Samurai Champloo Vol.02 Review
Mugen, Jin and Fuu continue their cross-country search for the mysterious "samurai who smells of sunflowers" in Volume two of Samurai Champloo, and their adventure is just getting weirder and weirder with each new destination. This time round our heroes come face-to-face with a naked policeman, randy slave-traders, sleazy drug-dealers, sneaky pickpockets, beatboxing samurai and even a big gay Dutchman!
Compared to the first four episodes of Samurai Champloo, this next batch have considerably less action and bloodshed, but to compensate the comedy is cranked to a whole new level, ensuring that this volume is even more fun than the first. Episode five kicks off with a Dragnet style voiceover from the first of many unforgettable comic creations to appear on this disc: Manzou Sakami. Although there's nothing particularly exceptional about his story - the investigation of a local slave-trading ring where girls are being tricked into posing as ukiyo-e (a popular style of paintings back in period Japan) models then being sold off to rich foreign merchants, the manner with which he goes about business is most certainly anything but conventional. He tells us his nickname is Manzou The Saw, because of his fearsome reputation of slicing away at people with no concern for the blade of his sword, but the truth is he seems to adopt an amusingly twisted, voyeuristic approach to his detective work that suggests he gets a little too much enjoyment out of spying on these lovely young victims. Of course, if you know your samurai iconography you'll immediately recognize that the character is a big homage to Kazuo Koike's Hanzo "The Razor" Itami, who was brought lovingly to life in the 70's by a trilogy of sleazy films from Mr.Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu. Manzou is such an hilarious creation that even though he doesn't really play an active part in the events of this episode – which revolves more around Fuu being kidnapped by the gang - every single one of his appearances is just a great comedic moment for the series, particularly in one scene where he manages to "pop out" in front of Mugen whilst shrieking his catchphrase, teiyande! (Which if you translated literally would mean something like: "Don't talk daft!")
If that character is hard to recover from, Watanabe and his writers hit us with more great comic creations in episode six when the trio finally reaches the capital city of Edo. Mugen and Fuu hit onto the ingenious idea of entering an eating contest to ease their hunger pains and make some easy cash into the process, but Jin is understandably less than amused when he's told they have to hand in their swords to make up the entry fee. The competition itself plays out hilariously like an intense spectator sport complete with brilliantly grandiloquent running commentary, and when Jin bows out very early on - only to start berating Mugen for forcing him into the contest, the event swiftly becomes the comedy highlight of the series so far. The eventual winner is a giant Dutchman named Isaac, who is under the deluded impression that he can pay an incognito visit to Edo. Now the proud owner of their swords, we are treated to an amusing display of the normally-unflappable Jin's desperate side when he jumps at Isaac's suggestion of them earning their swords back by being his tour guide around Edo. Both these characters are of course oblivious to the chaos a large foreign man walking around Edo can cause in an era where contact with foreigners was strictly prohibited in the nation's capital. In one scene the scriptwriters gleefully send up these xenophobic times when the police force hunting down Isaac exclaim: "Here in our land of the rising sun, even if dogs, cats, or even worms are allowed to live, there's no law saying foreigners are allowed to!". This is a really great episode with some side-splitting pastiche of 18th century Japanese culture.
The comedic momentum slows down considerably for the seventh episode when Fuu has her purse stolen by a teenage pick-pocket. As Mugen and Jin tear up the town searching for the insolent thief, Fuu finds out that the criminal, named Shinsuke, has been stealing from townsfolk to buy medicine for his sick mother. Realising there are similarities between Shinsuke's current predicament and her own life, Fuu tries to befriend this young man and reclaim her stolen money, but instead gets drawn into the latest mess his pick-pocketing exploits have created. This episode is the first time important information about Fuu's past has been revealed - including a big hint as to the identity of the mysterious sunflower-samurai she's searching for. Episode seven also features some excellent examples of Watanabe's fondness for unexpected narrative twists.
While the seriousness of Shinsuke's story barely had any time for comedic interplay, the final episode on volume two completely swings the mood back to the hi-jinks of old, when the amusingly conceited Nagamitsu makes his grand entrance. Dressed audaciously in purple – the colour of the Imperial Court – he's been traveling from town to town hoping to make a name for himself by defeating who he perceives to be the strongest swordsman in all of Japan: A bespectacled samurai who goes by the name of Jin. Obviously in those days not many swordsmen wore glasses, so Nagamitsu has been mostly beating up unsuspecting businessmen who vaguely match Jin's description! Naturally it's only a matter of time before his path crosses those of our heroes, but when he does bump into the group Jin has recently pawned his glasses in order to earn some easy cash, and instead of challenging his mortal enemy, Nagamitsu ends up falling for Fuu! There are numerous facets of Nagamitsu's character that are ingeniously comic, like his inherent idiocy, the way his servants provide beatbox backing whenever he makes a grand entrance, and perhaps best of all is his plagiarizing from the storylines of classic samurai films and TV shows when he tries to impress Fuu with his past achievements – a great anachronistic gag for Chambara fanatics. In terms of Nagamitsu's place within the narrative, it's clear he's nothing more than a plot device in order to deliver some much needed exposition about Jin's backstory, but it's a testament to Samurai Champloo's writing that they can go about this in such an entertaining manner. What we learn about Jin provides enough foreshadowing towards plenty of drama and action to come later on in the series, so all we need now is for Mugen's backstory to arrive and do the same. I'll be waiting anxiously for the next volume for this, but one thing's for sure; if volume three is anywhere near as funny as the second, we'll be in for an extremely fun ride!
PresentationThe transfer for volume two is identical to the first, so rather than repeat myself I'll just quote my previous review:
" 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."
Again the same can be said about the audio, so here's the quote:
" 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."
If I perceived any difference in the audio of volume two, then it would have been in the Japanese DTS track, which seemed just a smidgen less aggressive this time round, but then there isn't as much action in this volume in comparison to the first.
Optional English Subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.