Mugen is a wild, womanizing warrior who believes absolutely in doing his own thing; he is no one’s servant or slave and does whatever he wants, and if that happens to mean killing thugs who get in his way, so be it! Jin is a vagrant ronin—formally trained, well-mannered, and highly-skilled, yet just as fiercely independent as Mugen. The two take an instant dislike to each other and set about repeatedly trying to kill each other, efforts interrupted only by running afoul of a local lord. When a ditzy barmaid named Fuu helps rescue them from being executed, they reluctantly agree to set aside their mutual animosity until they have helped her in her quest to find a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” That is, if they don’t ditch her first. . .
If you’ve ever asked yourself, “gee, I wonder what a hip-hop samurai anime would look like?” then Samurai Champloo is your answer. This gleefully irreverent action series goes all-out to be the hippest and baddest anime title of them all. But what else would one expect from Shinichiro Watanabe, the creative whiz responsible for Cowboy Bebop? The sensibilities of the latter clearly permeate this series, especially in the way the action scenes are staged. Though ostensibly set in the Meiji era (the period in the late 19th century when Japan was modernizing and the old ways of the samurai were being set aside), the series tells you up front that it’s making no effort to be historically accurate. In fact, the setting is little more than a convenience to allow for how Mugen and Jin could be wandering the land racking up such a high body count with their swords. Their excesses do, of course, get them into trouble which, at various points, results in them being tortured, almost being executed, having to deal with assassins, and being tormented by an individual whom they harmed (but failed to kill) early on, who seeks revenge. Having to deal with Fuu could be considered another kind of punishment, but her presence does at least somewhat curtail their lethal tendencies.
The greatest beauty of Samurai Champloo is that everything about it contributes to its hipness. Characters are given crisp dialogue heavy on ‘tude and ample opportunities both to display that ‘tude and show off their skill. Character designs are heavily stylized, stressing thin, gangly limbs and caricaturized faces, while costuming reflects the time in which the series is set but also incorporates a certain panache. The musical score is composed mostly of energetic hip-hop beats headed by a rapped (in English) opener and an R&B-sounding closer, while discourteous notices pepper the first episode (“This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we CARE! Now shut up and enjoy the show!”). The animation gives the characters ample opportunities for interesting expressions and poses, and even the MTV-like editing furthers the overall trendiness.
The action, though, is the real highlight. Fight scenes are swiftly-paced, full of motion, and thoroughly dynamic. Each main character has their own highly distinctive way of moving, which is supported by some of the best animation you’ll see in any series anime. Characters move around and blend with the backgrounds quite effectively, creating a fully-integrated look which is a pleasure to watch. The only knock I could make against the series on technical merits is that the color schemes are sometimes a little too dark, but that’s a minor quibble. This is, overall, one of the best technical series in recent memory.
English vocal casting consists of a collection of Geneon/Pioneer regulars. They do a fine job of capturing the attitude and style of the characters, although their voices don’t match terribly well with the originals. The English script does stay tight with the subtitles most of the time, but I noted at least a couple of places where meaning in a scene was changed markedly in the translation (“my whole family will have to commit suicide” is changed to “it will be the death of my whole family,” for instance). If you’re generally a dub person then you will probably find the dub to your satisfaction, but this isn’t a series likely to change the preferences of sub-favoring viewers.
Graphic content for the series so far is pretty strong. Blood, severed body parts, and violent deaths abound, though the series never gets truly gory. A few sexually suggestive bits are peppered throughout this volume but there’s no actual fan service. Language can get harsh and crude. This isn’t one for the kiddies, but teenagers would probably love it.
DVD extras for the first volume are limited to an assortment of promos, trailers, and teasers, although an interview with the chief writer is included in the liner notes.
The biggest knock that could probably be made against Samurai Champloo is that it lacks more than the barest semblance of an overall plot. The first four episodes are episodic, and while they stand alone quite well, they don’t run together to create anything greater. Perhaps that is something to come in future volumes. Overall, though, this is one sharp and exciting series. It’s easy to see why it has already made such an impression on the American fan community, and it should continue to do so.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : A-
+ thrilling action sequences
− sparse DVD extras
Mugen, Jin and Fuu continue their trek through 19th-century Japan in search of the samurai who smells of sunflowers. As always, they’re in dire need of money—and when Fuu signs up for a modeling job with an ukiyo-e artist, she unwittingly falls victim to a shady yakuza racket. The three of them narrowly escape, and then it’s off to Edo to win some money in an eating contest, but they get more than they bargained for when a foreigner joins the group. Later on, Fuu has her money stolen by a pickpocket, and her efforts to track him down lead to an unexpected life lesson about parental relationships. Jin, meanwhile, has a run-in with some old acquaintances when a bigheaded swordsman barges through town looking for revenge against “the Samurai with Glasses.”
