I really, really like Cowboy Bebop. It’s a heck of an anime and a great gateway to the whole genre. Of course I’d be excited to watch the follow-up by show creator Shinichiro Watanabe. Same premise, different setting. Instead of bounty hunters in space, it’s samurai in the Edo Period. Instead of space jazz, it’s samurai hip hop.
I watched it years ago and liked it, but I wanted to see how it would hold up with a second, more in-depth viewing.
So this is Samurai Champloo.
The story is based on a young girl named Fuu (voiced in the English dub by Kari Wahlgren) who’s determined to find a mysterious samurai who smells of sunflowers. She takes on a pair of swordsmen as her traveling companions: the savage rogue Mugen (Steve Blum) and the disgraced ex-samurai Jin (Kirk Thornton). Together, they wander across Edo Period Japan, fighting everyone in their path, scrounging for food and money, and generally righting wrongs.
Like Bebop, the voice acting in the English dub in phenomenal, especially with a more animated performance by Steve Blum (who voiced Spike Spiegel in Bebop) and Kari Wahlgren (also known as the voice of Haruko from FLCL). They provide plenty of fast-timed jokes and slang, but also know how to add the right touch of emotional weight when called for.
As I watched, there was a lot more detail for me to pick out the second time around, like how the Yakuza get a lot of mentions throughout the show and our heroes’ travels. To be fair, that’s rather the point when you’re trying to blend together the end of the samurai era with modern-day hip hop culture. Nothing seems “gangsta” quite like the Yakuza, right on down to their sweet tattoos. I also found myself sinking into every sword fight, watching the impeccable ballet between deadly fighters like Jin or the chaotic break-dance moves of a maverick like Mugen. They remind me of the roving gun duels that took place in Cowboy Bebop, only instead of guns, the heroes use swords and fight alongside rivers, shorelines, and cliffs.
I also decided to skip a few things this time around, like the clip show in the thirteenth episode. Sure, Mugen’s commentary is pretty funny, but I’m not a fan of clip shows in general. Compiling part of a season is better left in the hands of the diligent (if not obsessed) fans. And then there’s the hip hop. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of musical style and culture don’t seem to blend as well as cowboys and spaceships did in Bebop. Samurai and rappers are both cool, but in different ways. The samurai is devoted to their lord and principles; the rapper uses free expression. I know Jim Jarmusch did try to blend the two worlds together in his movie Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, but that was putting a samurai’s code against a modern-day Mafia with hip hop overtones. Not exactly a solid foundation for the show, even if the occasional bit of modern humor from graffiti or drugs is fairly tame.
Still, there’s not a whole lot about Samurai Champloo that I hate. I imagine that what I do dislike is more than balanced out with its grace under pressure. But Fuu’s bodyguards are a lot more hungry than meets the eye. Food becomes more than just a recurring motif, but a prize for every leg of the journey. Fuu turns from overprotective mother to damsel in distress to redeemed refugee girl with a shady past. It’s some good development for her and a good arc for this show.
At the end of the day, Samurai Champloo compares pretty well with Cowboy Bebop, though it doesn’t have the same depth as the rivalry between Spike and Vicious. Still, it’s visually stunning, has some funny anachronisms spliced in with solid history, and features some of the best fight choreography you’ll ever see.
Peace out, my brothers.
The English dub for Samurai Champloo is available through FUNimation.
Bibliography: Samurai Champloo. Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe. Produced by Takashi Kochiyama, Takatoshi Hamano, and Tetsuro Satomi. Written by Shinichiro Watanabe. Manglobe (studio). Funimation Entertainment. Original broadcast: May 20, 2004 – March 19, 2005.