By Andrew Osmond.
The second half of Samurai Flamenco finally hits British shelves as a UK Collector’s Edition Box Set, carrying parts 12 to 22 of the series. We covered Flamenco’s first half here, describing it as a highly eccentric superhero show given to more mutations than the Hulk. It began with minor youth celebrity Hazama donning a silly suit to fight trivial crimes, like a less violent, more daffy Kick-Ass. Volume One ended with Hazama in a Power Rangers-style team, fighting monsters popping up for real, as if a TV-addled zeitgeist was reshaping the world
Volume 2 carries on in Power Rangers mode for a fair while, with Hazama and his costumed allies fighting a heck of a lot of monsters. Their numbers only rise each time they’re defeated, true to the logic of a videogame or a kids’ fantasy show. Hazama’s other allies from earlier episodes take a back seat for a while, including policeman Gotou and humiliated superheroine Mari – who for some reason is now holing up in Gotou’s room. Both characters will return later for some highly emotional story developments; indeed, these developments are what Flamenco’s really about.
Other highlights include Hazama fighting – very literally – a political battle in the show’s most exciting duel. Our hero also meets a cosmic being which may very well be God, and encounters the hilarious Mr Justice. This Justice-san is an all-American superhero who dresses like a certain Captain but acts like Stan Smith from American Dad, an overbearing brute with a stars-and-stripes trailer who hums the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I wonder if this is just an OTT spoof, or if it reflects how many Japanese really see Hollywood superheroes!
But seen from Britain in 2016, there’s a different way to look at Samurai Flamenco. Between the two volumes of the series, we’ve seen upheavals in superhero media, especially the controversial bids to establish a “DC Extended Universe” franchise. This year’s DC movies, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, both emphasise violence, attitude and grim, godlike supermen. Anime, of course, has done that kind of stuff for decades. A quarter-century ago, pundits were linking Akira with Frank Miller’s seminal Batman strip The Dark Knight Returns.
Samurai Flamenco was made in Japan before the new DC movies, but it functions as a reply to them, another kind of answer to the question, “What are superheroes for?” A common criticism of films like Batman v Superman is that they lose sight of the child audiences that were the original targets of the genre. Samurai Flamenco isn’t a kids’ show; it was part of the night-time Noitamina block in Japan, and brings in adultery and finger-crushing. But it honours the roots of superheroes in children’s wish-fulfilment, through the eternal innocence of its central character Hazama. In Flamenco’s course, Hazama becomes an outcast, a fugitive and reject from society. Yet he never dreams of betraying his principles and becoming a grim, dark killer – unlike plenty of ‘modernised’ heroes in the DC Universe.
At the same time, Flamenco acknowledges the importance of growing up, in the arcs of both Hazama and Mari (though Mari has quite different lessons to learn). Moreover, some later Flamenco episodes step deliberately outside the superhero genre, telling a very different kind of story about grief and obsession, involving Hazama’s friend Gotou. In the old TV Evangelion series, the psycho-drama elements were about undercutting hero stories; in contrast, Samurai Flamenco steps from fantasy to realism without such soapboxing about which kind of story is more valid. Rather than Evangelion, it’s close to the unforgettable episode, “The Body,” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Towards Flamenco’s end, Hazama tries to learn about love – the lad has been too obsessed with superheroics to ever think about it before. A woman warns him, “Those who aren’t familiar with love may become possessive or obsessive,” which does feel like soapboxing, an on-the-nose warning to fans who rant online about, say, the new Ghostbusters. Yet, Flamenco doesn’t denounce childish things, nor does it become an exercise in fanboy alientation like the TV end of Eva. We won’t spoil if Hazama lives or dies at the end, but he’s not dismissed or deconstructed. Rather, Flameno suggests a famous dictum of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who in the 1970s: “There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
Samurai Flamenco, part two, is released in the UK by Anime Limited.