In a deadly brawl, Fuu meets two fighers – Mugen and Jin – who have incredible skills with the sword. Mugen is an unruly wanderer from Ryukyu who lives by his isntinct rather than his intellect. Jin is a disciplined former student of the Mujuushin school of swordplay, and carries himself with a calm, controlled demeanor. They are polar opposites, but Fuu enlists them to help her find a samurai who smells like sunflowers. Along the way, they get caught up in government intrigue, assassins, bad mushrooms, and everything in between.
If you’re familiar with Watanabe Shinichiro, you probably know about his “storytelling” methods. Samurai Champloo does have a central narrative, but the episodes don’t really link together. We get a sequence of events that probably aren’t in chronological order, and they each tell a different story. Some are more interesting than others, although only the later ones really hit hard.
The first episode is promising enough, but the subsequent ones are driven more by style and expectation rather than the actual events contained within. This is a major weakness of the series because it boils down to little more than a bunch of creatively done action sequences. Watanabe doesn’t really draw the viewer in with that one episode that really lets you know what the show is about. All the great anime series have it, including Cowboy Bebop, the predecessor to this show.
Samurai Champloo could stand on its own through the merit of its style and creativity, combining the disparate genres of samurai and hip-hop, but there simply isn’t enough substance to warrant true interest until the conclusion. Everything culminates in the last few episodes, and the continuous energy and plot advancement make for a very memorable ending. But the buildup is weak, a bit too weak, to warrant much investment in the grand finale.
Fuu, Mugen, and Jin are the central trio of this show. Fuu is a young girl who seeks a samurai who smells like sunflowers, and is willing to travel all across Japan to find him. She has a strong sense of morality and compassion, which sometimes feels a bit artificial. No real person could possibly be as compassionate and sympathetic as she is. You could almost say she’s one-dimensionally kind.
Mugen is a ruffian, but eventually grows to care about Fuu and her journey. He doesn’t have an understanding of the world around him, nor does he really care. All that matters to him is fighting – when he comes across someone strong, his one urge is to defeat that person in battle. His unique style mixes break dancing and swordplay, which is really awesome to see. As a character, he sometimes loses his edge because, well, we don’t get the sense that he wants to be in the series. It’s a strange thing to say about an anime character, but there are times when you really do wonder why Watanabe bothered to write him in at all.
Jin is similarly detached, although he is propelled by his own morality rather than his instincts. He can seem cold sometimes, and it’s difficult to see if he develops throughout the series. What gives Mugen and Jin life is their interactions with each other. Frequently, Watanabe shows us how they deal with a situation individually and as a pair. This is where we learn the most about the two – their characters are complimentary to each other. It’s an interesting mechanic that works well for this show, and should be used more in anime.
Watanabe has never skimped on the animation, and Samurai Champloo continues his habit of merging unorthodox styles into one. Everything from the character design (note how Fuu’s dagger is decorated like a cell phone) to the music and fighting reminds you that hip-hop and feudal Japan can indeed fit together. His sense of humor comes out through visuals as well, and there are a lot of sight gags in the baseball episode.
The music is similarly infused with the feudal/hip-hop fusion. Unfortunately, this leads to one of the worst opening sequences I’ve ever seen: utterly dry lyrics and a flat beat do not make for an absorbing introduction. Aside from some inconsistent character art, the production values are solid.