In honor of that anniversary, this month’ll be blocked out for a conversation on Awesome Stuff. This time around, I’ve divided out my top 20 favorite anime. By its nature the list is always in flux, particularly those at the high end of the countdown (I haven’t managed yet to touch Spice & Wolf or Mawaru Penguindrum, for example). But! Whether or not they move off of the formal list in the future, these are all series that captured my imagination, that showed me something new, creative, or different in idea or execution, and that I fully stand behind recommending.
(And if you want to lay down bets as to what the coming weeks will bring, please do be my guest).
The first three drafts of this editorial began with the phrase “Samurai Flamenco is awesome” and optionally included some manner of textual bird flipping. But then I figured that kind of hostility was probably antithetical to an open and levelheaded conversation, and so we’ve ended up on the meta route instead. The point of it all is that it’s time to talk about how we watch TV, and how it affects reactions differently than other mediums. Flamenco just happens to be a useful tool to kick off that discussion before we head out into the world of serialized media at large.
For those readers that aren’t following along with this season’s crop of anime, let me give you a few key points. Samurai Flamenco starts as the story of Masayoshi a sentai/superhero nut who dedicated his whole life to becoming a hero only to find the world didn’t really have a place for the job. The first few episodes involve him befriending local cop Goto (the profession of less flashy heroics), reprimanding litterers and jaywalkers, and trying to square his grand ideals with the reality he lives in. Then the show introduced an evil super villain trying to take over the world with honest to God mutant monsters. Then a bigger villain appeared, and a Power Rangers team, and a government conspiracy. Then there were aliens. And now it’s seemingly cycled back around to focusing on Masayoshi and Goto, with a few more episodes in the run. The series is mightily concerned with meta-textual subjects like the evolving history of hero-fiction and the interplay between fiction and reality, all of it tucked inside the seemingly reality warping wishes of one well meaning nerd. But the themes of Flamenco are for another essay down the line. What’s important now is how people reacted to it.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
…not counting the animation quality
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.
If you don’t like it, do it again. Rewrite it, reboot it, or remember a time when things were better than they truly were. The world’s in an uncertain state all over and the art of humanity is ever ready to reflect its maker’s mental state: in this case, a desire to start over in the face of our mistakes. And boy, have there been a lot of spins on the time travel formula as of late. It’s not as if there weren’t any before (Back to the Future and Star Trek’s seminal “City on the Edge of Forever” spring immediately to mind), but the tone has definitely changed. The message of the two stories above, for instance, is overwhelmingly a case of ‘don’t change the past, because even with good intentions you can’t possibly comprehend what you’re doing.’ There’re stories like Donnie Darko, which explore a theoretical happier occasion only for it to collapse as reality reasserts itself. And there are time loops like Groundhog Day or Wolf’s Rain, centering on a character or group’s growth pursuing a goal (and usually having a motivational shift of varying degrees due to said growth). It’s the last one I want to talk about, because I seem to keep tripping over it these days. There’s discussion of spoilers for Madoka and Evangelion below, so tread with care.
Yeah, this again