Useless Anime Knowledge: Samurai Champloo

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Ghostlightning’s post on Real vs. Super Samurai:
Ghostlightning’s post on why the ending of Samurai champloo fails (I agree with this):

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Welcome to Useless Anime Knolwedge! The show where I do pointlessly meticulous research on things that no one cares about and regurgitate it for an audience! Today I’m going to be running you through the hip-hop chanbara animated classic, Samurai Champloo. This video contains only light spoilers, and the full series can be watched on Netflix at the time of this writing, so I do recommend checking it out.

This series was the debut work of animation studio Manglobe, whose history I detailed in my Intro to Manglobe video. It was also the second full-length animated series to come from the mind of Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe, and the two series share a number of commonalities.

Going by the plot synopsis, Samurai Champloo is the story of Mugen, Jin, and Fuu, a trio of unlikely companions who take a journey across Edo-era Japan in search of the samurai who smells of sunflowers. Mugen is a violent, short-tempered sociopath with no regard for anyone other than himself; Jin is a soft-spoken, but hardly even-tempered and equally loner ronin; and both of them are the strongest opponent that the other has ever faced, resulting in a vow to eventually fight to the death. But when when the plucky, indomitable Fuu rescues them both in the first episode, she recruits them to tag along on her quest.
However, the best way to describe the style and attitude of the series comes from the title itself: Samurai Champloo. Champloo is taken from the Okinawan word chanpuru, which essentially means “to mix,” and is often used in regards to cooking. Blending together a variety of flavors, mostly from hip-hop, samurai films, various counter-culture movements, and even modern Japenese cultural ideas, is the show’s mode of operation.

Even on the production level, SamChamp is all about being a melting pot; or, perhaps more accurately, a mangrove. Manglobe studios, named as a poor romanization of the word mangrove, chose their title to represent the mixture of elements to form an ecosystem. It only takes a glance at Anime News Network’s list of staff for this series to appreciate just how many voices and styles were mixed together to form it. Between eight writers, thirteen episode directors, more animators from more studios than I can even comprehend, and a list of voice actors that hits almost every letter of the alphabet, it’s safe to say that a metric fuckton of hands were involved in the creation of this series.

And it’s not just a faceless mass of nobodies, either. The opening animation is directed by Mamoru Hosada, who’s gone on to achieve acclaim as the director of hit films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. Episode nine was storyboarded by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who is possibly the most famous living key animator in Japan and is best known for directing Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. The episode also features a segment animated by Masaaki Yuasa, director of Mind Game, Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy, and Kick-Heart, among others. And those are just the staff I knew well enough to recognize their handiwork while I was watching the series.

The cast is full of noteworthy names in very minor roles, such as a hilarious appearance by Norio Wakamoto in episode 18 as a drunken calligraphy teacher. Mugen is played by the always-badass Kazuya Nakai, best known as Roronoa Zoro in One Piece and Masamune Date in Sengoku Basara. If you prefer the English cast though, he’s voiced by Steven Blum who, besides being in virtually everything, is best known as Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop. I won’t bore you by going through the entire cast like this, since I didn’t think most of the performances were really noteworthy, but Kazuya Nakai is one of my favorite cool guy voices so I fel the need to point him out.

More so than simply being a mixture or mangrove however, I think the most proper way to translate the show’s title would be “Samurai Mixtape.” After all, the show not only has a strong emphasis on musical themes, but is even organized in the manner of an album. The series is arbitrarily broken up into four arcs across its twenty-six episode run, which starts to make sense if you think of each arc as one side of a double-LP vinyl record.

Two-part episodes are referred to as “verse one” and “reprise,” implying that they are two parts of one “song.” Thinking of it this way, the show has twenty tracks, broken up across two ten-track LPs, which is pretty accurate to the typical layout of vinyls. This may or may not have been intentional, but the fact that the opening animation displays the title of the show on a vinyl printing implies that it’s probably on purpose.

Samurai Champloo features a soundtrack composed of work from four different hip-hop musicians, all of whom Shinichiro Watanabe has said that he was a fan of before getting them to work on the series. The show has four soundtracks, but instead of breaking them up by artist, each one typically features at least two of the artists on it, keeping up with the mixtape vibe. Various guest vocalists, such as Shing-02 and MINMI, were brought in to perform on opening and ending songs, but instead of their individual work being attached to the anime, they actually collaborated with Nujabes on original songs for the series.
Watanabe has stated that his choice of hip-hop music as the show’s backdrop comes both from his fandom of the genre, and from seeing hip-hop as a counter-cultural movement. He wanted his characters to represent a counter-culture, and chose a musical style to reflect that, which I’ll dive more into when I talk about the show’s main themes in general.

Continuing the hip-hop metaphor, a lot of what keeps Samurai Champloo fresh is the various tropes and ideas that it samples on each track. Watanabe has been commonly compared to Quentin Tarantino in the way that he appropriates imagery and scenes from a variety of genre conventions into his work; and this is certainly true of Samurai Champloo, which pulls on the threads samurai and yakuza flicks, general action anime tropes, and the likes of zombie movies, drug movies, and sports comedies.

