Watanabe ShinichirÃ´, (dir.) Samurai Champloo, subtitled by AnimeForever, 7/10
Watanabe ShinichirÃ´’s new series follows the precedent set by his earlier series, Cowboy Bebop, building a style by merging a historical period with an incongruous musical style. In Bebop, it was the far future and jazz. In Samurai Champloo it’s the Edo period and hip-hop. While Watanabe’s storytelling skills have improved since Bebop, Champloo is still thinly plotted. The pleasure to be had from watching it comes from its technical polish, the novelty of its stylistic premise, and from seeing its intriguing characters participate in strange episodic vignettes.
Champloo follows a motley trio of protagonists. Jin, an undefeatable samurai, and Mugen, a bloodthirsty criminal, meet in a teashop brawl. While they vow to kill each other, Fuu, a serving-girl who saves them from death in the burning shop, makes them promise that they will both go with her on a journey to find the “himawari no samurai” (samurai who smells like sunflowers). While that’s about as deep as the story gets, viewers find out a few details about the trio’s past as they progress through the 26 episodes.
Champloo, like Bebop, doesn’t have an underlying message. It deals with themes of love and betrayal, but not in any detail. Champloo is about style, not substance, and whatever depth it has comes through its characters. Here, they’re drawn more sketchily than even Bebop’s Spike, Jet, and Faye. Because of this, Fuu, Mugen, and Jin all have a charming sense of mystery about them. It is, then, a touching surprise to see Jin fall in love with a woman who’s just been sold to a brothel by her gambling husband, because it’s one of the few times we get to see behind his usual mask of reserve.
Champloo‘s soundtrack is another source of its charm. I’m no hip-hop connoisseur, but the OST by Tsutchie, Nujabes and Fat Jon works extremely well, especially in combat and other high-tension scenes. The opening theme, “Battlecry,” is extremely grating, but the fabulous song “Shiki no uta” (song of the four seasons) playing over the end credits more than makes up for it. Charming, too, are some of the settings for the episodes, such as a village hit by a graffiti craze, a baseball match against Americans to decide the fate of Japan, and a tour of Edo with a homosexual Dutchman. The joy of these particular episodes is that, like the mix of samurai and hip-hop, they play with anachronisms.
The presentation here is pure class, and Watanabe demonstrates that his skill at storytelling is growing. To score more points with me, though, he needs to plan ahead and weave his episodes into a coherent story arc with clear direction and climaxes. This is true of anime in general: given that most series are 13 or 26 episodes long, it’s a shame that their creators don’t use that expected length to tell a story across the whole instead of within each episode. Unsatisfying storytelling aside, Samurai Champloo is one of the most compelling anime series I’ve seen recently, and it’s an improvement over Cowboy Bebop, which was a strong base to start from.