Friday, May 6, 2016

Video Backlog: “Samurai Flamenco”

Publisher: All the Anime/@Anime (Anime Limited, UK/France)
Format: Region B Blu-ray, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with optional French Dub and English and French Subtitles
Length: 22 episodes x 23 minutes
Production Date: 2013 - 2014
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Off duty police officer Hidenori Goto is returning home from the convenience store when he notices a young man squatting in an alleyway apparently naked. The young man, Masayoshi Hazama, tells Goto that he isn’t a suspicious character and in fact he is a hero. Goto isn’t having any of that and flicks his lit cigarette him and tells him off. Unfortunately Goto’s cigarette sets Hazama’s hero uniform (lying in the ground) on fire. Goto is forced to lend Hazama clothes and decides to walk him back to his apartment. There Hazama explains that he was a fan of tokusatsu TV heroes as a child (as evidenced by his huge collection of figures and videos of series on multiple formats) and decided to emulate them as the hero Samurai Flamenco. Hazama’s real job is a male model. His manager, Sumi Ishihara, is a bit of a tyrant and refuses to let him have a hobby, which forces him to hide all of his figures and videos. At any rate the hero business isn’t going too well for Hazama. Prior to him meeting Goto he tried to stop a drunken salary man from littering and ended up getting punched. Even though Goto had previously warned him not commit vigilante acts, he ends up deciding to help him, or at least cover up his actions. An unlikely friendship grows between the two.

Goto’s job as a police officer becomes increasingly difficult as Samurai Flamenco seemingly targets minor crimes and insignificant rule braking such as smoking in non-smoking zones, littering and putting trash out to be collected at the wrong times. Complaints are coming in thick and fast from residents. Add in Samurai Flamenco’s run in with a group of delinquent teens who bash him. Goto eventually saves him from the teens, but it’s quite clear that Hazama really isn’t much of a hero. One night as a restaurant, Goto’s beloved umbrella (owned by his girlfriend whom he says is having a long distance relation with) is stolen and Hazama vows to get it back which he does as Samurai Flamenco. This incident and the previous run in with the delinquent teens were filmed on phones and uploaded to the internet. This causes Samurai Flamenco to become a bit of celebrity. Ishihara soon suspects Hazama is Samurai Flamenco but he flatly denies it. Later on a variety show where Hazama is a on a panel, the hosts announce they are going to reveal who Samurai Flamenco is. Hazuma is sweating bullets, but the host instead bring out tokusastu hero actor Joji Kaname and reveal him as the person behind the masked vigilante Samurai Flamenco. Hazuma is both shocked and pleased at this as he is a big fan of “Red Axe”, the show and title character Kaname stared in.

While it initially it seems that Kaname is only doing this to restart his flagging acting career, a challenge for them to both duel each other reveals that Kaname wants to become Hazama’s master and train him to become a better hero. Naturally Hazama agrees to this. The training eventually leads to some wins in crime fighting for Samurai Flamenco. In the meantime Akira Konno of the tabloid news website “High Rollers Hi!” offers a substantial cash reward for anyone who unmasks Samurai Flamenco. The sudden fame and the reward means that Hazuma can’t really go out as Samurai Flamenco anymore without being harassed ion one form or another. This eventually leads him to be kidnapped by a gang of thugs who threaten to reveal his identity. He is saved a by a young woman in a magical girl-like outfit who calls herself Flamenco Girl. More violent (stomping on her opponent’s genitals is her finishing move) and vengeance based that Samurai Flamenco, Hazuma disagrees with her tactics. Her real identity is Mari Maya of the idol group Mineral Miracle Muse (MMM).  After coming to loggerheads with Hazuma, she ropes in her two fellow band members to dispense her own brand of justice as the Flamenco Girls. Along the way Hazuma does end up joining forces with them, but feels he is playing second fiddle to them.

Due to the amount of crime fighting by Samurai Flamenco and the Flamenco Girls, the police force decides to set up a team to help collect reports and complaints of the vigilante’s actions. Goto ends up being part of that two man team and he fells uneasy doing his job as well as partially cleaning up after Hazuma. Konno soon ups the reward money and includes the Flamenco Girls in the deal to unmask them as well. This causes major problems for our heroes. However Hazuma is courted by a scientist named Jun Harazuka who offers him a range of stationery themed weapons to use in his fight against criminals. The weapons help Hazuma immensely in his crime fighting duties. Due to his success in crime fighting, Samurai Flamenco is finally recognised by the police force. He is made the police chief for a day by the public relations section of the police force. While it is a PR stunt for the most part, Hazuma is taken out to the scene of a clandestine drug lab bust in the middle of the city. Everything seems to be going well until the police try to corner one of the suspects who seems to be high on drugs. The suspect runs into another room and takes out and swallows capsules from a draw. He begins to transform into an ape-like monster with a guillotine in place of his stomach. Bizarrely Hazuma’s dream of becoming of tokusatsu TV hero fighting an evil organisation full of monsters is becoming a reality.

