Relics of the Past
I have a confession to make.
Despite my overbearing love for all things anime, I must say that I am highly embarrassed to not have been acquainted with Shinichiro Watanabe as much as I should have.
That is not to say that I haven't watched a lot of his shows; quite the contrary. Anime like Lupin the Third (Fujiko Mine) and of course Cowboy Bebop I have consumed aggressively. No, what I mean by this is that I have never fully appreciated this great man's methodology and his remarkable eye for a unique vibe. A pity.
Oh well, now is as good a time as any, I thought to myself before diving deep into the show. Time for an actual critical analysis rather than fawning over the man’s work like the man-child that I usually am.
That went well.
To be fair, I had known much before that I was going to be blown away by the show, purely based on all of the production elements associated with it and how they favour someone musically inclined like I am. Sitting right atop these elements was none other than one of the idols of my life - Jun Seba, known in hip-hop circles as Nujabes.
This man’s music has affected me deeply as a hip-hop head – this man pioneered LoFi aesthetics! Pioneered! His work as a sampling genius and as an all-round producer extraordinaire left me very doubtful - would his work in the one anime he was involved in hold up to the rest of his discography?
Yes, yes it does. Throughout an anime about a country that has utterly lost any sense of identity, from four full centuries ago, Nujabes weaved his magic with some of the best hard hitting Boom-Bap era beats I have ever heard. While amused by the pairing initially, I slowly began to understand as the storyline unfolded, finally gasping at the sheer genius by the end of it all: the odd pairing was absolutely on purpose and fit the underlying theme of the show like a glove.
Throughout the show, we of course have the usual 'Point A-numerous obstacles-Point B' trope that is the staple of every fictional journey, but Samurai Champloo also has a much, much more layered narrative to offer that runs parallel to the plot.
We are shown, in vivid detail, how a Japan fresh out of extended wartime is nothing more than a bunch of provinces bound together by chaos. The law simply isn't equipped enough to deal with the remnants of conflict, such as rogue samurai and militant tribes. Oftentimes, we have the story progressing because of incompetence by the authorities, and a major part of the story, we learn, was the ruling class struggling to deal with rebellions erupting across the nation.
And, because the country hasn't yet decided what lifestyle suits it best, everything about Japan is out of place and inappropriate for that period. All society does is play see-saw between preserving heritage and welcoming the fast-arriving trappings of modernity.
Then you have the cultural imbalance; while the different provinces take pride in their distinctive heritage, there is obviously a massive rift between generations of Japanese. With an influx of foreign influences, the younger folk take to it and even innovate their own styles while the old guard stays wary, as expected of relics of a bygone era. Japan might be in the midst of peacetime in Champloo but its ideologies never ceased to battle.
Watanabe's social commentary isn't just about 1600s Japan; it shows how Japan has forever been a tale of two very different countries, as it is now, in the present too. With all of this left subtly in the background for the viewer to discern, our protagonists Mugen, Fuu and Jin seem little more than afterthoughts during a rewatch of the show. And there couldn't have been a better way to demonstrate this conflict than by regularly switching the high tempo beats with strains of soulful folk music. Nujabes, chapeau.
Of course, a mind-blowing anime isn't necessarily a perfect anime. If I have any complaints at all, and oh boy I had to really nitpick to find any, it's that a lot of the characters and elements feel shoehorned into the storyline towards the end of Champloo.
Another gripe I have is a little immature, and is more borne out of my yearning for this show to return than anything else: almost all of the highly unforgettable minor characters simply did not get the screen time they deserve.
I expected myself to feel a gamut of emotions throughout this show, and believe me, I did. And yet, I'd say that my main takeaway from this piece of art isn't entertainment: it is my perception of generations that aren't my own that has been profoundly changed.
I will never not appreciate a Watanabe production the same way forevermore.
Nine. Being outlined by a cliched voyage-and-return story archetype, the plot somehow succeeded in enthralling me in nearly every single aspect. Nearly.
(Japanese): Nine. The VA in Champloo is superior in the sense that it almost never seems even a bit superficial when trying to convey emotion. Not one bit of dialogue seems crammed in, forced. Virtually all of the exposition is handled pretty brilliantly, managing to not kill any suspense.
(English Dub): Strong Eight. Yep, you heard it here folks. Champloo's dub nearly ran with the VA honours, beaten in the end by the smallest of margins. How? Every character in the last two episodes of the original simply killed it. However, the highlights from both VAs, Kazuya Nakai and Steve Blum's Mugen, was equally fantastic.
Decent Nine. The diverse galaxy of standout roles is what makes this show so goddamn memorable. And it isn't just the main cast, even bit parts appearing for as little as ten minutes of screen time leave considerable impact. If only we had even a brief arc for each of them. Manzou the Saw getting only two episodes was especially criminal, a Speedwagon in the offing.
Decent Eight. There is a fantastic blend of aesthetics on show here, Watanabe's brilliant clash of modern elements of hip hop and 16th century Japan turning out amazing. Buuutt, a lot of this is waived for quite a bit of the runtime, perhaps as an artistic choice. Did it turn out well? Ehh, a little too plain for my liking.
Strong Eight. If ever we have a documentary that goes Studio Manglobe: what could have been, I wouldn't watch a single minute of it. It would be redundant, pointless; Champloo's amazing animation would be enough to tell the tale. It just boggles me, the amount of high budget, lovingly made sequences that were squeezed out of this low-profile company.
Ten. The soundtrack epitomizes Nujabes' work, and then some. Funnily enough, the East Coast hip-hop, LoFi quality is almost overshadowed by how well he utilizes Japan's provincial folk melodies. Music, not just hip-hop, lost a part of itself the day Jun Seba died.
Composite Weighted Score: 9.25
Samurai Champloo is, for all intents and purposes, a modern classic.
Binge-worthy? Gods no. Try stretching this for as long as you can, because when the show ends, you are most definitely getting a hit of melancholy.