A Heavy Weight: On Takashi Shirogane
There’s a book full of plansDessa, ‘Poor Atlas’
at the feet of poor Atlas
titled For Man,
but the architects only drew blanks…
Let’s open with the obvious, the one thing that all fans of Voltron: Legendary Defender can agree on:
Takashi Shirogane has been through a big damn lot, my friends.
The one where we may immediately differ, however, is whether the show knows it, but it’s still true. Shiro has been under a lot of pressure, even for the show’s standards. The challenge, however, is that Legendary Defender struggles for the most part to find ways to navigate those pressures, for a lot of the cast. This is, in a lot of ways, the result of both strictures of time and navigating the boundaries of heterosexual boys’-club television, but I don’t say that to make any excuses for it. Things have gotten in the way of making the – at least – least unpalatable thing. This is where we are.
We can talk, then, about where here is, how we landed, and whether it is hostile territory. But we can also perhaps afford some patience to who was piloting when we crashed while also taking a serious look at the poor landing itself.
Legendary Defender, like a subset of mecha animated television, is very often thematically about adaptation. In the moments when something unexpected has caught our heroes unawares, they should find new power that strikes us with awe. It happens often in many of them, and much more so in each individual season of this series. There is always an answer to a difficult question, if one has faith, and it always comes just in time from the most unbelievable of sources. Robots are really just magic, and magic is really just a conduit for the will. It’s one of the reasons I personally like the show, if I’m being honest.
Narratively, it often also employs the same level of adaptation to elements of characterization when something seems to fall by. At least to my observation, a lot of that has been the case with many of the Paladins for some time – some characters seem to get more depth or drive than others, and the rest are put in situations where it burgeons somehow, if everything goes well.
Shiro, however is… fine? Not perfect, by any means. But… fine.
Or maybe, let me get some more things out first.
I think the show really cares about some characters more than others, and relies on plot points I don’t really care about for those for whom it cannot plumb great depth. It’s kind of frustrating, for instance, that Pidge has a wealth of family-related motivations, challenges of identity, and one of the sharpest technological intellects of the team, whereas Lance mostly defaults to the flirtatious bad boy whose knees go weak for the team’s token female alien beauty and hates being teased for it. I think it’s neat that Hunk is given this wealth of room for his relationship to food being tied to his ethnic identity, which I really appreciate as a point of character in itself, but it kind of sucks that it occurs so late, after so many not-so-subtle jabs at his weight in the series. It’s particularly noticeable that even the filler episodes that I really enjoyed, like Season 6’s ‘Monsters & Mana’, took away from moments to do more of that groundwork, or even could have been better and more emotionally light spaces to create those foundations.
Shiro has been through a looooooooooooooot.
‘A Little Adventure’, the latest season’s very first episode, uses Shiro’s recovery from the events of the last season as a launchpad for backstory into his experiences before the very beginning of the series. It is initially a moment for the show to do what runner Joaquim Dos Santos promised fans at San Diego Comic-Con: we get to see Adam, Shiro’s partner, and therefore properly establish that he is in fact queer. In theory, the announcement had fans rejoicing. Not only was it queer rep, but shippers across the coalition of fans were eager that this was going to qualify… one or the other of the big galleons floating within fanon waters.
The judgment, however, was that it was lacking. The scene is not only indefinite about their relationship status in a way some fans considered another heartbreaking example of the Hide Your Gays trope (remember Uranus and Neptune?), but at the end, Adam is literally buried. Worse still, he passes away offscreen, even though the series does still make time to return to the Earth of four years before the season’s events just so we can reckon with the Galra invasion of their home, and he’s put in the ground in a moment of a montage. Nowhere during their return does the series give Shiro much in the way of grief, longing, or pain. Suffice it to say that fanart has been working pretty diligently to plug such a narrative wound.
