Review: Samurai Champloo
by Justin Jasso
When one think about Feudal Japan, what comes to mind? Possibly things like samurais, lords, geishas, kimonos, merchants, hip-hop…. wait, hip-hop? At least that’s the history portrayed in director Shinichirō Watanabe’s (Cowboy Bebop) series, Samurai Champloo. The combination of samurai and hip-hop may seem like an abstract concept, but really, similarities have been around for some time now, thanks in particular to hip-hop’s Wu-Tang Clan. They took their love of kung-fu films and based their love of hip-hop with it and have made a successful career which continues today. So it was only a matter of time before someone brought a new twist to the young genre and, thankfully, the twist turned out to be successful.
Set in feudal Japan during the Edo period, a young girl named Fuu (along with her pet flying squirrel) work at a small tea house. A group of men at the tea house begin harassing Fuu who, for the payment of food, receives the help of a rogue named Mugen. Mugen is a samurai with an unusual fighting style, brash with his words and not the most educated individual in the town. He’s always looking for a good fight and, fortunately for Fuu, is always hungry. So Mugen dispatches the men when in walks Jin, a ronin in his own right. Jin is quiet and disciplined, trained as a samurai and swordsman for years and making a name for himself as one of the best swordsmen alive. Mugen takes Jin for the wrong person and a fight ensues which inadvertently kills the magistrates son. Mugen and Jin are arrested and sentenced to be executed while Fuu is on her own.
Now Fuu just happens to be on a life mission, one she cannot accomplish on her own. She is looking for the samurai that smells of sunflowers. She has a history with this samurai and must find him in order to gain some peace and move on with her life. The problem, however, is that she doesn’t know where he is. So she makes a deal with Jin and Mugen that, if she helps them escape their execution, they need to hold off on their personal fight until they help her locate the samurai that smells of sunflowers. Mugen and Jin agree, Fuu comes through on her part of the bargain, and the story begins as the trio journey across Japan searching for the samurai who smells of sunflowers while discovering aspects about themselves and confronting some of their own demons.
Given the time period of the series and all the elements which don’t fit the period, Champloo’s art style is very fun and unique. The blending of modern ideas with such a traditional setting is brilliant and very interesting to see. One of the best examples within the series would probably be the graffiti episodes, where yes, there’s totally a town in feudal Japan with a street graffiti problem and two rival gangs that won’t stop tagging everything. The animation itself is of good quality throughout and it’s definitely an aesthetically pleasing series.
Much of the entertainment relies on the characters and this is one of the strongest aspects of the series. All three of our protagonists are rich, interesting characters with backstories that don’t seem to clash with their general personalities. As strangers that all met coincidentally in the first episode, their histories are gradually revealed throughout the course of the series in a perfectly paced, even casual way. Though this involves a bunch of chance encounters with figures from their respective pasts, none of them ever really seem to intrude upon the story for the sole purpose of explaining things, which is great. And their stories all actually do contribute to their personalities as a whole, making them all fully-rounded characters with an enjoyable amount of depth to them.
The characters also really contribute to the sometimes satirical nature of the series. Jin could be, at first glance, your stereotypical samurai. Or maybe he really just is, but the fact that they poke fun at him for it makes his whole stance all the more questionable. Mugen is just ridiculous; after all, his fighting technique is rooted in break dancing. And Fuu… even given the normalcy of her character, she has enough emotion and perseverance to keep her from being called flat. Plus, when she’s overly hungry, some of the funnier moments of the series are displayed.
Samurai Champloo was a very fun series. Almost all the episodes were excellent in themselves with a great story, as well as great technical aspects. But the overarching story, when it finally did come together in the end, was actually really nice. And as simple as the ending was, one walks away satisfied with the conclusion and thankful for the journey through Japan.