Green, Blue, and Black are all fairly flat stereotypes of “the smart one,” “the driven rival,” and “the tough guy,” Pink is a homemaker who spends her non-fighting time knitting and is constantly throwing herself at their commander (when she’s not busy disparaging his wife’s looks, that is). It’s not inaccurate, as parodies go, but it feels particularly mean-spirited given that these caricatured behaviors are never examined as being unrealistic or shallow by other female characters in the show, nor does Pink reveal hidden depths as the series goes on. She is a walking waste of potential and reminder that the more interesting Flamenco Girls are absent.
“Honestly, this show is better when it ignores the existence of women,” isn’t exactly the most shining testimonial. But don’t let me neglect to tell you the other part: this show is, in its own gonzo way, kind of brilliant.
The Problem of Goto, or: You Can’t Punch Trauma in the Face
SamFlam begins as the story of a young man who wants to be just like the heroes on TV; and then, as if by a miracle, the world changes to accommodate that wish. Suddenly, there are exploding monsters and a tokusatsu villain just like in his favorite show, Harakiri Sunshine. Once that evil is put to rest, he’s called to become part of a team to defend from alien invaders, because every good sequel has to raise the stakes. He confronts his own evil twin (voiced by Ishida Akira, naturally), uncovers a government conspiracy, and finally learns that the entire universe is a story written around his historic exploits—all in 18 episodes.
But rather than end with the image of a neatly shelved series in a cosmic library, SamFlam returns to where it began. In the final arc, Masayoshi and the audience learn that Goto’s unseen girlfriend went missing back when he was in high school, and the texts he’d been sending her all series are in fact a maladaptive coping mechanism. And…that’s it. There is no sinister conspiracy behind her disappearance. She doesn’t reappear following the revelation. Goto isn’t able to solve the case himself or gain any definitive answer at all. She’s simply gone, and the trauma of that event lingers.
Without an enemy to fight, all Masayoshi can do is clumsily declare his devotion by way of that infamous marriage proposal—and it’s only after he does so that he has an epiphany about his own feelings. And the ending of the series, on the surface, is exactly the same as its beginning. Goto is still receiving texts, Masayoshi is still tearing off after litterbugs, and so on. We love a grand drama about heroes saving the day; but in the real world, closure is a luxury and healing is often slow and unglamorous.
In the end, it’s the little things that matter: Masayoshi is visiting teenage terrorist Haiji (who was himself motivated by the same thirst to enact grand “heroism” that started Msayoshi’s journey, but as the villain) in juvie, focusing on the slow work of recovery rather than the flashiness of arrests; Goto has gotten a new phone and sent “her” on a trip, taking small steps to begin distancing himself from a trauma long in the making; and while Goto still bristles at Masayoshi’s shows of physical affection as they walk past a bus stop, the version of the ending theme playing in the background has conspicuously switched from the first verse to the second:
chotto hitome kinishite sotto tamerau te to te
nusumi mishita yokogao tereta shigusa ni sympathy
bus tei hitotsu tobashite michikusashite kaerou
ima fui ni “suki da yo” tte uchiakerare tara
kitto ieru yo “yes”
You worry if they notice, so you hesitate holding hands
I steal a glance at the curves of your face, you act shyly in sympathy
Rushing to that bus station, let’s loiter there before going home
If you suddenly said “I love you” now and you meant it
I’ll always be able to say “yes”
Main Text vs Supplemental Text
Which brings us to the final issue, the question that has, for better or worse, become the bulk of SamFlam’s legacy: “but does it count as canonically queer, though?” My answer tends to be a strongly worded yes, as I’ve noted on this very site before, but the anxiety behind that question is worth digging into. There’s an entire separate essay in the confluence of implied-then-overtly-denied queerness as a marketing tactic (nee queerbaiting), derision of perceived overzealousness among shippers, and hunger for representation that represented real-world LGBTQIA+ identity and how those things contributed to a self-policing respectability mindset about what “counts” as canonical queerness.
