Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Samurai Flamenco 2: My Umbrella Is Missing

We're all familiar with the superhero genre, and the kind of ethical calculus that it's made cliche. Over and over again, in comics and in movies, we learn that with great power comes great responsibility, that we need to break the law in order to enforce justice, and that it is up to heroic individuals to make the world safe for the rest of us. This has become so generic that we no longer notice its odder elements: how superheroes violate law and order in order to uphold it, or how they are simultaneously a symbol of patriotic strength and national weakness.

Samurai Flamenco makes these contradictory elements of the superhero myth visible. The titular hero is obsessed with pursuing law – not the abstract Platonic ideal of law that most heroes hold themselves to, but obscure bylaws and regulations. It deals with the modern experience of law and governmentality, in which control appears not as a massive centralized god, good or evil, but through a thousand petty fiefdoms. The comedy stems from Samurai Flamenco (the character, not the series) mistaking the reality of law for the fantasy, and engaging in a quixotic quest to punish jaywalkers and litterers across Tokyo. This is goofy humour, but it wouldn't be funny if it didn't draw on deep and somewhat dark contradictions in our world.

The first episode of Samurai Flamenco established the outlandish premise of the series and focused on the collision of Hazama's idealism and reality. This collision occured in both the physical confrontation between Hazama and the wayward youths and the conversations between Hazama and the skeptical Goto. “My Umbrella is Missing” goes more into the ethos of Hazama's quest, taking it seriously in a way the first episode didn't.

The episode opens with a run-in between Flamenco and a middle-aged woman who takes her garbage out thirty-five minutes too early. Flamenco already has a prepared speech, which comes off as compensation: he proclaims that “They call me Samurai Flamenco”, as if he did not create the identity for himself, and insists that “I am not a suspicious character”. Instead of the hero meeting the call of danger, as Joseph Campbell would have it, in Samurai Flamenco the heroic persona comes first and then later searches for danger.

Having been confronted by an enforcer of minor laws, the woman goes to the police. This seemingly natural response shows how deeply engrained law has become in our psyche: the only response to its imposition is to turn to other forces of law. The police initially decline to pursue Flamenco, but their very act of calming resident fears turns them into another version of Flamenco: their chief business is attempting to suppress harmless acts. We then see Goto putting out his own garbage early, suggesting the kind of everyday hypocrisy that problematizes Goto's own claim to be an enforcer of the law.

This is what Samurai Flamenco draws its humour from: the essential meaninglessness, or at least fluidity, of the term “crime” or “criminal” in everyday life. We are all criminals, whether it be copying a file in the wrong way or driving at a steady 10 miles above the speed limit. In this way the system of law draws us all into its web, ensuring our daily interaction, visible or invisible, with the state. But despite the fact that we all break the law, we also have a kind of reverence for it, as seen in figures like the superhero. We believe in a platonic ideal of law and order that has little relation to the petty bureaucratic regime – and it is this gap between ideas and reality that Samurai Flamenco finds so hard to grasp.

This episode chooses a curious example of everyday crime: umbrella theft. I'm assuming that this is a Japanese cultural thing, as I've never heard North Americans describe taking someone else's umbrella on a rainy day as normal behavior. To us, it would appear to be a tremendous imposition on private property, even if the money value lost was negligible. Thus we have an episode in which all of the characters wonder why Hazama cares so much about stolen umbrellas, while the Western viewer wonders why they care so little. Ironically, this destabilizes the idea of law even more, making clear to a Western viewer that both the particularities of law and the social enforcement of it differ between societies. If even the abstract idea of Law is different in different places, then perhaps it does not exist at all.

At its root, the umbrella theft depicted in this episode is a version of the “tragedy of the commons”. This idea, so often repeated by the defenders of capitalism, is that private property is necessary in order to compel people to behave responsibly. As the usual example goes, if no one is the owner of a field used for grazing, no one will have motivation to maintain that field, and eventually the utopian idea of a common field will go to waste. Similarly, by ignoring the protections of private property, umbrella theft leaves well-meaning individuals to get caught in the rain, as with the sick child in the story Hazama tells.

Our superhero's origin story, in addition to being humorously mundane (the tragic death is instead a tragic flu), can also function as an origin story for capitalism. This episode stacks the deck by attaching a charm from Goto's absent girlfriend to his stolen umbrella. The umbrella is not just a device to keep dry, but stands in for a genuine human relationship. For Goto, the love of his long-distance girlfriend is conveyed entirely through objects, whether it be the charm or the cell phone on which she sends him text messages.

