I don't know how many people reading this grew up on late-night anime from Adult Swim, the block of programming on Cartoon Network. This, for me, was one of the big ones — right after Full Metal Alchemist and Inuyasha, I'd say. By the time Death Note rolled around I was already on non-dubbed stuff, but Samurai Champloo was at the height of my on-television anime watching.
This anime may or may not be tainted with nostalgia. I'll try to remove it from the review.
Story: The story is just as all over the place as the three main characters. It follows them as they bounce around the whole of Japan, two rogue samurai (well, a ronin and a criminal) following a girl as she searches for someone she only refers to as 'the samurai who smells of sunflowers.' The eventual goal for Fuu, the main girl, is to find the guy and apparently, 'get revenge...' the main goal for the two males, Jin and Mugen, however, is to find the guy so they can finally fight.
As they bounce around Japan, they meet people from their respective pasts, assasins, monks, historical figures, police officers, brothel workers, spies, artists, drug dealers, thieves, hard-core criminals... and everything in between. Something I always note when I'm watching the show with someone new is that its fairly historically accurate... and I only use the term 'fairly' to cover my own ass. I haven't actually found something that wasn't true, aside from anachronisms that are obviously for comedic effect.
The story has a lot of episodes that, like the similar Cowboy Bebop (similar in director, tone, and dub voice actors), have episodes with the characters just... travelling. Not that these are boring, mind you — a lot of them are the best in the series, and the characters that the main three meet in these episodes are great foils to develop Fuu, Mugen, and Jin even more.
Animation: I love the animation style of this particular anime. The fight scenes are action-packed and quick, smooth and speedy. There is a lot of action in this one, but it's not brawling... Because the characters are so skilled, for the most part, it looks like fluid dancing. If you take the time to actually watch how they play out, nearly every fight scene is amusing, and some are even quite hilarious.
The character designs are amazing, too — no one character looks anything like any other. They all have unique facial shapes and contours, which is unusual for anime, as most anime tend to fall into the 'same face' category of art flaws.
Sound: I'm not a fan of the opening theme song... I can barely hear what the guy is saying. I'm not even complaining that it's hip-hop, for me, it's barely audible hip-hop, and the backbeat isn't all that wonderful. I do like the verse I can understand, but there is a lot of gibberish before that. At least it's unique — the ending theme songs are pretty, but generic.
As for the voice actors. I enjoy both the Japanese and the English voices, aside from some bad lip-syncing on the English dub.
Characters: This is probably my favorite part of the show. There is a lot of friction between the main three characters, because they're so different. They're all enjoyable in their own ways, and your opinion of 'who is right' changes based on the situation. That's actually a good sign of when characters are well-developed, at least in my opinion.
Anyways. The main character of the three is undeniably Fuu. She is the one that holds the group together... rather against their will. The anime starts off her place of employment burning down, and her decision to start a journey with the two people that she has dubbed the reason she's unemployed. She's headstrong, naggy, loud and obnoxious... but she's also sweet, and of the three, she's the only one who considers other's feelings. She's emotional and moody, but... that seems pretty typical of a 16-year-old girl. She gets kidnapped and tied up a lot, but not necessarily because she's a target. She does draw her knife a few times in the show... as little good as it ever does her. Her flying squirrel Momo tends to save her, as well as Mugen and Jin.
Mugan is... completely off-the-walls crazy rogue. He doesn't like people, unless it's a girl willing to sleep with him or a guy willing to feed him. He's bloodthirsty and doesn't think before he acts. They also like pointing out that he's illiterate. He's a hothead, and is the type that will fight at the drop of a dime. Or at a glance. Or if you just happen to be in the vicinity and he's pissed about something else. He's also a complete horndog, and seems to mostly think about sex and fighting, if he's not hungry. He does get protective of Fuu, eventually, but it's a really half-assed sort of protective.
Jin is the polar opposite of Mugen, which means they are constantly pissing each other off. He's contemplative and quiet, only speaking if it's absolutely necessary. He helps Fuu because it seems to be his obligation to do so. He used to be in a dojo, but left because of personal pride and honor. He is serious and philosophical, and Mugen and Fuu often make fun of him for being so serious all the time.
Overall: Overall, the anime is a really fun one to watch. There are feelings between the three, but unlike most anime, no romance develops between the two. There isn't any corny 'our friendship will prevail' message — the main characters scarcely manage to do what's sort of right most of the time. Unlike other anime with a naggy, controlling female, the main girl does lose control of the two guys all the time. The characters they meet on the way are interesting, and it gives really good insight to the mood of Japan at the time. If you really pay attention, you'll even get a fairly interesting history lesson.