I’m something of a love-hater of anime. At its best, it offers the best mix of quality animation, inventive storytelling and general originality you could ask for; but then you get the turkeys, adjective* dialogue and/or narrative and/or adjective** animation. If I had to pick some high and low lights: Akira (+), Vampire Hunter D (-), Ghost in the Shell (+), Ghost in the Shell 2 (-), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (+, series one anyway), Apple Seed (-), and so on, probably for ever… So when approximately like-minded friends told me to watch Samurai Champloo or die unfulfilled, I took their words with a pinch of salt (because they own all three hundred thousand episodes of Dragonball Z for a start). They were, however, in this case, absolutely correct. It’s brilliant.
Start with the opening theme and title sequence – here, start with it here. Samurai Champloo (which latter can be taken to mean “remix”, or possibly “stir-fry”) has a great, sometimes hip-hoppy soundtrack and it looks as good as it sounds. It begins in a typical epic style reminiscent of Yojimbo: two rebellious wanderers separately enter a town under the control of a corrupt governor, his spoilt, violent son and their powerful warriors. Both come to blows with the authorities, demonstrating their superior skill – the first, Mugen, is wild and uncouth; the second, Jin, is more the familiar traditional samurai, cool and taciturn.
They come face to face in a tavern where they recognise each other as more worthy opponents than the rustic troublemakers they have been scrapping with. For Mugen that means an immediate fight to the death, to prove himself the better; for Jin, this is an insult demanding of absolute punishment. They go at it, witnessed by Fuu, who is the final missing piece of the company to come. She is, naturally, that other staple of anime, the jail-baitish girl-woman; specifically, a slapstick-clumsy and tragically unlucky waitress who is first saved from mutilation by Mugen, and then saves both rivals from execution when their duel is interrupted by the burning down of the tavern and their capture by the town governor.
On their escape Jin and Mugen prepare once more to fight to the death or die in the attempt, but in return for their rescue Fuu convinces them to delay the inevitable and join her as bodyguards while she searches for a lost figure who has tormented her memory for many years: a samurai “who smells of sunflowers”, though she proves hazy on any details beyond that unusual one. This is a pretty thin quest on which to base another twenty-five episodes of adventure, a point not lost on either of her companions, but what follows is highly entertaining stuff. Although there is rarely a stable through-line to follow from one episode to the next, they boast a fine mix of action, romance, comedy, horror, the post-modern and the psuedo-historic plus, in the final three-parter, a real edge of the seat finale.
The characters play very well; you feel genuine affection and concern as they progress through slighter challenges and silly victories towards serious conflicts and the frightening, growing possibility that there isn’t going to be a happy ending here at all – I will say no more. It is primarily the work of Shinichirō Watanabe, whose previous “masterpiece” Cowboy Be-Bop I avoided because of the title. More fool me, from the sounds of things, because everything I hear seems to say that Samurai Champloo only might be better. I will certainly be seeking it out on the basis of this.
* substitute nonsensical, boring, pathetically derivative, etc.
** substitute inanimate; you’ve seen the type, a ten minute dialogue scene over the top of a single static image “animated” by panning left to right at a snail’s pace, and if you’re lucky you can see someone’s mouth flick through two cells of open/closed movement to give your eye something to impale itself on…