And this season is noncommittal in similar ways very often. ‘A Little Adventure’ also qualifies Shiro as having a potentially debilitating illness that rendered him unfit for the Kerberos mission which set the entire show’s events in motion, but that illness or his treatment for it never comes up again. The complications of it, or of losing his right arm at the end of the last season, never comes up with much depth. All of this is obviously… complicated.
I think it’s fair to assert that Dos Santos’ goal was to tell a normalising story within the bounds of the world that they created. To tell the story of a disabled queer Asian hero with boundless leadership and boundless ferocity within him in equal measure is a very difficult tightrope to dance, and I think it’s laudable that he tried.
In fact, that is where we should continue:
I think a lot of media is trying. I want to neither understate nor overstate that. Dos Santos was trying. He had every intention of performing the radical narrative of simply a man like Shiro living in his truest form and doing the work that he must in order to save his home. I think that’s still worth something. I think we still need creators like Dos Santos being willing to cross the myriad hurdles of the industry to try telling those stories for their audiences’ sake. I think the landscape is slowly getting much better, and it wouldn’t if we didn’t have creators like Dos Santos trying.
But trying something is not the same as doing something. The thought does not count for the world. More thoughtfulness could have been afforded, and it wasn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility for Dos Santos & Company to spare the difference. This is not an admonition – simply an acknowledgment of the unfortunate implications wrapped up in telling the story as it has been presented.
In particular, the individual pieces of the puzzle that is Shiro’s characterization in this season are unnerving to the very edge of potential insult. He has a love, but we see him only at his worst with Adam, choosing reckless potential glory over appreciation and love. For all we know, narratively, Shiro may very well just be a shitty person to get in a relationship with. The show says very little else – if you can say that it says much at all. I draw the line regarding whether things like showing kisses and saying ‘love’ is the only way to validate queer attachment in media, but the lack thereof is just as much subtext as the presence of the rest. Many other forms of emotional bonding can apply the same language that Adam does verbatim and still be valid; it is only considered validly queer first and foremost because of the subtext applied, that is, that the same language only appears in a TV show when the people involved are in love.
Then, time passes. Kerberos happens. Voltron happens. The quintessence field happens. And in all those years, the enemy is at his doorstep, takes his love, and leaves a shambles of his homestead for him to return to. But he’s given no real moment to consider it. I don’t know about you, but the idea that a thoughtful and driven leader still does not grieve terribly, in private or in public, is actually kind of damaging in general to ideal portrayals of masculinity, and it’s peculiar that such stoicism is afforded to Shiro so often but never to any of the other male Paladins. It unfortunately implies something that I’m sure Dos Santos didn’t mean – emotional availability, even the most base and natural of all sorrows, is a weakness that leadership cannot make room for. Something about navigating Shiro’s potential queerness alongside his shittiness to Adam and this lack of mourning is… complicated. Again, queer men don’t need to be perfect, and good guys don’t have to be born perfect either. But there seems to be so few transition points from ‘an ass to my boyfriend over one business opportunity’ to ‘stepping up to the plate for my fellow resistance fighters against intergalactic colonialism’ to ‘my boyfriend died in the war while I was dying in the war, and I didn’t even ask about it until I was done fighting’.
I figure that it is also worth saying this – Voltron: Legendary Defender is about war. People die in war. People often do not get closure in the aftermath of such. A trope is a hammer, and what matters most of all is how it is swung. But… the combination of such hammers and such arguably undue swings has left some serious damage to integrity of some areas, at least to me. The consequences of the violation of war are barely felt elsewhere, or else fully qualify and shape character. Princess Allura, for all her potential weaknesses, is defined by her loss of an entire homeland (although I imagine there could always be much more impact to her slowly discovering more of her people throughout the reaches of space). Pidge gets the good fortune of not only having her search for her family being a point of drive for her character, but she succeeds, and their salvation plays a big role in Earth’s mounted defense against the Galra in battlefields both home and away. Hunk returns to learn that, however unfortunate their situation is, his entire family has survived, and can be saved by his efforts. The loss of Keith’s father not only potentially establishes a lesson of self-sacrifice passed down from father to son, but becomes one of many points of bonding between Keith and his Galra mother Krolia, all of which take place within a single episode.
