Even people who don’t watch anime may recognize the name Shinichiro Watanabe, if only to immediately ask, “Shinichia-who?” Still, it tickles some fleeting memory they can almost grasp, something familiar that doesn’t quite spring to mind… at least, until Cowboy Bebop is mentioned. Then the light bulb sparks to life, because after all, even non-fans all seem to know someone, somewhere, who has regaled them with oh-my-god-it-is-cool stories of the intrepid crew of the Bebop. Because Cowboy Bebop was just that good, after all.
That dedicated fan base here in the States spent a nail-chewing few years waiting for the next big thing to come skipping off director Shinichiro Watanabe’s desk, and when the first buzz broke concerning his follow up series, Samurai Champloo, some were surprised at the news that the show would be set in Japan’s Tokugawa era. No one knew what to expect – how would one go about shifting gears from a gritty future to a bygone time? Simple, really: you take the same ingredients, shake, and see what rolls out.
Cowboy Bebop intertwined smooth jazz rhythms with hardboiled futuristic action, and added a depth of character seldom seen in any show, much less (far less often, tragically) in anime. Despite the glaring differences, Samurai Champloo takes a surprisingly similar approach. In the same way that Bebop used jazz, this newer series uses hip hop – even, in fact, again in the name. ‘Champloo’ is apparently Okinawan slang used to refer to mixing, as in music, as in hip hop. Old school rhythms for an old school age – hell, it’s what the Wu Tang Clan’s been doing for years. And Shinichiro Watanabe applies just enough of the same touches to make this new, wildly different show seem familiar and homey to dedicated Bebop fans, and yet different enough to avoid any obvious comparison. This is a bonus; after all, for many people, nothing could live up to Bebop. Watanabe doesn’t even try. I suspect that his next effort may involve a similar blend of music and story, as it seems to be a favored theme, but hey, we all have our obsessions. He’s managed to create two completely different shows here that will appeal to the same fan base without disappointing the rabid devotees of Bebop, to which I say kudos.
The show revolves around three disparate characters. Two, Jin and Mugen, are both samurai, though very different in style, attitude, and approach. The first is a bespectacled ronin, well-mannered, highly trained, and now fiercely independent. The second is hell-on-geta with a big sword, a free spirit who answers to nobody and nothing… except maybe his hunger. The third, the bubble-headed driving force behind most of their (mis)adventures is Fuu, a barmaid who undertakes a stunningly unimpressive rescue of Jin and Mugen when they are captured following a fight. Fuu, y’see, wants an escort for a quest… and if she can keep these two from killing one another, they may be just the two guys to see her across Japan.
And it just seems fitting for the nutty Fuu that her driving goal is to find “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.” As random as this sounds, when the line is delivered in her girly, insistent tones, it just seemed to make sense. Yep, samurai, smells like sunflowers, sure, that’s plenty epic. We’ll do that and then set out for the Holy Grail, back in time for dinner. I can’t explain it any better than that; watch the show. Yes, it sounds silly. Yes, it does manage to move the trio down the road. I don’t know how it happened. I suspect magic might have been involved somewhere, or maybe the DVD was dusted with a little PCP. I don’t question these things.
It seems pretty straightforward when capsulized like this, but any resemblance to a typical story involving samurai ends as the first episode unfolds. Though the setting, both physical and political, evokes the era in which the show supposedly takes place, the series is rife with anachronisms that seem straight out of last week’s episode of some-random-show-that-ain’t-a-video on MTV. And while you notice it, the anachronisms aren’t always as obvious as they seem. Mugen, the wilder of the two samurai (who does look something like Spike from Cowboy Bebop, and also features the same voice actor in the English language tracks) is wearing what appears to be a fairly traditional outfit… except the pants are whacked off too short, the clothes are too big, the shirt hangs loose, until the whole thing becomes something that would go unremarked on any basketball court in America. Another shining example comes in the son of the local magistrate (who serves as the first episode’s smarmy villain), who has bleached hair and what could be either a mole or an earring around his left eyebrow. I couldn’t ever decide, which made it even more suitable.
The modern touches, except for the language (which is pretty in-your-face), are all done with that smirking air that leaves the viewer wondering if they’re not imagining things. You know that the magistrate’s son looks like he’s wearing the Kung Fu line by Adidas (no, that doesn’t exist… I think), but it’s the kind of thing you pause and study whilst tipping your head this way and that and elbowing your significant other as you ask if they’re seeing what you’re seeing. It’s clever, and it keeps the show interesting (not that it needed the help).
As should be expected of this team, the action scenes are crisp, beautiful… and incredibly violent. I’m not sure this show’s going to appear on Cartoon Network like so many other popular series, simply due to the extreme levels of violence. It would be kind of like airing Kill Bill uncut on ABC, and I don’t see that happening. If you like action films, but aren’t too into anime, I’d still recommend this for the sheer beauty of the fight scenes. Bebop had amazing space battles, and Samurai Champloo manages to top even that with its flowing swordfights. Every character, even minor ‘red shirts,’ seems to have a distinct fighting style that is clearly animated in such a way that even a martial arts idiot (like myself) can recognize that there is a theme to their actions, a rhythm to their movements. It’s beautiful to see.
And the music is, of course, spectacular. I don’t think Watanabe will ever be able to make anything again in which the music is not heavily scrutinized, as that was part of Bebop’s particular genius. Here, the music is often interlaid with the words – the sounds of scratching and spinning interrupt conversation, mark shifts between scenes, and punctuate the action. I found myself looking for the emcee lurking in the corner. I know he’s there, somewhere.
Another standout of the show is the superb voice acting. With most anime, fans tend to gravitate toward either subtitles or dubbing and cling to their chosen audio track like starving leeches. Here, however, I recommend watching both versions. The Japanese cast is, I think, better than Bebop’s (one of the few things I’ve ever preferred dubbed), and it provides the show an interesting rhythmic contrast to the music. But the English cast is also tremendous, rife with Bebop cast members returning for another go at Watanabe’s work, and Fuu is voiced by the fantastic Kari Wahlgren, who FLCL fans might recognize as having voiced Haruhara Haruko in that show’s English version. The translations are great, on both subtitles and dubbing, and while the Japanese cast is good… some scenes really do seem to be more geared toward the English version, which is interesting in and of itself. I’ve never seen an anime movie or series that seemed to translate so well to English, and I do wonder if some of that wasn’t purposeful.
The only “flaw” I can pick out so far is that the story seems thin, but that’s par for so much in anime that it doesn’t even surprise me. Rather, it’s more surprising when a show or movie seems to have a deeper story (like Voices of a Distant Star or Millennium Actress) and can hold it together throughout an entire run (like Bebop, unlike, sadly, the still-amazing Serial Experiments: Lain). Still, the show is such good, clean (if by clean I mean bloody, and I do) fun that it doesn’t matter. It’s fun to watch, and fun to watch again with friends, and maybe one last time before you slide it onto your shelf, and if it doesn’t have a weighty story… well, who cares? It’s not historically accurate, either, and the creators tell you up front that they don’t give a damn how you feel about that. It’s an admirable attitude.
All in all, the show is a delight, and the perfect follow up to a smash like Cowboy Bebop. The second disc was released yesterday, and fans in the U.S. who’ve not broken down and downloaded whatever they could get (I’ve not) or brought in imports (nor that) are chafing to see where this anachronistic adventure is going to take them next… or, at least, this fan is.