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"Samurai Champloo": Can’t Stop the Beat

by on August 12, 2009

Samurai Champloo is the esteemed “spiritual successor” to Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe’s first show. It is in every way worthy of this title. It’s rare to find a show so perfectly crafted: magnificently choreographed fight scenes, detailed to an almost ridiculous extreme; character designs that are neither hard to recognize nor overly flashy; superbly realized characters; and, of course, some kick-ass music. I realize I’m gushing and, for once, see no need to stop. This is an excellent show.

The plot synopsis will be instantly familiar to any fan of fantasy. Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are three completely different people whose lives are forcibly intertwined in a situation involving the government, dumplings, and lots of sword-fighting. The wild-eyed Mugen and the stoic, professional Jin are two male samurai, wandering Japan for reasons that I can’t reveal without spoiling some major plot points. They agree to accompany the young heroine Fuu (who, in a rare twist, is a completely helpless figure) on her quest to find the mysterious “Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers”. Although this is the driving force behind the show, it really just sets the stage for a series of loosely related vignettes where the characters fight evil, hunt for food, and suffer angst about their troubled pasts, often all at the same time.

The show’s three main characters are very interesting figures, and one must give Watanabe credit; they are very different creations from the Bebop’s diverse crew. Mugen himself is quickly set up as an anti-hero; in his first appearance we see him beat a pair of thugs to death and cheerily break their leader’s fingers one at a time. These violent tendencies recur throughout the series, and are surprisingly unclouded by philosophy or justification; it’s made pretty obvious that Mugen simply enjoys fighting. While his motivations and feelings become increasingly complicated as the show goes on, he remains refreshingly straightforward. Fuu is, as mentioned before, a completely normal human with no supernatural powers or godly sword-skills, but her sincere personality and snarky one-liners more than make up for it. Jin is an archetypical loner that would be clichéd and annoying in another show, with another cast. Here, though, his personality bounces brilliantly off those of his team-mates. The interactions between these three characters is the lynchpin of the show, but the same detailed treatment is given to almost every character that appears, even one-shots.

The show’s score utilizes hip-hop in the same way that Bebop utilized jazz. Though at first it’s a bit jarring to see hip-hop in the Edo period, it quickly becomes something of a recurring joke (a notice before the first episode ruefully acknowledges that the show is not “historically accurate”). And the actual in-show music always seems appropriate to the events at hand. The fight scenes are superbly choreographed, often seeming more like intricate dances (as the best samurai fight scenes will), with each character fighting in a manner that suits their personality (Mugen’s break-dancing style is particularly memorable). The show also does a surprisingly decent job at balancing comedy and drama, always a hard hump to cross. While occasional scenes may rankle a bit, there is for the most part never a bit of inconsistency, even when comedic/dramatic episodes are placed back to back, because of how well the characters remain themselves.

Outside of the fight scenes, there is no especially impressive animation, but the colors are nice and the setting (despite being a real place in history) is presented alluringly. The overall goal—to find the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers—leads to the unexpected inclusion of a theme that is handled with the utmost maturity.

This is generally where I would turn to discuss the show’s flaws, but really, there’s not much I can think of to say. The box set itself comes with several interviews with the crew (located, oddly, on the inside of the DVD cases). The show can be viewed in either Japanese or English; both versions are terrific, and the dub gets kudos for translating the shows songs into English with relative ease. What else can I say, folks? This is a must-buy.

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