Every last work ever written is derivative of something, and the 2013 Hero anime Samurai Flamenco is no exception. The problems start when that fact of fiction-writing is flung around as an insult. The flavor of debate this particular week is of the east-versus-west variety, not unlike when The Hunger Games was accused of being a Battle Royale rip-off for sharing superficial elements (and if that argument isn’t yet dead it should be, thanks to this articulately written article). That vicious battle of nerd subcultures has been seeing resurgence as of late, but in reverse. Many are the pointed fingers accusing Samurai Flamenco of being little more than Kick Ass The Anime. And on the surface, the reason for the comparison is obvious: both start with protagonists in realistic worlds who want to be like the heroes of their childhood fiction, become Totally Not YouTube sensations, meet female heroes with a more pragmatic and violent approaches to fighting crime, and eventually wind up over their heads when a threat much deadlier than petty thugs surfaces. The case isn’t looking good, is it?
But here’s the thing. Approach is everything. Kick Ass is a unique idea that is throbbingly pleased with its own cleverness, something that shows through every frame of its execution. The film (the comic being a rather more unpleasant Take That Fanboys creation) exists as a sort of hyper-real fantasy, one that pays its dues to the violence and nastiness of actual crime but just as often revels in them as a sort of spectacular, Sin City-esque carnival of gore (microwave guy, looking at you). At its heart, the movie is a fantasy dressed up in the clothes of real life, however many people they light on fire. And, pointed terminology aside, that’s fine. It makes it a unique fusion of escapist approach in an apparently naturalistic setting. Samurai Flamenco, from the position of the nearly-halfway point, seems to be taking a more meta approach of applying the trappings of fantasy to a realistic universe. It spends one quarter of its run developing realistic rules, reactions, and considerations for its world and characters, always prioritizing slice of life conversation and character development over Masayoshi’s heroic antics. It clearly wants the mundane to be at the forefront of the viewer’s mind, and it cements it there to blow it apart. When Nic Cage shows up in a fenced Batman costume it’s what we were all waiting for. When a guillotine gorilla shows up at a drug bust, the internet has to stop its head from spinning all the way around. And I think they did it on purpose.
I debated whether I should write this essay before the show was over, since criticism in media res more often than not turns out to be partly or wholly defunct rather quickly. But with the darker turn Flamenco has taken as of late and the uncertain grumbling among viewers, I felt a dire need to step in as its defense. This all makes total sense to me, because at the end of the day Samurai Flamenco isn’t Kick Ass. It has more in common with Puella Magi Madoka Magica.