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Watanabe Mixes It Up (Again) In "Samurai Champloo"

by on April 10, 2005

Champloo is an Okinawan word meaning “to mix up,” and that’s exactly what Geneon’s Samurai Champloo does, mixing wildly disparate styles into a swirling stew of influences. The most obvious of these combinations is that of feudal Japan and hip-hop. The latter isn’t just present in the background or the music, but in the attitude and language of the characters as well. We find anachronistic phrases, mannerisms and clothing articles peppered throughout the disk (and presumably, the entire series).

The “mixing” philosophy also applies to the main characters. We’ve got Mugen, a not-to-bright street punk whose sword fighting technique is best described as fluid and chaotic, Jin, a disciplined and deliberate swordsman with a mysterious past, Fuu, a bubbly young woman who knows how to get what she wants, and a flying squirrel that lives in her kimono.

Fuu helps Mugen and Jin escape an execution, and in exchange enlists their help in finding a samurai “who smells of sunflowers.” Along their way they manage to piss off a few important people and to kill even more people. To make matters worse, Mugen and Jin are constantly at each other’s throats in a standing duel to see “who’s stronger.”

Director Shinichiro Watanabe, of Cowboy Bebop fame, takes this group of misfits, mashes them together, sends them on a journey with very little money or food and takes us along for the ride. Watanabe’s creativity extends even to scene cuts and flashbacks, as in the first few seconds of episode one, where he quite literally rewinds from present-day Japan to the nineteenth century. The animation flows and fits the action appropriately, and the earthy colors are appropriate to the time frame, even if very little else is.

The voice acting is sufficient. Mugen sounds like a streetwise smart-ass, Jin has that calm demeanor about him, and Fuu is chirpy without crossing into annoying territory. My only real gripe is that Mugen sounds exactly like Spike Spiegel. In the first episode there’s an effort to sound younger (think a mix between Spike and Jaime from Megas), but after that there’s no discernable difference.

The disk contains four episodes: “Tempestuous Temperaments,” “Redeye Reprisal,” and “Hellhounds for Hire Parts 1 & 2.” Extras include a Promo video using the theme song “Battlecry,” a Japanese teaser trailer, and Geneon Trailers. It’s pretty barebones. There is also a soundtrack available, but many of the tracks last too long and don’t sound good removed from the animation.

Champloo works for a lot of the same reasons its spiritual predecessor, Cowboy Bebop, did. Under Watanabe’s direction, both these series saw an infusion of a new culture breathe life into an old genre. With Bebop it was jazz/martial arts and science fiction, here it’s hip-hop and samurai drama. And Watanabe, by virtue of the cool oozing from his every orifice, makes it work. Check it out.

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