15 Years of Samurai Champloo

by Matthew Roe,

Shinichiro Watanabe has long been considered one of anime's leading creative voices, with his distinctive flair almost always recognizable, regardless of his role. Whether he is directing, storyboarding, writing, creating music, or producing projects, there is a frenetic and exploratory edge to his contributions that resonates unlike any other. However, his involvement in some of the most lauded and inventive works in the past couple decades never seems to trump his most well-known credit, directing the 1998 series Cowboy Bebop, arguably one of the most beloved animated series of all time. His work with writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mecha designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and composer Yoko Kanno instantaneously went down in history as a crowning achievement in storytelling, animation and composition, world-building, characterization, and musical atmosphere - which was compounded when the series went international. If you couldn't tell, I (and many audiences and critics) consider the series more or less “perfect,” which is why the expectations on Watanabe's next project were so astronomically high.

Riding on the heels of his massive success with Bebop, he would be included in the 2003 anthological animated film The Animatrix, a tie-in to the Wachowskis' The Matrix trilogy, writing and directing “Kid's Story” and “Detective's Story.” The former is the origin story of the character Kid (Clayton Watson) in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, clarifying his backstory and fleshing out his motivations. Besides Watanabe's distinct visual skills, and being the only entry in the collection to feature Neo, the short is largely unremarkable. The latter short is a whodunit following the detective Ash (James Arnold Taylor) searching for the character Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). This protagonist is quite possibly the most blatant allusion to Spike Spiegel I have ever seen, with even the short film's final moments highly reminiscent of the final scene in Bebop's finale.

Both shorts were highly regarded by critics and fans alike, though ultimately his work was overshadowed by the extensive two-part “The Second Renaissance” by Mahiro Maeda, which dominated the release. Regardless of the reception, it is clear in hindsight that Watanabe was comfortable riding the wave he had created, and may have been somewhat apprehensive about flowing back into more unconventional territory. He had captured lightning in a bottle for Studio Sunrise, and pressure on him to create a similarly-leveled work was ever-constant. Watanabe would spend the better part of the next year as music director for Masaaki Yuasa's 2004 directorial debut Mind Game. His cornucopia of clashing synths, rumbling drums, pop rock guitar, and rambling piano produced a highly atypical musical score, which has ironically become far more synonymous with Yuasa's overly kinetic and offbeat visual storytelling, rather than Watanabe's sleek style. Though his soundtrack can be easily overlooked as him helping out a fellow trailblazer, it actually went far further and publicly reaffirmed Watanabe as a prevalent musically-centric creative, a fact that has remained to the present day (especially with his production of Alexandre Kassin's score for Sayo Yamamoto's 2008 series Michiko & Hatchin). That isn't to say Bebop was not musically-inclined -- it's in the title -- but this is where Watanabe's style would become completely inseparable from his projects' OSTs.

While Watanabe's smaller contributions continued to intrigue anime fans, critics, and industry colleagues, everyone was watching with bated breath for a follow-up to his opus. What they got was equally alien and familiar, which initially lead to somewhat polarizing responses emerging from a mess of contrasting expectations. Samurai Champloo is the first anime series developed by Studio Manglobe, with Kazuto Nakazawa designing the characters, and a full stable of extremely talented artists at Watanabe's disposal (which included Yamamoto, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Dai Sato, Mamoru Hosoda, Fat Jon, and the late great Nujabes). From the onset of the first episode, it was immediately apparent that we were in for something different from our favorite space western, which is encapsulated within the series' opening message, “This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we care. Now shut up and enjoy the show.”

The heavy genre-blending and aesthetical incorporations of music into the visuals in Bebop are explored even more closely in Champloo, which mixes extensive hip-hop music and culture into a reimagined representation of Japan's Edo period. Not only are the settings and characters presented in the series a weird mishmesh of social contradictions, nuanced details, and cultural blending, but the series itself is presented as if it were a multi-vinyl hip-hop mixtape, with many of the episode titles alluding to track listings. Each of the four main arcs of the series are separated much as a music project would be, with each arc centered on a particular theme, rhythm, and goal. This multi-refracted lens by which we experience the series also cribs elements from American Westerns, samurai and wandering ronin films, graffiti art, punk rock, and post-impressionism. This avalanche of tropes and styles all swirl together into a thriving work built on self-referential anachronism, with historical and cultural details often skewed and paraphrased to perpetuate the quirky tongue-in-cheek atmosphere surrounding our three motley protagonists: Mugen, Jin, and Fuu. Historical accuracy is only supported when convenient to the story, and is often altered or abandoned for the sake of the series' style and narrative flow.

