Mari Maya is an idol by day, and a magical girl by night. Does this sound familiar?
If forced to settle on only one profession for young girls to dream of and aspire to become, anime would surely choose that of the idol. I'm not speaking of idol-specific anime- Love Live!, AKB0048, Aikatsu!, The Idolm@ster, Pretty Rhythm,Natsuiro Kiseki, and to some extent the entire Macross franchise - but rather the ubiquitous presence of idols in anime, specifically as paragons of success. I'm speaking of characters like Himari Takakura in Mawaru Penguindrum, who dreamed of becoming an idol, and watches as her two childhood friends end up living her dream. In my own first anime experience, Sailor Moon, Usagi Tsukino or as I knew her, Serena, attempts to enter an idol competition by the fourth episode. The localized title of that episode says it all, "So You Want to be a Superstar."Anime tells us that being an idol isn't just a dream, but The Dream.
What interests me about Mari is not simply that she became Flamenco Girl, but that she was an idol first. She was already living The Dream, but not her dream.
"I'M SICK OF HOLDING MYSELF BACK EVERY DAY. ISN'T THAT HOW YOU FEEL, SAMUMENCO?"
-Mari Maya, Samurai Flamenco, episode 4
Living The Dream is not without its pitfalls. Within the established narrative that becoming an idol is the wish of young girls far and wide is the added life lesson that the path to idoldom is tough. It takes ridiculously long hours, the acquiescence of one's personal life, and combat training, provided that one is a character in AKB0048. The latter requirement may be an exaggeration, but the idea that becoming a successful idol takes intense physical training and unparalleled mental focus is present across the board when one sees an anime character attempt to become one. Anime tells us that one has to desire to become an idol above all else, and work genuinely hard to fulfill that dream. If one does manage to garner success as an idol, they then must work exponentially harder to ensure that none of the up-and-coming girls replace them in the fickle eyes of the public. Additionally, as exemplified in AKB0048 through the concept of succession, they must be themselves but not themselves. What is projected on stage is a specifically-crafted identity that appeals to a certain type of audience, but is based on real-life personality traits. The genuine person and idol persona easily bleed into one another to the point where one can hardly tell which is which - worst case scenario you end up with Perfect Blue - so the life of an idol becomes a delicate balancing act between the two.
Similarly, the life of a magical girl is no cakewalk. Regardless of whether one is deliberately made to suffer (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) or tasked with protecting those which they love (Sakura Kinomoto, Cardcaptor Sakura), becoming a magical girl requires balancing the after-school heroine with daily life. If Nagisa Misumi and Honoka Yukishiro had not been forced into becoming Pretty Cure, they would be happily playing lacrosse and blowing up beakers in the science lab, respectively. It differs from the narrative of an idol in that the magical girl is given special powers to fight evil, whatever that may mean in context, rather than entering the potentially toxic environment of entertainment; however, both necessitate the separation of a public face - be it heroine or idol - from daily life.
"TIME TO BLOW OFF STEAM! I MEAN TIME FOR FLAMENCO GIRLS TO SAVE THE DAY!"
-Mari Maya, Samurai Flamenco, episode 6
As evidenced by Mari's newfound energy in the studio, being a magical girl allows her to leave the stress of being an idol behind her for a bit, renewing what passion she does have for her career. Unlike Usagi, Nagisa, Honoka, and Sakura, she is not coerced or tricked into fighting evil, nor does she possess any magical powers. Mari chooses the mask of the magical girl to blow off steam without revealing her identity, which would indubitably ruin her career. Additionally, she lacks the sense of justice that drives Masayoshi Hazuma, the titular Samurai Flamenco, to become a hero. When she asks Masayoshi if he is sick of holding himself back, they misunderstand each other on a fundamental level. Mari wants to become a magical girl to escape, while Masayoshi wants to become a hero to uphold his own, somewhat rigid, sense of justice. Masayoshi enters the fray unprepared and pays for it, while Mari meticulously preps and trains for her magical girl debut, only to have Masayoshi steal her thunder. I wouldn't say that Mari is any more genuinely diligent than Masayoshi; however, the emotional toughness that one must build in order to become an idol allows Mari to be more prepared, and street smart, than Masayoshi ever could be.
While Samurai Flamenco's haplessness and sense of justice endears him to those around him, like the stranger-turned-confidante Hidenori Goto, it's Mari's persistence and use of the magical girl persona that endears Samurai Flamenco more to me each week. In placing aside The Dream for her dream, Mari shows a stubborn, tough streak that is wholly charming, and potentially fascinating, depending on where the series chooses to take her.
As an aside, I'd recommend people check out that Sailor Moon episode. It involves an idol, "Saffron," being captured so that a Negaverse monster can take her place and hold an idol competition to steal energy. Molly (Naru), and a crossdressing Melvin (Umino) also enter. Good stuff.