Reviewby James Beckett,
Blu-Ray - The Complete Series
Decades after the end of the Sengoku period of warring states in Japan, the Edo era has sent the country into a time of transition and uncertainty for the samurai warriors of the nation. Some have become warriors for their local daimyo warlords, others have become mercenary swords for hire, and others still wander the land searching for their destinies. Fuu, a young woman on a quest to find the “samurai who smells of sunflowers”, meets two such warriors that she cajoles into accompanying her on the journey: Jin, the enigmatic master swordsman, and Mugen, the unpredictable brawler with a taste for boobs, booze, and causing trouble. The trio travel across Japan, battling starvation, bandits, and their own knack for trying to kill each other along the way. If the three of them can survive all of that, they just might discover that their true fates lie in the path of Sunflower Samurai.
It's nearly impossible to talk about Samurai Champloo without discussing director Shinichiro Watanabe's more famous project, Cowboy Bebop. Both series are episodic action-adventure tales that seek to blend stylized Western influences into the Japanese art of anime, and both rely on eclectic soundtracks and slick-action to do so. In the English dub, Mugen is even voiced by Steve Blum, who is most recognized for his work in Cowboy Bebop as the hero, Spike. In the same way that Bebop was happy to mash-up genres and tones to amplify its style, Samurai Champloo eschews historical realism in favor of a presentation more concerned with being cool than accurate. It would be unfair to expect any anime to live up to the legendary status of Cowboy Bebop, even with the same director at the helm, but does Samurai Champloo at-least succeed at being a kind of spiritual successor to one of the most beloved anime ever made? I'd say the answer is “Yes, so long as you keep your expectations in check.”
When the show is on its A-game, it absolutely excels. Watanabe understands the power of matching a story's style and tone, and walking the line between them can be either be a work's saving grace or its death knell. Right away, the mixture of hip-hop aesthetics and classic samurai tropes seems like a more awkward fit than Bebop's effortless fusion of jazz and science fiction, but Watanabe and Studio Manglobe's confidence keeps the whole ship afloat with ease. The show's washed-out colors and inconsistent animation haven't aged very well over the years, but Watanabe's direction feels as modern as ever, and that makes even the series' lesser episodes breeze by without ever killing the mood. The sword fights are almost universally excellent too, overcoming the animation's limits by being inarguably cool in their choreography. The soundtrack is also killer, even when the show tries a little too hard for radical-ness by adding record-scratches and overdubs into scene transitions.
The central cast of heroes also work well, especially Mugen and Jin. The pair's status as rivals-turned-reluctant-partners leads to a lot of fun interplay between them, and the constant conflict keeps the energy up through each episodic story. Given that most of the episodes are standalone in Samurai Champloo, they can vary wildly in quality, but the great stories manage to outshine the forgettable ones. If there's any weak link overall, it'd be Fuu, which is a real shame, because there's great potential in an Edo-era period piece with a female protagonist. However, aside from her early rescue of Jin and Mugen and a couple of mid-series highlights, Fuu usually falls into the role of needing to be rescued. She's either getting kidnapped, held for ransom, abducted into a brothel, or some combination of the three, and no amount of self-referential lampshading on the show's part makes it any less boring to see this plot device repeat so often.
My main complaint with Samurai Champloo is that it lacks the deeper emotional resonance it seems to be aiming for. There are some individual episodes that succeed in making Jin, Mugen, and Fuu endearing heroes – a two-parter that delves into Mugen's history is one of the series' best stories – but it doesn't quite come together into a cohesive journey. Try as the series might, Fuu's search for the Sunflower Samurai never feels like more than a MacGuffin to kickstart the episodic premise. It doesn't help that the show is seriously lacking in memorable villains – all of the crazy, vengeful, or relentless swordsman that Jin and Mugen battle get the job done in terms of generating conflict, but I'm hard pressed to consider any of them worthy additions to anime villain history. By the time the show reaches its conclusion, it's gone out of its way to try and wring emotional climaxes out of its heroes' respective journeys, but they largely didn't land for me.
Funimation's “Classics” Blu-Ray box set is a reasonably priced collection that preserves the same Geneon Dub from back in 2005, and it's just as fun as its always been. Shows like Bebop and Champloo are the kinds of anime I actually prefer to watch in English, so its good that the performances have held up so well. Steve Blum is doing his usual gruff guy shtick with gusto as Mugen, and Kirk Thornton plays Jin capably as the stoic yet deadly foil to Mugen's impulsive irrationality. Kari Wahlgren does great work as Fuu, especially since the character is so often played as a nag and a straight-woman to the gang's antics – it could have easily been a phoned-in performance, but Wahlgren makes Fuu as endearing as possible. Outside of some stock production stills and promos, there aren't any substantial extras to speak of on this set, but that's to be expected for series that are getting on in years.
If you've never experienced Samurai Champloo, this Blu-Ray set is a good way to get the whole show for cheap. It's nowhere near as legendary as its spacefaring older cousin, but you're still bound to have a lot of fun along the way if you appreciate samurai stories, kickass music, and a general sense of fun in your anime.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Tons of fun and badass samurai action, with an awesome soundtrack that keeps the show feeling fresh
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