Samurai Champloo is all about style, from the dj-style scratching scene changes to the hip-hop-inspired soundtrack to the eclectic character design. Mugen's fighting style is a funky meld of capoeira and limb-cutting, and Jin is the dramatic foil; he is all steel and old-school samurai style. What binds them together is the desire to test each other's abilities, and a promise to a girl named Fuu: to find the samurai that smells of sunflowers, who plays a pivotal role in her past. Together they travel through edo-era Japan, finding battle and comedy wherever they stop.
StoryOf 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.AnimationEven 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.SoundSadly, 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.CharactersThe 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.OverallEven 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.
StoryThis is a very hard show for me to review. After all, it comes from Shinichiro Watanabe, the guy behind Cowboy Bebop, which is quite possibly my favorite anime ever. So I had really high hopes, and consequently really high expectations for this show. Still, I will do my best to review it stand-alone, without factoring expectations into it. Champloo starts out strong, with an exciting and fast-paced first episode, but soon settles into common stereotypical samurai plots, with the main characters rescuing wronged innocents from various unsavory bad guys, from crooked officials to charlatan cult leaders. Most of these episodes are unfortunately surprisingly predictable, and any real emotional impact the situation could have had is lost because it’s so obvious how everything will turn out. Case in point: the second episode features a really ugly bad guy that turns into a good guy when he realizes that Fuu cares for him even though he’s ugly. Come on here. Isn’t this supposed to be edgy? Is Disney writing the plots for the episodes!? Most aren’t so laughably clichÃ©, but others are. When the main plot does kick in, towards the end of the show, it's certainly very exciting, and filled with a lot of great fights. However, the actual plot elements seem rather flimsy. We never get any kind of real explanation of what motivates this show’s equivalent of the â€˜evil boss’ except that some faceless entity 'ordered' him to do it. The show also plays with our heads multiple times in the final several episodes, having certain characters miraculously recover from injury after injury that really should be fatal, especially in an age where medicine was relatively undeveloped. According to this show, no matter how bad a wound is, if you just wrap it in lots of bandages, you'll recover in a day or two. Even if you lose several buckets of blood. Or are blown up with dynamite. The best episodes of this show are the ones that blend elements of modern culture into the traditional samurai story, resulting in some very fun sequences, such as when the characters play baseball against a team of unscrupulous Americans, and another in which they deal with a Night-of-the-Living-Dead-esque zombie invasion. This show really needed more episodes like thatâ€”episodes where the wonderful style of the show compensates for its other failings. There, I said it. All in all, in the pastry shop that is anime, this show’s substance is only mediocre yellow cake, albeit covered with a wonderful icing of delicious, creamy style. AnimationThe animation is definitely one of the best parts of the show. The characters are backgrounds are all very stylishly drawn, with a lot of attention to detail and tone. This comes across best in episodes like where mood plays a big part (like the zombie episode), as the animation does the brunt of establishing that mood. Color is well-utilized throughout the show, and details like eye movements and body language receive a lot more attention than you’ll see in practically any other anime TV show. Even little touches like the freeze-frame shots in the baseball episode add a lot to the show’s overall feel. The fighting animation is also great, and when the frequency of battles in the show goes up towards the end, they're very well-executed in general. Except possibly in a few episodes of Peace Maker Kurogane, I haven’t seen samurai fighting animated better than this. It’s the pacing of the fights that’s the most impressive; unlike more traditional samurai shows like Kenshin, where characters will each do one attack and then stand there for a few minutes, talking to their opponent or thinking about their next move, these fights are actually fast-paced! That’s right, enemy samurai don’t stop to allow the main character all the time he needs to plan out his next move and give us a 10 minute flashback to expound on what he’s feeling at the moment. Amazing. But really, the impact of the animation on this show goes far beyond simply â€˜quality’ alone. This is a style show, a show about a certain vision, a merging between two very disparate and historically distant themes, and the visuals accomplish that rather difficult task admirably. SoundThe sound is clearly a big part of the style here, as this is supposed to be a sort of 'hip-hop' samurai show, and the soundtrack does not disappoint, with tracks ranging from upbeat to sad, all done in a distinct style and flavor that I can’t say I’ve heard in an anime before. They fit the tone of the show well, even if I myself am not a huge fan of the brand of the J-rap often used, and consequently found the OP and similar tracks kind of annoying after a few listens. The voice acting is quite good, as can be expected from a high budget show like this. And hey, they even brought in real English-speakers for when a few characters speak English! You can tell from the accent that they're probably still Japanese actors that just speak English fluently, but it's still way better than the terrible 'Engrish' I've heard in most other shows that attempt this. CharactersChamploo primarily deals with three characters: Fuu, a girl out on a quest to find the â€˜samurai who smells like sunflowers’ and two samurai who escort her: the rough and rowdy Mugen and the proper and honorable Jin. In general, the characters are pretty well done. Fuu, to my surprise, ends up being the â€˜lead’ of the show, as the character that receives the most development, the one whose emotions and thoughts we have the most access to, and the one that ultimately drives the plot towards its climax and conclusion. Jin and Mugen are her opposite (yet similar) super-powerful warrior sidekicks. There are also many side characters introduced throughout the show, both as temporary friends/allies and as â€˜bad guys.’ These bad guys range from the overtly silly "Christian" priestâ€”a sort of evil Don Quixoteâ€”to the very interesting Sara, whose two episodes are easily the best of the show. So in the end, we’ve got a mixed bag. Fuu is a good lead, Mugen and Jin are â€˜cool’ if undeveloped, and the side characters are very much hit-or-miss. Try as I might, I simply could not find the depth I was hoping for in any characters except Fuu; not in the temporary allies, not in the bad guys, not even in Jin or Mugen. It’s the latter two that are the most disappointing. In the end, they’re skilled swordfighters, they like Fuu and want to protect her... And they fight. With swords. To protect Fuu. That’s about it. By the end, we learn a bit more about their backstories, but they as characters don’t feel any more developed than they were at the end of the very first episode. If I were this picky about the character development in every anime, I’d end up hating 90% of shows out there. Still, this is Shinichiro Watanabe. This show has about as much visual creativity, flair, and plain old budget as you can hope to find in an anime. So I expect more. OverallThis is one of those shows where if someone asks you â€˜What’s it about,’ you have them watch an episode instead of answering. Because it’s about the style. If you try to answer in words, you’d have to settle on something like, â€˜It’s about three friends who travel the land on a quest, fighting bad guys along the way.’ And that sounds pretty much like every other action/adventure anime out there. So watch this show for the animation, for the music, for the great fights, or just for the opportunity to see graffiti artists and human beat boxes in a samurai anime. But don’t watch it for a breakthrough in storytelling or character developmentâ€”this is the same old tried-and-true samurai show, just in a flashy set of hip-hop clothes.
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.
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