Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe
Studio: Manglobe, Inc.
Number of Episodes: 26
Licensed? Yes (Geneon, future uncertain)
Created by legendary Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, Samurai Champloo is a samurai action-adventure with a twist. The story, infused with many modern hip-hop elements (both musically and thematically), follows the adventures of the displaced waitress Fuu, the wild swordsman Mugen, and the mellow ronin Jin. The two swordsmen are indebted to Fuu, and so are helping her to find a mysterious "Samurai who smells of sunflowers." Throughout their travels they run into strange situations, and Mugen and Jin--who typically do not get along with each other--are forced to fight for the safety of Fuu.
This 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 cliché, 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 ‘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 that — 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.
The animation is definitely one of the best parts of the show. The characters and backgrounds are all very stylishly drawn, with a lot of attention to detail and tone. This comes across best in episodes 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 "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.
The 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. Champloo has 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.
Champloo primarily deals with three characters: Fuu, a girl out on a quest to find the "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 "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 "bad guys". These bad guys range from the overtly silly “Christian” priest—a sort of evil Don Quixote—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 "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.
This is one of those shows where if someone asks you "What is 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, "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 development—this is the same old tried-and-true samurai show, just in a flashy set of hip-hop clothes.