Of all the general themes in anime, one of the most thoroughly overdone ones is the “with friends, we shall prevail” motif. In these, the protagonist can only overcome some seemingly insurmountable task with the help of his or her group of friends. Even those who haven’t seen much anime can probably name at least one series that does this; they’re literally everywhere.
One trait that sets Shinichiro Watanabe’s work apart is his refusal to accept this Japanese conformity. In his anime, all of the characters define themselves by their individuality, fighting for themselves and ONLY themselves in a vast and lonely world. In Cowboy Bebop, the characters were thrown together by chance and stayed together only as long as convenience allowed. Although the anime was for the most part an action comedy, even the hilarious moments were subdued by this profoundly forlorn undercurrent of internal solitude.
Samurai Champloo has a very similar feel; in the series, three misfits who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other are thrown together by coincidental events. The characters then proceed to engage in a variety of episodic escapades, finally culminating in a suitably climactic and suspenseful conclusion. This basic plot structure, combined with Watanabe’s trademark freeform style, makes it easy to draw comparisons between the two works, despite the radically different settings. However, something that most people have not mentioned is that the anime are also subtly different. In the end of Cowboy Bebop, the characters all drew even more inward than they were in the beginning, as the ephemeral nature of life swept them into their own personal dreams. As their desire for money became more and more faint, so did their need to interact with the rest of the crew.
In Samurai Champloo, however, the characters are clearly not together for mere convenience; on the contrary, they almost constantly complain about the troubles incurred by staying together. Rather, they travel together for almost no reason at all, and find themselves continuing to do so despite each of them repeatedly threatening to leave. At the end, the reason for continuing to travel together becomes apparent; no matter how individualistic a person is, each and every one can reach out and actually recognize someone as a fellow human being. Each character eventually does exactly this, respecting each other as fellow humans and perhaps even friends.
I first thought that this contradicted the general message in Watanabe’s previous work, but after some thought I’ve decided that Samurai Champloo philosophically builds on the groundwork laid by its predecessor. The characters in SC, even as they gradually begin to trust one another, remain fiercely independent to the bitter end. However, by being forced to interact and actually understand their fellow comrades, they are able to gain a deeper wisdom together than they would ever obtain alone. Where the characters of CB were all trapped in their personal realities, the three travelers of SC are able to look beyond their own lives.
Unfortunately, while SC is more mature than CB in this respect, in many other ways it can be considered a step down from Watanabe’s (admittedly amazing) previous work. The entire series is, for one thing, a lot less tightly wound than CB in terms of storyline. SC uses an ample amount of recap, which is absurd when you consider that each episode is practically self-contained. More importantly, some of the episodes drag a bit, and the wry, sardonic humor that I loved in Bebop has been replaced with slapstick and overblown melodrama.
Even the most hard-nosed critic has to admit that this show has great fight scenes and character designs. The overall look of the series is perhaps even more stylized than CB, and as a whole works awesomely with the story.
Sadly, the soundtrack is vastly inferior to Bebop’s. Like Bebop, Watanabe tries to get the OST to match the soul of the series in a unique and noticeable way, but the overall quality of the work isn’t nearly good enough to pull this off. In particular, the OP is one of the worst that I’ve ever heard, a pathetic attempt to be cool that borders on laughable. The rest of the OST fares better, but is still repetitive and occasionally annoying. My problem is not with the genre of the music (the jazz in CB was every bit as anachronistic as the hip-hop here, and no one complained about that), but with the execution as a whole. Black Eyed Peas this ain’t.
The characters are all drawn in a few broad strokes, and as a result feel somewhat canned and unoriginal. However, theyre still remarkably likeable, and near the end gain more depth than they had in the beginning.
Even if this series is to be considered a step down, a short hop down from such lofty heights isn’t nearly enough to sink the show. Samurai Champloo is a consistently entertaining, awesomely animated and often poignant series, and a worthy follow-up to Watanabe’s original work.
I didn't rate the story or characters because I didn't watch the whole series, so I can't comment on them. The animation was pretty rigid but that's what it was going for I'm sure. I mostly couldn't get over the horrendous hip-hop and record scratching playing constantly. I even tried to watch the show without sound so I wouldn't hear that ruckus but it just kept playing in my head. The whole series is ruined by the music. Hip-hop has no place in asian anime. Period. So I can't finish the series, oh well. Was pretty bored watching it anyways. You'll probably like this if you like the hippity-hop and rappedy-rap with their tweed smoking and cap busting like down-low jiggaboos. But if not, you won't enjoy this. You've been warned.
Story - This is a pretty simple episodic adventure anime, with some episodes being funny, and some episodes being dramatic. Each episode has the straightforward story of all of the characters getting into some kind of trouble separately or together, and then the OP samurai Jin and Mugen get them out of trouble. While this may seem predictable, I was thoroughly entertained by the character's exploits throughout the whole series and the people they came across, even if the fact that the two independent-seeming men joined Fuu on her journey didn't make sense to me at all (but then again, this is anime logic). There was only one episode I really hated, which was the zombie episode. It didn't fit in with the rest of the show, was boring and so clearly AU within an already AU universe that it wasn't worth paying too much attention to. The last episode of this show made me cry multiple times which I consider to be a good thing -- *SPOILER* when Jin and Mugen had their death fake-out I was sobbing uncontrollably. I thought that the end, while I was upset that each seemed to go their different ways, was fitting for the series.
Animation - Again, I'm not very qualified to talk about animation, but at some points it looked pretty sloppy, but I think I only noticed because I read someone else's review of the show and they said the animation looked sloppy at certain points. But the actual style of the show is pretty good -- there's no gigantic-eyed women or, like I read from another reviewer, fight scenes where the main character gets enough time for a 10 minute flashback and planning of his next move (i.e. -- there are actual BATTLES).
Sound - The soundtrack fit in well with the anime's weird Edo-period-but-also-urban-influenced setting. I don't really like J-rap though, and it got pretty annoying despite being fitting so I can't give it a score. I watched this series both subbed and dubbed, and I'd say both were very good. In fact, I'd almost say that the dub was better because it involved less reading (which normally I don't mind, but the dub was so good that it wasn't even worth it to watch it subbed and have to read) and the English voices fit the characters very well.
Characters - I grew very attached to each of the main characters, even though they're pretty one-note. There were some brief shows of emotion and loyalty from Mugen, Fuu, and Jin that I enjoyed, but it was upsetting that while each character realized that travelling with the others made them happier, that they didn't seem too changed or attached to the others because of it. Some of the side-characters are interesting as well, especially the blind assassin and the Dutch foreigner.
Overall, this was an extremely entertaining anime. After reading other reviewers' dissections of the anime's themes, I love it even more and will definitely rewatch it with those themes in mind.
Didn't really pay attention to the sound, so I gave that a 10/10.
One of my favorite animes! The Netflix description held me back because I thought it was going to be generic. Vibrant colors, unique art style, unique soundtrack, good, flowing animation. It was as visibly great as the story. Great if you like travel, adventure, and feudal Japan. Short but each episode is packed with story. Haven't checked out every detail, but it's kind of cool that lots of the historical stuff mentioned is actually true. Thinking of buying this on dvd.