Samurai Flamenco – The best worst anime I’ve ever seen.

Samurai Flamenco!

Gotou looks on as Flamenco responds to the call to action! From “Anime is Dead” blog. http://animeisdead.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/samurai-flamenco-love-and-empathy-are-beyond-justice/

I didn’t know where else to write this.

I’m just so mad right now.

I’m so mad I’m taking time out of work to write this. That’s how mad I am. Don’t tell my boss.

Last night I indulged again in my recent guilty pleasure, Samurai Flamenco, an anime created in 2013 which focuses on the life of a male model named Masayoshi.

Masayoshi works as a model, but dreams of becoming a real life superhero akin to those in shows like “Power Rangers” (in this series called the “credit card rangers”). To that end, he creates the hero Samurai Flamenco – his costumed alter ego – who will fight evil on the streets in Japan.

We first meet Masayoshi sitting naked and defeated in a back alley, where the show’s other main character, Gotou, finds him. Gotou is a young police officer, and he struggles with the challenge of knowing that Masayoshi is a masked vigilante whom he should probably report, while also knowing that he’s a complete weakling with good intentions who actually gets beat up more often than he manages to do any good.

So that’s the basic set up. The young man who wants to “fight for justice.” The cop who doesn’t share the same idealism, but who does “fight for justice” in his day job.

What I can’t express is the wonderful charm of this show. Masayoshi’s naivete and repeatedly crushed optimism is wonderfully heartening somehow. Seeing him fail to convince a stranger to put a can into a recycle bin instead of tossing it on the street makes the viewer shake his head with a smile. Gotou struggling with trying to be supportive of this truly good-natured kid, while trying to help him recognize the realities of a nuanced world is equally humorous. Their relationship is emotionally rewarding, and develops very well. As the hyper-cheerful end-credits play on each episode I notice I have a huge smile on my face.

The plot progresses at a perfect pace. A news website owner puts up a reward for the identity of Flamenco, A washed-up action hero claims to be the real Samurai Flamenco live on television where Masayoshi is a guest. Masayoshi’s agent suspects the truth and must be kept in the dark. A pop-star female arrives in costume to fight evil and can actually beat up muggers, unlike Flamenco. When Flamenco puts forth a superhuman effort just to retrieve an umbrella for Gotou, he becomes a viral video sensation.

And so on.

The whole thing just feels like a wonderfully comedic soap-opera, just barely pushing the boundaries of the absurd on occasion (super-powered school supplies, anyone?) for the sake of a good laugh.

Then episode 7 comes along. Prepare for spoilers.

The first half of episode 7 is basically normal. Gotou informs Masayoshi that the police chief wants to make Samurai Flamenco “Police Chief for a Day” and have him ride along as the police clean out a drug operation. It’s meant to be a photo op for the police department, to improve their reputation.

After the bad guys are subdued, Flamenco is allowed into the building where the drug operation is taking place. One of the criminals breaks loose and runs into another room. The police and Flamenco give chase, but the criminal throws off 4 police officers simultaneously. Samurai Flamenco and Gotou watch in shock as, screaming and grunting, the criminal transforms into a giant ape with huge metal screws in its head and a guillotine for a torso, which it then uses to chop off the heads of several police officers while yelling “I am Guillotine Gorilla!” Necks are snapped. Heads fly. Blood spurts. Gotou and Flamenco manage to shove the gorilla out of a high window, thus killing it. Then “King Torture” appears in the sky and announces that the monster is his and he’s going to take over the world. End of episode.

This sudden and dramatic change in tone, style, violence level, and theme was completely unexpected and utterly derailed everything that went before.

“It must be a fantasy, or a dream or something,” I thought. “It must be a hallucination brought on by the drugs.” I skimmed through the next episode. Another ridiculous monster, and no discussion of how it’s not “real.”

In fact, for the remainder of the show (another 14 episodes or so) it’s nothing but send up after send up of the old Japanese action shows. First cartoony monsters led by a bad guy who wants to “take over the world.” But then it’s a team of fighters led by Flamenco. Suddenly the washed-up action hero character is actually the 1970s Japanese equivalent of Nick Fury, commanding teams of fighters. Flamenco becomes more and more powerful, transforming his costume from flimsy home-sewn fabric to a high tech suit of awesome. The team pilots special ships and fights the Japanese Government which has become evil. Then an alien menace appears and sends monsters which transform into giant versions of themselves.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that Flamenco is experiencing everything he ever thought he wanted. All the bad guys from all the shows he loves are appearing – and he’s the hero!  He has his tragic back-story! He has his super powers! He has his recognition! At last!

A few hints in the show, skillfully dropped, show that there’s a message in there for the viewer.

  • The man who owns the internet news site appears occasionally while things are peaceful between planet-threatening attacks and says with his half-closed eyes something along the lines of “this is so boring.”
  • The never-on-screen girlfriend of Gotou sends him text messages while Flamenco is seen battling evil, asking “Does Masayoshi look happy?”
  • The girl who saw herself as hero is humiliated when she realizes her motives are impure, and she’s nothing more than an expendible sidekick.
  • King Torture releases his prisoner, swearing to never do her harm, when she demonstrates she is a true hero, exhibiting self-sacrifice in the face of current and imminent agony.
  • Masayoshi can’t figure out how to help Gotou when there is no super-villain to fight.

You know what, writers? I get it. I’m seeing the commentary on heroism, desires, and happiness. I get it. But you know what?

That’s not what we signed up for.

For six and a half episodes Samurai Flamenco treats us to one of the most charming and well-written anime series in recent memory. Yeah, the artwork was pretty pathetic, but so what? Viewers were ready to stick with Masayoshi and Gotou for years, watching them deal with the challenges of regular human life and the conflict between the ideal and the real. It was good. It was sweet. It was everything it needed to be.

And yes, maybe that’s the point. You live the life you can, and do the good you can, because it’s perfect just how it is. You dream of amazing adventures and being something you’re not, but will it really make you happy? Is the purpose of life to avoid being bored? Is it a costume and adventure that makes a hero? No. So why not embrace all that is good in the sometimes boring, but ultimately beautiful life you have?

In that sense, Samurai Flamenco is massively impressive in that they sacrificed the entire show to proving that point. It makes it, in my opinion, one of the most powerful and beautiful pieces of art able to express that idea. From an artistic standpoint, this was a huge win.

But you know what? I didn’t sign up for that. I wanted my guilty pleasure about a male model who fumbles through life, but manages to do a lot of good with his meager efforts.

Good job, team, in making your point in an epic way. Now give me back the life I wanted.

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