It may seem at times that Samurai Champloo’s popularity is driven more by its own hype than the quality of the series. “From the director of Cowboy Bebop!” they say. “An animation staff that worked on The Animatrix and Kill Bill!” With such a distinguished pedigree, Samurai Champloo doesn’t even need to try to earn its fanbase. However, Shinichiro Watanabe would never take the easy way out, and his unique directing style ensures that most of Champloo’s praise is well-deserved. Except maybe the part where people start calling it the greatest anime ever. It’s not quite there yet.
For months, anime fans have discussed Samurai Champloo’s “hip-hop samurai” aesthetic, and now that the argument has been beaten into submission, let’s summarize: it works. The idea is more than just urban beats set against historical fight scenes, though; playful anachronisms creep their way into every aspect of this series. Beatboxing samurai? A policeman using a sword as an exercise device? Sure, why not! Add to that a whimsical, unpredictable sense of humor and the result is pure entertainment. What Samurai Champloo lacks, however, is a strong, continuous storyline. Let’s face it: the search for the sunflower samurai is just an excuse to send three unlikely folks on an amusing road trip through old-time Japan. Each episode on this disc is a fine blend of action, comedy and drama, but nothing really strings them together except the progression of time. The pacing isn’t perfect either—with such slick action scenes, the downtime and dialogue in between can sometimes be a bore.
Despite its flaws in storytelling, Samurai Champloo thrives on an appealing core of characters. With Mugen’s rash attitude, Jin’s no-nonsense aloofness, and scatterbrained Fuu trying to hold it all together, the trio creates a dynamic relationship just by being there. And while the series has yet to form a solid plotline, there’s already character development going on, as Episodes 7 and 8 show. Fuu’s conversation with the thief Shinsuke reveals some details about her parents, and the events that follow prove that this show can strike close to the heart. In Episode 8, Jin becomes more than just a tight-lipped wandering samurai when we finally learn why he left his dojo. Stylized swordfights are fun, but personal stories like these give the show a counterweight of believable drama.
The successful melding of hip-hop culture and 19th-century Japan depends a lot on Samurai Champloo’s dynamic visual style. The entire look of the show is governed by sharp, spiky lines and an MTV-inspired approach to animation. The artwork isn’t afraid to branch out, either—while the most striking scenes appear to have leaped off a particularly good wall of graffiti, there are also homages to traditional art styles of the past. The animation is at its best during action scenes, with jerky in-your-face camera angles, expertly timed motion and (in Mugen’s case) the best breakdance moves outside of a club. Less impressive is the plain, unexciting cinematography that dominates when no one’s fighting. Countering that, however, are some gorgeously colored backgrounds and an attention to detail that makes Japanese history almost real. Meanwhile, the characters aren’t quite as iconic as the cast of Cowboy Bebop, but their outfits and appearances are memorable enough to be cosplay-worthy.
Along with Samurai Champloo’s trendy visual style comes a soundtrack that will go down in history as the most unlikely music for a samurai series ever. With a team of true hip-hop artists laying down tracks for the show, the music goes beyond the realms of pop and challenges viewers with snappy beats, forceful dissonances, and harmonies out of jazz and R&B. Although the music is focused on one main genre, there’s enough variety to capture the many moods of the show, whether it be fury, tranquility, sorrow, or just plain silliness.
Geneon brings in the voice talents of Bang Zoom! Entertainment to produce a respectable but not outstanding dub. Mugen, Jin and Fuu all sound well-suited to their personalities, although Daniel Andrews’ turn as Mugen could use more bite, and Kari Wahlgren’s interpretation of Fuu falls into the habit of sounding like every other ditzy anime girl out there. The secondary characters are a hit-and-miss affair: Episode 6 shines with hilarious performances from the comically-accented Dutchman and the eating contest commentator, but in other episodes, characters like law enforcement officers and older women come off as uninspired clichés. Still, this is one series that can be enjoyed in either language.
Samurai Champloo is a lot like Mugen’s fighting style: reckless, daring, and unafraid to try every possible idea to see what sticks. Some of them stick better than others, and through these early episodes, it’s a series that’s still finding its bearings. What direction will it take next? Hardcore katana duels? Oddball comedy? Somber drama? Wherever Samurai Champloo is headed, it’s sure to be interesting, so sign up for this road trip while you’ve got the chance.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ A sharp sense of humor, playful anachronisms, and stylish action scenes.
