Samurai Champloo

Samurai and hip hop go together like chocolate and mint, so it’s a no-brainer that something like Samurai Champloo would come along eventually.

Being shat from the same colon that brought us Cowboy Bebop it was a guaranteed success. Well…I don’t like it. 😡

|Animax|2004-2005|26 episodes|30 mins.|

 I suppose before I just start bitching I should tell you kids what the series is about. See, the cute girl up there? That’s Fuu. She, Mugen (red one, loud, crude), and Jin (blue one, cool, collected) happen to cross paths during a fight in the restaurant where she works. The two samurai recognize each other as worthy opponents and are mostly just interested in killing each other. After Fuu helps them escape a pissy magistrate, she makes a bet on a coin toss with them: Tails, they can kill each other all they like, heads, they must accompany her on a journey to find the mysterious samurai who smells of sunflowers.

But that shit doesn’t matter for the most part. This is not a plot driven show. It’s not even a character driven show a lot of the time. Aside from a few two or three parters, the show is very episodic and Fuu’s quest has very little bearing on most of what goes on. The entire series operates on its much touted mix of Edo period Japan and hip-hop culture, along with whatever else Shinichiro Wantanbe felt like that day.

lol I unno

Samurai Champloo largely fails at even getting that right. For all the publicity it got for its hip-hop influences, they’re not actually utilized much at all. Okay, they have a rap for their intro and a hip hop soundtrack. Whoopdy-fuckin’-do. Maybe I’m far too white to say this and be taken seriously, but it’s some of the worst rapping I’ve ever heard. There’s no flow to it whatsoever. The vocals to not match the beat, and the rapper kind of just lurches from line to line with no sense of melody. The lyrics themselves make next to no fucking sense. It’s horrible. Listen goddamnit.

It sounds like a motor that just can’t quite start properly.

In the series proper, the rappishness only shows up in a couple of episodes and they’re usually some of the show’s best moments. One episode’s villain has a henchman who follows him around and beatboxes to provide…atmosphere I guess. It might just be my favourite thing in the whole show.

There’s also a gang of renegade graffiti artists competing to tag the most dangerous places. The wordis tag, right? Am I revealing my lack of pigment here?

Word?

Another well know aspect of the series is the anachronisms. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough Japanese history to know what’s out of place, though Western things do show up on occasion, like using modern 9mm pistols instead of the muskets of the time. It’s kind of neat but it’s nothing so amazing that it blew me ass over teakettle.

The charactersare very well done. All three members of the power trio have distinct personalities, with a sharp contrast between Mugen and Jin.  Both of them have your stock Anime Tragic Backstory, but it’s only used well in Jin’s case. Mugen’s story is pretty clichéd and forgettable. Fuu is the standout for me. Despite being in need of rescue almost constantly, she’s quite independent and feisty. I love the way she has to continually trick, connive and convince her two companions into staying with her and not killing each other. That girl is adorable, and she’s the one character I felt invested in.

The cast is rather large for such an episodic show, and it’s hard to keep track of characters outside the main trio. Some are memorable, like the gay Dutchman (yes, really) and the blind assassin (yes, really) but others melt together and it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, especially when they only appear in a handful of episodes.

So, most of the show’s selling points are a disappointment or simply not used enough, but what is there isn’t awful. The animation is really, really nice. Widescreen, crisp, vibrant colours, very fluid and quick motions. The angular style works very well; Samurai Champloo is a pretty show if nothing else.

This is more apparent in the fight scenes that anywhere else. They’re fast, they’re vicious, and best of all they’re creative. If you’ve watched enough anime, you will find a lot of battles consist of two people standing across from one another hurling attacks back and forth. Samurai Champloo always has a feeling of movement and immediacy to its fights, and that definitely ups the excitement.

One of the strongest aspects of the series is its sense of humour. If it weren’t for that I doubt I’d have finished it at all. Samurai Champloo can be genuinely funny when it wants to be, as exemplified by an episode near the end where the trio and some completely unqualified villagers take on the American navy in a game of baseball. It’s completely insane and over the top, with people dying at bat, a flying squirrel as a team member and other assorted weirdness. If you like animation, do yourself a favour and check it out, even if you don’t bother with the rest of the series.

A lot of the show becomes very formulaic. The trio wanders into town either broke, or looking for food or some other vital item. One or all of them will get into trouble and set up the plot for the episode. By the end, nothing significant is gained. Rinse, repeat.

So, even with all of these strikes against it, the final three episodes came out of nowhere with a sudden burst of quality I could hardly believe was the same show. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a bittersweet ending with higher stakes than the previous episodes. They had an emotional core to them that wasn’t there before and this sense of desperation that really helped to draw me in. It’s a much more excellent sendoff than I thought I was going to get. Hats off. If the entire series had felt closer to this, I’d remember it much more fondly.

On the whole,Samurai Champloo’s episodes failed to engage me. I sat there and watched them, and I didn’t hate the experience, but I just didn’t care. I was almost never invested in what was going on. With the exception of Fuu, I ever fell in love with its cast. Unlike the best television series, this wasn’t something that formed an immersive experience. It was just something I looked at. It was pretty and it was kinda fun, but in the end, it didn’t make me feel much.

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So…weeaboos. If Samurai Champloo didn’t tickle my ballsack just right, should I bother with Cowboy Bebop?

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