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.
Samurai Champloo (SC) is director Watanabe’s attempt to relive the success Cowboy Bebop (CB) had in the previous decade. I will be comparing a lot these two shows as they feel almost as siblings, plus you are almost forced to watch both in order to get a better picture. The following paragraph is in fact just personal speculation and you may as well skip it entirely if you want.
Although the anime fans didn’t lose their minds as much as they did with CB, that does not mean SC is a bad show. Far from it; it is very entertaining and retains a similar mood as CB. It’s just that the blending of different eras was not as easily categorized and since most people look for familiarity as means to sympathy, it was a bit harder to like as much. The thing is, CB was categorized as “space western”, an existing category that back in the late 90’s was a thrill. The Japanese people found the American flavor to be exotic, while the Americans found the show being almost a flattery of Japan towards them, so no wonder it was very captivating. Also, Jazz and Blues are considered by most as the most sophisticated genres of music, as if watching this show was placing you with the cream of viewers. On the other hand, SC can’t be categorized; there is no clear name for a genre that blends Japan with modern Hip-hop. No connection points for most to feel the sympathy, plus Hip-hop is ghetto music and considered violent and unsophisticated by most. Watching it felt like placing you with delinquents. So the whole thing boils down to an aristocrat and a punk. Very different, yet both shows are just the different sides of the same coin and Watanabe is offering a familiar type of humorous social criticism. So don’t let these pesky aesthetic details to get you down; SC is equally good.
The production values are great as in the other show, with lots of anachronisms and in-jokes offering a smart parody of the modern world. The whole setting is basically a masking of the old values of traditional Japan being trashed by the coming of the Westerners, as indirectly shown by various native people being exploited by foreigners while the background is a mix of traditional buildings and ghetto elements. Even the music themes are partly blending the traditional type of Japanese singing with rap lyrics to make it even clearer. Thus the whole world is an allegory on itself, a piece of art that deserves a thumps up.
A bit disappointing are the action scenes, which seemed to be great in the first few episodes but after that turned to simplistic exchange of sword slashes and kicks. The choreography is not constant in quality throughout the series, as it was in CB and it feels like it is fooling you into looking for more, when there won’t be. That is the only thing that keeps the score from perfect from me.
The main characters begin as stereotypes, yet along the way they are fleshed out a lot and by the end of the show they become lovable and memorable. I can’t say they are great since they don’t exactly develop and they definitely have less diversity and numbers than those in CB. It’s just the violent punk, next to the calm noble, next to the genki smart girl; very polarized to see them as nothing but caricatures. Although that makes them cooler, it also makes them shallower. They are still interesting, have quirks to become easily memorable, get colorized, get somewhat developed, and even find a bit of catharsis in the end. All of which happen in a mostly episodic show, which is a feat.
The story is episodic and despite that there is an objective (to kill a samurai who smells like Sunflowers) as well as some recurring characters, it is mostly the constant themes that keep the show together and not the storyline. It is a bit hard to get attached to any individual situation if everything is resolved in one or two episodes and the themes are not enough to keep you hooked. That does not feel too good to anyone (like me) who prefers and on-going plot than an episodic one. And yes, you gradually see more to the characters which may be perceived as on-going but that has to do with the cast and not the story. One could of course label this anime as 100% character-driven and thus share the same score with the characters. I also prefer it when the story moves forward by personal choice and not pulled by the nose because the scriptwriter said so and was unable to show it otherwise. On the other hand, you still see many characters for just one episode doing stuff that do not matter thereafter, which still makes you feel like they are wasting potential here. But at least there is an ending instead of a hint for a sequel.
The story is a very interesting take on episodic-formats but it is still not perfect for me as I always prefer an on-going plot to this. I would normally give it the base, but seeing how it smartly threw in character development here and there, I will raise it a lot more.
The sound department is a blend of Hip-hop, Rap and Japanese folk music. It sounds interesting to pay attention to even when I’m more of a metal and hard rock dude. I was mostly listening to them as a parody and not as a serious attempt at drama, as in the case of CB. It is still a very well made soundtrack and deserves a good score.
The value is very high just for being a series that stands out from the lot, if not just for having Watanabe as its director. My enjoyment was definitely higher than in CB because of its far more comedic nature, as well as the less alien to my tastes music. Just to imagine, I watched it in one go, unlike CB which I dropped 3 times before I finally manage to complete it. So there you go; I am not that sophisticated.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 10/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well-made)
Character Figures 2/2 (memorable)
Backgrounds 2/2 (nice anachronisms)
Animation 2/2 (good for this type of show)
Visual Effects 2/2 (artsy)
SOUND SECTION: 8/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 3/3 (artsy)
STORY SECTION: 5/10
Premise 1/2 (typical)
Pacing 1/2 (semi-filler-ish)
Complexity 2/2 (heavy on themes)
Plausibility 0/2 (rule of cool)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 8/10
Presence 2/2 (cool/funny/sexy)
Personality 2/2 (well founded)
Backdrop 2/2 (rich)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 9/10
Historical Value 3/3 (all-known)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high, with some weak episodes being skipped)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely lively and uncommon to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 7/10
Art 1/1 (looks nice)
Sound 2/2 (sounds cool)
Story 1/3 (basic)
Characters 3/4 (they are cool)
I just skimmed through the reviews for Samurai Champloo and noticed that there are tons of them. I don't think I can say anything that hasn't been already said or add anything worthwhile, so I guess I'm writing this review just for me, to pinpoint my own thoughts on this show. I've watched Samurai Champloo 3 times so far, and it's one of the really few anime which gets better every time I watch it and whose rating has consequently gone up each time - in my personal evaluation scale, that is.
What do I like so much about it? For starters, it's stylish. Secondly, being directed by Watanabe the music cannot be other than great. It's hip hop, and even if you're not into the genre, you have to admit that the music is good. Another thing that I incredibly enjoy is the atmosphere combined with the countless anachronisms - the anime is set during the Edo period in Japan (1603 - 1868 - I looked it up) but this is mixed with the Western hip-hop / punk culture of our days and this blending of apparently absolutely discordant elements gives life to something unique, extremely ironic and entertaining. Animation is, obviously, good. Colours, character designs, backgrounds, fight scenes - nothing to complain about.
The story is predominantly episodic, but there is an overarching plotline that takes completely over at the end. Per se, it isn't an amazing story. But this is, in my view, a character-driven anime so the story is there only as a canvas for the characters to interact and develop. It's really quite simple, three misfits get somehow thrown together and start travelling together for no apparent reason other than it turned out that way. Fuu, the girl, wants to find a mythical samurai who smells of sunflowers but has no clue as to where he is and gives no explanation as to why she needs to find him. So they set off. Each episode adding a further stroke to the character building.
The characters. Fuu, Mugen and Jin. Initially they are quite clichèd characters. And if you stay on a superficial level even after you get to know them and like them with all their flaws and quirks, you could think there's little development. That's what I thought, too. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this, I've seen this anime more than once and I've come to appreciate the subtle way in which the character development is carried out. Each character is fiercely independent and individualistic - they have this in common, even though there's a different hue and undertone to each one. So it's extremely interesting and entertaing to see how their relationship develops, the three separate ones between Fuu and Jin, Fuu and Mugen, and then Mugen and Jin. But there's also the relationship between the three of them, together. Initially nothing other than pure chance and a weird sort of convenience keeps them together, but slowly it turns into something else. Something more profound and meaningful, that makes you smile at the end and look on life with something akin to hope.
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.