Review: Samurai Flamenco

Before I start getting into this, I should mention that I originally didn’t want to do a review on this show, I wanted to do a “Why You Should Watch” on it. However, I very quickly ran into a problem: this show is fucking impossible to cover without going over spoilers just by its nature. And I mean spoilers even by my parameters, so you should probably stop here if you haven’t watched the show to completion. As I just said, I wanted this to be a “Why You Should Watch”, so know that it’s a show I recommend watching simply because of how interesting it is, I don’t guarantee whether you’ll end up liking it in the end or not, I just simply believe it to be a show that should be experienced regardless.

With that bit out of the way, I should also mention that this review will be slightly different from normal. Typically when I start writing a review I know ahead of time what my general opinion on the show is and which scenes and such I want to talk about.

The problem here is that I still have no clue what I think of Samurai Flamenco.

I already mentioned I think it’s something that should be watched, but that’s because I know it’s fascinating. What I don’t know is whether it’s the greatest thing ever written or a complete and utter train wreck. Hell I don’t even know if  it’s anything in-between.

So I have no idea where this review is going to go. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if things get philosophical or even existential. I’ll still cover events and such like I usually do, but this is going to be a lot more of a stream of consciousness than usual. Just my brain spilled out for all to see. If you’ve ever wondering what goes on in my head before and during the review process, this will basically be the closest you’re going to get.

Then again, considering my style of writing, there may not even be much of a difference.

The biggest plus that Samurai Flamenco has going for it is that its characters are phenomenal. Masayoshi, Goto, Mari (really the whole MMM trio for the matter), they’re all great.

Masayoshi loves Super Sentai shows and tries to bring them to life by being a real life superhero, Goto is a cop and Masayoshi’s friend so he has to straddle a balance between supporting and shunning his vigilantism and also serves as the straight man to balance out Masayoshi’s eccentrics, Mari is the thrill-seeking lover of attention who will do whatever she deems is fun and eventually bites off more than she can chew, and the other MMM members serve to (attempt) to keep Mari in check but usually just get pulled into her schemes.

It’s not just the characters themselves though, as I mentioned with Goto and the other MMM members, the interpersonal relationships between all of the characters is also fantastic. Goto has to keep an eye on Masayoshi because of his actions, those same actions cause Mari to start being a crime-fighting superhero herself, but she also has a thing for men in uniform so she’s also constantly flirting with Goto, it’s just great. It’s an example of having well-defined characters and then using them in the most optimal way possible. How characters interact with each other is just as important as the characters themselves.

As far as the plot goes, I can’t really go any further without getting into the core controversy of Samurai Flamenco since they’re so intertwined. Though considering that anyone who has gotten this far should have seen the show already, you probably already know what that is: shit gets wacky with monsters – and later, aliens – showing up as villains. Guillotine Gorilla was a jarring experience for pretty much everyone.

Typically plot twists are a good thing since they serve to spice up the events of the story, but when you use them to shift genres so quickly and mercilessly, it just serves to confuse and push away the audience. Especially when those twists involve someone transforming into a fucking gorilla with a guillotine for a stomach.

However, it’s not that simple. Context is everything, after all. It turns out all these wacky monster and alien appearances were caused by Masayoshi himself since he wished to be a hero and the Universe granted his wish. You know what that means? The plot developments were technically character-based. What does that mean? Samurai Flamenco is a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven one.

I mean, that’s sort of obvious given the first few episodes, but the point is that developments in the plot were actually driven by the characters. Or character, seeing as it was just Masayoshi.

You see, when a story is primarily about the characters, the plot isn’t as important and therefore liberties are allowed to be made. An example would be how certain events might just happen to conflict perfectly with a character’s ideals or mindset. Nobody cares how seemingly convenient this is because the point is that it’s forcing a struggle and development from a character. In fact, this reason and others dealing with the nature of character studies is why I’m one of the very few people who is okay with the last third of Death Note. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyways, there are still boundaries, but it’s why you’re far more likely to get “well isn’t that convenient” reactions from people when it comes to plot-driven shows. Mainly because plot-centered shows typically use conveniences to solve problems, while character-centered ones use them to cause problems. It’s exciting to see characters have to struggle and overcome something; it’s not exciting to see those problems hand-waved away.

So then taking all of that into account, the question becomes, “Does Samurai Flamenco pass any of said boundaries with how it uses its plot?” And you know, it kind of does.

