Now more than a decade old, Cowboy Bebop persists as one of those rare anime series that’s both a fan favorite and a title adored by critics. When director Shinichiro Watanabe followed it up with Samurai Champloo (literally “blend” or, in this case, “remix”) in 2004 everyone approached it with a mix of excitement and anticipation hoping that it would capture some of the same magic. The opening title sequence hints that it does so by setting the tone for the entire series. A hip hop soundtrack accompanies a collection of quick cuts of the title characters in fighting sequences, immediately showcasing the mix of Samurai tales, Edo history and anachronistic hip hop culture that create the background for a story that’s one of the more unique Anime titles to come out in the last several years.
Set in the Edo period of Japan, the first episode opens with Fuu, a cute and feisty 15-year-old girl, fending off the heavy flirtations of a customer while she works in a small tea house. Two men jump to her assistance: Mugen, a wild-haired vagabond from the Ryuku Islands, and Jin, a stoic, glasses-wearing Samurai. The fight turns bad, causing a fire that burns down the tea house and gets both Mugen and Jin arrested. Fuu helps the two escape in exchange for a promise to help Fuu on her quest to travel across Japan and find the “Samurai who smells like Sunflowers”, an enigmatic figure that maintains the drive of the entire series. The three set out on the road and have a number of adventures helping people, making money, and just trying to stay alive.
The “remix” aspect of the show is an interesting one. Japan’s Edo Period sits at a unique time in history. It was the early days of Japan’s contact with Western, especially Dutch and English, cultures. This contact brought in all kinds of outside influences Japan had never known before —some welcome (art, poetry) and some unwelcome (firearms and Christianity). But these external influences were tightly controlled, forcing the nation to develop tight border checks between various city-states and to maintain constant vigilance over the port towns so only acceptable items were imported. These elements see a lot of use in the series by way of colorful side characters: an Artist who wants to leave Japan for the West to learn about Art, a Dutch businessman with a passion for eating contests and Japanese culture, and a gun dealer who masquerades as a Christian monk to run an illegal gun-running business. This time also saw the decline of the Samurai and the rise of organized crime, both of which play very nicely into the smaller hip hop themes that pop up within the series.
One of the strongest aspects of the show is the odd blend of the three main characters. Mugen is a wild-man; brash, quick to anger and always ready to jump into battle with his unpredictable fighting style. With his calm, thoughtful manner, controlled fighting techniques, and a strong belief in justice and tradition, Jin sits in direct contrast to Mugen. The two constantly argue and many of the conflicts in the episodes stem out of their different ways of looking at the world. Fuu acts as the (mostly) calm center of the stormy nature of this trio, barely holding the group together by a thin promise and her developing affection for both men. Fuu also functions as a great device for creating humor and touching moments, making her one of the key elements that keeps this story from descending into a repetitive action tale.
Anyone familiar with the series from its successful run on the Cartoon Network will be a little surprised by some of the content in the DVD version. Aside from the adult language that was edited out, the TV version also took out some of the more bloody moments of the fight scenes as well the quick flashes of female nudity. Combined with the very adult themes of drug use, sexual situations, and prostitution, Samurai Champloo is largely a title for adults.
Production-wise, both the series in general and this particular DVD version sit quite high. Although this series is readily available as streaming media through a number of sources, the cost of the DVD set is well worth it for viewers who really care about higher resolution and clearer picture quality. The highly detailed landscapes and cityscapes, as well as some of the fight scenes, are really well served by the higher-quality images. Whether you watch the original Japanese or the dubbed English version, the production teams worked hard to develop a strong cast. Familiar names like Kazuya Nakai (One Piece, Trinity Blood) and Kari Wahlgren (Ben 10, Phineas and Ferb) are just two of the highly talented voice actors who lend their talents. The only letdown about this DVD version is the almost extreme lack of DVD extras. Fans have come to expect a bit more than just the series when they spend money on the full package and this set carries little beyond some various promos that US audiences haven’t seen.
Overall, Samurai Champloo is a great example of serialized storytelling. While there are a couple of two-parters, most episodes can be enjoyed on their own without much background knowledge. But seen from beginning to end, especially for a 2nd or 3rd time, you find a number of subtle clues and references that tie into the larger story. Although it doesn’t boast an ending quite as explosive as Cowboy Bebop, the ending tale is particularly well-done in that it not only ends Fuu’s quest but brings in important elements from Mugen’s and Jin’s past giving it a sense of closure Watanabe’s earlier series lacked. Although it will probably never achieve the broad popularity of Cowboy Bebop, with its fresh take on Samurai tales, high production values, and strong cast, this is a series that should stand up to the test of time.
Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series
directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
650 minutes, Number of Discs: 7
Company Age Rating: Mature