Or is it? Is Samurai Flamenco more clever than I had initially presumed it to be? I’m not quite sure I can answer that question yet, but it’s never wise to assume professional writers and animators, probably older and more experienced in life than I am, are dumb. Yes, I did think the sudden tone shift near the end of the seventh episode felt dumb, but is it actually dumb? For it to be actually dumb, I would have to think Manglobe has lost control of the show’s narrative–their own narrative–and I don’t think that’s a fair conclusion to make. Not yet, anyway. It might do good for me to start from the very beginning.
My initial impression of the anime came, not surprisingly, from the OP’s song. It’s a nice pop rock song. A little derivative, but nice. It might lack any sort of originality, but it does get one pumped up for some action. So as you can see, my expectations going into the anime were X, but unfortunately, what followed afterwards delivered Y. I did not get that superhero action anime that the OP had primed me for. What I got–well, at least for the first six and a half episodes–was this safe, slightly banal, coming-of-age, slice-of-life anime about Masayoshi, a male model who aspires to be just a little more. For those who haven’t seen the show, Masayoshi grew up watching your average Japanese superhero series (stuff similar to the Super Sentai), and it left quite a deep impression on the lonely young man (his parents died when he was young–y’know, standard superhero origin story). He thus wants to embody justice, striking fear in evildoers everywhere. There’s just one small problem: the world of Samurai Flamenco seems to lack true, palpable evil… well, initially, but we’ll get to that.
So anyway, the first six episodes seem to focus on Masayoshi’s reconciliation between his expectations of heroism and what’s actually realistic. Instead of battling nefarious masterminds and psychopathic clowns, our Samurai Flamenco, as he dubs himself, has little more to fight than petty thugs and rabble rousers. The initial premise of the show even reminded me of Kickass, another story about the boyish desire to become a hero. But whereas Kickass seems (this is merely a cursory judgment) to revel in its fantasy with only a passing consideration for the consequences of vigilantism–yeah, you might get beat up, and someone’s dad might die, but at the end of the day, you’re still the hero and you still get the girl!–our anime takes a rather subdued, even corny approach.
Y’see, for the first six episodes, it’s not so much about saving the world and stopping serial murderers. Rather, Masayoshi’s initial trials have him tackling the minor everyday crimes that we, as selfish or cynical or desensitized passersby, might overlook. Stuff like smoking in a non-smoking zone, playing around with litter, dumping trash fifteen or so insignificant minutes before the allotted time frame, etc… it’s all very ho-hum, and it makes you think, “Is that it?” And after six episodes, I had finally gotten comfortable with the idea that this might just be it. I thought to myself maybe this is what Japan needs. Maybe it’s not about crushing evildoers, even if that merely serves as an allegory for something bigger (as we see in other shows like Tiger & Bunny). Maybe it’s okay to be our own personal hero in our daily lives by not ignoring minor transgressions that we’d normally ignore. Not a terrifyingly profound or poignant message, but… it’s okay, I guess. At least the show isn’t offensive.
But at the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but yearn for something more. There can be something beautiful in capturing the humdrum-ness of our everyday lives if you have a unique perspective on it (see: American Beauty), but, well, what can I say? Most of us are thrill-seeking adventurers by heart. I want to get emotionally invested like when I watch Batman. Masayoshi fighting street thugs is cute, but it doesn’t scratch that itch. Even when that “dark, painful past” trope showed up, and our hero learned that his parents were actually murdered, the show still played the whole thing off in its own subdued way (somewhat mature though in admitting that he doesn’t quite feel the strong need for revenge as one might expect). Little did I know, however, that this was where the anime changed.
Again, for those who haven’t seen the show or much of it, evildoers finally do show up. King Torture–yes, King Torture–and his wacky, animal-themed henchmen are wreaking havoc across Tokyo… or at least they’re trying to. Aside from Gorilla Guillotine, none of King Torture’s henchmen have actually managed to, well, kill anyone. And that’s a little odd, isn’t it? I mean, what’s really bizarre is how Gorilla Guillotine’s appearance was like this sudden outburst of gruesome, visceral violence only to vanish into thin air like a fart. It’s as though the brutal beheading of some faceless policeman was an amuse bouche for an audience thirsting for the past seven weeks. And a couple other curious things changed about the show.
For example, when the show started, Masayoshi could barely fight off middle schoolers. Actually, no… he couldn’t even fight off middle schoolers. He eventually gets the help of some office supply… uh, researcher? Engineer? Whatever Harazuka is, my point is that it takes six episodes for Masayoshi to be able to handle petty street thugs by himself. Six. That’s a lot. My initial thought of the show was, “Well, this is certainly a slow burner.” But not so once the actual evildoers show up. In just the eighth episode alone, Samurai Flamenco fights through a whole bunch of henchmen without so much as breaking a sweat. Oh, I’m sure he’s a lot more capable now than when he was at the start of the series, but if the show was all about character development before, why has it changed?
