sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society
cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed”
Attitude. Amazing how so much meaning can be soaked up into a single word. When someone says samurai attitude, or hip-hop attitude, you know what they mean. The former is Forty-Seven Ronin and Rising Sun and Shining Steel. The latter is Jump Around Y’All and Up In This Beeyotch and Cash Rules Everything Around Me. The two barely belong in the same sentence, let alone the same show. Well, here they are. Deal.
Samurai Champloo is all about how attitudes collide, how cultures and sensibilities mix and create something new. It is itself a whole great big jumble of things: a road movie, an anti-romantic triangle (most of the main characters can’t stand each other, hilariously so), an experiment in combining past and present aesthetic sensibilities, a period samurai adventure, a comedy, a drama, a stone cold classic. And it gets all the better each time you come back to it — deeper, smarter, and funnier. It’s not just a gimmick showcase.
Watch a DJ at work: he drops the needle seemingly at random, backs up, overlays beats from two records you’d never think to play on top of each other. The same thing happens here right from the first episode, where we start with an execution in progress and then jump back 300 years — er, 24 hours — to see How It All Got Started. And it starts almost like a setup for a joke: These two guys walk into a bar … xfuni=282
Enter Guy Number One: Mugen. Hailing from the wild island of Ryukyu, he lives to fight — not just with his sword, but with a whirling martial-arts style that could be breakdancing or capoeira or maybe both at once. He saunters into a restaurant to feed his belly and ends up crossing swords with a gang of local toughs who run crying to their daddy — and daddy just happens to be the local magistrate.
Enter Guy Number Two: Jin. Taciturn and refined, a rōnin who lets one sword-blow do the work of ten, he walks into the same restaurant and crosses both swords and paths with Mugen. He’s got no patience for the self-important and the arrogant — in fact, earlier in the day, he made mincemeat out of a few nobleman’s men and has earned enough bad karma from them to ensure he’ll end up in as much hot water as Mugen does.
And now bring a third character into the mix: Fuu, the waitress at the shop where they collide. Mugen got her out of a tight spot when some local no-goodniks started feeling her up, and so when he and Jin are rounded up and thrown in the pokey to be beheaded at dawn, she cooks up a plan to break them out there. In return for setting them free, she asks two favors of them: 1) Don’t kill each other, and 2) help her seek out someone important to her — a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.”
Call them the Good, the Bad and the Ditzy. Except that each one of these labels, convenient and outwardly accurate as they might seem, are wrong. Jin’s reserve and upstanding poise may be a cover for a betrayal that reaches all the way back to his roots as a student of the sword. Mugen may flip his nose and act like he doesn’t give a damn, but his buck-wildness conceals depths he doesn’t even sense at first; it takes an earthquake or three for them to become exposed. And Fuu’s no bubblehead: right from the git-go she’s got resourcefulness, tenacity, and a kind of cheerful certainty that everyone in her newly-minted circle of friends will do the right thing (even when they’re mostly musing about how to either ditch her or lop each other’s heads off).
Mugen and Jin do not like each other, and they’re not all that enamored of Fuu either. Small wonder the first thing these two lone swordsmen are able to agree on is that they should go their separate ways as soon as humanly possible. Trouble is, every time they do that, the winds of fate keep blowing them back onto the same road. E.g., when Fuu’s kidnapped and pressed into service at a whorehouse, Mugen and Jin end up serving as bodyguards to rival factions in the same district, and the three of them run, run, run for their lives together once again. Somehow all of this lunacy allows the three of them to grow that much closer together, so that by the time the series draws to a close and they go their separate ways, it’s genuinely poignant and has real weight — it’s not just another stop for the show’s plot bus.
Most everyone who has seen the show has commented on its look-and-feel — the mélange of modern urban-jungle and samurai-era visual tropes, which are gleefully mixed and matched right from the opening credits. An incredible number of talented people had a hand in the show: Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop and so much more), Dai Sato (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), and tsuchie (also of Bebop). A name in the credits which you might not recognize is Masaaki Yuasa, he of the still-incredibly-unreleased-here Mind Game (my vote for the best animated film of the last decade, hands down); his signature super-duper-deformed style can be glimpsed in an episode where the entire cast winds up stoned out of their minds when Mugen fends off a bunch of warrior monks by setting fire to their prized marijuana field.
Most everyone who has seen the show gravitates towards one of the characters as a favorite. With me, it’s Mugen: he’s a walking emblem of the show’s little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that ethic. Mugen even looks “mixed”, with his frizzy near-‘fro (not quite of Afro Samurai proportions, but still striking) and his dusky complexion. The guy’s a force of nature — he swills liquor by the casket, he likes his ladies fiery and hard to tame, he disdains pretense and embraces insane challenges, and he’s the only fighter that’s managed to ruffle the normally unruffled Jin. In a live-action version of this material, he might well have been played by the half-Japanese, half-Brazilian Teah — he of Takashi Miike’s City of Lost Souls (itself a paean to the mixed populations of Tokyo) and Dead or Alive 2.
On seeing Champloo the first time back when Geneon released it Stateside, I was confident it would be one of those shows that would never fall completely out of print. It’s back out on both DVD and Blu-ray, and if you can play BD the BD version is the one to snap up and keep. Not just because it’s that much better-looking than the standard-def version, but because it’s the kind of show that gives the format a workout, splendidly animated and spectacularly colored in most every scene. In fact, the picture quality on Champloo is a notch above Basilisk (my previous contender for just such a show); there’s almost no color banding or other problems that are magnified by a big screen. (Tech digression. I suspect the reason Champloo looks that much better is because the producers applied just a touch of fake film grain to most of the image, which not only provides that much more life and sparkle but acts like a color-dithering filter to reduce banding.)
The extras are pretty good, even if what’s here has been simply ported back in from the standard-definition editions. I loved the gallery of episode eyecatch/bumper images, for instance, although it would have been nice to have things like episode commentaries or interviews with the creators. A show of this caliber deserves to have the stops pulled out with its bonuses. That said, a show like Samurai Champloo is like one of those classic albums where the real annotation is right in the grooves anyway.
So: don’t pass this up. Given the generally tightfisted nature of the anime industry, we’re lucky to see some shows reissued at all. Samurai Champloo is about as essential as it gets for anime from the last decade — and maybe anime as a whole. Having it on Blu-ray is a treasure and a blessing.