Samurai Champloo: Volume 1 Review

Take the Hip-Hop stylings of today and fuse them with traditional samurai action from the Edo period, along with striking societal comparisons and you get Samurai Champloo - the latest from acclaimed storyteller, Shinichiro Watanabe. While it hardly sounds like the most logical choice, Watanabe has somehow managed to tap into the huge Hip-Hop craze that has taken over Japan in recent years. Walk down most streets and you’ll find an entire culture of youths all baggied up and giving off their own unique brand of attitude, much like their friends overseas. Certainly Samurai Champloo holds huge relevance toward today’s standards and yet it also grounds itself in a period that has been made famous throughout the past 80 years of Japanese cinema, while retaining the classic fundamental values of code and honour.

The series starts off by introducing us to a young girl named Fuu. Although she’s bright and energetic her job requires little more than her waitressing skills at a small, shabby tea house. Being very attractive she’s susceptible to plenty of attention and her small stature sometimes means that looking out for herself can be a hard task. On one particular day a gang of thugs sit inside the tea house causing a ruckus and hurling abuse at customers and staff. Soon a young out-of-towner by the name of Mugen enters the house and notices this spot of bother that faces Fuu. Mugen offers to clear out the tea house and take care of the thugs in exchange for fifty dumplings - quite a sum. When Fuu is soon threatened she agrees to supply Mugen with his quota, to which he promptly responds to. As he fights his way through he is soon interrupted by a quiet samurai named Jin. Mugen becomes interested by the thought of squaring up to a worthy foe and a fight between the pair ensues, while the tea house falls down around them. However they’re eventually caught by the authorities and are sentenced to be executed the following sundown. Fuu realises that these two men are the only hope that she has to find someone very special to her. One night she offers to break the bickering duo out of their cell, if they agree to do one thing for her - find the samurai who smells like sunflowers. With little choice but to accept they find themselves hooking up with Fuu and setting off to find her elusive samurai. Things are not about to get easier for our heroes…


First impressions of Samurai Champloo‘s opening episode are mixed. It has style, grace, beautiful animation and fun characters - but what’s with the Hip-Hop? Well as the writers would tell you they basically don’t give a shit. Samurai Champloo defies super-convention in that it introduces an element which ordinarily would feel so out of place, but somehow ends up being realistically implemented into the overall ideals of its creator and writers. Granted the opening theme does little to hold the attention of those who are not hardcore Hip-Hop fans, even though the lyrics sum up the life of the samurai during such a difficult period pretty well. Aside from some stunning animation it’s an entirely skipable affair which initially offers little hope. However it becomes clear that after approximately ten minutes, this new style of storytelling through modern cultured music is vital to the overall flow of the series. And so instead of relying on a single composer to carry the series’ themes we have in fact several collaborators; from the likes of Forces of Nature, Fat Jon, Nujabes and Tsutchie. If you listen even closer you’ll begin to hear moments of light jazz as it mingles its way into to forefront of many an action sequence. So fear not; with that in mind the series can take you on a fun ride, and like its music it offers plenty more fresh opportunities.

Of course the music compliments Samurai Champloo‘s blistering action, which is quite stunning in its execution. The unique dance style, which Mugen seems to adopt whole heartedly makes for some impressive breakdance movements, that are fluidly represented. Jin’s fighting style is much more reserved and traditional; he’s not the maniac that Mugen is when he’s firing on all cylinders, and yet his moments are equally as enhanced visually. Unlike a handful of classical period samurai tales where duels are carried out in lingering, static fashion Samurai Champloo embraces a modernized approach. Watanabe brings us some incredibly impressive camera techniques - or rather the frames which accompany each action set piece - designed to involve the viewer, and in turn give off a realistic quality. This freestyle method of directing means that the intensity of each fight is captured in frantic fashion, which makes for some dizzying excitement. Clearly the series has an impressive budget and if anyone is guilty of using up every last penny then it’s Shinichiro Watanabe.


Character designs are equally as impressive. There’s nothing particularly striking about our leads in the way that they dress, save for some slight alterations in order to bring them into semi-modern fashion. It’s the bad guys that tend to come across as being the uber-trendy. The opening episode, which kicks off the tea house showdown introduces several characters who are amusing for several reasons. There’s the bleached hair which Takeshi Kitano opted for in his modernised take on the Zatoichi series, tracksuit style yukatas and ridiculous jewellery that makes for an interesting culture clash. So naturally the aforementioned youth of old are painted in a none too different light than they would be several centuries later. Samurai Champloo‘s contemporary inspirations rarely draws criticism in terms of relevance, when placing them in the context of this feudal era.

