Salt and Saffron
Being a hero never filled anyone’s sack with salt and saffron. It’s a waste of time.
—Takezo Kensei (David Anders)
Celebrated 17th-century samurai Takezo Kensei would rather be knocking back a few sakes than saving Japan from warlords, though he’s been paid by villagers to do just that. His apathy is disheartening for Hiro (Masi Oka), who randomly time-traveled back to ancient Japan during last season’s battle royale finale with Sylar (Zachary Quinto).
The myths of Takezo Kensei were young Hiro’s favorites, and as Heroes fans know, his katana is Takezo’s sword. On meeting Takezo, Hiro gushes, “I’m your biggest fan!” Those of us who followed the show’s internet marketing and narrative expansion over the summer also discovered the website for the Yamagato Fellowship, an institute dedicated to the study of mythological heroes founded by Hiro’s father Kaito (George Takei). It elaborates on Takezo’s mythology and indicates that Takezo will be the most important new character in the second season.
But he’s not what Hiro thinks. He drinks and schemes, paying other soldiers to dress like him and do battle in his stead, often without telling these proxies of the fatal danger involved. Add to that the fact that Takezo is really a white Brit who’s somehow managed to get into Japan at the height of its isolationist period, and Hiro is totally perplexed. Where’s the altruism? The dedication to justice and freedom? How is it possible that the greatest samurai of Japanese history is a white man?!
Let’s leave aside the colonialist logic that posits white Westerners as better “natives” than the local populations (see: The Last Samurai). In its immediate complication of the same Takezo Kensei lore it has so painstakingly constructed, Heroes demonstrates it’s not afraid to muck up conventions, to challenge mythologizing and hero worship. Heroes aren’t “bigger than life,” but ordinary women and men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a message Heroes delivered throughout the first season, but now insists it’s a transhistorical truth.
Other emergent themes in the second season premiere were less fresh. It’s almost too easy to make comparisons between Heroes and the X-Men franchise. You would hope creator and head writer Tim Kring would shy away from such associations, but no. Season Two introduced a shadowy, pro-mutant secret organization working to protect closeted heroes, even if they sometimes have to kill a few extremist mutants out of a “moral imperative” towards the “greater good.” It appears that the new Professor X is Dr. Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), researching a cure for a disease that targets mutants. When the heroes with the most extraordinary powers expressed interest in this cure, it sounded a lot like the narrative arc of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
Even so, the disease furthers Heroes’ allegorizing of its genetic mutants as outsiders, aliens, and queers. Indeed, a disease that targets a specific group socially stigmatized immediately recalls the early days of AIDS, when it was known in the U.S. as the “gay plague,” or when it was conjectured the disease originated in the deviant sexual practices of black Africans.
The Season Two premiere critiqued such phobic logic, and gestured toward the globalization of the AIDS epidemic and those populations hit hardest. At the opening of the episode, “Four Months Later,” Dr. Suresh was lecturing in Cairo, appealing to locals to fund his work, suggesting how vulnerable “mutants” in Africa are to the disease. Two new characters, siblings Maya (Dania Ramirez) and Alejandro (Shalim Ortiz), were on the lam in Honduras. Maya was worried about her powers, or perhaps her “sickness,” and desperate to find Dr. Suresh and his cure. Even as Hiro struggled with his own, seemingly personal disappointment, the plight of the outsiders and queers was given a surprising political edge in Heroes’ assertion that “normalization” (whether dictated by a larger culture or imagined as a means to social enfranchisement) is largely impossible and certainly not healthy, psychologically or physically.
This is manifest in the troubles of the Bennet family, now the “Butlers” and relocated to Costa Verde, CA. Claire (Hayden Panettiere) in particular is finding it difficult to “be ordinary,” especially when challenged by her new school’s popular cheerleader clique. She backed down from a fight, but just barely. As she confessed, it’s frustrating “not [to] be who I really am. And I know that I can’t be who they want me to be, and I just feel like I’m gonna burst.” It’s precisely the double-bind of closeted life, and Heroes’ most direct rejection of the standardizing demands of “straight” culture.