Anyone who is familiar with Shinichirou Watanabe’s directorial style probably always expects something unusual. One of his favourite quirks is the way he likes to take two far-removed themes or ideas and mix them together. Cowboy Bebop, for instance, with its odd mix of jazz and science fiction, had a very unique flavour, and the same is true of Samurai Champloo.
You don’t get anything more seemingly-unrelated than Feudal Japan and hip-hop culture, but Watanabe somehow manages to mix the two in a way that not only works, but brings out the highly contrasting culture of each. The soundtrack is an odd blend of traditional Japanese music and hip-hop, and it’s actually surprisingly coherent, and even catchy. He also somehow manages to make afro-toting samurais, rapping peasants, and Yakuza with chunky gold chains and gold teeth seem perfectly reasonable in the world he has created. Even the word “champloo” is a westernised spelling of the Japanese word “chanpuru”, which apparently means a mish-mash of different things.
The story set in this bizarre hybrid world revolves around three characters, Jin, Mugen, and Fuu. Jin and Mugen are both highly-skilled samurai, but their approach to swordsmanship differs wildly. Jin is very formal and conventional while Mugen uses just about anything he can in his battles, including Capoeira-like acrobatics and metal-plated geta (wooden sandals). The two of them are arrested for accidentally causing the death of a prefect’s son while engaged in a battle to the death with each other, but are released from captivity by a teenage girl named Fuu. Fuu has only one condition: they aren’t allowed to kill each other until they’ve helped her find the person she’s looking for, a samurai who smells like sunflowers. They grudgingly agree to this and end up following Fuu on a journey which leads them through all kinds of wild encounters, including becoming involved in a money counterfeiting racket and getting high after setting a field of marijuana ablaze.
Unlike some other samurai-based anime, the fight scenes in Samurai Champloo aren’t drawn-out, talky affairs. Instead, they’re balls-out action right from the start, and they’re incredibly well animated by anime standards. It takes skilled animators to draw attention to the differences in Jin and Mugens fighting styles visually without having to explain it, and that’s exactly what you’ll find here. Samurai Champloo’s story strolls along at a languid pace, and it often seems like the characters have forgotten their ultimate objective as they become sidetracked during their other adventures. In general, the tone is pretty light-hearted despite the violence, and there’s plenty of good humour in there, but it can be pretty dark and serious on occasions, too. It never feels like it’s dragging on, though, and the events of the moment are always entertaining.
Samurai Champloo isn’t quite old enough to be labelled a classic or old-school anime, but it’s definitely one of the better anime of the last six years, and something anyone whose intake consists mainly of stuff like Bleach and Naruto should consider watching.