What Are You Watching? Samurai Champloo

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EDITOR’S NOTE: What Are You Watching? is a feature series that dives deep into why we love the anime we love. You told us what you were watching, and now we’ll dig into why.

By Tom Speelman

How do you follow up something as perfect as Cowboy Bebop?

After redefining what adult anime could be with that 26-episode mèlange of hot jazz, cool bounty-hunting and sleek action (plus its perpetually underrated feature film spin-off), Shinichiro Watanabe could’ve made anything he wanted, such was his cachet.

But after a debut like that, just how do you follow it up? Do you do something that everyone expects from you? Or do you go your own way?

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Changing the game, again

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Watanabe wound up doing both. It’s clear that Samurai Champloo was a product of the same singular mind behind Spike Spiegel, with its frenetic-yet-composed action, its malleable setup, its crew of lovable main misfits running from their pasts, and an emphasis on music informing the storytelling.

And yet Samurai Champloo was, in some ways, a complete departure. Taking place in a heightened, but nonetheless recognizable Meiji-era Japan (the setting of a thousand chanbara movies, shows and manga before this show) felt to fans and industry experts like Watanabe playing it safe. But, of course, this tale is anything but safe.

Working with the sadly now-defunct studio Manglobe on their first anime production, Watanabe had a mix of hungry, young talent eager to make their mark, and established artists willing to try something new.

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Among them were character designer Kazuto Nakazawa (Case File nº221: Kabukicho, Ergo Proxy), director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Boy and The Beast), screenwriters Keiko Nobumoto and Dai Sato and, in the series’ biggest legacy, a group of international jazz hip-hop producers for the music. Fat Jon, Tsutchie, Force of Nature and the late, great Nujabes brought together a blend of warm sample loops and crisp drum machines, and set in motion the world of “lo-fi hip hop beats to study/relax to” that we still live in today. Without Nujabes and Co., a whole type of music producer might not exist.

Mugen, Jin and Fuu

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But as good as the surface elements of Samurai Champloo are, it’s the characters that make it sing. The series begins when ditzy-yet-shrewd teen waitress Fuu (Ayako Kawasumi, Kari Wahlgren) saves the lives of two ronin: the taciturn, serious, bespectacled “stuff of a thousand period pieces,” Jin (Ginpei Sato, Kirk Thornton) and the bawdy, skirt-chasing, fast-living Mugen (Kazuya Nakai, Steve Blum).

Indebted, the men reluctantly agree to Fuu’s hiring them as bodyguards on her journey to find a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Together, the three embark on a quest that’s at turns heart-stopping, one that forces them to not only reckon with their pasts, but the role of the samurai in a Japan that’s ever-changing.

Like Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is a series of stand-alone adventures that gradually become a wider plot. The series’ best moments are either when the main trio is just hanging out, grousing about their empty stomachs or, as is more often the case, getting separated and winding up in some kind of trouble.

From getting mixed up with zombies to substituting in a baseball game to ending up in a town where warring graffiti artists fight over Fuu while Mugen gets kidnapped by a teacher who forces him to learn how to read—deep breaths—the show goes all over the place and yet still feels grounded.

It all comes together

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That’s due to the perfect blend of music, action and characters that Watanabe and his collaborators excel at. There’s also, if you know your history, some sly social commentary in the series, mostly through Mugen.

Explicitly stated as being from the Ryukyu Islands (which were back then a separate kingdom) and specifically born in a penal colony, Mugen is also implied to be a native Ryukyuan, rather than ethnically Japanese, by his darker skin tone. This very clear “otherness,” combined with his unorthodox style of fighting visually informed by break dancing, is what makes Mugen easily the most fascinating character in the show.

The show gets into heavy themes throughout while still maintaining its core breeziness. It chronicles things like the personhood of sex workers, what being perpetually blinded by greed can do to you, what to do in a world that’s rapidly changing around you and, even in its final episodes (no spoilers!), the historical relationship between Japan and Christianity.

To put it mildly, Samurai Champloo is not Watanabe and Co. resting on their laurels after rocking the world with Cowboy Bebop. Rather, they took advantage of the freedom brought to them by its success and continued making a brash, artistic statement that still holds up over 15 years after it first aired.

If you’ve never seen it or haven’t watched it in a while, dip back into it. You’ll be glad you did.

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