Samurai Champloo is a lesson in contrasts. 'Champloo' roughly translates to 'mash-up' in old Okinawan dialect - and nothing could be more of a mixture than ancient Japanese samurai legend meeting the 1990s American hip-hop scene. While it may seem an incongruous or even appropriative blend, director Shinichiro Watanabe pulls the "mash-up" off with finesse, flavour and a sense of fun - just like he did with space-opera meets blues in his previous work, Cowboy Bebop.
Samurai Champloo introduces us to three distinct personalities. Jin is a ronin (or wandering samurai) with a mysterious air of sophistication in his manners as well as in his fighting skills; while Mugen is a violent foul-mouthed womanizer with incredible strength but erratic use of it; and Fuu is a ditzy but well-meaning waitress. Jin and Mugen clash like fire and water, leading much of the show's conflict and action, but it's Fuu, who they pick up on their travels, giving the series a sense of direction: enlisting the duo to help her find "the man who smells like sunflowers".
Our setting could be nowhere but Japan - Watanabe throws us no curve-balls there - specifically, Edo, a time-period equivocal to Britain's own Tudor history, just as similarly sampled in various media for its tales of political intrigue and epic romance. This is Edo as we've never seen it, an Edo of pseudo-history, including graffiti, Van Gogh, baseball, and an increasingly strained atmosphere of xenophobia as Catholicism is introduced to the (primarily Shinto) archipelago.
In-keeping with hard fact, times are hard for our two conflicting samurai, as they often were for the soldiers outside of idealised history - in times of peace there was very little for them to do, and when they didn't starve to death, they undertook various odd jobs as ronins, from bodyguards to assassins. It's this taught struggle where Mugen and Jin first meet, and immediately begin a fight to the death over the prospect of a job, and therefore a meal - but neither one is stronger than the other. If Mugen is an unstoppable force, Jin is his unmovable object.
Much like its predecessor, Samurai Champloo is episodic in narration, and takes as much joy in freestyle and improv as it does in core episodes. Samurai Champloo is at its most entertaining when it veers off into the unexpected, the manic, the mind-bending. In one episode, when food is running out, Mugen eats some wild mushrooms. What occurs next may well be a drug trip - or it might be a zombie invasion. We just don't know. Despite the episodic nature, there is an overarching plot, to find the person Fuu is looking for - but why? And what will happen to Mugen and Jin if she finds him?
The art style of Samurai Champloo is nothing especially groundbreaking, but there are subtleties to the character design and background art that fit in with the show's central theme. Sure, Fuu wears a colourful summer kimono most of the time, but the way she wears her hair styled is more 1999 than 1666; similarly with Mugen's afro, the prints on Jin's clothes, the mobile phone charm on the scabbard of Fuu's dagger. Likewise, the backgrounds seem so intrinsically urban that it's odd to realise that the show takes place in a mostly rural setting.
It's quite an enjoyable irony that for Samurai Champloo, both the English dub and the original Japanese audio are equally brilliant. In English, Mugen is played by the frenetic Steve Blum (who also voiced Spike Spiegel in the fantastic sister-show Cowboy Bebop) and suits the role perfectly with a rough, gruff attitude. Jin is played coolly by Kirk Thornton, but I think I prefer the Japanese voice actor for this one, as he just has Jin's silent sensibility down, not that Thornton's is unworthy. Fuu is voiced by Kari Wahlgren, who manages to sound cute without being irritating - trust me, this takes a lot of talent, and Wahlgren has it in spades. Overall, a stunning English dub, and unlike some licensed anime, nothing is lost in the adaption and dubbing.
It would be hard to talk about the series' audio without touching upon the music, and Samurai Champloo again delivers. Incidental music is of a high standard, but it is the opening song - rapped, in English, no less - that encapsulates the entire Samuai Champloo experience. Blended with beatboxing is the traditional shamisen (cat-gut lyre) and lyrics that refer to the mish-mash theme (my modus operandi is amalgam) but somehow, despite logic, it works.
Samurai Champloo's art and music are just small anachronisms in a larger anarchy. Samurai Champloo is not simply a crude Frankenstein's monster, knitted with patches of Eastern and Western influence, historical and contemporary feeling that is fun or funny in its incongruous nature. Samurai Champloo manages to overcome its roots, and the constraints of genre, to sear with both style and substance.
Region: Region 2
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 - 1.78:1
Number of discs: 7
Studio: Mvm Entertainment
DVD Release Date: 6 Sep 2010