I wasn’t originally intending to review Samurai Champloo, but given its reference in my previous review for Michiko to Hatchin, it seemed ideal and somewhat appropriate. Sadly, my review will be based on my lasting impression when this anime series first aired in 2004 to 05, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to provide anything too informative this time around, but I’ll try my best.
I suppose what distinguished Samurai Champloo above all else, and in turn, allowing it to become a classic of sorts, was its seamless integration of action, samurai and slapstick comedy, ostensibly fused to an accompanying hip-hop soundtrack set in the Meiji era of Japan (late 19th century when the samurai era was nearing its end). Samurai Champloo, however, didn’t attempt to depict the era seriously, which is evident from the very beginning. Essentially, the setting is merely an excuse, or more appropriately, a platform to offer a slice of Shinichiro Watanabe‘s, the director who was also responsible for Cowboy Bebop, vision of combining the old with the new, specifically the Meji/Samurai period with street and hip hop culture of today, incorporating everything from rapping, graffiti and breakdancing. And this is what Samurai Champloo is all about, and it does this with effortless style. The dialogue present throughout, for instance, is heavy and nonchalant; every character has a certain casualness or reassurance. Nothing seems misplaced and is perfectly in sync with what the anime series is achieving. Granted, it’s clear that the premise and its ensuing plot-line, which is episodic, is secondary to its characterisation and action. This may be deemed a bad thing for some, but Samurai Champloo evades the usual pitfalls of such an approach. This is supported by the studio responsible, Manglobe, who succeeded in delivering some of the best fight sequences I’ve seen in an anime; fluidly animated and thoroughly dynamic. Each main character had their own distinctive way of moving such as Mugen’s breakdance-inspired fighting style. It was unlike anything I had seen at the time and even now in the present, six years on. The animation and the character design is heavily stylised, using thin, gangly limbs and caricatured faces, while donning attire that’s in keeping with the era.
The main characters themselves were highly likable; playing off each other perfectly. Mugen was the brash vagabond, while Jin was the mild-mannered ronin who conformed to everything you’d expect from a wandering samurai at the end of his era. Lastly, but not least, Fuu is the feisty but cute female that held the former two together, completing the trio. None of them were exactly original, but at the same time, due to the series’ overall style, ended up becoming quite so. Although I never felt truly connected to any of them throughout the series, oddly I don’t think Watanabe really expected any of us to. Sure, we’d come to like them, but the charactersation seemed more intended to appeal on a surface level than anything deep rooted.
For those keen on graphical content, Samurai Champloo ensured that it stayed faithful to its samurai genre, offering plenty of blood, severed body parts, and violent deaths abound, although in account of its cross-genre approach, never stepped the line too much. Also, there is a sexual undertone and/or implication, delicately executed in a mature way, but despite this, I don’t seem to remember any fan-service (which is just as well).
Now, it’s worth mentioning the hip-hop soundtrack. This isn’t mainstream fluff that you’ll find all too frequently today, but a homage to an old school sound of mixing samples from different genres with beats. The collaborative effort produced an ideal backdrop that resulted in becoming a unique signature for the series. This is just one of the many things that made Samurai Champloo so innovatory and unique for its medium; you just wouldn’t get this normally in anime, and admittedly something I would love to see more of. I also liked the quirky transitions from scene to scene, where they’d use a record scratching sound or repeating the dialogue as if in a mix, which was a nice touch (I added this sentence after extracting the screenshots from the first episode for this review). As for the seiyuu, I’m finding it difficult to remember all of them, only Kazuya Nakai who played Mugen… I’ll just say that all of them did a good job as far as I can remember.
I guess the only downfall with Samurai Champloo, which I personally didn’t consider as one, is its simple plot-line, which is exemplified by its episodic format. I can appreciate that many, like myself, would prefer something more concurrent, but in a way, this probably wouldn’t have worked well for what Watanabe was trying to achieve here.
Anyway, I’ve ended up writing a lot more than I had anticipated (an understatement), but I guess once I start going, I don’t usually stop until I’ve thought of everything (which is something of a necessity with a series like this). Unfortunately, I can’t extract any such scene or moment throughout the series that I liked, only what I can remember (which is admittedly only surface level). Still, I consider this a “must see” for any anime fan, if only because it’s one of the most uniquely approached series out there. All the more so for those who have an interest in street and hip hop culture, it should please.