The most common context in which one will hear of Samurai Champloo is in comparison with Shinichiro Watanabe’s directorial debut, Cowboy Bebop. “Oh, you like Bebop? Then you’ve got to check out Samurai Champloo: it’s by the same director and it’s just like Bebop!”
This often-heard recommendation constitutes a two-way injustice. It is an injustice to Champloo because it’s nothing like Bebop: it’s a unique work that deserves to be viewed outside of its predecessor’s immense shadow. And it’s an injustice to Bebop because it’s nothing like Champloo: Bebop is undoubtedly superior.
There. I said it.
Samurai Champloo is set in Edo-era (1603-1868) Japan, famous for the Tokugawa shogunate, isolationist foreign policies, breakdancing, beatboxing, and baseball. Wait, what? Yep, pretty much. Champloo’s big draw — its biggest draw, in my opinion — is this anachronistic setting, where modern hip-hop culture is juxtaposed against feudal Japanese culture, creating a messy yet weirdly cool package. You have two samurai fighting different fights, and the transition between these scenes is accompanied by record scratches. You have a guy who fights by breakdancing. You have graffiti scrawled on historical monuments. Don’t go in expecting a historical jidaigeki period drama. What you get is this melange of cultures, nations and time periods. Cool is the word. Yes, Champloo is very cool.
In this aspect, it is pretty much like Bebop: Shinichiro Watanabe taking two seemingly unrelated things and mashing them together. In Bebop’s case, it was space operas and jazz. In Champloo’s case, it’s samurai and hip-hop, along with aspects of Okinawan culture. And just like Bebop, the soundtrack is of the highest calibre. This was the soundtrack that made late hip-hop producer Nujabes famous not only in anime circles, but among serious hip-hop artists as well. When I was told that it had a hip-hop soundtrack, I went in expecting the usual grungy hardcore rap. What I did not expect was this smooth, synth-and-bass heavy old school hip-hop. Nice. Again, super cool.
Then you have the story and characters. If that made it sound like something of an afterthought, it’s because that’s how it feels. Champloo focuses on the journey of three people on a quest to find the “sunflower samurai”: the samurai Mugen and Jin, and their ‘employer’ of sorts, Fuu.
Mugen is a foulmouthed, scruffy street urchin...with wicked sword skills. He is far and away the star of the show. He is completely off in the head, with a singleminded focus on fighting. You don’t even have to touch him. Just stand in his line of vision and he’ll walk up to you like, “eh, you pickin’ a fight with me? Huh??!” He never operates below 100%, providing a much-needed injection of energy to the show. He’s great in Japanese, but Steve Blum pours so much personality into his character in the dub. He can get one-dimensional at times, but rarely is he dull. I love his character design: rugged, full of knobbly bits, and looking perpetually malnourished.
Then you have Jin, the stoic ronin with a heavy past. He is the definition of dull. Of course, part of this is by design, and even the characters (especially Mugen) call him out on it from time to time. But he doesn’t really progress beyond this. You’d expect such a character to be the “speak little, do much” type, but he doesn’t do much either. And unlike Mugen, you can only tolerate this act for so long. Even the subplots featuring his backstory are not great. His character needed more attention. Should have focused on the more engaging aspects of his, such as his prudishness and arrogance, and play them up. He might work fine in a normal anime, but alongside someone as charismatic as Mugen, he needed to give more. He doesn’t work as a foil.
Lastly, there’s Fuu: a bartender who runs away from home on a quest to find the “samurai who smells of sunflowers”, and presses these two swordsmen to follow her as well. She is technically the protagonist, and as a character she’s fine. You will get tired of how many times she gets in trouble and needs rescuing (damsels in distress are so 20th century), but she makes up for that by being spirited and full of personality, especially in the dub. She is often the biggest source of laughs in the series. The episode where she nearly wins an eating contest, beating men far larger than her (including Mugen and Jin), was memorable.
She is also the one driving the ‘plot’ ahead; it was her idea to look for Mr. Sunflower, after all. But this plot is quite barebones, and takes a backseat to the episodic subplots. This by itself is not bad. Bebop, after all, has little overarching plot (even less than Champloo), but makes up for it with interesting episodic subplots and fleshed-out character arcs. Unfortunately, Champloo is consistently inconsistent in this aspect. Not all of the mini-arcs are good. Some are quite boring. Others take the weirdness of the setting to ridiculous extremes (flying ninjas, anyone?). The good episodes are very good, great in fact, but the more mediocre episodes detract from this.
Plus, these mediocre episodes aren’t evenly scattered across the series, but rather occur in chunks. These feel like filler arcs. And if you’ve watched any long-running shonen (hello, Bleach), you will realise how infuriating this can be.
This would’ve been fine if there was enough character development, with nice, meaty character arcs. But that’s not there either. Episodes have a typical structure: the three go to a town, get separated, get up to some crazy shenanigans, Fuu gets into trouble, Mugen and Jin save her, and they say goodbye to the friends they made along the way. It gets into this rut early on and settles there. Some episodes should’ve broken up the formula, for variety’s sake, and also to focus on individual characters. Yes, Mugen and Jin do run into people from their past from time to time (especially Jin), but this was not enough.
Despite this run of negative paragraphs, I am mostly positive about Samurai Champloo. I love the aesthetic and the soundtrack, and the dub is superb. It is a good anime. It just needed a few tweaks to take it from good to great. And that’s what’s disappointing.
Art: A. The art does show its age, especially when characters lose detail at distances, but it’s still very good art. The environments are suitably dated for the period, providing a nice visual culture clash when the more modern elements make their appearance. The character designs are top-tier. They are full of rough edges, which suits the type of story being told. Mugen looks especially convincing as a street thug.
Animation: B+. On the other hand, the animation can get a bit choppy at times, with low framerate. Action scenes are really smooth though, and the amount of character mouth movement is more than you’d expect, bringing them to life well.
Music: A+. I could get lost in this dreamy old-school hip-hop. Champloo proves that classical, rock, and electronic are not the only genres in which great soundtracks can be made. Incredible work, Nujabes. Rest in peace.
Voice acting (Japanese): B+. The Japanese voice track is as competent as you’d expect. However, I found Fuu’s voice in Japanese a bit annoying at times.
Voice acting (English): A. Excellent voice acting, especially from the legend Steve Blum, who really immerses himself into Mugen. Fuu is also portrayed really well here by Kari Wahlgren: bubbly and full of life. Jin suffers a bit — he is better in Japanese — but he is typically so quiet that this doesn’t detract much. The side characters are a mixed bag though. The old man who pronounces shogi as "shoji": yikes. Damn Americans.
Story: C+. Three radically different wanderers form an unlikely team on a quest to find the sunflower samurai. Without the occasional reminder that this quest exists, you’d forget that it was even there. This makes the final three episode arc that addresses this plot a little underwhelming.
Characters: B. Mugen is great, Fuu is good, Jin is dull. Some side characters are hilarious. But the main trio grows little over the course of the series. 26 episodes was enough time to see more character development than what we got.
I like Samurai Champloo. It’s uber-cool and fun to watch. But it peaks quite early, and the not-so-good episodes make it a drag to watch. In fact, I’d have given it an A if it weren’t for these below-average episodes. They drag it down. If you’re ten minutes into an episode and not really feeling it, feel free to skip it and move on. The episodic nature of the series and the nearly nonexistent plot means that you won’t miss much. The ones you enjoy, you’ll enjoy a lot, so you can stick to just those. Champloo is a memorable experience, if nothing else, and most people enjoyed it far more than I did, so take this review with some salt.