By Andrew Osmond.
Samurai Flamenco is… Well, the safest way to describe it is as a highly eccentric superhero series from the director of Durarara!! and a writer of Excel Saga. It’s also a show given to more mutations than Bruce Banner (or for 1970s TV oldies, David Banner). You may feel you have Flamenco’s measure in the early episodes, but be prepared for it to go nuts. One review of the show’s first half was headlined “I Can’t Decide if Samurai Flamenco is Brilliant or Terrible,” which is great news for anime connoisseurs.
The story begins in contemporary Tokyo. One evening, off-duty policeman Goto encounters a naked, sorry-looking youth, Hazama, in an alley. Hazama claims to be a superhero, defeated in his battle against a terrible villain… who was a drunk committing the crimes of jaywalking and smoking in a non-smoking zone. Goto is incredulous, but Hazama seems completely genuine… a genuine fantasist, that is, who watches cheesy Power Rangers shows in his spacious apartment, dons a hero-style mask and suit, and declares himself Samurai Flamenco, with “the noble spirit of the samurai and the passion of a flamenco dancer.” It’s still a hundred times less silly than Ant-Man.
Hazama tries enforcing zero tolerance on “crimes” that Goto himself sees as trivial. Arguably the highlight and lowlight is when Hazama hassles a bewildered woman for… putting out her sorted trash a bit early. Goto sees Hazama as pathetic but tries to shield the younger man from the consequences of his stupidity, as the public complaints roll in and the toughs line up to give Hazama a thumping. As Goto says, Hazama may suck as a hero but still seems a decent person: “You’re a good freak, a freak that helps people.”
And then… things develop. Samurai Flamenco starts going viral, much like the real-life “Chibatman”, the masked defender of Japan’s Chiba prefecture. He’s discussed on TV entertainment shows, on which Hazama appears as himself. Ah, we forgot to mention that his public identity is as a minor pretty-face celebrity on cheesy primetime TV. Rewards are offered to find out who Flamenco’s is. A second have-a-go cosplay hero shows up, insisting she’s the real deal. And then things get really strange.
Alternative superheroes, like alternative takes on Sherlock Holmes, have been around a long time. They’re used to make many different points by creators who love superheroes, or who hate superheroes, or who just want to prod the clichés and see what happens. Samurai Flamenco starts like two films of 2010, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and James Gunn’s Super. Both ask what would happen if a comics fan was crazy enough to try to be a costumed hero for real, though each film takes the idea a very different way. (The Kick-Ass film also reaches a diametrically-opposed conclusion to the first Kick-Ass comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.) But Kick-Ass, Super and Samurai Flamenco concur on one thing; when it comes to maniacal fantasists, girls are worse than guys.
Samurai Flamenco also stands in the tradition of anime series that change in big ways during their runs. The safest non-spoiler example is the TV Evangelion, but some of the most lauded anime of the last ten years have been changed their tune or jumped genre. Given Samurai Flamenco is about superheroes, you can take the show as a humorously potted history of the genre, and in particular of characters like Batman, whose careers veer between Christopher Nolan solemnity and Adam West farce, fighting believable mobsters or alien monsters. Or you can see Samurai Flamenco as a Kaufmanesque spoof of “jumping the shark”, as the show (apparently) ditches its own premise in favour of more deranged developments.
The series also reminds you that Japan has its own heritage of heroes. Power Rangers (properly, Super Sentai) are frequently referenced in Flamenco, but the series also acknowledges the magical girls who evolved from Disneyesque fairy-princesses into the fighting teams of Sailor Moon, Precure and (for Mature Viewers) Puella Magi Madoka Magica. There are culture-specific gags, such as a joke about Flamenco refusing to chase a criminal over a road when the light’s red, and his utility belt of gadgets fashioned from office equipment – superman meets salaryman! As in Tiger and Bunny, Japan’s media plays a crucial part in the story. When he’s not trying to be a hero, Hazama is a struggling “talent” or “tarento,” a C-list celebrity who’s not just confined to primetime pap, but who actually is the pap.
Of course, such celebs are as common in Britain as Japan, and Samurai Flamenco’s eccentricity should go down well with anyone who know classic British humour. As a piece of genre-twisting daftness, Samurai Flamenco’s closest relative may not be Kick-Ass or Ant-Man, but rather the immortal Bicycle Repairman from Monty Python.