How do you follow up an instant classic? Within a few short years after its creation, Cowboy Bebop has been heralded as one of the best anime series ever created. With its creative backdrop, its world-weary but friendly characters, and jaw-dropping animation when considering that it was meant for television and not the big screen, it has already found its spot in the lexicon amongst Gundam, Macross, Urusei Yatsura, and Captain Harlock, despite far fewer episodes and incarnations than those impressive titles. But what to do next?
After tackling a couple sections of The Animatrix, director Shinichiro Watanabe went from his tale of intergalactic bounty hunters to one set in the last days of the samurai -- though in what amounts to an alternate history that includes hip-hop references and characters as likely to wear shorts as kimonos. Samurai Champloo is a raging mass of bloody swords, off-the-hook humor, and anachronistic goodness, and for the most part, it is great fun. The central problem is that, whereas Cowboy Bebop was effortlessly cool, Samurai Champloo is a little too self-aware in its desire to be hip. Ultimately, it makes Samurai Champloo a little less than its predecessor, but still quite a worthy show.
Mugen and Jin plan to kill each other. Mugen's a berserker with a foul mouth and a vicious temper who can take down virtually any contender with his speed and insane moves. Jin, on the other hand, is a soft talker who'd prefer to stay out of trouble but can wipe out legions with his unparalleled sword technique. But before their duel can occur, they find themselves in the debt of a teenager named Fuu. A little ditzy and a lot spunky, Fuu is determined to track down a samurai who smells of sunflowers. It sounds like an impossible task, but the unlikely trio hits the road on a journey that will take them circuitously throughout the island nation to find Fuu's mystery man.
On the surface, Samurai Champloo shouldn't be all that impressive. It is, in essence, a "road trip" anime. However, there are many elements that will surprise even jaded anime fans. For one, though the artistic stylings don't have quite the color palate allowed by Bebop, it is still gorgeous. Some episodes look stunning. The music isn't Yoko Kanno, but it is a good symphony of the old and new. I know that a few folks have complained about the rap songs and stylings that permeate the show, but in my opinion, they give it a feel unlike anything else on the market. (And for Adult Swim broadcasts, the most profane utterings of Mugen are not simply bleeped but "scratched" out, which not only pleases my sensibilities but is hysterical in its own right and perfectly within the show's character.)
Now I do have to admit that there are bits of the show that don't quite work, so I'll get them out of the way up front. First, the comedy element of the show is often absurdist, and it's a little too over-the-top. For example, though the concept of "taggers" in 19th century Japan is amusing, it's not all that funny in practice, and having a whole episode about two gangs who put artwork on all sorts of Edo-period buildings is too much. There are a couple of episodes like this where the idea is funny, but not enough to sustain for 22 or so minutes.
Second, the language here is rough. Now this isn't exactly a negative per se; for this show, with its setting and atmosphere, the English dub is actually very appropriate. In fact, overall the English dub is spectacular. After comparing it with the original, I would strongly encourage everyone to forget that this was ever in the Japanese language. But the level of Mugen's profanity, while not out of line for his character, is high throughout the show, and though I'm not ordinarily too sensitive, I appreciated Adult Swim's afore-mentioned "scratches." Admittedly, this dub is still cleaner (and far more apropos) than those on Gantz or Samurai Gun. But it's still big enough to mention.
One offshoot that is reflected within the profanity and comedy is the fact that the show tries just a little too hard. Everything from the hip-hop to the impressive battle scenes is meant to wow the viewer. But there's a fine line where cool is no longer cool, and occasionally Samurai Champloo treads on it. It's a difficult concept to explain, but by way of analogy, it's like the post-punk kid who wears awesome clothes and cares nothing for the attention of the popular kids...but secretly wants to be liked just a little bit by the in crowd. Take that for what you will.
Now that I've got those minor bits out of the way, let me just say that I really loved a great deal of Samurai Champloo. This oddball triangle of three misfits works amazingly well, far better than I expected when the show started. Oddly enough, for characters who appear a bit daft or cold, I grew really attached to them over the course of the show's run. For all the comedy, the show does especially well with the serious plotlines that often weave throughout the episodes, and the heart of the program lies in the personal growth that occurs ever so slightly as the proceedings unfold. They aren't drastically different people by the end of the journey, but they have learned much about themselves in the process.
When the mix of elements works, which is a lot of the time, Samurai Champloo just rocks. Some episodes are a joy to watch from start to finish. The show is willing to explore many areas (such as the persecution of Christians in Japan throughout the 19th century) in unique ways, even if they aren't dead-on historically. And the best stories wind up locked in your memory. One in particular involving a blind musician who's more than she seems is pretty incredible. What's more, though the show is episodic in nature, there a quite a few two-part pieces, and there are some narrative elements that tie the show together in its last fourth. It snuck up on me...by the time the show was over, though not everything worked along the way, I was truly sorry to see it end.
For its minor problems, my grade goes down just slightly, but Samurai Champloo is a fun, fast-paced, beautifully animated trip of a series. If you're willing to set aside the issues the show undeniably has and remember that this isn't the second coming of Spike, Jet, Edward, and Faye, it's a very good ride indeed.
Samurai Champloo -- profanity, brief nudity, violence, adult situations and concepts -- A-