Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 13th 2005
Mugen, Jin and Fuu continue their trek through 19th-century Japan in search of the samurai who smells of sunflowers. As always, they're in dire need of money—and when Fuu signs up for a modeling job with an ukiyo-e artist, she unwittingly falls victim to a shady yakuza racket. The three of them narrowly escape, and then it's off to Edo to win some money in an eating contest, but they get more than they bargained for when a foreigner joins the group. Later on, Fuu has her money stolen by a pickpocket, and her efforts to track him down lead to an unexpected life lesson about parental relationships. Jin, meanwhile, has a run-in with some old acquaintances when a bigheaded swordsman barges through town looking for revenge against "the Samurai with Glasses."
It may seem at times that Samurai Champloo's popularity is driven more by its own hype than the quality of the series. "From the director of Cowboy Bebop!" they say. "An animation staff that worked on The Animatrix and Kill Bill!" With such a distinguished pedigree, Samurai Champloo doesn't even need to try to earn its fanbase. However, Shinichiro Watanabe would never take the easy way out, and his unique directing style ensures that most of Champloo's praise is well-deserved. Except maybe the part where people start calling it the greatest anime ever. It's not quite there yet.
For months, anime fans have discussed Samurai Champloo's "hip-hop samurai" aesthetic, and now that the argument has been beaten into submission, let's summarize: it works. The idea is more than just urban beats set against historical fight scenes, though; playful anachronisms creep their way into every aspect of this series. Beatboxing samurai? A policeman using a sword as an exercise device? Sure, why not! Add to that a whimsical, unpredictable sense of humor and the result is pure entertainment. What Samurai Champloo lacks, however, is a strong, continuous storyline. Let's face it: the search for the sunflower samurai is just an excuse to send three unlikely folks on an amusing road trip through old-time Japan. Each episode on this disc is a fine blend of action, comedy and drama, but nothing really strings them together except the progression of time. The pacing isn't perfect either—with such slick action scenes, the downtime and dialogue in between can sometimes be a bore.
Despite its flaws in storytelling, Samurai Champloo thrives on an appealing core of characters. With Mugen's rash attitude, Jin's no-nonsense aloofness, and scatterbrained Fuu trying to hold it all together, the trio creates a dynamic relationship just by being there. And while the series has yet to form a solid plotline, there's already character development going on, as Episodes 7 and 8 show. Fuu's conversation with the thief Shinsuke reveals some details about her parents, and the events that follow prove that this show can strike close to the heart. In Episode 8, Jin becomes more than just a tight-lipped wandering samurai when we finally learn why he left his dojo. Stylized swordfights are fun, but personal stories like these give the show a counterweight of believable drama.
The successful melding of hip-hop culture and 19th-century Japan depends a lot on Samurai Champloo's dynamic visual style. The entire look of the show is governed by sharp, spiky lines and an MTV-inspired approach to animation. The artwork isn't afraid to branch out, either—while the most striking scenes appear to have leaped off a particularly good wall of graffiti, there are also homages to traditional art styles of the past. The animation is at its best during action scenes, with jerky in-your-face camera angles, expertly timed motion and (in Mugen's case) the best breakdance moves outside of a club. Less impressive is the plain, unexciting cinematography that dominates when no one's fighting. Countering that, however, are some gorgeously colored backgrounds and an attention to detail that makes Japanese history almost real. Meanwhile, the characters aren't quite as iconic as the cast of Cowboy Bebop, but their outfits and appearances are memorable enough to be cosplay-worthy.
Along with Samurai Champloo's trendy visual style comes a soundtrack that will go down in history as the most unlikely music for a samurai series ever. With a team of true hip-hop artists laying down tracks for the show, the music goes beyond the realms of pop and challenges viewers with snappy beats, forceful dissonances, and harmonies out of jazz and R&B. Although the music is focused on one main genre, there's enough variety to capture the many moods of the show, whether it be fury, tranquility, sorrow, or just plain silliness.
Geneon brings in the voice talents of Bang Zoom! Entertainment to produce a respectable but not outstanding dub. Mugen, Jin and Fuu all sound well-suited to their personalities, although Daniel Andrews' turn as Mugen could use more bite, and Kari Wahlgren's interpretation of Fuu falls into the habit of sounding like every other ditzy anime girl out there. The secondary characters are a hit-and-miss affair: Episode 6 shines with hilarious performances from the comically-accented Dutchman and the eating contest commentator, but in other episodes, characters like law enforcement officers and older women come off as uninspired clichés. Still, this is one series that can be enjoyed in either language.
Samurai Champloo is a lot like Mugen's fighting style: reckless, daring, and unafraid to try every possible idea to see what sticks. Some of them stick better than others, and through these early episodes, it's a series that's still finding its bearings. What direction will it take next? Hardcore katana duels? Oddball comedy? Somber drama? Wherever Samurai Champloo is headed, it's sure to be interesting, so sign up for this road trip while you've got the chance.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ A sharp sense of humor, playful anachronisms, and stylish action scenes.
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