Apr 21, 2010
META_BODY (All reviews)
"Samurai Champloo" may not have the same ring to it as "Cowboy Bebop," yet it is a title that has a similar function: to illustrate a combination of multicultural pulp fiction sensibility. Where Cowboy Bebop was a past + future fusion of jazz, rock, and blues, spaghetti western, kung fu, and noir cinema genres, and a setting equating outer space to the great frontier, Samurai Champloo is a more wildly anachronistic mélange of Edo-period history and contemporary hip-hop and bohemian culture. "Champloo" itself comes from the word "chanpurū," Okinawan for "something mixed," and a source of Okinawa's pride in multicultural acceptance. Cowboy Bebop was a trend-setting marriage of anime traditions and Tarantino-inspired cultural hodgepodge — it could be said that Pulp Fiction influenced Cowboy Bebop as much as Cowboy Bebop influenced Kill Bill — and Samurai Champloo continues in this meta style, taking it even further.

Of course, Cowboy Bebop was not Shinichiro Watanabe's first foray into resonant crossover in anime: Macross Plus was a monolithic amalgamation of Top Gun's hot-headed romantic drama and sci-fi tropes including a pop-idol hologram version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL, in turn influencing the famous cyberpunk writer William Gibson to write Idoru, a novel about a Japanese virtual idol and her marriage to a real-life rock star. Of course, all of this was before the invention of the Vocaloid, though I suppose the future imagined by Watanabe and Gibson was, in a way, not so far off.

Anyhow, now that I've finished my little history lesson — which I feel is relevant, as having such a perspective may deepen your enjoyment of Samurai Champloo as much as it did for me — let's continue on to the review. In light of all the prescient futurism found in Watanabe's other works, it's rather interesting that he decided to shift his focus to the past and present. Of course, the world's future is always in its past... and what we have here is, in a nutshell, Edo-period Japan: the remix. Baseball, tagging/graffiti, Van Gogh, zombies, and Catholicism are tossed into the "chanpurū" with a whole lot of revised Japanese pseudo-history. As such the medley of influences and tangential tale-spinning occasionally smacks of filler, but one would do well to understand that this show is simply all /about/ the filler — and this is all for the better, because Samurai Champloo is at its freshest and most hilarious when it's veering off the rails. It even has the single most entertaining recap episode I've ever seen. Even with all this episodic improv, Fuu's journey in search of a "samurai who smells like sunflowers" provides a compelling core to the story, much like a steady hip-hop beat giving structure to the mix of samples and freestyle verses. Her ronin traveling companions Mugen and Jin mingle like oil and water, and there we have the perfect cast for hilarity and drama.

Samurai Champloo is one good-looking show, with its thick linework giving an impression of manga blended with graffiti style. One episode even takes a quick trip into the psychedelic, with a sudden burst of colorful hallucination, Mind Game style — courtesy of episode key animator Masaaki Yuasa, of course. A wide variety of such notable animators were brought on board and thus the style occasionally varies slightly from episode to episode or even scene to scene, but it's always pleasing and completely in tune with the show's theme. Rural Japan has never looked so urban; almost any given scene in Samurai Champloo would be right at home spray-painted on the side of a city building or underpass.

The music, likewise, blends hip-hop, rhythm & blues, and traditional Japanese shamisen. Music often plays second fiddle to the look and quality of the animation when it comes to my enjoyment of anime, but in some cases it becomes just as important. This is one such anime, where the music contributes so greatly to the feel of it that it defines it and sets it apart from other anime — much like the soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts did for Cowboy Bebop. It's also worth mentioning that rap and beatboxing sometimes enter the dialogue, and it's always amusing. Admittedly, most younger people these days are far more familiar with hip-hop than they are with the jazz, blues, and big band genres; nonetheless, in the realm of anime this feels a bit groundbreaking, especially with the theme songs featuring Japanese rap lyrics. The world is getting bigger and smaller every day.

Samurai Champloo is a show for everyone. Plenty of great sword-slashing action, clever comedy, and a good share of moments that will tug at your heartstrings — often all at once. If you enjoy anime, this is one you can't miss.