While this was interpreted in some smaller circles as a shade of disrespect to the history of Japan, there were more nuanced reasons for these changes besides it being simply fun and cool. It is reported that Watanabe was overly concerned with the series appearing too nationalistic due to its handling of samurai culture and the societal transitions of the Edo period, and he wanted to express the changing landscape of the swordsman class in Japanese culture as a counterculture rebelling against the majority. This becomes increasingly expressed through Mugen's break-dance inspired fighting style, many subtle kimono designs, Jin's eyeglasses, numerous punk-clad thugs, an (almost) inconspicuous eyebrow piercing, a beatboxer - the list goes on. To this end, the series' historical deviations, retrofuturism, and multitudes of ethnicities, subcultures, and lifestyles actually managed to make even some of the more historically-investigative reviews of Champloo somewhat positive. Even while they pick apart the series' historical irreverence, Travis Seifman's “Accurate Champloo,” and Brandon Lee's “The Historical Accuracy of Samurai Champloo” still found the series to be a complete delight. There are also so many anachronistic elements, author Paula O'Keefe even published “The Complete Guide to Anachronisms in Samurai Champloo” in 2010 on Amalgam, a still-active website entirely devoted to the series. (http://www.spookhouse.net/angelynx/comics/anachronisms.html)

While it could be simple to brush aside these creative decisions as Watanabe trying to make cool stuff for us to devour (damn the history), just by listening/reading interviews it is easy to understand there is a considerable amount of subtext and clever subversion at work. Instead of adhering to historical accuracy, or even historical authenticity (events and characters may be changed, but the culture and setting of the era remains accurate, like HBO's Rome), this series is equal parts revisionist and absurdist, and it accurately represents Japan's soul during the Edo period. To elaborate, the series' title is derived from the Okinawan term “chanpurū,” which can roughly be translated into “mix” or “blend.” While I have heard multiple translation possibilities, the one I find is the most accurate to the experience is “Samurai Mix-Tape,” reflecting not only the hip-hop themes, but also (possibly) the very nature of Japan's evolving cultural changes toward the end of Edo, in a period often called Bakumatsu. Though I cannot confirm that Champloo is focused in this time (as so many details, events, and people range so many years apart), during this period Japan ended its centuries-old isolationism, as well as its feudal shogunate, resulting in the malleability of social castes. This allowed for the massive displacement of the samurai, who were now considered more of gangs vagabonds than lords and protectors who demand respect by their mere existence. This ostracization by the world-at-large and the eruption of fairly revolutionary cultural and artistic innovations can be taken to parallel the invention and continued art of rap.

Ian Condry, author of Hip-Hop Japan, is quoted saying, “It's not surprising that rappers and samurai go together. They both believe in honor and loyalty. They both represent where they come from. They both battle for supremacy through the strength of their skills.” This idea is compounded by Watanabe in an interview a few years after Champloo aired, stating, “I've been interested in hip-hop since it first appeared. I believe samurai in the Edo period and modern hip-hop artists have something in common: Rappers open the way to their future with the microphone; samurai decided their fate with the sword.”

So, the wacky antics and creative decisions of Champloo, that have long set the series into the minds of most active otaku as an easy favorite, actually end up being some of Watanabe's most introspective and socially-conscious ideas present throughout his whole career. The series' narrative chaos, overripe characters, tongue-in-cheek comedy, orgasmically-fluid animation, and its intrinsic musical nature has continued on to fully hallmark all of Watanabe's subsequent contributions. While Bebop is clearly the most obvious inception point for Watanabe's approach to his medium, it wasn't until Samurai Champloo that he seemingly figured out how to use all of his favored elements consistently and cohesively, all the while at a pace which can easily be described as a never-ending sprint. Now, often cited by numerous critics, audiences, and creators as a modern animated classic, this series shows no signs of sliding into irrelevance or obscurity, with its absolutely phenomenal score codified as one of the greatest soundtracks in anime history. While I may not consider this series as groundbreaking and innovative as Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is a product of a master working with other masters to produce one of the most thoroughly rich and refined animated series of the past few decades.

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