My Umbrella is Missing” transforms the capitalist norms of private property into affective relationships [1]. The climax of the episode consists of Flamenco racing a train in order to recover Goto's umbrella. This reverses the imagery of popular quasi-anticapitalist narratives: we have human physicality against cold machinery and personal relations against an indifferent society, but the right to property [2] is identified with the heroic individual and romantic relationships, while the cold machine is identified with a kind of descent into communitarian anarchy. This kind of reverse Ludditism is not new, but was predominant in capitalist art during the Cold War, with the heroic entrepreneurs of Atlas Shrugged being perhaps Exhibit One.

Obviously Flamenco's quest is meant to be silly, but the musical cues and Goto's reactions in this episode suggest that there is a kind of nobility to it. It may be quixotic, but Quixote was after all fighting for moral values. The moment we are supposed to begin thinking that there is something to Flamenco's quest is not when he is standing up for collectively-determined bureaucratic rules such as garbage collection dates or noise ordinances, but when he is standing up for our right to our possessions. The umbrella plot suggests the possibility of a Samurai Flamenco that is fundamentally reactionary in the same way that most superhero narratives are.

But I think there's also a progressive, or at least disruptive, Samurai Flamenco, that has a habit of picking away at easy narratives. The deconstructionist bent of the show is on full display in the scene in which Hazama performs in a video for the idol group Mineral Miracle Muse (the name a parody of Morning Musume). We were first introduced to MMM in the ending credits, which initially seemed like the ED to an entirely different show. That show would be the cliche idol show that exists for little other purpose than to have cute girls acting moe. Credits sequences, like music videos, are more or less narrative-free images. Even in more or less realist shows, the credits often indulge in spectacle, with a prime example being in fact the opening credits of Samurai Flamenco, which depict Flamenco battling a giant robot.

The ending credits in the first episode present us with a spectacular image of idealized femininity. We don't understand why we're seeing the image, but at the same time the image itself is immediately comprehensible, thanks to the larger culture we're immersed in [3]. In the second episode, we see the creation of the image. Rather than existing in itself, the image is placed within the context of economic production. We get to see not just the cameras that shoot the idol singers, but the financial and professional forces that shaped the video.

Of course, the knowledge that music videos are produced instead of appearing out of the ether is hardly deconstructionist. The narratives of creation have themselves become vital images in our culture: the brilliant artist hard at work, the Behind the Music narrative arc. What's new in Samurai Flamenco is Hazama's total disengagement with the image he's part of.

Hazama seems to be on autopilot for most of his work as a model. He allows his pushy agent to construct his public image. Hazama is more concerned with another public image, that of his masked alter-ego. While speakers are playing MMM's upbeat pop music, Hazama is singing along in his head to a sentai hero's theme song. At first we don't hear either song, making the group's dancing appear hollow and disconnected. Then, we hear both songs at once. Both are commercial products contained within a spectacular image: the pop album and the action figure. But the juxtaposition makes both appear ridiculous and jarring. These pop-cultural images are very familiar to us, but Samurai Flamenco juxtaposes them in order to make us hear them anew, and recognize them for the empty spectacles that they are.

I haven't seen the rest of Samurai Flamenco, but I've heard from ripples across the Internet that it takes a rather darker turn in later episodes. This doesn't really surprise me. The first two episodes of the series are overtly comedic in tone, but the comedy is based on some pretty bleak ideas. It is not just that we will never live up to our dreams, or that our dreams are ultimately only empty images. It is that our dreams are ultimately just as sad and petty as the rest of our lives. Hazama risks everything to fight for truth and justice, and ends up harassing people about their recycling. American TV has recently been consumed by dramas about the question of means versus ends, or whether evil means justify a good end. Samurai Flamenco doesn't let that good end be – instead, it reveals law and morality to be an elaborate joke. The darkness is not what we do to reach our goals, but the goals themselves.

[1] Most advertisements do a similar thing, transforming a consumer object into an affective statement or the embodiment of a personal relationship.

[2]Technically speaking, an umbrella is a possession, not property in the typically Marxist sense. No communist is going to want to take away your umbrella. I'm arguing that in this narrative it serves as a symbol for genuine property, such as the land in the traditional “tragedy of the commons” story.

[3]For Western viewers not familiar with anime tropes or idol culture, this may instead be another cultural gap.

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