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Lightning Doesn’t Quite Strike Twice for "Samurai Champloo" Vol. 3

by on October 29, 2005

It’s tough to craft a follow-up to a masterpiece.

When an artist has created something successful and beloved, pressures are high to meet or exceed it on the second go-round, and sometimes expectations can be set unreasonably high. Like Orson Welles post-Citizen Kane, or Nirvana after recording Nevermind, all eyes were on the creators of popular fan favorite Cowboy Bebop to see what they’d do next. Unfortunately, while the follow-up series Samurai Champloo is entertaining enough on its own merits, it fails to live up the standard set by Cowboy Bebop, and feels oddly hollow.

Okay, so maybe it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Cowboy Bebop (cool as it was) was no Citizen Kane, and much of its creative team has moved on to projects other than Samurai Champloo. But with Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe back at the helm for this series, and a similar sense of style, many Bebop fans were probably looking to Champloo for an equally endearing show. They won’t get it, but those who are willing to lower their expectations just a bit might still have a lot of fun.

Samurai Champloo follows two samurai, Mugen and Jin, and their whiny tagalong lady friend Fuu as they journey to Nagasaki in search of a mysterious samurai. Although this plot will acquire more importance as the series wears on, in this volume it’s little more than a setup for a series of largely unrelated stories that follow Mugen, Jin and Fuu’s adventures while on their journey.

This disc’s episodes feature the team’s various members attempting to cross a checkpoint and encountering love and loss with an abused prostitute. There’s also a clip show which sports some original animation and lines but is mainly recycled material.

Samurai Champloo‘s greatest, and perhaps only, strength is its sense of style. The blending of classic samurai swordplay with modern, hip-hop direction and music is occasionally jarring but works very well for the most part. The character designs are unique and effective, and the action scenes are well-choreographed and consistently exciting. At least two of the disc’s episodes showcase an excellent sense of atmosphere. Though it’s supported by a strong dub and occasionally amusing humor, this sense of style is the bulk of Samurai Champloo‘s appeal.

Unfortunately, there’s little substance to back it up, and that’s ultimately where Samurai Champloo disappoints. The characters aren’t terribly likeable, and they occupy cliché roles, such as “stoic badass” or “deceptively dangerous slacker” without ever really expanding beyond them. This is why the disc’s two character-based episodes, which should be dark and compelling, don’t quite manage the notes of tragedy that they strive to achieve. When the show’s paper-thin characters are pushed to their limits, their stretch marks begin to show, and the resultant stories suffer from dramatic whiplash.

Samurai Champloo‘s quest structure is also a problem, leading to a certain sense of repetition and aimlessness. This drawback is illustrated to perfection by the clip show, which leads one to realize just how glacial the pacing is and just how underwhelming and predictable the episodic structure can be. Fuu is kidnapped or threatened with a frequency that would put Lois Lane to shame, and such things can be compelling for only so long.

This is not to condemn Samurai Champloo entirely. It’s still solidly entertaining, and those looking for knockdown, balls-to-the-wall swordplay with a dash of hip-hop won’t be disappointed. Genre fans will no doubt be pleased. But Champloo‘s fundamental flaws keep it from being the instant classic that’s clearly lurking somewhere in there, leaving it as little more than one of those “it’s cool, if you’re into that sort of thing” shows. Solid, but not essential.

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