Even when it comes to the show’s historical setting, it isn’t content to be about just one era. It mixes elements of several time periods, with dialog that jumps from sounding like a period piece to being completely modern from character to character, and no shortage of moments that make a point to reference some historical event which in actuality is completely irrelevent to the time period, or simply never happened. Any episode with a narrator is immediately called into question, with Inspector Manzo’s historical explanations of events being complete bullshit every time, and the narrator of episode nine undercutting the insane premise of the episode by saying that it was all a joke, even though the event is referenced by the main characters several times throughout the series.

And this brings us to the central themes of Samurai Champloo, which are more or less stated up front by the text that comes after the first episode’s intro. “This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like we care! Now shut up and enjoy the show!” Samurai Champloo is a show about doing whatever the hell you want. It’s about never compromising on your ideals, and continuing to rebel in the face of insurmountable odds.

Throughout the series, many of the characters who Mugen, Jin, and Fuu meet along their journey utter some variance of the phrases, “there’s no other way,” “this is all I can do,” “I’m trapped,” or, “I have no choice.” And what’s brilliant about the show’s structure is that it never moralizes at the viewer. Mugen and Jin are almost always apathetic or outright ignorant to the situations around them, and each of them has only one or two moments in the series in which they outright refute someone’s claim that there is no other way. Fuu doesn’t really think on a moral level to begin with, and is more likely to get swept up in the situation as it happens.

But even without the characters spelling out the message all the time, the show makes its values pretty clear through the resolutions of its conflicts. Characters who keep going on about their lack of choice tend to end up dead or otherwise lose out in the end. Meanwhile, the few times that a character decides to take the reigns on their life, they are typically rewarded. The best examples of this are in episodes eleven and nineteen, which both feature a woman in a trapped situation whom, upon deciding that she’s through with giving in to destiny, finds her way to a happy ending. Meanwhile, the biggest contrast is in the Misguided Miscreants two-parter, in which a girl’s insistence that there’s no other way has her betray her only friends, only to wind up with nothing in the end, begging for death. By presenting the main characters as always down on their luck, broke, hungry, and vagrant, yet never losing their absolute rebellious spirit, the show suggests that the proper way to live is to spit in the face of the odds against you.

As an extension on this theme, the show responds differently to each unique situation, even if it always comes to the same conclusion. In some situations, we really get the sense that there was nothing the character could’ve done, and we feel sullen at their misfortune. Other times, the show yells at characters who define themselves by their pain and refuse to move on with their lives. We’re presented with so many different takes on the same kinds of scenarios because the show wants to display how there are so many ways that people can respond to being held down, and so many ways that events can play out. In this way, it has a surprisingly realistic and even-handed presentation of its ethical dilemma.

What’s truly great about Samurai Champloo’s uncompromising stance, is that the production of the series itself seems to stand for uncompromising artistic integrity. Mind you, much of what I’m about to explain is complete speculation that might be total bullshit in reality, but hear me out.

Manglobe studio was created when two producers who’d previously worked on some pretty weird shows for the powerhouse studio conglomerate Sunrise left to go do their own thing. Now, between its many studios, there’s no question that Sunrise works on all kinds of anime, and continued to produce some pretty out-there original stuff even after these guys left, but it’s also true that Sunrise is one of the most commercial studios out there, having been bought by Bandai in the late 90s, and producing shitloads of mecha anime for the sake of selling toys. These producers hailed from Sunrise studio 7, which had been responsible for the Brave franchise throughout the 90s, which is a series that revolved entirely around toy pushing. After the Brave series more or less capped off with GaoGaiGar, they produced the incredibly strange and dark spinoff series Betterman and GaoGaiGar Final shortly before leaving the studio.

Now, I’ve heard rumors in the past about how difficult it is for a Shinichiro Watanabe series to get greenlit for production, due to the high costs typically involved, and I also know that it’s extremely rare in the anime industry for a studio to take risks. Manglobe’s formation in 2002 happened right around the time that Cowboy Bebop would’ve been finding its way to massive exposure in the West, and the groundswell of the Western DVD market was just starting to begin. So here’s my theory:

I think that Shinichiro Watanabe had an idea for a show which Sunrise didn’t want to take. I think that the Manglobe producers had faith in the idea and wanted to create something with artistic integrity instead of giving in to the same old rigmarole of the anime production business. They poured as much money and effort into the project as it needed, banking on the series’ ability to become a hit in the West as Cowboy Bebop had just done a couple of years earlier. And if this was truly their plan, it totally worked.