The easiest comparison to make for this would probably be Silver Spoon, another fantastic character-driven show. Silver Spoon doesn’t really have a plot, because all of the focus is on the characters and whatever they may be up to and learning and such. This was really to the show’s benefit, because when it comes to Samurai Flamenco, the plot twists can actually distract you from the main characters. You’re so busy being confused by the plot twists that you forget about the best part of the show. Even through these events the characters and dialogue never stop being well-written, but it’s harder to remember and notice. That’s a problem.

However, it’s not that simple. It’s easy enough to say that these plot twists are a problem given all of this reasoning, but there’s another step. If you take into account that these twists are a problem since they distract from the characters, but later on it’s revealed that the twists are caused inadvertently by Masayoshi, there seems to be an absurdly simple solution: make it obvious that Masayoshi is causing all of this right from the start.

Of course, there are a couple small hints that something is off, but nothing to make you think, “Oh, it’s just that the Will of the Universe is granting his wish to be a hero, I get it.”

The point is that this solution is too obvious. So it’s important to first think about why they were made to be plot twists in the first place. Did having the story structured that way benefit it somehow?

The answer to that is yes, actually.

First of all, the sense of confusion can actually add to some of the humorous parts, such as when Masayoshi and a monster just kind of stand around talking about how they don’t need to wait for Mari to show up because since she’s not going to join in before they start fighting each other. Meanwhile civilians just walk around in the background as if it’s just some normal day. There was also the part where the Prime Minister had a power suit that was powered by his approval rating, which is quite possibly one of the funniest things ever imagined.

But more than that (although they tie into each other) is the tone you get from the show due to not knowing what’s going on. Except for the Guillotine Gorilla bit, there are basically no civilian casualities throughout the first few arcs. Some of the characters occasionally get beaten up, but other than a climactic battle, nobody seems to be in any real mortal danger. There are some darker moments in the King Torture arc, but even then it doesn’t seem like he’s actually going to straight up murder anyone.

It’s the point since the show is essentially emulating Super Sentai shows with some added “what the hell is going on”. If you knew right from the start that Masayoshi was causing all of this then it would give off this sense that he was in total control of these events. Even if he himself knew he probably wouldn’t actually be, but the point is that the enemy faction needs to feel in control and that they’re doing all of this of their own volition.

Why is this tone important? Because there’s an extremely noticeable shift in tone after Masayoshi tells the Will of the Universe that he’s done. When Haiji shows up for the final arc, he’s no monster or alien, nor does he have some power suit. He’s just some teenager.

Yet he’s the most terrifying villain in the entire show.

Masayoshi is afraid to eat food or be anywhere, considers Haiji might just be an illusion in his head, other people get injured or even seriously crippled, some even get exposed to potentially lethal amounts of poison. The tone shift compared to previous arcs is way too drastic to be something that wasn’t intentional.

So then we reach the final question from digging through this thought process: why was the tone shift intentional? What does it do thematically?

In much simpler terms: what was the message of the show?

It’s hard to say, really. Given the structure of the story there’s quite a few things you could take from the show: it might be a commentary on how silly it is for people to think that a story needs to be grimdark to be any good seeing as Haiji is trying to turn Masayoshi into Samurai Flamenco Darkness by getting himself killed, it could be about how real people can be even more terrifying than any fictional creation.

But what seems to be the most popular theory – and what arguably lines up best with the show overall – is that it’s about how we consume media. You see, if you know anything about Japan and in particular otaku culture, you know that they have a habit of being… very controlling. They like to have characters and even the people in the industry behave in certain ways. It ties into the disturbing purity complex that permeates the industry.

Masayoshi is the guy that enjoys his shows and just wants to be a part of them and bring them to life. Haiji is the one who’s equally fascinated, but finds more enjoyment from controlling it rather than being a part of it. Obviously the show sides with Masayoshi, so it’s a nice message to aim at otaku. Too bad apparently nobody watched it judging by sales.

So what does all of this mean? Is Samurai Flamenco a good show or not? All of this reasoning leads me to believe that yes, it is, but honestly it feels more like a flip of a coin. I could just as easily argue the opposite.

So I just bypass this judgement entirely.

Instead, I prefer to think of Samurai Flamenco as an experiment, and in that regard it’s a lot easier for me to say it was glowingly successful. It was one of the most high-risk, ambitious attempts at storytelling in anime in quite a few years. It provided a cast of characters that were consistently well written in general and dialogue-wise throughout the entire show, and really, despite being continuously baffled by the plot as I watched the show, that’s all I really wanted from the show when I stop to think about it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, kudos to the head writer: Hideyuki Kurata. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more original works from you.


One Comment on “Review: Samurai Flamenco”

  1. jtron says:

    Nothing to add – just wanted to say “good stuff”!

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