Manglobe has a long and august history of producing fascinating and offbeat anime that absolutely crater commercially (not least in NoitaminA, where it did so with Sarai-ya Goyou). I’ve frankly wondered how they’ve managed to stay in business this long with a track record that’s gotten so bad that they’ve even unofficially been deemed a curse for any series they produce. I have no doubt that Samurai Flamenco is going to continue this sad tradition, but that doesn’t make me love it any less.
Simply put, I found this episode to be the best of any this season in term of pure, unadulterated fun. It wasn’t deep or profound or visually stunning, but the entire show is infused with such tremendous wit and mischievousness that I find it impossible to resist. Make no mistake, this series is extremely smart – there’s as much deft social commentary on contemporary Japan here as in any anime you’ll this year, most likely – but it never forgets that Hippocratic Oath of entertainment: “First, be entertaining”.
All those qualities surely apply to the casting of Kosugi Juurouta as Kaname Jouji. Sure, Kosugi-san is a legendary seiyuu who’s been a staple of shounen and action anime for decades, and it’s always great to hear him – but the real genius comes in the fact that he voiced Legend in Tiger & Bunny. That should tell you both that Samurai Flamenco is well aware of its place in the anime lexicon and what sort of series it intends to be. Legend, of course, was the “first hero” in that series – the one who inspired Kotetsu to use his powers to save people, yet who ended up… Well, I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen T & B.
Back to SF, we have Kaname Jouji – a faded TV action star, the “Red Axe” that Hazama-kun (and Maya Mari too) looked up to. Unlike Legend of course the only superpower Kaname has is his ego, and that’s fundamentally the difference between the two series. If T & B was a clever spin on the American superhero mythology, Samurai Flamenco could hardly be more Japanese – both in the fact that its heroes are solidly in the super sentai orthodoxy and that it’s set in a cynical world of reduced expectations. Kaname quite simply sees the Samurai Flamenco kerfuffle as something he can cash in on – a way to revive his faltering career and maybe cash in on the ¥1,000,000 yen reward Konno (Mikami Satoshi) has offered largely, one suspects, as a way to get under Ishihara’s skin.
Kaname/Red/Axe/Fake Flamenco’s entry into the series is a riot from the first instant and never lets up. He makes his grand entrance on the “The Wow Show!“, where he’s staged his own revealing (and where both Hazama and Konno are guest panelists) and promptly punches the obnoxious host once he’s disposed of the stage enemies that have been prepared for him. The old footage of “Red Axe” and Kaname’s films is no less hilarious, with “Six Million Dollar Man” slo-mo and sound effects and preposterous chase scenes in what looks like the American desert. But there could be a darker side to him as well – he promises to give the reward to charity, but also talks about how Japan has declined because young people have lost touch with the old ways, and need to be taught the Bushido. This is loaded talk in modern Japan, often the territory of right-wing extremists, and there have been ugly incidents with celebrities with similar views – most especially writer/actor/director Mishima Yukio, who staged a coup attempt in 1970 and, after it failed, committed seppuku along with one of his followers (who only did so after a gruesome botched attempt to decapitate his master’s corpse).
I’m not suggesting Samurai Flamenco is going anywhere near that level of seriousness here, but it is keenly aware of the history it’s playing off of. This modern nation, with its declining birth rate and decades of economic stagnation, is fertile ground for the type of satire we’re seeing here – a place where apathy rules and superheroes are needed not to fight violent criminals, but national malaise. The most interesting twist in the episode is that Hazama, confronted with the fact that the identity he created has been stolen by one of his own heroes, declines to let things slide – he (with a very gentle nudge from Gotou) chooses instead to issue a challenge to Kaname and confront him head-on. Kaname reveals his twisted logic here – “I’m stronger than you and I’d make a better Samurai Flamenco, so you must therefore be evil.” It’s only when Hazama refuses to back down and the threat of the truth coming out becomes real that Kaname changes gears – he sees a new marketing opportunity in making himself the master, and Hazama the apprentice.
Of course Hazama still needs to keep his identity a secret from Ishihara (a name not chosen by coincidence, surely) and that’s where Gotou comes in as part of a very clever ruse – and in the process we have what I suspect is a significant moment, as he gets a taste of what it feels like to don the tights and cape. That ruse fails, however, to fool Maya Mari, who knows her superheroes and her Hazama too. For that matter, of course anyone who looked closely at the viral video would never have believed the brawny Kaname was the same guy to begin with – but Samurai Flamenco is a series that’s intentionally playing up its own absurdity to great effect, so that seems very much in character. The tagline in the series description is starting to reveal its meaning, and the first three eps have done a beautiful job setting up a situation that’s absolutely overflowing with possibilities both satiric and outright madcap. Whatever direction it goes from here, Samurai Flamenco should be a blast to watch.