Samurai Champloo premeired on Fuji TV in Japan, and ran for seventeen episodes before it was moved to a satellite version of their channel and a later timeslot, effectively paywalling it. When they did this, they actually reran the entire first seventeen episodes of the show before getting to the new ones. I’ve only found speculation on why this was done, ranging from some saying that the show was deemed too adult for pre-midnight broadcast, since that would be similar to the fate which befell Evangelion in its original run, to others stating that it was due to low ratings.

Personally, I’m more inclined to believe that it was done intentionally, especially because the same network did the same thing to Cowboy Bebop when it was on the air. I know that American stations like AMC frequently break their seasons into two parts, putting a gap between them because the hype generated for the mid-season premeire tends to boost ratings, but it seems like an entire seventeen weeks would be long enough to kill interest in the series. I noticed that the start of episode eighteen has a few brief images of exposed breasts, which lead me to suspect that the animators knew this change was going to happen, and took the opportunity to put in something that they could only get away with on the late-night block. I’ve heard that the DVD sales for the series weren’t especially high in Japan, so either way it seems like the show wasn’t a massive success at home. Again, though, this is entirely speculation.

What I do know is that Samurai Champloo aired on Adult Swim less than a year after the show concluded in Japan, and took nearly a year to broadcast here due to forced concurrence with the release of Geneon’s DVDs. It later aired in France, Spain, Australia, Germany, Poland, Latin America, Canada, Portugal, and probably even more places not documented on ANN. The series spawned no shortage of merchandise, from obvious stuff like wall scrolls and t-shirts to collectors items like replica swords. There was a two-volume tie-in manga, which is about as pointless as you’d expect from an anime tie-in, but at least the art is decent. There was also a video game developed for the Plasystation 2, which is actually worth taking a moment to discuss.

Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked was developed by Grasshoper Manufacture and directed by Suda 51, the man responsible for Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, and Lollipop Chainsaw, among others. No games developer has ever had the word “auteur” mentioned alongside their name as many times as Suda 51, so if anyone could be expected to elevate an anime tie-in game above totally shallow mediocrity, it would be him.

As to whether or not he suceeded, wellll, it’s hard to say. Grasshoper Manufacture games have never really been known for their deep mechanics, and the majority of Sidetracked involves running through straight corridors and killing endless waves of identical dudes using the same couple of combos. The game is presented with an unmistakable stylistic flare that makes it interesting to look at, but doesn’t keep it from getting boring pretty quickly. Suda 51 games are usually better known for their incredibly strange cutscenes, dialog, and scenarios, but from what little I played, Sidetracked seemed pretty dry in those regards. Perhaps it didn’t help that I found the guy trying to do a horrible Steve Blum impression unlistenable, and wondered why the hell there wasn’t a Japanese audio track included. I can’t really recommend this game, since it’s rare and kind of expensive, but if you know of other ways to play it, I won’t say it’s not worth a shot.

Diving back into the show, there’s a few things I just want to gush about. For starters, perhaps the most notworthy aspect of Samurai Champloo is the fantastic design work and consistently high-quality animation. The series has countless fight scenes, which are always well choreographed and usually a decent length, making it easily one of the best action TV shows around, and the best swordfighting show without question.

Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are all designed and animated with their own unique flare, which does a lot to make them feel distinct, even though for the majority of the series we know very little about their past or motivations, if they even have any. We never need it spelled out for us that Mugen has an extremely unique fighting style, because we witness it in contrast to Jin’s controlled sword art style right from the first episode. It achieves show, don’t tell storytelling before any of the characters have said more than a sentence or two, and much of the characters’ depth comes from subtle hints and mannerisms that set them apart.

I also love that the show has a bit of an absurdist undercurrent, constantly calling into question or outright neglecting the existence of meaning for any of the events that happen. Most of the trio’s misadventures have no effect on the progression of the characters or storyline, oftentimes featuring meaningless deaths, poinless hijinks, or moments when the show claims that the events are an outright lie. Half of the time, none of the main characters have all of the relevant information on a series of events even after it’s already concluded. While the show does end up having a core theme, as I explained before, it rebels against the idea of rationalizing anything in the show with its wackiness and anarchronisms, as if telling you that if you get hung up on the details instead of rolling with the punches, you’re doing something wrong.

Part of the charm of Samurai Champloo is that it’s not at all trying to be deep or masturful. It has no interest in being a cohesive, respectable, or classic work of fiction. Samurai Champloo’s promise is entertainment, but it doesn’t achieve this by appealing to cheap thrills. It’s a show that does exactly what it wants to do and asks you to come along for the ride, no questions asked, and just lose yourself in the fun of it all. My mentor, ghostlightning, once posited that there are seperate genres of “real samurai” and “super samurai” anime, similar to the way that these distinctions exist for mecha anime. Samurai Champloo is an unabashed super samurai show that knows how to be absurd without getting distractingly over-the-top.

I hope you enjoyed this analysis of Samurai Champloo at least half as much as I enjoyed the anime itself, and that you’ll join me again on the next episode of Useless Anime Knowledge, as I continue the Manglobe Rundown project with ERgo Proxy. I’ll see you then.

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