Samurai Fiction, Remixed
Make room for the newest contender for 2005's best show--Samurai Champloo!
"This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we care. Now shut up and enjoy the show."
With that announcement, Samurai Champloo begins with the unique and bold style that we have come to expect from director Shinichiro Watanabe. Cowboy Bebop stands as an essential, must-have series, and we should expect no less from Watanabe's newest creation.
The plot itself is simple. Fuu is your ordinary waitress in a teahouse, which burns down during a battle between Mugen, a wild warrior, and Jin, a wandering ronin. Both men are determined to be the best, so finding another warrior with the same level of drive and skill is an irresistible opportunity, fire or no fire. The men end up in prison for the death of the son of an official in the teahouse fire. Fuu makes them promise to help her to find a samurai who smells of sunflowers in exchange for helping them escape from jail. Once free, they begin their journey. However, Mugen and Jin still consider their fight unfinished, so Fuu constantly finds herself breaking up their skirmishes.
The true draw of Samurai Champloo is the fights and the highly stylized flow of the anime, filled with urban imagery. Mugen and Jin's movements in battle are reminiscent of live-action fights, but in particular, break-dance showdowns, with their emphasis on fluid, kinetic motion and aggressive display. The background music is intense, adding to the scene. Scene changes bounce alongside the sound of a scratching record, giving the feeling that each episode is being cut from a larger source material. Even if you are not a fan of rap music, this anime will draw you in.
The art style is reminiscent of anime-inspired characters found in US rap and urban clothing, with samurai who wear tracksuits and have frosted bangs. Yet there is a Cowboy Bebop feel to the faces and bodies, making them feel oddly familiar yet still very exotic. As you can guess from the disclaimer, historical correctness is thrown out the window to fashion a trendy world of bright colors with modern touches, such as a moving crab sign in front of a restaurant. Style definitely takes precedent over substance in Samurai Champloo.
Another attraction is the characters. Mugen is not a nice man at all. He swears, takes off without notice, and is blind to everything except his goal, to the point of killing men without a second thought. He does have a sense of loyalty, but it's more of a relapse of conscience than anything else. Jin may have a sense of obligation as per his role as a ronin, but he is almost clinically detached from the world. As one opponent mocks Jin in a duel, the real world is not like the dojo. Things are different outside. Fuu plays the naive girl well, assisted by her pet flying squirrel, Momo-san, but she has enough unique personal qualities that she does not blend into the stereotype. She is compassionate and talkative, but she keeps her own past and purpose for seeking the sunflower samurai to herself. Like Cowboy Bebop's Faye, Fuu is an enigma, and we don't mind at all.
The set-up plot may be almost too simplistic, yet the episode stories are quite detailed. The second episode features the motif of the firefly, an insect that lives and shines for only one night. This mirrors the situation of the poisoned Mugen, and that of Jin, who fights a duel with an assassin. Yet the firefly is also a symbol of childhood innocence and of beauty in passing, as seen in the interactions between Fuu and her severely deformed captor. A firefly lands on his upraised finger as he lies dying, illuminating Fuu, the only person who was not afraid of him, flying away as he dies.
In many ways, Samurai Champloo is a reply to the adaptation of asian films by rap artists as an inspiration. The strings between the hip-hop community and asian films go back to the kung-fu film boom of the 70's, with the thug culture finding inspiration in the system of loyalty and in having an appointed place in society that is found in the yakuza and in martial arts in general. There is also the theme of money as desirable (the attraction of bling-bling), yet rich people are corrupt, and therefore, they are in need of rightous punishment. This attraction can be more clearly seen in more recent films, such as Ghost Dog and Kill Bill. Now Samurai Champloo shows how the reverse is also true: Japanese artists are finding inspiration in US rap and hip-hop. Combining these two seemingly different traditions, Watanabe has fashioned a masterpiece of anime that once seen, it is hard to imagine that this has never been done before.
Samurai Champloo comes tailor-made for newcomers who want to see the latest in anime, and for veterans who are more than ready for another beautiful and epic story from Watanabe. Come on in, sit back and watch this urban-inspired samurai fiction unfold!