Anime Reviews: Samurai Champloo

Director: Shinichiro Watanabe; Studio: Manglobe
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe; Studio: Manglobe

In 1998, Shinichiro Watanabe told a story of four down-on-their-luck strangers roaming the stars and trying to earn enough money to survive in the now classic anime series Cowboy Bebop. Bebop was unique in that it fused a soundtrack of largely blues and smooth jazz with elements of science fiction, film noir, comedy and drama, and the resulting mixture was a pleasurable feast for the senses. In 2004, he returned with a story of three down-on-their-luck strangers roaming 19th-century Japan trying to earn enough money to survive, in a series which fuses a soundtrack of mostly rap and hip-hop with elements of samurai folklore, comedy and drama.

It may be the same formula, but it works.

The story of Samurai Champloo begins in a teahouse. In this teahouse sits Mugen, a rugged-looking drifter samurai. Also in this teahouse sits the son of a local magistrate, who shares in his father’s arrogance. When he starts hassling Fuu, a waitress in the teahouse’s employ, Mugen offers to come to her aid in exchange for free food. After he defeats his cronies, in enters Jin, a clean-cut traditionalist swordsman, whom Mugen initially mistakes for one of the magistrate’s bodyguards (Jin had dispatched them in an earlier scene). During the resulting melee, the teahouse is burned to the ground, the magistrate’s son perishes in the flames, and Mugen and Jin are blamed, arrested and sentenced to public execution. Fuu, with nowhere else to go, helps the two ronin escape, and in return asks that they accompany her in a search for a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.”

And that’s just the first episode.

The opening cards of the first episode tell us not to interpret this tale as historically accurate. Indeed it is not, as the trio encounter not only yakuza members, pickpockets and underground Christian sects, but also taggers, zombies and a swordsman who mouths hip-hop beats into the handle of his sword.

Not unlike Bebop, the show is driven from beginning to end by its soundtrack. The opening song “Battlecry” is a very powerful start off to every episode, and the fast-paced beats peppered throughout make action scenes fun to watch. The music is aided by the superb art design and animation, the fluidity of which makes things like Mugen’s downbeat beat-downs seem almost superhuman. Watanabe is certainly good at adapting different styles for his animation projects—compare this to Bebop and both of his Animatrix shorts and you might not believe they’re all from the same guy.

Another force is the chemistry between our trio of adventurers. Mugen and Jin, while contractually obliged by Fuu not to fight each other, egg each other on at every turn while Fuu tries and occasionally fails to act as mediator and steer them back toward the goal of finding her sunflower samurai, when she’s not playing the hostage more times per episode than Princess Peach. This is basically how every plot originates, but you do get a frequent dosage of character-based comedy. As for the sunflower samurai plot, it takes a while to get going, but we do see resolution as it intertwines with Mugen and Jin’s backstories in the exciting three-part finale.

Strictly speaking, if you loved Bebop, you’ll enjoy Champloo. It has more of the same bickering-strangers humor we got from that other Watanabe show, but its swordplay, soundtrack, and character dynamics make it well worth a look.

Samurai Champloo: awesome or crap?

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PROS
CONS
good animation and visual style; great soundtrack
mildly repetitive stories

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