But not only does Shiro’s only established tether to the past die offscreen in battle, but he isn’t even given the richness of experiencing that grief for the audience. It’s bad enough that the gay man suffers the kind of loss no one else gets to suffer of their family or past loves. He doesn’t even truly get to suffer it, or worse, even the suffering isn’t for young and impressionable eyes to see.
His disability is also a thing the show gives no room for. The flashbacks inform us that Shiro has been diagnosed with an unknown illness that requires constant electrostimulation to maintain an unconfirmed level of mobility, but between the last time he speaks to Keith at the Galaxy Garrison and the moment he has his arm amputated by the Galra, this stops being an issue and is never revisited even after the latest season brings it up. Placed alongside Shiro’s PTSD from his days forced to be a gladiator for the Galra (another reason why the show should be more considerate to his mental state), and the other complications related to his amputation, his disability is meant to be a serious element of his characterisation. Whether that’s because the show cares about showing someone reckoning with such struggles, or because it can’t fight the desire to animate cool arms, is hard to tell. I can’t speak for the disabled experience, and just like the queer experience, I think it’s valuable to tell the stories of people who just are, without constantly having to answer for their marginalized identities. But I feel like there is a clear distinction between the aforementioned and simply not reckoning with it at all, and there are moments when it feels, at least to me, as if it is squarely, undeniably, the latter.
For a young man who has been through a lot, the show really wants him to earn his happy ending without going the extra mile to qualify his journey to it. In the contexts that are mostly external to himself, he is a confident, thoughtful, caring, self-sacrificing leader, the glue that holds the Paladins together. To himself… it is a challenge to reconcile two disparate subtexts. Is he the suffering soldier struggling to recover and find peace through his pain? Yes. But the show also unfortunately implies someone who never apologised for dismissing his partner’s worries, grits his teeth through pain, and only lets people in to his own struggles in the kind of subtextual ways that make you wonder if he’s ever actually told anyone how he felt about something that was hurting him.
As I said before, the show is trying. This comes across, though, as wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. This is the result of trying to meet so many little and contradictory demands, as previously stated: Voltron as engaging sci-fi action cartoon, Voltron as diverse character drama, Voltron as enthralling playground. It isn’t Dos Santos’ ‘fault’. The writing isn’t doing these things on purpose. It merely is.
Unfortunately, though, it is.
In all this, I find it poignant that Shiro, who for the last few seasons has not been the Paladin of the Black Lion (for a lot of the character reasons that we wish the show would expand upon more deeply), gets to still be a leader. Not only is he still the voice of reason and inspiration to the other Paladins, but when they return to Earth, he exerts his hardy battle critique and thoughtful leadership to the Galaxy Garrison as the captain of the IGF-Atlas, the newly built consolidation of Terran and Altean engineering that the Garrison trusts will see them through the Galra invasion. Garrison staff that literally outranked him the last time they saw him are now eager to receive his instruction. A machine that no one had even tested before he came back was now his battleship to helm through a war Earth was caught off guard by while he was lost in the stars.
Isn’t that poetic justice: that the man who bore so many burdens silently, who people admired for his unflappability in the face of overwhelming pressure both within and without, is the captain of a vessel named Atlas?
This is what I mean when I say that the show is trying. It knows what the end goal of its beats are, and it is committed to fulfilling that abstract growth for the audience’s sake. It isn’t aiming for cheap suffering, or hollow action – it wants to make us go all the way with these characters through everything.
It’s also interesting, then, that at a moment when we could have loved to get so much more of the one new character that the show’s team really wanted us to know about, we spend so much more with a handful of other genuinely interesting and engaging characters who, even though we know very little of them in general, have reams of charisma based simply on what we know of them as airborne dogfighters and skilled infiltrators. A whole crew! The season gave us Earth-to-atmosphere Top Gun and it was pretty engaging, even as recent and still mostly unknown faces, and the contribution of Griffin, Rizavi, Kinkade and Leifsdottir to the plot progression of the last half of the season cannot be understated.