But in the end, perhaps Samurai Flamenco couldn’t help holding onto its secrets any longer. King Torture makes a couple comments on entertainment and humanity’s need for it that ring a little too familiar to be simply coincidental. So the problem is that Masayoshi is too good at what he does. Remember how I said nobody besides Gorilla Guillotine has actually managed to kill anyone? Yeah, that’s all thanks to our hero Samurai Flamenco and his buddies (the Flamenco girls?). But while Masayoshi’s heart is pure as we’ve come to expect from anime protagonists, you can’t quite the say the same for Tokyo or more importantly, Flamenco Girl. Before we get to the heroine, it’s actually kind of funny that the populace of Tokyo are now bored with Masayoshi’s heroism because nothing bad happens. Isn’t that nuts? Don’t you want nothing bad to happen? But they’ve actually come to take Samurai Flamenco for granted. And you might think it’s counterintuitive to human nature, but maybe not; I have a friend who sometimes wishes something crazy would happen to the world because everyday life just isn’t that exciting unless you purposely make it exciting. But that’s the thing: other than Masayoshi and his friends going out and actively fighting heroes, everyone else is merely a spectator.
So now we come to Flamenco Girl. She too likes to fight evildoers, but she seems primarily motivated to do good only if it combats her boredom. To put it in a different way, goodness is a mere byproduct of what she does. Is that a harsh assessment? Maybe, but I get the feeling she cares less about the people she saves and more about kicking thugs in the balls (what does she do to female thugs?). So when the evildoers are defeated all a little too easily by her colleague, Samurai Flamenco, she sets out to escalate things, i.e. pick a fight with King Torture. Of course, she gets herself captured and tortured by King Torture (well, it’s in the name). I guess the irony here is that most heroes feel the burden of being a hero but not in this anime. What do I mean? Batman wants to stop being Batman, even if his identity is intrinsically linked to the mask. Superman too yearns to be Clark Kent (nevermind the debate on the silver and golden age of Superman… it is far beyond the scope of this post). On the other hand, Flamenco Girl–perhaps naively or stupidly–wants actual danger in her life.
So what is this anime trying to get at? Is there a point in the sudden shift tone and narrative pacing? I am reminded of the infamous shower scene in the movie Psycho. It is a common myth to believe that the knife never actually penetrates the skin, but regardless, the point is that a gruesome murder scene is, in actuality, not that literally gruesome. Nevertheless, the scene strikes a chord with the viewers because the editing makes it so that the camera itself represents the knife. It is the audience, staring at the silver screen in rapt attention, that’s guiding along the murder of Marion Crane. We desire to see her death–after all, we expect it–, and the first-person perspective thus makes us complicit with the crime. Well, that’s the popular theory in film analysis 101. It is safe to say, however, that this infamous shower scene wouldn’t work too well in our day and age. Our horror movies are now more like torture-porn. The abstraction of a knife penetrating a woman’s skin is no longer going to scare anyone. Take a kid raised on Saw or Hostel and have them watch Psycho. Would they appreciate it as much as audiences back in 1960? The likely answer is no.
So it got me to thinking back on how I judged the previous six and a half episodes of Samurai Flamenco: was I not unlike Flamenco Girl? Did I not wish for something more substantive… something more weighty to assault our heroes and their happy-go-lucky narrative. Yes, yes I did. I wanted to watch heroism on a much grander scale. I wanted to see Masayoshi do more than fight petty thugs. After all, he claims to fight true justice, but all he was doing was what any street cop should be able to do. In fact, he was doing Goto’s job. The whole thing felt ludicrous to me; “This is too lame,” I said to myself. Then the wacky henchmen showed up. But still, it wasn’t enough. It’s too cartoony. It’s too Super Sentai-like. I’m a sophisticated adult or so I tell myself, and I want more! And what I get are two brutally tortured individuals. Do I still want more?
What is the anime saying? Is King Torture right? Do we seek entertainment even if it escalates the situation out of control? Am I complicit in the torture of Flamenco Girl? Yeesh, I don’t know. Right now, I can imagine the natural gut reaction from most cynical internet warriors: “Yeah, right. As if a show could be making such a metacommentary on the evolution of its genre over the decades and its viewers along with it.” Maybe. Maybe those internet warriors are right, maybe they’re not. After all, King Torture’s words are a little too… pointed to ignore? But honestly, at the end of the day, I’m not so much concerned with what Samurai Flamenco and its creators are intentionally trying to say. Rather, I want to consider what the story evokes from me, and at the moment, I’m mired in questions such as “Does it require torture of another human being for true acts of heroism to exist or appreciated?” Or let’s consider how much of an homage this show is to its predecessors: have we become too desensitized to evil in most of its forms that the wacky hijinks that used to thrill audiences in the Super Sentai series of old are no longer effective in 2013? What are we to make of heroic tales if storytellers have to constantly escalate things, as Flamenco Girl would have it, in order to keep our interests? Do we need to engineer some contrived climax–further contrived because the previous climax has set a new level of tolerance–just because our stories demand it, realism be damned?
To sum things up, my feelings toward the show went from “It’s okay…” to “Ugh” to now “Well, maybe…” That isn’t very conclusive, I admit, but to my credit, the story isn’t complete either. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass, but for now, I’d say Samurai Flamenco is thought-provoking enough to stick it out to the bitter end.