− Kind of boring when it’s not being all hip and snazzy.
Fuu and her samurai companions Mugen and Jin continue their search for the sunflower samurai, all the while trying to find new sources of income. An attempt to cross a heavily guarded military checkpoint turns into a high spiritual experience for everyone; once they get to the next town, Mugen plays cat-and-mouse with a serial killer who relishes the challenge of fighting the top swordsmen in the land. Later on, Jin becomes infatuated with a prostitute who has sold herself to repay her husband’s debts, while Mugen tries to strike it rich with beetle sumo wrestling. Are they ever going to get back on track with the sunflower samurai? Maybe the guys will find out more about him when they stumble upon Fuu’s secret diary.
As far as historical anime shows go, few are as entertaining as Samurai Champloo, and that’s probably because it generally avoids being historical. Despite its 19th-century trappings, Champloo boasts an eclectic visual style and an anachronistic soundtrack that catapults it into modern-day relevance. This quartet of episodes showcases the wide range of moods and stories that this anime is capable of, all tied together by the search for more money, and the sunflower samurai.
The structure of the series retains its consistency through Volume 3, telling stand-alone stories that are linked by the trio’s ongoing journey. The pattern is broken momentarily in Episode 12 for a clip episode that summarizes the series so far. Although it’s a fun way of reliving events through Fuu’s eyes, it’s also a cheap excuse to get out of producing fresh animation and story. The other episodes are more fulfilling: on a single disc we have a perilous caper with an unexpected ending, some classic sword-fighting action, and a strange but touching love story. The telling of these stories is often straightforward, shifting effortlessly between weighty drama and nimble action, yet the next turn is always an interesting one, just like the series itself.
One particular high point is in Episode 11, where Jin gets involved with a prostitute and gallantly tries to save her from the brothel. For the first time, his character goes beyond that of “the quiet guy” and we see his unwavering sense of justice at work. The ending is particularly moving, showing at once the depth of his heart but also reminding us that he’s still just a quiet guy with a sword. Meanwhile, the serious side of Mugen’s code of conduct comes to light in the previous episode, but it’s not quite as dramatic as what happens to Jin. Through all this, Fuu bounces merrily and nags the other two to make some money; clearly, this isn’t her time for character development.
The artwork of Samurai Champloo remains as stylish as ever, combining lush, idyllic landscapes with bold, angular character art. Although overt references to hip-hop culture are put on hold for a while, there’s still plenty of room for the animators to have fun, such as in the colorful, tripped-out sequence towards the end of Episode 9. (Anyone who’s seen “Mind Game” should recognize the style immediately as that of the movie director Masaaki Yuasa.) A more subtle technique shows up in flashbacks, where sepia tones and grainy effects give the right feeling of age to certain scenes. When bigger jumps in time are required—like the policeman narrator making ridiculous historical tangents—whole shifts in style come into play, making references to ukiyo-e, the Beat generation, and even modern-day Japan. Of course, more conventional animation techniques retain their high standard as well, and there really is no swordfight like a Champloo swordfight. With real-time action, extreme perspectives and angles, and unpredictable moves, this is one truly vivid (if rather stylized) depiction of the samurai era.
The soundtrack remains just as distinctive as the visuals, with hip-hop tracks encompassing a wide range of emotions. Whether it be a single instrument unraveling a melody, or an all-out breakdown on a heavy beat, this is a style of music that’s easily as expressive as any full orchestra. Watch out also for the alternate ending song in Episode 12, a soulful ballad whose dramatic weight balances the comedic mood of that episode. Even if it’s not everyone’s favorite genre, the music suits itself very well to the series, and that’s what matters.
Bang Zoom! continues their solid dubbing work on this series, giving Jin, Mugen and Fuu their own unique English-speaking personalities. The one point that could use improvement is putting more energy and emotion into them, as the characters sound surprisingly composed at times compared to their Japanese counterparts. The audio also clips a bit when people are shouting, dampening the effect of the voice actors going all out. The translations aren’t totally faithful, but the colloquialisms and phrasing that they use in English often do a fine job of capturing the dialogue’s essence. (Interestingly, Mugen swears more often in English than he does in Japanese.)
People often speak of the code of the samurai, but what is it really? Watch Samurai Champloo and you’ll learn… nothing of the sort, except for a whole lot of distorted historical information. But what you will learn is a whole lot about human nature, refracted through the unique filter of historical drama and modern urban music. Courage, fear, love, and laughter all play a part in these next few episodes, proving that it isn’t just a carefree road trip, but one that can change people for life.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Full of emotional depth and striking animation techniques.
− Not as much humor and flat-out creativity as in previous episodes.