A spicy dish served up hot
It has been several years (five to be exact) since I watched “Samurai Champloo,” and while I always knew it as good I somehow forgot that it is in fact one of the greatest anime series ever produced.
“Champloo” is an Okinawan word (more properly pronounced champuru) meaning “mix” or “blend,” and is most often applied to traditional food dishes such as “Goya Champloo” or “Stir-fried Champloo.” It’s basically a mixed stir-fry with a seemly infinite number of potential ingredient, and a very fitting description of Watanabe Shinichiro’s “Samurai Champloo.”
An eclectic blend of ancient and modern, hip-hop and koto, and pretty much everything else thrown into the mix, this is a Japan where a wild swordfighter uses capoeira moves to slice and dice with a fury, an enormous man known as the Oni smashes skulls with his massive club, and two twin brothers compete in a match to graffiti Himeji castle. Watanabe is a heck of a chef, and manages to balance all these seemingly dissonant elements into a tasty dish that might even top his previous concoction Cowboy Bebop.
The story features a bookish but deadly ronin (Jin), a wild sword-swinging roustabout (Mugen) and a kooky but determined waitress (Fuu). The trio is pushed into an unhappy alliance, several times attempting to split up, yet always finding their destinies inexorably intertwined. Fuu leads them on a quest for the “Samurai who smells of Sunflowers,” providing the McGuffin that keeps the story moving. Each episode changes in tone and character, moving effortlessly between comedy and drama, tragedy and action.
Each ingredient supports the flavor of the other perfectly, creating a variety of story possibilities that couldn’t be found by following just one personality. Categorize “Samurai Champloo” as “hip-hop samurai” is too much of an easy dismissal; the series goes much deeper than that. Along with hip-hop music and culture, the series features Japanese history like the hidden Christian sects, and samurai movie mythology such as Miyomoto Musashi and the female ninjas kunoichi. Every episode is a surprise, and every episode had be glued to the screen in anticipation of what would come next.
Watanabe’s trademark style is on fine display, with some of the most fluid animation you will ever see and a quick and flowing story punctuated with quiet moments of reflection. The story builds at a good pace, allowing all the characters to develop in time. With twenty-six episodes, there is plenty of time to build characterization and identity, and while Jin, Mugen and Fuu appear at first to be mere stereotypical genre characters, they deepen with each telling.
This boxset is a pretty sweet package for this amazing series. Produced by Geneon and released by Funimation, it has all twenty-six episodes on seven disks, each with its own slim case. There are four episodes per disk, meaning that no quality has been lost by squishing too many episodes on a single disk to save space. Inside each case is an essay or comments by one of the people who worked on the series, giving insight into how it was created and what goes into such a collaboration.
The only possibly thing I would have wished for this box set is that Funimation had double-packed the DVDs into the slim cases, as they have with most of their other series. With as many DVDs as I own, space can be a premium at my house and so the smaller the packaging the better.