Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 11-22 Streaming
King Torture is dead and Samurai Flamenco has been unmasked. Before any of the repercussions can be felt, though, Masayoshi is bundled off to a secret base. It turns out that his "teacher" Kaname is actually the commander of a secret force dedicated to fighting the mysterious organization From Beyond, whose overtechnology gave King Torture and his minions their powers. At Kaname's base, Masayoshi is told that he's been chosen to lead a group of elite fighters against Beyond and its minions. They will wear color-coded uniforms and be called the Flamengers. Masayoshi is delighted. Delight is short-lived however. Before his tale has run, Masayoshi will have fought a pitched battle in the cauldron of Mt. Fuji, been betrayed by his government, battled an advanced alien race, met with the ruler of the universe, and—worst of all—been targeted by a delusional middle-schooler. Herohood—it ain't for the faint of heart.
It's hard to get a bead on Samurai Flamenco. The King Torture arc, with its abrupt decoupling from reality and weird mix of terror and camp, really pulled the rug out. And the show has worked hard to keep us off balance ever since. It jumps with both feet into sentai-land, turns into a wrong-man drama, re-forms as convoluted psychological suspense... It's a total, logic-defying, impossible-to-predict mess. Put simply, Flamenco has gone completely off the rails. And if we're being honest, it's been off them for a while. These twelve episodes are the derailed show careening wherever its crazy little mind leads it.
But that doesn't mean we can't achieve a little clarity here. There are two things you should know about Samurai Flamenco. The first is that it isn't a single series. It's actually several different shows, welded loosely together, with a single cast and a single continuous plot line, but each with its own distinct tone and separate nature. Every four or five episodes the series will stop, recalibrate, and then transform into a totally different show. The whiplash we felt in King Torture was actually the jolt of Flamenco moving from its first sub-show to its second: a seriocomic look at a real-life superhero switching tracks to become a horror-camp-hero show with a hard streak of psychological sadism. We feel that jolt again at least three times in these episodes.
The second thing to know is that Hideyuki Kurata, to put it as delicately as possible, has pulled the whole show from his ass. The series is sloppy and ill-planned, with twists that have more to do with a desire to catch us off guard than any desire to make sense or even entertain. Climaxes are sometimes fake-outs, conclusions bad jokes. The plots of certain arcs disintegrate when reconciled with events from others. Every one of the series' several stages has the unmistakable smell of something improvised on the fly, with a gleeful disregard for logic and consistency, a relish for the vicious rupturing of expectation. In a way it's rather impressive—the way anyone who pulls unusual objects from their rear is impressive. Only instead of smuggled cigarettes or a colorful string of flags Kurata is yanking out a chain of discombobulated genre parts and jumbled narrative influences. At first each new twist and bizarre addition is greeted with shock and bafflement. But as with any magic trick, the novelty eventually wears off, and the conspicuous lack of a real narrative payoff begins to weigh heavily on us, dulling our reaction to a kind of half-bored curiosity at what will come out next.
Depending on how you count, these twelve episodes are sectioned off into roughly four sub-shows. The first is a full-on Power Rangers spectacle. This is the part of the show that deals with From Beyond. From Beyond is a cell-based terrorist organization with 65,000 incredibly dippy evil members who launch an all-out assault on Japan. They are fought off by Masayoshi ("Flamen Red") and a team of paper-thin sentai stereotypes. The Flamengers fight in an assortment of transforming mecha (plane, tank, etc.) that combine to form an unconvincing giant robot. In other words: unelaborated sentai silliness. The strengths of this arc are its little flashes of self-aware humor—e.g. the fate of the original Flamenger lineup—and its adult edges, mainly Masayoshi's struggle to reconcile his hero-ness with his responsibilities to an irresponsible government.
From there the show becomes a hero-on-the-run show, in which the world turns on Masayoshi and he must dodge police while unraveling what has happened to him and his superhero colleagues. The arc is strongest when devolving into total nuthouse silliness. There's a horrible American superhero stereotype (he shoots stars-and-stripes beams from his chest, drives a flag-themed big rig, and sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" to calm Masayoshi down) and an Iron-Man-esque super-suit that is powered by the Prime Minister's approval rating, to name two particularly entertaining devolutions. A poison streak of political satire adds some bite, and the return of the Flamenco Girls adds charm. The wrongly-accused business, on the other hand, is trite and dull, and the emotional muck involving a homeless man who befriends Masayoshi is... ugh.
The show goes directly from there to a very short arc about an invading alien super-race that is mostly an excuse for a brawl on the moon and to conjure up a cosmic explanation for the show's increasingly bizarre behavior. The explanation, naturally, is that everything was a big coincidence—something about "strong wills" that attract wills from parallel universes and a magical galactic homophone for the word "Flamenco." Oh, and this is all delivered by a being who's a cross between Excel Saga's Great Will of the Macrocosm and that nebulous alien sentience that Jodie Foster talks to in Contact.
Another world-altering upheaval later, and the show heads into its last arc, this one a psychological thriller about a teenaged menace who may or may not be real and is fixated on becoming Flamenco's evil nemesis. It's probably the show's boldest experiment, shedding the show's humor—Flamenco's main saving grace—and going for deadly-serious drama about Goto's surprisingly messed-up psychology. Unfortunately, it's pretty tired stuff all told, an uninspired mash-up of Gaslight head-games and killer-who-targets-hero's-loved-ones action. It fails where King Torture excelled, in its antagonist—an insufferable kid villain with one of those "I love you so I'll make sure you never forget me by twisting you up inside" complexes. It is saved only by its finale, in which Masayoshi turns the villain's evil psychological trap into an unspeakably hilarious shonen-ai showdown. The nature of the villain's defeat also ameliorates.
Director Takahiro Omori is a pro, but even he has his limits. His strength is finding a style that works for his project, and committing to it. He's a chameleon. But he can't blend in with Samurai Flamenco because it doesn't have an identifiable tone to blend into. The best he can do is establish an appropriate atmosphere for each sub-series while keeping everything consistent enough to be recognizably part of the same whole. The result always feels a little mismatched, one side of the show's personality—either the dark realism or the dorky heroes/villains and their outlandish tech—forever out of synch with the arc as a whole. Only periodically does he truly kick into gear: during a fight between the American superhero and a SWAT team; during that shonen-ai showdown. Those moments are fluid, exhilarating.
In the meantime, Omori's overall control is slipping. Characters, while handsome as always, move stiffly and messily, their features morphing and their expressions unnatural. He gets solid support from the reasonably hero-ish score, but he doesn't keep tabs on it, letting it run nonstop in the background. Action, usually one of his specialties, is underwhelming: stolidly assembled, often utterly silly, and chockablock with unsightly shortcuts and deliberately messy animation. The Flamengers' robot is hilariously bad, every part of it looking like a cheap toy. (Which might be the point). The enemies are aesthetic atrocities (especially the eyesore alien) and the show as a whole looks as sloppy and ill-controlled as its script feels. Wait a minute... maybe Omori is blending in after all.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Maintains a periodically uproarious, self-skewering sense of humor; certainly doesn't stagnate.
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