Series: Samurai Flamenco

Samurai Flamenco: A dumb and glorious mess
Year: 2013
Director: Omori Takahiro (Baccano!, Durarara!!, Hell Girl, Natsume Yuujinchō, Princess Jellyfish)
Seiyū: Sugita Tomokazu (as Gotō Hidenori); Masuda Toshiki (Hazama Masayoshi)

I’m not going to claim that it’s good. But it is fucking great. This series is a set of Slice of Life bookends with several volumes of Crazy Awesome between them. The bookends are a great series in itself, but the plot-driven interlude strengthens its impact. Yet overall it’s still a character-driven story, and like so many of my other favorite series, the characters are among the many reasons I love Samurai Flamenco.

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The premise. Masayoshi has no superpowers, no special strength, no impressive wit . . . he’s working as a model post-high school because looking pretty in front of a camera is really his only skill. But he’s a superhero megafanboy that desperately wants to be one himself. While kind of an airhead, this Batman wannabe doesn’t turn out like the Tick, or Arthur for that matter. At first Gotō (his Gordon—not a Commissioner, but good enough) does have to come to his rescue, but with some training from a memetic Chuck Norris (who is obvious in the opening credits long before you meet him in the show proper), little Samurai Flamenco’s got some real fighting chops. Yet he’s still no match for a feministic, morningstar-wielding, ball-crushing Sailor Moon. All of this—just the first four episodes.

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The hero. Even when his superhero persona starts to gain support and popularity, Masayoshi doesn’t get a big head about it. He also remains one of the more grounded characters, and while he has moments of weakness, he never sacrifices his code or his morals. “A hero will never give up, never hide, never be defeated, never accept evil.”—this phrase appears in every episode as the eyecatch and describes Masayoshi in pretty much every aspect of his life. His personal fortitude makes up for his naïveté, and he achieves remarkable things just for attempting them—like retrieving Gotō’s stolen umbrella by chasing a train halfway across town on his little folding bike.

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Stationery. Using office supplies as lawful weaponry is one example of how far the writers went in building this character. Batmen and ninja alike have dangerous tools and trinkets, but this superhero wants none of that. For the kind of idealist who mourns the suicides of his evil counterparts, it would be more ridiculous for him to rely on deadly weapons. If half-heartedly, he does discuss guns with Gotō (who flatly refuses providing him with one), and he tries out baseball bats at the sporting goods store. But he still needs to protect himself, so his light rubber body armor, eraser projectiles, glue traps, stapler nunchucks (for stapling bad guys’ clothes to the pavement . . . does this count as Absurdly Sharp Blades, or what?)—it’s all legal for him to possess, causes no injuries, and still helps him accomplish his goals.

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The art. The animation itself can be quite weak, especially toward the end of the series as the staff became more and more pressed for time. (It’s still nothing compared to whatever the hell is going on with the animation in Sailor Moon Crystal right now, lately it’s like they’re down to the D team.) But it doesn’t detract from the art itself. The character designs are gorgeous, and the show’s color palette is a soothing mix of drab hues and pastels, evoking a lively “city” feeling. Most impressive are the backgrounds and the lighting, showcased in subtle yet engaging camera angles and framing.

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The soundtrack. The openers are catchy as fuck, the first of which sounded to my mom like “Rush, Journey, and REO Speedwagon all in one” (it’s actually Spyair); the second is upbeat rock with a twinge of ska. Equally catchy (and legitimately good) closers by in-universe pop trio MMM, some Spanish guitar, a Pink Panther dupe, marching-caliber brass ensembles, and several themes like a ’70s cop show or spy film . . . throw in the influence of the Internet and you’ve got the Samurai Flamenco OST. It hits all the right levels of pomp, camp, and craziness  to be the perfect companion for this story.

