Things That Rocked, Things That Sucked: Flame of Recca

Oh Flame of Recca, what a history we two have. In the late 90s and early 2000s, sometimes I would catch episodes of dubbed anime on the TV (note: I was not in America at the time). One of the series that came on during this period was the subject of this particular review. At the time, I was only a casual anime watcher. Yeah, there was Pokémon and a bit of Dragon Ball, as well as a few episodes of Detective Conan and various kamen series. But I wasn’t a manga reader back then. Hell, I wasn’t even that regular a watcher of Japanese products, only really paying attention if they were what was on TV at the time or if they had something to do with Pokémon (that show ruined my wallet). Anyway, the subject of today’s post had an anime, which I watched a few episodes of.

I wound up following the series somewhat, and not having yet become jaded with experience, I watched the entire thing. It was entertaining at the time, and I had no idea that it had been adapted from a manga (amazing how ignorant of the medium I was back then). In fact, it wasn’t until sometime in the mid to late-2000s that I finally started reading the manga, which had been less than faithfully adapted, as it turns out.

Written and drawn by Nobuyuki Anzai, FoR features a brash high-school student named Recca with a ninja obsession. (Seriously) The guy practices popular ninjutsu techniques and even identifies himself as such. A poor student, he constantly finds himself getting into fights with other delinquents, the two standouts being the tomboyish Fuko and the hulking Domon. However, Recca has a secret: he can control flames. Despite this, he lives the life of a typical shonen manga delinquent: full of fights and cutting class while being just likeable enough not to incite hatred in most readers. One day however, he comes across a girl named Yanagi who possesses the ability to heal people with her energy. This attracts the attention of the villainous Mori Koran, his adoptive son Kurei, and the many deadly assassins they employ. Furthermore, the mysterious immortal Kage Hoshi has taken a personal interest in Recca, implying a connection between him, her, Kurei, and the long extinct Hokage clan of ninja, and the mystical tools, madogu, that they created. Recca, Yanagi, Fuko, and Domon are thus thrust into a new and dangerous world and okay, if you haven’t figured out how things go by now, you really need to read more battle manga in this vein.

So what did I think of it? Well, that’s the thing. By all accounts I should hate it, but looking at it from a purely subjective standpoint, I actually have a borderline guilt-inducing fondness for the series. Warning, as with the rest of my reviews, here be spoilers.

Things That Rocked: Some of the Designs and Characters
The series some draws. There are some pretty neat characters and madogu. Kurei is actually a pretty intimidating yet tragic antagonist, and the character of Joker is likeable enough that very similar characters have popped up in the mangaka’s other works. I won’t beat around the bush; I love these characters’ designs and abilities. Of all the people in this manga, these two are far and away my favorites. Kurei is how you do a darker counterpart right without making him too soft or a complete joke or just extremely horribly written (well, for the most part). Joker, on the other hand, is a riot, and is just plain fun to see in action. I aguess I also liked Domon and Tokiya’s development as characters, with the former being one of the few characters who was consistently funny when used as the source of any humor (others could be more hit-and-miss). I also guess that Mori was an effectively despicable villain in that you really fucking hated the guy the more you learned about him, but in a way, some of his actions were arguably too dark for a series that sat firmly on the idealistic end of things.

Things That Sucked: Strictly Formula
While the storytelling itself isn’t the greatest, it really starts to drag in the final arc. Everything becomes strictly formula: good guys get into a fight, good guys have some trouble, good guys figure things out, good guys win. Repeat en masse. Even worse is the fact that because of this formula, any scenes during this arc lack real tension simply because all the good guys have an end goal they are working toward, and not a single one of them fails to make it to the end (as for the less overtly heroic characters fighting alongside them, well…let’s just say the manga became less interesting as a result).

Things That Sucked: No Dramatic Tension
What makes this even more bizarre as a storytelling technique is the fact that each member of Recca’s group suffers damage during each fight they get into, whether beatings, slashes, or even gunshots. And despite all this, they are fit as a fiddle by the time they get into their next fights. It’s even more puzzling given that Yanagi isn’t there to heal them during this time (which actually justified their earlier ability to fight several opponents in short order). What makes it even worse is how pathetic it makes the antagonists look. How are the villains supposed to maintain their hype when a presumably injured hero makes short work of them each and every time? As I said, this is a great way to destroy whatever tension you’re trying to create in a story.

