Samurai Champloo Vol.01 Review
Samurai Champloo must be one of the most hotly anticipated anime releases to hit western shores in quite some time, coming as it does from Shinichiro Watanabe - the man who created the classic anime series, Cowboy Bebop. Bebop is the kind of series that needs no introduction to anime fans, drawing inspiration from all sorts of various film and musical genres to create a veritable compendium of pop-culture in just one twenty-six episode season, it became an instant phenomenon in Japan when it hit airwaves back in 1998. Two years later it repeated this success on DVD here in the west, but Watanabe maintained a relatively low profile and only sat back into the director's chair to create two shorts for The Animatrix in 2003. Later that year the news we all wanted to hear arrived, Watanabe was finally going to unleash a new TV series on the Japanese public and this time he was going to submit his own special spin on the jideigeki genre. However, when fans heard that this was going to be something of a Hip-Hop spin, eyebrows across the globe were raised en masse.
Set sometime near the middle of the Edo Era (1625-1878) the series revolves around three characters, a young girl named Fuu and two powerful swordsmen named Mugen and Jin. Their serendipitous meeting occurs in a rundown teahouse, where Fuu is having a hard time dealing with a gang of young punks who are acting up because their leader happens to be the son of the local Governor. None of the locals can say anything to them for fear of being executed, but then in walks Mugen. He's from an extremely remote region of Japan where the usual rules of social conduct aren't common knowledge, and his extremely brash confrontational manner only spells trouble for this arrogant gang. He makes a deal to take care of them for Fuu in exchange for a good feed, but before he can earn his meal, Jin arrives to interrupt the proceedings. In stark contrast to Mugen, Jin is a deeply introspective and intelligent Samurai who lives strictly by the Bushido code, but none of that matters to Mugen, he just likes to fight strong men - and Jin certainly fits that bill. Turning his attention to this newcomer, Mugen and Jin get down and dirty in an impressive display of swordsmanship, but the chaos this produces results in a burned down teahouse and a trip downtown for the prodigious pair.
With Mugen and Jin facing execution for their crimes, Fuu sneaks into the local prison to offer the duo a deal: She'll help them break out if they promise to put their rivalry on hold long enough to help her find a Samurai from her childhood who she remembered smelt strongly of sunflowers. The duo have no choice but to agree, and when Fuu lives up to her side of the bargain, Mugen and Jin at last find some common ground in their debt of honor, and join Fuu in an epic journey of discovery. Yeah, right – That's only if she can keep these two from killing each other along the way!
Like its famous predecessor Samurai Champloo doesn't have much of a recurring narrative bar Fuu's quest to find a Samurai who smells of Sunflowers. Each new episode usually revolves around some sort of mess one of the characters have gotten themselves into, or their never ending fight against hunger and poverty. The plots tend to remain very basic and intentionally derivative of the Samurai serials of old – Zatoichi in particular. Episode one covers the meeting of the group and the start of their journey, the second episode sees one of the punks that Mugen thwarted in Fuu's teahouse plot revenge by enlisting the help of a humongous prisoner who has been hounded all his life because of his appearance, and the final two episodes use the archetypal set-up of Mugen and Jin being enlisted into rival Yakuza gangs at war for control of their town. Yet while there is a definite feeling that Watanabe, together with chief writers Dai Sato and Shinji Obara are reveling in their homage to these classic plotlines, they don't just rest on these laurels and ingeniously re-invent the genre by chucking a constant stream of anachronisms and imaginative stylistic flourishes into this classical world.
First up are the central characters of Mugen and Jin, the latter being the traditional view of a samurai hero: stoic, well-educated, refined and a meticulous Kendo practitioner. Mugen on the other hand is the contemporary Ying to Jin's classical Yang, for a start he isn't even a samurai, he has no formal sword technique to speak of, and his attitude is hilariously curt and rebellious – just like most of today's youth. The culture clash between these two characters not only symbolizes the clash between traditional and modern Japanese values, but it is also hilariously entertaining to see these strong men bickering like spoilt teenagers wherever they go. The real teenager of the group, Fuu is the heart of the series and the glue that keeps the group together. Although her character is far more conventional than Mugen's, she's an excellent realization of a rather ordinary, intelligent teenager stuck in extraordinary circumstances.
