There are a lot of problems that permeate Samurai Champloo and take away from what could have been an awesome, stylized adventure through late nineteenth century Japan. These problems are not large, but together they detract from the experience. Samurai Champloo is of course a well-loved anime, and far be it from me to harshly review it, but I shall because that is what I do.
The story of Samurai Champloo is something that is hard to explain in very long and drawn out terms. The series follows three characters, Foo, Jin, and Mugen, who are each outcasts from their respective walks of life. Foo is just an average girls whose father left her and mother died. Jin is a samurai who killed his master and is now being chased by the students of the dojo in retaliation. Mugen is a criminal wanted for killing the people on a sugar boat. They come together through a huge coincidence and join forces through the bitchiness of Foo. Foo as a character is something I’ll later discuss. Foo wants to find the samurai who smells of sunflowers and employs the help of Jin and Mugen who don’t like each other and plan to kill each other when the journey is over.
One of the main things I find to be completely annoying about the series as a whole is how characters are so trusting of these guys who randomly appear to them and want them to do something or follow them. I won’t spoil who every bad guy is, but it seems to me like the writers did not understand that the audience will eventually catch on to the fact that this supposed good guy is a bad guy after the past ten episodes pulled the same trick. While you’re not bound to think of the characters as bad guys sometimes, it’s usually fairly apparent.
Another problem I have is that the episodic nature of the series makes it perfectly okay to watch the amazing first episode, skip the next twenty-two episodes, and watch the well-done final story-arc. The first episode has an excellent fight in it that is unparalleled until the very end. The last episodes are tense and exciting, which is a lot more than I can say for the cream in the middle of the cookie.
The middle episodes range from just plain boring, to pretty good. They are fairly forgettable and unimpressive most of the time. There are never bad guys who are anything more than loud and annoying and the constant eating gets to be annoying. There are some episodes that may resonate with a person (the blind woman for instance) but it is otherwise nothing to write home about.
And I found that the use of a filler episode telling the story of the first eleven episodes was painful. In an episodic show, I don’t think you need to give us a recap of the episodes, because the episodes typically don’t have anything to do with each other and the consequences of actions very rarely resonate later on in the series.
So let’s look at the animation. Well, there’s nothing much to say here. The characters aren’t great looking, the backgrounds are average. Sword fights are somewhat smooth, though can be a little jerky with the movements.
The sound is what really makes Samurai Champloo what it is and gives it it’s cool style. The opening song is probably one of the easier to recognize openings as far as American fans of anime are concerned. The ending isn’t bad either. But during the show, the mix of smooth rap beats, jazz, modern Japanese music, and Japanese folk music, combine in such a way as to make me feel that without that music to help accentuate the style, the anime would be nothing more than another generic historical piece. As far as voice actors are concerned, the American dub is a safe bet if you don’t feel like reading. None of the voice actors are particularly bad and none of the style of the beatboxing nor rapping is lost in the translation.
The characters are nearly the opposite of the music. They aren’t that great. Foo is annoying and bitchy and gets what she wants and eats too much and useless. She’s not what you would consider a strong female lead and typically is found captured or crying or something that just makes you shake your head and wish for more of Mugen or Jin. Mugen is not a great character, his rather rude manner isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but he can be likeable and funny. Jin is also a generic character that has a life of his own because of those comedy moments and his interactions with Mugen. Foo’s bodyguards being from completely different walks of life makes for, as I’m sure you can tell, some funny moments, as well as some violent moments. The only reason that Mugen and Jin are ever good characters that you can remember long after the final episode is the interactions they share. But otherwise, the characters of the show are forgettable. There aren’t any recurring characters but two, and they are just there for comedy. Otherwise, even the final bad guys are fairly shallow in both intentions and emotions.
When I was nearing the last episodes I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to like this anime very much. And then there were zombies. And then I nearly grew to hate it. And then there was a pointless baseball episode. And then I hated it more. But the end did redeem it a lot, and I feel that as an anime, overall, it’s not bad. If taken as weekly doses, it is definitely not going to be unappealing to fans of historical dramas. But if you plan to sit through episode after episode in a sort of marathon, it’s not something you’ll find too enjoyable. It’s just the sheer fact that taken as a whole, Samurai Champloo is both shallow in characters, story, and will never hold a place in the pantheon of amazing anime. It’s merely a distraction, not a great one, but it does have its moments and it does have that interaction between Jin and Mugen, well-done interactions at that, and it does have an urban style that it uses to its advantage. To me, it felt like Lone Wolf and Cub for the modern age (and there is a point where there is a reference to the classic manga), and it plays out in the episodic nature that the Lone Wolf and Cub manga did. The only problem is that while Lone Wolf and Cub was fresh and amazing to a new American manga audience in the 80’s, Samurai Champloo is nothing more than a generic period drama that is only different in its use of urban style.
So basically, I’m saying Samurai Champloo isn’t something you’re going to remember, though it can be a fun ride for those really starved for some swordplay.