Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 31st 2014
Episodes 7-10 Streaming
A mysterious mentor. A mad scientist comrade. Sidekicks. Hazama is slowly accumulating all of the accoutrements of the TV heroes he idolizes. What's next? Why an arch-nemesis of course. King Torture is brilliant, bigger than life, and very evil. He's a perfect nemesis, and he knows it. He sends cyborg minions to terrorize Tokyo and its guardians, and as Hazama and the Flamenco Girls dispose of each new threat, they draw ever closer to final confrontation with the evil mastermind. A confrontation far uglier, bloodier, and more damaging than anything Flamenco or his heroic cadre has ever faced.
The King Torture arc leaves you conflicted in a way that few arcs manage. Over the course of these four tightly-contained episodes, Samurai Flamenco suffers what is probably best described as a psychotic break with reality. It would qualify as a baffling train wreck, if only the arc wasn't so... good.
It is hard to communicate just how jarring the King Torture arc is. Prior to King Torture's reign of terror, Samurai Flamenco cultivated a careful seriocomic realism. It posited what might happen if someone really did try to become Kamen Rider (or one of his ilk), and built its case brick by well-placed (and funny) brick. It escalated Hazama's TV-hero life slowly and thoughtfully, so that things like a sadistic magical-girl sidekick and an office-supply mad scientist seemed reasonable outgrowths of his extracurricular activities. It was outrageous, sure—how could a show about a guy trying to become a helmeted warrior of justice not be?—but in a way that felt somehow plausible.
The moment a drug bust goes bad and one of the perps morphs into a gorilla robot with a guillotine for a stomach, that ends. The show doesn't lose its grip on reality so much as it goes charging right over the edge reason, diving headfirst down a tokusatsu rabbit-hole and only poking its head up to take the occasional weak stab at justifying itself. The series goes positively loopy as King Torture plays the cheesy arch-villain to the hilt: wearing a ludicrous costume, projecting his messages into the Tokyo sky, hiding out in an underground lair (complete with rocket and radar dish!), and sending dorky robotic monster after dorky robotic monster to fight his chosen nemesis. Flamenco must battle a succession of enemies like a supersonic S&M horse, a rhino wearing a boiling pot like a scalding diaper, and a giant piranha that hands out poisoned Kleenex.
It's impossible not to be taken aback by the campy weirdness of the whole enterprise, especially once the robot attacks become an accepted part of daily life. People just stroll on past as Flamenco and the piranha man duke it out in the street. That Takahiro Omori maintains the show's realistic look, keeping his real-world palette, carefully detailed urban environs, cleanly believable designs, and almost stodgily mainstream direction while dropping cartoonish villains right in the middle of it all, only makes what happens seem more absurd. (He displays less control with the jazzy score, which he allows to natter and chew scenery when it should be hanging back and letting the visuals do the talking. Quality control on the animation is also somewhat spotty, leading to some surprisingly sloppy movement).
The thing is, while screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata might have abandoned any pretense of realism and fully embraced his camp instincts, he hasn't let go of his storytelling sense—or his taste for exquisitely composed emotional sadism. The appearance of the first robo-henchman is bizarre and more than a little blackly funny, but in Kurata and Omori's hands it's also genuinely, brutally horrifying. That horror colors everything that ensues. No matter how silly and stupid Flamenco's tussles with robo-evil are, we know that things can get very bad very quickly. Indeed we know that they will. That they must. And when things go bad, they go bad with a viciousness that is as sickening and as sudden as the show's descent into tokusatsu lunacy. Until then we are suspended in a curious limbo between loony humor (when Flamenco gets a call, for instance, his robo opponent politely lets him take it) and gut-clawing dread—an achievement not unlike that of Naoki Urasawa in 20th Century Boys. Though admittedly far less refined.
It's when things go bad, though, that Kurata and Omori truly show their mettle. The Torture arc's finale is cuttingly insightful, scorchingly intense, and in the end deeply and bitterly powerful. The intensity comes primarily from Omori, who unpacks King Torture's final plan with razor-sharp precision and a veteran's sense for unfolding carnage and strangling tension. An unexpectedly vulnerable Flamenco Diamond, an imperiled Flamenco Sapphire (the show's sweetest character), and King Torture's black, very real evil also contribute.
King Torture is also primarily responsible for the insight. Though he has an outrageous array of lethal technology, Torture's most dangerous weapon is his cruel psychological acuity. He worms his way into his enemies' heads and breaks them from the inside. The events leading to his showdown with Flamenco hinge as much on tabloid bad-boy Konno's addiction to entertainment, or Flamenco Diamond's increasingly pathological need for stimulation and adoration, as on ridiculously advanced biological or robotic technology. (King Torture's own psychology, by the way, provides a neat explanation for why his minions are so suicidally inept).
The bitter power is Flamenco Diamond's contribution. Her encounter with King Torture is one of those patented Kurata moments: a perfectly timed, beautifully written, cruelly ironic blow that hollows his best character right out, leaving her broken and drifting. It's the kind of ruthless, heartsick development that makes slogging through his spotty filmography totally worthwhile.
It's a nearly perfect ending to the series, one that spirals to heights unthinkable previously and that leaves the characters in provocative, interesting places. There's just one little problem. The show isn't over. Not even halfway. And after escalating this far, Flamenco can only keep escalating. It can only get bigger, more ridiculous, further removed from its already tenuous hold on reality. It's very, very hard to see it going anywhere but off the rails. Still, as the arc's final images—Flamenco Diamond, battered and tormented, singing raw and driven to a room of speechless idol fans—linger on, we know that we'll ride this train to its last wreck.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ A knockout arc that brings the show's first stage to a screaming, at times devastating, climax.
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