For our purposes today, let us note only that queer fans are very, very used to being called delusional for picking up on queer-coding—something that is baked into the history of media and quite well-documented, although it is so ingrained that creators can include that coding without consciously ascribing intent—and searching for reasons why something might not “count” oneself rather than believing and then being slapped down by creator commentary is an understandable form of self-protection. Doubly so in this case—as mentioned, there does exist a magazine interview where a member of the creative team essentially waves off a question about Masayoshi and Goto’s relationship as being “not like that” (read: queer). So, that’s it, right? Case closed, put this one down in a long list of regrets?
Well, not quite. First and foremost there’s the matter of “death of the author,” a literary theory that argues that because a work is destined to outlive the person who made it. A work must stand on its own, free of authorial comment and contexts destined to be lost to time. Subsequent schools of thought have argued that authorial context does very much matter…but less in the sense of “what the author says they meant is the overriding interpretation of the work” and more, “we should be aware of the author’s upbringing and the world they lived in, because that shapes their view of the world and the unconscious biases inherent in every work of art.”
At the same time, “death of the author” is not a get out of jail free card meant to absolve a troubled viewer of thinking too hard about creative context—it simply acknowledges that a good work of art can and should encompass multiple artistic readings beyond stated creator intent. So let’s take another tack and say we should only look at things that are officially related to the series. Okay, you’ve got it. Which part of the artistic collaborative process should we turn to outside of this single interview by one person? If Wonder Egg Priority taught us anything, it’s that progressive content often has to fight to express itself and can do so in spite of regressive views from part of the team.
How about the other promotional article that quizzed readers on which cast member they were most compatible with, only to ultimately point out Masayoshi and Goto are the most compatible of all? Or the mobile card game released in conjunction with the series that included art of Masayoshi and Goto in matching wedding attire, with Masayoshi’s card titled “June Bride”? If that strikes you as obscure, it is—and yet no more so than a single press interview given by one member of a collaborative artistic team in a magazine that nobody would remember if it didn’t get regularly pulled out as a “gotcha” against queer anime fans.
If I wanted, I could drill down further on the technical correctness of the statement, since Masayoshi only realized that what he was feeling for Goto was love immediately after his fumbled proposal; or that the show builds to this proposal with multiple scenes of characters telling Masayoshi he doesn’t understand “love” explicitly in the context of romantic love, whether it’s Masayoshi flashing back to his own confusion at girls confessing to him at school or his manager asking if he’s ever been in love with a girl (while going on to discuss familial and fannish love in the context of antagonist Haiji instead); or that the show often creates explicit parallelism in scenes between Mari/Moe and Masayoshi/Goto. But you know what? I’m tired. If the goal posts have already moved so far that a character explicitly labeling his feelings as romantic love isn’t good enough, I’m not sure anything ever will be.
Many queer fans are tired of subsisting on scraps or implication and rightfully demand representation that proudly names labels out loud, and I support them. After all, in the real world a label can be a healing and powerful thing that draws people together in solidarity. And that interview does matter in the same way that horrible promotional article that framed trans icon Hoshikawa Lily as a cross-dresser mattered: because it hurt marginalized people in the here and now. And just like that article, it’s all the more frustrating because the work itself loudly and directly contradicts that external erasure. But good art will long outlive marketing material, especially when those secondary writings are outright counter to the sentiments expressed in the work itself.
Samurai Flamenco is arguably not “good” queer representation, with its cynical framing of Mari and Moe and its deferral of definitively romantic development of its central relationship until the very last arc. Like the show itself, it’s a terribly uneven affair, where the lows are almost unbearable and the highs are breathtaking (and often stunningly weird). But it is explicitly and unambiguously queer twice over, and it deserves recognition for that. We deserve thoughtful, purposeful representation by artists who care about the LGBTQIA+ community, but we also live in a desert of media representation, and I don’t want to beg permission to treasure a rare jewel of queer genre work that I found along the way—at least, since this is a case of a one-off PR gaff and not an actively vocal bigot at the creative helm.
I have to believe that queer art will outlive regressive and bigoted marketing; occasionally I’m even proven right, like when DEVILMAN crybaby expanded on and added nuance to the queer elements of the original manga. Above all, I believe that even as we rightfully hold creators to higher standards with our critiques, we needn’t apologize for finding joy in the flawed queer works we have in the present. And that’s why, for all its flaws, I’ve held to the same refrain since 2013: please watch Samurai Flamenco.