Moving on then to the actual content of the series, things are fairly straightforward. The series doesn’t appear to be interested in getting too convoluted, which is good as it means we can simply enjoy watching Mugen, Jin and Fuu head out on their journey. It’s this area that borrows quite heavily from past film and television, though with a new spin it is often rewarding to see inspirations being put to good use. To start with we have our initial set up which introduces the main players. It’s all very exciting as the disjointed narrative provides us with a scene which ultimately takes place at a later time in the episode. From here we get an insight into Jin and Mugen’s predicament, without the plot giving away any deep insights. In fact very little of this opening volume provides any background and reasoning behind these characters’ motivations. The driving force right now is to establish them in a world they must fight against in order to move on in life. With Mugen, Jin and Fuu banded together the series then moves along quite leisurely as it goes from standard fare to offering a very early 2-parter. So with episode 2 our heroes find themselves going up against assassins and ogres, which brings about some nice inspiration from the likes of Mary Shelley and several notable Japanese pioneers. Episodes 3 and 4 instantly become familiar; with their gambling dens, turf wars and brothels, while Jin acts as a bodyguard for the young Sousuke. More than ever these codes of honour come into play as rival factions try to settle scores in their own way.

Volume 1 manages to end events on a positive note and has so far set up the series in a positive light, without going into major detail. From here we’re left to wonder where Mugen, Jin and Fuu will end up. Will they ever find the samurai who smells of sunflowers? Time will tell, and I’m sure their adventures are about to get a whole lot more exciting.


Episodes

#1 Tempestuous Temperaments
Fu is a young waitress, who works at a shabby tea house. One day a gang on thugs decide to cause a bit of fuss, that is until a stranger named Mugen turns up to intervene. Being brash and hot headed he offers to dispose of these brutes in exchange for food. Soon a fellow samurai named Jin walks in on the fighting and winds up facing off with Mugen, after cutting down several bodyguards. As the pair fight the tea house burns around them and soon they’re captured and sentenced to death. It’s up to Fuu to try and save the day if she’s to ever convince these men to help her locate a samurai who smells of sunflowers.

#2 Redeye Reprisal
One of Mugen’s past foes returns - and he’s pretty pissed at having lost an arm. He teams up with a hulk known as Oniwakamaru, who the locals fear as being an ogre. But Onikawa is a misunderstood man, and only Fuu can appreciate his nicer qualities. Meanwhile an assassin is sent after Jin, while Mugen decides to help out some locals by pursuing this so called ogre.

#3 Hellhounds for Hire - Part 1
It seems that Mugen and Jin are already fed up of travelling through Japan with Fuu, and so they decide to run off and leave her to her own devices. In an unlucky turn of events they both find themselves on opposite sides of a nearby town, where a major turf war is taking place. Fuu has been thrown into a brothel, and a young boy named Sousuke sets out to rescue his sister who is also suffering alongside Fuu.

#4 Hellhounds for Hire - Part 2
With the war coming to an end a gambling match is set up which will determine the fate of those involved. Who will triumph in this game about life and death? Let’s just hope that Fuu is a good dice roller.


The DVD

MVM brings us Volume 1 of Samurai Champloo here in the UK. The disc is nicely presented, with some very attractive menus, particularly the main one with the mantis bobbing its head, backed by some Hip-Hop grooves.

A/V

Presented in its natural 1.78:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, Samurai Champloo looks absolutely gorgeous. This is without a doubt one of the finest transfers that I’ve seen to date for an anime series. Colours throughout the series consist of very warm hues, with black levels looking very pleasing. Detail is considerably high and every portion of the quality animation is complemented greatly. With many a prior release banding has been an issue, but I saw practically none of it here. Likewise Edge Enhancement has been kept at bay and there is so very little to fault.

For sound we get three audio options. In a rare case for anime series we have a marvellous Japanese DTS 5.1 track, along with Japanese 2.0 and a newly created English 5.1 Surround. Naturally I opted straight for the Japanese DTS track, and it sure does impress. The series’ Hip-Hop score gets a good amount of exposure throughout the surround channels, while dialogue is suitably forwarded to the central speaker and remains crisps and clear throughout. The rears get a healthy amount of effects work, particularly during the impressive sword fights, in addition to creating some nice ambient effects. The English 5.1 option is a very respectable rival to the DTS option, but lacks that extra punch. Not much should be expected of the Japanese DD2.0 option, although it does a nice enough job of maintaining surround coverage. As for which is best out of the Japanese as English dub - well that’s a matter of taste so I shall let the viewer decide.

Optional English subtitles are included. These read very well with little in the way of error. They come in two streams, one of which translates signs and songs only.

Extras

There isn’t too much in the way of goodies here, which is too bad.

“Battlecry” Promo Video (1.30)
This is a nice looking promo reel, accompanied by the main theme. Various clips show off plenty of enticing action, which is enough to ensure folk will check it out.

30sec Teaser Trailer
A very stylish piece, mixing animation from the show and arty backdrops, which come in washes of reds and blues.

15sec Teaser Trailer
A shortened version of the above teaser.

MVM Previews
Trailers for R.O.D. The TV and Gun Grave are all you’re getting here.


Overall

Samurai Champloo is certainly unique in concept, even if it follows some simple, by the numbers rules. Initial reactions were mixed upon seeing several jarring techniques being put into effect, but like all good things it is just its own way of preparing an enticing journey. This is a funny, warm and energetic series, complete with likeable characters, which deserves to be checked out immediately.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
2 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 23/06/2018 08:38:44

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