Golden Duo for Life: Sarazanmai and the Power of Turning Subtext Into Text
I burst into tears at the end of episode three of Sarazanmai.
Queer storytelling is important to me for so many reasons, both personal and sociological. I spend so much of my energy shouting from the rooftops about all the complex, intricately layered, purposefully ambiguous narrative and linguistic tools that so many creators use to craft queer romances. My favorites are the stories that hide in plain sight under a microscopic veneer of heteronormative assumptions. I love these stories deeply. I love wrestling with all the confusing nuances, trying to navigate the depths of meaning and find just the right words to illuminate the parts of the icebergs under the surface.
And in the space of twenty-two minutes, Sarazanmai slammed the sun through that veneer and evaporated away the entire ocean. The reason that this particular episode hit me so hard wasn’t that it was “explicitly” queer — although that it certainly was. It’s that it was explicitly queer in a way that also shed a bright light on the intrinsically queer nature of so many of the tropes and metaphors and emotions that are ubiquitous in more implicit stories.
I wrote recently about the type of implicit-metaphorical queer romance that’s common in archetypal sports anime — relationships with the intensity and all-consuming nature of adolescent crushes wrapped up in the language of rivalries and teammates. Among the many layers of episode three of Sarazanmai is the outline of a totally classic sports anime: Kazuki, for reasons unspecified, has quit playing soccer; and his best friend and teammate, Enta, is desperate to get him back to the sport, so that they can once again be the “golden duo” and pass the ball to each other. There’s even the obligatory symbolic object, in this case an ankle bracelet, that represents their commitment to…soccer.
Throw a dart at your favorite sports anime and you’re likely to come across very similar language and plot devices…
The sports anime backdrop in Sarazanmai is cliche enough to feel like a parody, and that’s exactly the point: It is, in a sense, a parody, because unlike the typical mainstream sports anime we also get a behind the scenes view into Enta’s thoughts. And Enta doesn’t mince words:
Several times throughout the episode we’re privy to Enta’s private daydreams, daydreams in which he’s able to actually voice his feelings to Kazuki and have them affirmed and reciprocated. But even in his own fantasies Enta makes use of the language of sports as a proxy for romantic commitment. It’s not until the third daydream that even in his mind he allows himself to say “I’m in love with you” rather than wrapping it in a soccer metaphor, and even then it’s combined with the “golden duo” language:
At the in-universe level, these daydreams give a heartbreaking window into the ways that Enta himself has internalized the narrative tropes of sports anime as a language of romance. As I discussed in my analysis of the “rivals” metaphor used in Hikaru no Go, this adoption of not-quite-romantic categories to make sense of the intense emotions of an adolescent crush is resonant with anyone who grew up queer in a homophobic society. But because in this case Enta is in fact self-aware enough to pierce through the metaphors and see his own feelings for what they are, these scenes also become a meta commentary on the tropes they’re playing with. And the commentary is not especially subtle: Yes, these stories are romantic. Yes, these characters are queer.
This episode is by no means the only example of this kind of entwining of implicit and explicit storytelling. Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Sarazanmai, has done exactly this kind of satire many times before — for example his 2015 show Yurikuma Arashi highlights (among many other things) the way the word “friend” (tomodachi) is deployed euphemistically in many shojo and shonen stories.
Yuri!!! On Ice is another example of an explicit romance that highlights and validates the sports anime tropes that it’s built upon. The airport scene from episode nine is very similar to some of the Sarazanmai scenes, mingling the languages of romance and sports and openly calling out the connection:
This is explicit, out-loud queer storytelling done right: bringing subtext up to the surface, shining a light on the emotions that are so often conveyed more quietly. It’s great to push for more and more and more queer stories that feel no need to hide, but it’s so important to make sure that explicit, “canon” queer stories aren’t framed in a way that straightwashes and dismisses other queer readings. Episode three of Sarazanmai felt like being hit with a tidal wave of validation, like the writers were peeking out from behind the curtain and winking right at me. I’m gonna go out on a limb and conjecture that there will be a ton more to say about this show as it continues; so far it’s simultaneously hilarious, ludicrous, farcical, brave, poignant, beautiful, heartbreaking, enthralling, uncomfortable, and pretty much any other adjective you could possibly think of. I’m grateful for the insight and commentary that’s already been packed into the first few episodes, and so curious to go along for the rest of the ride.