Shinichiro Watanabe's strong sense of style reinforces these characters perfectly. The world they inhabit at first looks like traditional view of Japan in the Edo Era but look closely and you'll spot a tonne of anachronistic touches. Never is this more obvious than in his incorporation of scratchy time-skipping editing to weave the individual narratives together and the extremely quirky character designs that come courtesy of Kazuto Nakazawa. Their re-imagining of traditional Japanese fashion is sublimely chic, for instance Jin wears a pair of fashionable semi-rimmed spectacles and many of the passing characters display various hip-hop stylings, like trendy bleached hairstyles, fashionable facial piercings and lots of bling – one character even sports an Adidas style Yukata! However most of the best touches are reserved for Mugen's character, he comes adorned in suitably baggy clothing and a sword that is fitted with a double-pronged hilt to make it look like some bastard cousin of the Sai. His fighting style is also ingeniously contemporary, coming across as sword-fighting through break-dancing, the only real martial system that comes close to it is the Brazillian art of Capoeira. Best known in the west for his work on the animated sequences to Kill Bill, Nakazawa's designs for Samurai Champloo are wiry but powerful, and also working in the capacity of Animation Director, he ensures the fight scenes remain tremendously fluid and exciting. His work on Champloo is every bit as essential as Watanabe's.
One of the most famous aspects of Cowboy Bebop was Yoko Kanno's epic Jazz-themed soundtrack, for Champloo Watanabe chose to go with a collaboration between a group of hip-hop artists, and while their work here fails to match the giddy heights of Kanno's work, they've created an extremely evocative and subtle soundtrack to accompany the dramatics and not once does it feel out of place or unnatural in Watanabe's world. This sums Samurai Champloo up beautifully as a series, every single aspect of its production seems to combine so effortlessly it makes you wonder why there aren't more shows like this made. The truth is that there just aren’t many directors out there with the talent to pull it off. Shinichiro Watanabe has not only managed to live up to the considerable expectations heaped upon him after Cowboy Bebop, he's managed to breathe fresh life into one of the most iconic genres of Japanese film and TV.
Although this review is for the standard release of Samurai Champloo: Vol.01, there is a more expensive limited release that comes with a free bandanna and fancy artbox to store subsequent volumes in.
Presented anamorphically in the original 1.78:1 ratio, this is a glorious mostly-progressive transfer from Geneon. Champloo's colour scheme regularly switches from the earthy tones of interiors to vibrant exterior settings and vivid sunset vistas, yet every single shade is rendered beautifully on this disc, with no compression problems and zero colour bleed, but there are occurrences of some minor digital banding on lower-resolution displays. This is about the only niggle to mention though, composite artifacts like cross-colouration do not exist and detail remains consistently high and free of Edge Enhancements. The print used is in pristine condition and the contrast and brightness levels are excellent, this is reference stuff.
With a choice of either the original Japanese in either DD2.0 Surround or DTS5.1 or an English dub in DD5.1, there are plenty of options for fans to sink their teeth into. The DTS track is unsurprisingly the most aggressive of the bunch and should give any sound system a good work out. Dialogue is clean and smooth, and dynamics are impressive, with each audio element remaining clear throughout. Bass lines are punchy but very tight and the soundfield is open and immersive, with only occasional but effective use of the rears during the action sequences. In comparison the DD2.0 is not nearly as aggressive, but it does have some impressive stereo soundstaging and the dialogue is crisp and clear. The English DD5.1 track runs the Japanese DTS very close, but it's not quite as aggressive and its bass is noticeably looser.
As for the English dub, well for the most part it's rather excellent, especially when it comes to the supporting cast, who all do a brilliant job of fleshing out the Champloo world in English. The leads aren't quite as impressive as some of the supporting players - particularly Kirk Thornton as Jin, who manages to suck all the humour out of the character with an unbearably dreary performance. Jin is meant to be dry, but this guy takes it to terminal level. In comparison Kari Wahlgren is much better as Fuu and although she plays it rather forcibly "girly" she suits the part reasonably well. For Mugen Geneon have drafted in Steve Blum, who will forever be known as the guy who played Spike in the Bebop Dub. I have to confess to not being the biggest fan of Blum's work – yes he has a very cool voice, but his range is very limited and he's been miscast many times in the past. However, the role of Mugen suits his style right down to the ground and he's by far the best out of the leading players.
Optional English subtitles are included, and aside from one or two typos, the spelling and grammar remains excellent throughout.
Just the usual selection of fluff features here I'm afraid. First up is the "Battle Cry" Promo, which is simply a brief clip montage from the first episode set to the main theme music. Next are two short Teaser Trailers and finally Geneon Previews for Appleseed, Gungrave, and Saiyuki Reload.
Watanabe proves he's not a one-hit-wonder with his second fully-fledged anime series. Samurai Champloo is a brilliantly inventive and extremely witty cocktail of classical and contemporary genres that I'm sure will be regarded as every bit a modern classic as Cowboy Bebop is. Geneon's R1 release provides a first rate transfer and excellent audio options, which makes this release a no-brainer, it's a must for any fan of Anime!