Things That Sucked: Later Fight Scenes
The fights weren’t anything special at the beginning, but as the series goes on they improve, and then they get worse. How?! Well, what happens is that Anzai began to write fights in a sort of turn-based RPG style, a problem more readily apparent in one of his follow-up works: Marchen Awakens Romance. Fights feel less organic and more like each character taking turns hitting the other. There’s little flow and oftentimes, the good guys are the ones who suddenly deal the ultrapowerful final blow that finishes off an otherwise impressive looking opponent. Combine this with the whole good guys walk off major injuries thing that was sorely abused in the last arc, and you have a recipe for fights less interesting than those during the later stages of the tournament arc earlier in the manga.

Things That Sucked: This Looks Familiar
Then there’s the problem of the series ripping off the superior YuYu Hakusho. Early on, Yanagi gets kidnapped due to Mori Koran taking an interest in her powers and the heroes have to invade Kurei’s mansion, fighting off the dangerous opponents in their way. After they successfully rescue her and seemingly defeat Kurei, it is first revealed that he wasn’t fighting at his full potential, and then that he has invited them to participate in a bloody fighting tournament in exchange for not having assassins attack them in their very own homes. Sound familiar?

Making matters worse is that in contrast to highlighting the brutal nature of the demon world with a tournament, this particular tournament is treated as a place for professional killers to wipe each other out.

What? What self-respecting assassin would do that? Shit, there’s a difference between covering up illegal activity and covering up blatantly illegal shit that requires massive, massive cleanup. And they have ring girls (who don’t seem to treat the tournament as the blood sport that it is) and nice hotels and everyone is all buddy-buddy outside of the ring?

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? This is seriously fucked up and makes no sense whatsoever.

Things That Sucked: The Art’s Shortcomings
The art has its weaknesses, although the two major issues come at different points in the manga. Early on, the art is, in a word, terrible. However, over the course of the manga, it gets better and better, and by the later stages of the tournament, it’s actually decent at the very least. However, another problem then proceeds to pop up: the character designs become limited in the facial area. Formerly distinct looking characters begin to look increasingly homogenous, with the limited number of faces slightly differentiated by small differences in other parts of the characters’ designs, although this is still not quite enough to take away from the whole same-face effect going on in these later parts of the manga.

Things That Sucked: Recca
Then there’s the problem of Recca. Recca basically starts off in the Yusuke (of YYH) mold: a book dumb delinquent with a heart of gold. Alright, well it’s not like it’s that easy to write a shonen lead that does not fall into an archetype. However, the problem with Recca is that he doesn’t really develop much as a character. He’s pretty much the same guy throughout. Sure, he makes friends, but it’s not like he stops becoming obsessed with revenge like Tokiya or find out who he is and what he wants to do with his life like Domon. He just wants to protect Yanagi. Yeah, he’s probably like that because of being reincarnated from a guy who desired to protect Yanagi in a previous life, but he’s just so fucking bland. He has some comedic moments, but his character is so damned flat. Frigging Kurei gets more development and characterization. Also, despite defeating Kurei during the tournament, Recca still has trouble fighting mooks who are supposed to be weaker than Kurei. How does that even work? You are one of the two strongest characters in the series (barring a couple others)! Act like it! It’s not like Yusuke, who had to deal with more powerful opponents like Sensui or tricky opponents like that Sniper guy. Sure, Recca has to deal with some tricks, but in a lot of cases, all he really needed was brute force.

Things That Sucked: The Ending
Finally, we come to the ending of the series. Okay, I guess I can somewhat accept Yanagi being turned into Recca’s flame and destroying the Tendo Jigoku, silly as it was. But what about Kaoru and Kurei’s exits. What was the point of getting revenge on Nobunaga, who was long dead by that point? Did Kurei really feel the need to avenge the Hokage so badly? What meaning was there to his decision? Surely he had some incentive to stay in the present day even without Mori’s resources. What about Kaoru’s friends among Hokage? This ending makes no real sense.

Flame of Recca isn’t a well-written series. It’s got some major flaws and really wears out its welcome. It’s an unabashed ripoff of a much better series early on all the way into the middle of the story. But it has its appeals. I liked Kurei, Joker, and Domon, and even appreciated Tokiya’s character development. And I honestly consider the series a guilty pleasure.

Why would I do such a thing given my negative review? Because FoR was one of the first series I got into. Yeah, it’s pretty bad for the most part. But I suppose I just found myself attached to it anyway because of my history with it. It’s not a very well written story, but for all its flaws, you could try it anyway if you’re open to reading something that you can feel almost ashamed for liking. At least the art’s nice once you get far enough into it.