OK, I have just revealed an important spoiler to the show in the previous paragraph. Be warned there’s a few more coming up. It’s really hard to talk about the show without mentioning some of them. “Samurai Flamenco” has been a really polarising show for many anime fans. Fandom generally has come down hard on the show, unjustifiably so in my opinion. This show was part of Fuji TV's noitaminA block in 2013 with production by the now defunct Manglobe (“Samurai Champloo”, “Ergo Proxy”, “Michiko to Hatchin” etc.) and direction by Takahiro Omori (“Koi Kaze”, “Hell Girl”, “Baccano!”, “Durarara!!”). Apart from really average animation (lots of off model stuff with some really substandard CG as well) the thing a lot of fans have a problem with is the way the show changes tact from the end of episode 7. Personally I don’t have a problem with this at all. Watching the show from start to finish you can see the progression and how it’s building up to what happens latter.

The show lulls you into thinking you're watching one type of show (about a tokusastu fanboy who wants to be a hero), then you're plunged into some sort of satire or deconstruction on tokusatsu hero TV shows, then on to sentai shows and finally Ultraman shows. Then it switches gears again in the last few episodes. I think the problem for most western fans is they aren't that familiar with the genre and are utterly baffled by what is going on. I think if you don't know much about the tropes of TV tokusatsu, you're not going to find it interesting. However if you are familiar the clichés of tokusastu hero TV series and sentai shows and the like, it's got a lot of really thoughtful and intriguing stuff to say about the genre and the fandom surrounding it. It does this also while walking a fine line balancing absurd humour and drama. At around the half way mark just as the From Beyond organisation is being defeated, the show even seems to suggest the world (or the universe) is bending to Hazama’s will or fantasies about becoming a tokusatsu TV hero. It’s truly strange and quite an intriguing story line.

With the subject matter there is a ton of references and nods to various tokusastu. For example Hazama’s favourite hero, Harakiri Sunshine (who as his name suggests performs a seppuku-like action when transforming), is blatantly referencing Kamen Rider. The Flamengers use every Toei sentai show cliché in the book and Joji Kaname does feel a bit like real life actor Daisuke Ban (“Kikaider”, “Inazuman”, “Battle Fever J”). In one episode Harazuka amusingly question why the monsters they’re fighting explode when they die, in reference to the same thing happening in sentai shows. The characters are quite interesting too. The idol Maya may have a uniform fetish (which irks Goto who isn’t interested in her at all) but is also a tortured musical genius with a lot of issues. Goto is probably the most interesting of the lot. While he fades into the background a bit from the middle of the series onwards, the writers really give the audience an emotional punch to the gut in the last arc of the show in regard to his character. While this kind of writing could be seen as blatant emotional manipulation and come off as mawkish, for some reason it doesn’t. It’s handled pretty well.

Due to its lack of popularity in the west, this show hasn’t had a smooth ride to home video. It did get a sub only DVD release from Madman Entertainment this year, but I really wasn’t interested in that version. All the Anime in the UK released a BD box set of the first half of the series in December, but they never solicited the second half. I noticed that their set had the French dub and subtitles included as well as English subtitles. All the Anime have a French video distribution arm called @Anime and have obviously licenced the series for both territories and have sensibly created a version that can be sold in both. So I took the chance of ordering the second BD box set from thinking it would mimic the first. As I suspected it does indeed have English subs on it. So the only difference with the “Samurai Flamenco” All the Anime/@Anime BD sets is the removable info sheet on the back. Both sets are really well done with hardcover slips which hold two BDs each on a foldout digipak and a 20 page booklet with reference sheet are and designs. Bafflingly the UK division of All the Anime still haven’t solicited the second set, and I doubt they will at this stage.

Overall, “Samurai Flamenco” is a really intriguing and clever take on tokusatsu TV shows and fandom surrounding it. The humour which can be silly and absurd at times is offset very nicely by the drama. Some of it does get a bit too melodramatic and silly, but it’s rare when it happens. The biggest disappointment is the animation which is woeful at times and decent at its best. It really seems the budget was pretty low for this show. Fandom in the west didn't seem to take to this series at all, so getting the UK and French BD sets are the only way you’re going to get it on this format in English. 7.5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: 11 movies, three OVAs/specials, three TV series, also waiting for second parts for four shows to be released before viewing them.

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