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.