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Sugita. Just. You know. A friend summarized his character as “[having] the advantage of not being super bishi and also not being Red Axe.” And there’s more singsong disbelief and rolling baritones than I could ever ask for. Drooooool

But to be serious. For someone with so few credits under his belt, Masuda does an excellent job heading the cast with charisma and believable performances. It would surprise me if this doesn’t catapult him into more leading roles. Kid’s got chops.

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BAKABAKABAKABAKABAKABAKABAKABAKA

The characters. I’m not going to go into much detail here, as I’ve already sort of spoiled too much and there are other spoilers I really want to avoid. So I’ll keep it basic. Masayoshi, while he understands the world doesn’t revolve around him, is an idealist and makes it his mission for the world to conform to his vision. Gotō is the one Straight Man in a world of bananas, often openly eyerolling and facepalming—though even he falls under the “superheroes are awesome” spell a time or two. Tenuous ally Mari is a self-made kickass lady and possibly sociopathic. Journalist Konno is definitely sociopathic with a few soft spots. (I have my own soft spot for him, as the show’s resident November 11.) Watching these people learn their lessons and evolve their friendships over the course of the series is where the real magic happens, and why, despite all the silliness in the middle, the more mundane and heartfelt bookends are the true core of the series.

The creators themselves seem to be disdainful of this thing they have created, more or less relegating it to Shaggy Dog Story status. But that doesn’t stop fans from slowly making their series a sleeper hit. It’s currently making the rounds in my friend group like a bad cold; everyone I know that’s started it has been immediately charmed, male and female alike. Which is cool because it’s also kind of, but not really, but really kind of gay. What’s your flavor, het? ho? foe? les? When it comes to Ship TeaseSamumenco has got you covered.

It’s implied that this happens a lot.

Unapologetic ridiculousness. Samurai Flamenco is a series with no middle ground. It goes all-out on everything—and so do its viewers. People either love it, embracing the silliness and accepting it at face value, or they are unwilling to suspend disbelief and thus feel cheated. Some commentaries I’ve read border on vitriolic, such contempt do they harbor for its major tonal shifts (yes . . . that is plural).

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But the show really isn’t trying to pull a fast one on you. Consider the source material to which it pays homage: Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, etc. None of the plot points in Samurai Flamenco‘s “insanity interlude” would be out of place in one of these shows—and in fact some are lifted directly from them (or so I’m informed by a friend who grew up watching Kamen Rider). Without this context, yeah, I can see how you would feel duped. This series has a sheen of nostalgic familiarity that I think is a big part of its appeal—for that reason, one’s enjoyment of this series may hinge on whether or not you are familiar with sentai and/or tokusatsu. (I watched Power Rangers as a kid, so from my perspective Samurai Flamenco hits every mark with the nostalgia bombs it is constantly lobbing.)

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I can understand the concerns, but I’m not convinced that this series proceeded unplanned, given that Chekhov’s Gunman (who “fires” in episode 19) appears in episode 1. It is possible he was seeded early with little understanding of how he would ultimately be used—”I don’t know, we’ll figure it out later”—but other things line up, fitting in too well and making too much sense (!) for all of it to be an 11th hour contrivance.

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As a side note, I find it culturally anomalous that the hero is special for no other reason than his drive. Most anime leads have drive, but can also already fight, or can see ghosts, or are geniuses, or famous pop idols, etc etc. But this series states straight out that Masayoshi is good at nothing. In Japan, high school is often the last bastion of personal growth and potential; if you haven’t figured out what you’re doing with your life by graduation, it becomes much harder for you to find work. It makes me wonder if, for a generation taught that solid employment is the basis of a good life, this story is inspiring. Gotō, who resolved early on that he would become a cop, is good at his job and seems fulfilled by it, and yet decidedly does not have his shit together . . . while the directionless and unskilled Masayoshi achieves every goal he sets. He is employed, and does succeed at his job, but his greatest accomplishments do not stem from his paying career. It must be refreshing, for kids struggling to enter the work force, to realize that. (It’s at least refreshing for me.)

And finally. . . .

Megazord. That is all.

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