Champloo, in the Okinawan language, is a kind of stew with everything in the world in it, and who better than to brew up a stew of samurai movies and hip-hop attitude than Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe? Bebop was about space-age technology fused with jazz-age attitude: in another century, Spike could have been a torpedo for the Chicago mob, and Faye Valentine his moll. Champloo takes samurai-movie conventions—elaborate swordfights, matters of honor, quests for vengeance—and adds graffiti and breakdancing and “b-boy” culture, but never in excess and in just the right ways so that what comes out is a blend and not a collision. This is a tough assignment to pull off but somehow they did it, and what came out feels like (to quote Harlan Ellison) an explosion in a fresh-air factory.
If cultural influences don’t mean a thing to you, they don’t have to. Above and beyond the list of ingredients, Champloo is terrific entertainment—funny, fast-moving, great to look at, and compelling enough that when it’s over you want to go back for more. No knowledge of samurai-movie conventions is really needed, but if you’re curious, watch it now and then come back to it later after you’ve checked out Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub, and see if you see things differently. What they are doing here is not mocking or kidding samurai movies (that would be easy, and has been done to death) but taking the standard-issue pieces that most of them use and putting them back together in an unexpected way. (I was going to say remixing, but if you watch the show that term pretty much suggests itself.)
Champloo is basically a road picture set in feudal Japan, involving a mismatched trio who manage to find a convenient group excuse to head across Japan on a quest. The instigator of the quest is Fuu, a ditzy young thing growing sick and tired of dishing out meals to haughty samurai in a local inn. One day two other folks come sauntering in and immediately get into trouble: Mugen, an unkempt roustabout from Okinawa, and Jin, a polished and taciturn ronin. Like the elements in the show itself, they couldn’t be more dissimilar: Mugen is as mercurial and headstrong as Jin is careful and precise. It isn’t long before they are tearing the place apart, slashing at each other, and starting a fire—the last of which gets their necks stuck on the town chopping block.
Fuu manages to intervene—the way she does this gets one of the biggest laughs in the whole show—and the three of them hightail it out of town. As “payment” for saving their lives, Fuu demands they help her out. She’s looking for someone—“a samurai who smells of sunflowers”—and if they can help her find him, they’ll be free to go (and hack each other to pieces). They don’t like the idea, but they like going back and dealing with the authorities even less, and so they hit the road. They squabble, they starve, they get into trouble, they starve some more, and make discoveries about themselves and each other. What they learn helps push the show out of the realm of mere adventure and towards something a little more adult and fascinating.
Most of the dynamics of the show start with Mugen and Jin disliking each other on every possible level—or, rather, Mugen disliking Jin intensely and Jin simply putting up a wall of disaffection to keep the hate out (which only makes Mugen hate him all the more). Fuu acts as a buffer between them, not only giving them a reason to not kill each other but giving them reasons to exist for their own sakes. What Fuu is really looking for, as we find out later, is some sense of self-validation—that yes, she can set out on her own to do this, even if (and maybe because) she has to enlist the help of these two dangerous men to do it. Likewise, Jin and Mugen are looking for some variety of completeness, even if they have no idea how to find it—so, like most of life’s true satisfactions, they have to trip over it and break their noses.
I’ve written before elsewhere that Japan hasn’t been a monoculture for some time—that, in fact, it might not have been one all along. The whole hip-hop element in Champloo, which manifests in everything from Mugen’s breakdance-like fighting moves to the scratch- and beat-heavy soundtrack, is like a way to channel that feeling into the consciousness of a modern-day viewer. The show drips this attitude, but it’s modulated and controlled so it never becomes overbearing. Look closely in some of the shots and you’ll see characters sporting everything from eyebrow rings and piercings to dyed hair and cellphone-strap knick-knacks. The “eyecatch” bumpers between commercials look like everything from graffiti to club flyers.
Because the show works so well on a basic dramatic level, these kinds of throwaway, in-the-corner details work as enhancements instead of distractions. Yes, Jin wears a pair of glasses with designer frames—but that’s a way of telling us in 2006 that he’s cool, while there are still plenty of other things (like his sword style) to tell those in the 1680s that he’s cool. There are other things that the show draws on that are not as modern but every bit as fascinating—at one point Mugen is near death, and in accordance with Okinawan beliefs about death his ancestors stand on one side of him and his descendants on the other. And every now and then the show cuts completely loose and just tickles you in the ribs, as when the trio get roped into a baseball game that manages to accomplish more in fifteen minutes than Battlefield Baseball did in its whole running time.
Samurai Champloo does two of the things I love best in anime. The first is that it can be outwardly absurd and inwardly serious without contradicting itself. One episode can be a broadly comic treatment of a Christian sect in Japan, and the next can be a deadly serious exploration of how Jin came to be a wanderer. Some other shows try this and all we feel is the gears grinding against each other, but it works here because we’ve gotten to know and come to believe in the characters. We take them seriously, and so does the show. The gags throughout Champloo are like the patter used by a stage magician to distract you while he’s switching the cards around under your nose. You laugh, yes, but then you realize what’s really up.
The second thing, which I’ve been talking about all along, really, is how the show takes potentially shopworn material and makes it feel like undiscovered territory. There are any number of other anime about samurai—just as there are any number of anime about giant robots, or girls with quasi-magical powers—but the best ones are never about exactly the same thing because they bring some extra insight to the table. Otogi-zoshi and Shura no Toki, to name two other samurai-themed anime, couldn’t be mistaken for each other any more than Samurai Champloo could be mistaken for (the also-excellent) Hakkenden. They share common material, but not common themes or flavor, and there is literally nothing out there that comes close to how Champloo looks and feels and works.
Any show about the samurai, even one as hybridized as this, would be missing something if it didn’t deal with the deeper meanings of the period it examines. Here we have the end of one way of life and the beginning of another—the not-so-slow death of the world of the samurai and the beginning of the painful Westernization of Japan. The times have left noble duels behind, and instead a swordsman can be shot in the back by a man in a wheelchair. But Champloo is wise enough to see this is only a grim picture for those with something to lose. The ordinary people, the marginalized and the disconnected (like Jin, Fuu and Mugen themselves) who’ve been ground underfoot by the daimyo and Shogunate—in theory, they have everything to gain. If they can keep from strangling each other first, that is.
I have a good friend who is at least as enthusiastic about Japan as I am, and that includes my appreciation for shows like Samurai Champloo. I asked him what might be the best way to compel other people to see it—people, that is, who might never seek out something like this and don’t know what they’re missing. We finally settled on this: Just see it, and if you find it alive and wonderful, then feel free to also see Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Paranoia Agent and Berserk and Azumanga Daioh and all the rest of the best that anime has to offer. Champloo sits right up there with all of them.