But one can’t help but ask what it may have cost to take those moments and fashion them as more room for the characters we know. This is not a dismissal of their presence, just a question about the absence of the things that we knew when we first went into Season 7. Why are the fighter pilots that we still technically know so little about given more screen time than the lover we were promised weeks before the first episode even aired?
My immediate assumption of the answer is, ‘because the show was trying to do something’. And I admire the thing that the show was trying, and I wish I could see more of that, too. An animated series entirely opening from the premise of ‘The Last Stand’ would be just as engaging entirely on its own.
And yet… ‘trying‘.
On the night of the 13th of August – three days after the release of Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 7 – Dos Santos released an open letter to the fandom on his Twitter account.
I think it is a thorough, thoughtful, and honest document. I think that Dos Santos is earnest enough in it. He speaks pretty candidly about his intentions for the show, the boundaries to that intent, and his apology for the unfortunate implications of its framing. He admits the thing we should be immediately considerate of in Legendary Defender: the fact that the consequences of loss and violence were front-and-centre themes of the show. He was willing to speak candidly about fandom hostility, and urged fans to not become too invested in conflicts over one ship or another, insisting romantic subplots between the leads aren’t the show’s primary concern. He even claims the pride “that the archetype of ‘battle hardened soldier’ which had for decades been occupied by a pretty stereotypical ‘buffed out, heterosexual dude’ was, in our show occupied by an LGBT man” – a statement that, for all its later-in-the-sentence awkwardness, implies a genuine wish to try upending as many problematic tropes as possible.
I hesitate, though, to put ‘trying’ in a future sentence. It doesn’t appear as considerate as it could have been to the consequences of ‘burying’ Adam in the way that it had. It seems to frame what can only immediately be read as romantic incompatibility on Shiro’s part as “Shiro… dealing with some heavier stuff long before he ever got wrapped up in this crazy alien conflict”. It implies a “deeper light” shed on Shiro’s personal growth that isn’t properly illustrated by having us see Shiro truly reckon with it emotionally onscreen.
But it does clarify the tricky balancing act being performed here. How do audiences feel the pain of representation that hurts or misses the mark without being unduly abrasive to well-meaning creators both big and small? How do we create the ideal creative spaces for allies to continue trying to push the envelope and let marginalized identities into their stories both onscreen and behind the scenes, while also doing the study and introspection necessary to navigate those stories with the most possible forethought? How do we accept queer pain in media in worlds where pain is inevitable, and how do we craft queer pain in those worlds in ways that do not take the same shape as stories that have historically continued to marginalize queer audiences? How much room can audiences give to creators who want to tell diverse stories but have to navigate boundaries to stay on the air? How much effort can creators spend to insist upon telling those stories and shatter the boundaries that only they can destroy, for the sake of standing up for their audiences fully?
Put more simply (and pithily), how heavy is the weight that Atlas must bear? Will he bear it silently? And if not, what noise do we make: a joyful one that Atlas lifts us up, or a pained one that Atlas must do so much alone?
There is only so much Legendary Defender left before we never occupy that space again. There are a lot of reasons why I feel like that one more season is probably not going to be enough, and the amount of a lot that Takashi Shirogane has been though is but one of those reasons. I don’t say this without hope. The show is still one of my favourites – I wouldn’t be as critical of it as I am if it weren’t. I think the final season also has a lot of potential to bring all of the themes it’s been building on to a satisfying climax.
But as it gets there, we will have a lot of very keen observations to note, especially about Shiro. We love him. He is our leader, after all, And after all that he has been through, I think that even Shiro himself has so much faith in you, Voltron: Legendary Defender, to really commit to the victory that is telling his story right.