This week, a unique erotic historical fiction film that has completely slipped through the cracks.
Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 11th 2005
Mugen is a wild, womanizing warrior who believes absolutely in doing his own thing; he is no one's servant or slave and does whatever he wants, and if that happens to mean killing thugs who get in his way, so be it! Jin is a vagrant ronin—formally trained, well-mannered, and highly-skilled, yet just as fiercely independent as Mugen. The two take an instant dislike to each other and set about repeatedly trying to kill each other, efforts interrupted only by running afoul of a local lord. When a ditzy barmaid named Fuu helps rescue them from being executed, they reluctantly agree to set aside their mutual animosity until they have helped her in her quest to find a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” That is, if they don't ditch her first. . .
If you've ever asked yourself, “gee, I wonder what a hip-hop samurai anime would look like?” then Samurai Champloo is your answer. This gleefully irreverent action series goes all-out to be the hippest and baddest anime title of them all. But what else would one expect from Shinichiro Watanabe, the creative whiz responsible for Cowboy Bebop? The sensibilities of the latter clearly permeate this series, especially in the way the action scenes are staged. Though ostensibly set in the Meiji era (the period in the late 19th century when Japan was modernizing and the old ways of the samurai were being set aside), the series tells you up front that it's making no effort to be historically accurate. In fact, the setting is little more than a convenience to allow for how Mugen and Jin could be wandering the land racking up such a high body count with their swords. Their excesses do, of course, get them into trouble which, at various points, results in them being tortured, almost being executed, having to deal with assassins, and being tormented by an individual whom they harmed (but failed to kill) early on, who seeks revenge. Having to deal with Fuu could be considered another kind of punishment, but her presence does at least somewhat curtail their lethal tendencies.
The greatest beauty of Samurai Champloo is that everything about it contributes to its hipness. Characters are given crisp dialogue heavy on 'tude and ample opportunities both to display that 'tude and show off their skill. Character designs are heavily stylized, stressing thin, gangly limbs and caricaturized faces, while costuming reflects the time in which the series is set but also incorporates a certain panache. The musical score is composed mostly of energetic hip-hop beats headed by a rapped (in English) opener and an R&B-sounding closer, while discourteous notices pepper the first episode (“This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we CARE! Now shut up and enjoy the show!”). The animation gives the characters ample opportunities for interesting expressions and poses, and even the MTV-like editing furthers the overall trendiness.
The action, though, is the real highlight. Fight scenes are swiftly-paced, full of motion, and thoroughly dynamic. Each main character has their own highly distinctive way of moving, which is supported by some of the best animation you'll see in any series anime. Characters move around and blend with the backgrounds quite effectively, creating a fully-integrated look which is a pleasure to watch. The only knock I could make against the series on technical merits is that the color schemes are sometimes a little too dark, but that's a minor quibble. This is, overall, one of the best technical series in recent memory.
English vocal casting consists of a collection of Geneon/Pioneer regulars. They do a fine job of capturing the attitude and style of the characters, although their voices don't match terribly well with the originals. The English script does stay tight with the subtitles most of the time, but I noted at least a couple of places where meaning in a scene was changed markedly in the translation (“my whole family will have to commit suicide” is changed to “it will be the death of my whole family,” for instance). If you're generally a dub person then you will probably find the dub to your satisfaction, but this isn't a series likely to change the preferences of sub-favoring viewers.
Graphic content for the series so far is pretty strong. Blood, severed body parts, and violent deaths abound, though the series never gets truly gory. A few sexually suggestive bits are peppered throughout this volume but there's no actual fan service. Language can get harsh and crude. This isn't one for the kiddies, but teenagers would probably love it.
DVD extras for the first volume are limited to an assortment of promos, trailers, and teasers, although an interview with the chief writer is included in the liner notes.
The biggest knock that could probably be made against Samurai Champloo is that it lacks more than the barest semblance of an overall plot. The first four episodes are episodic, and while they stand alone quite well, they don't run together to create anything greater. Perhaps that is something to come in future volumes. Overall, though, this is one sharp and exciting series. It's easy to see why it has already made such an impression on the American fan community, and it should continue to do so.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : A-
+ thrilling action sequences
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