A review by Nick Moran
Listen, everyone likes a good samurai story. You want space samurai? You got it. Pirate samurai? Yup, there’s a show for that. But what about normal samurai? Samurai Champloo is grounded, historic, and pushes the boundaries of historical fiction in a way that feels like it sits in a unique category of its own. Fuu, Jin, and Mugen all come together by chance — like it was the start to a Dungeons and Dragon campaign — and travel across Edo Japan to kill a samurai that smells like sunflowers. And their reward for doing so? Once that’s done, Jin and Mugen can kill each other and we can all live happily ever after.
The entire show revolves around Fuu, Jin, and Mugen’s journey, so it’s only natural that the show is centered around their experiences. What comes off the nose first is how strikingly different each of the characters are. Mugen is a dastardly wildcard from an archipelago of thieves and criminals. Jin is a traditionally-trained samurai who had a falling-out with his dojo. Fuu is a 15-year-old orphan who somehow manages to wrangle the other two to carry out her goal of finding the sunflower samurai.
It’s hard to separate Mugen’s character from Jin because their character goals are to be perfect foils to each other — or two sides of the same coin. In that way, they’re going to be extreme to make that distinction clear, which works until it doesn’t.
I had a really hard time connecting with Mugen because he’s supposed to be fueled by self-interest, food and women, but sticks around to ride with Fuu and for the chance to kill Jin when their quest is complete. With how brash and volatile he is, you’d expect him to just piss off from Fuu and take Jin on, but it never happens. There’s something tying him down, but the show never really tackles that. Is it a love for Fuu? Heck if I know, but it’s hard to believe Mugen has any ties or loyalties at all given the way he acts. What that leaves us with is a cold character that is hard to latch onto other than an admiration for his “cool” factor. But if you like a character just because he’s “cool,” you need to reconsider your attachments or come to terms with the fact that you may as well be a fourth grader.
Jin, on the other hand, is a much more familiar character. The show had a lot of historically-accurate roots, and Jin fits the classic samurai-turned-ronin role really well. His character represents the discipline and patience you’d come to expect, with clear loyalties and driving goals. Jin is just the right balance between mystery and honesty, reserved and decisive. He has truly human moments through the series that develop his character in a way we don’t really see from Mugen. While this further forces that split, it works to Jin’s benefit and Mugen’s detriment.
Fuu is a really tough character to lock down because she does so much between each episode. In one, she’s a plotpoint, which means she’s driving the trio’s story forward. In others, she’s a ditzy trap-magnet that constantly needs saving — and that just feels so lazy to watch. Aside from that, we do see a character who has a lot of depth to her, and it’s really tough to write an emotional character in a coming-of-age role. When she’s not falling into traps or acting as a cheap plothook, Fuu is a really complex, compelling character.
The biggest hole Samurai Champloo has is that there are no strong characters outside of our trio. Sure, there are folks we see for an episode or two, but everything seems so fleeting. However, there are some standout sideline characters that will absolutely stick with you beyond their episode. Aside from that, there isn’t a strong villain, and for a lot of the show, it felt like conflicts were just being made up and thrown at them facelessly — but that’s also a plot issue. Supporting characters all felt very unique, but to a fault at times. While some felt fleshed-out, others felt corny and fluffy. It’s really hard to give every character the attention to detail our main cast has, but it really makes the difference.
So much goes into emotion in a show that it’s hard to pinpoint where my feelings came from. Simply put: the show grabbed me and made me care about the core trio, and I appreciated that. I give credit to the very human moments in terms of dialogue, but also things like the music. The show also weaves in character death super well. A lot of the time, you see shows kill off a guy because… uh… well… they have to. Here, death is purposeful. It represents a power struggle, a triumph or a metamorphosis. Making death significant in a show really bolsters its emotional side.
Let’s take Jin’s duel with an old samurai assassin early on in the series. Plot-wise, Jin is just supposed to be split from Fuu and Mugen for a bit to let them do their thing before being reunited with them to move on. What you get instead is a really open, honest relationship between this old samurai and Jin, who is reserved, but considerate. The writing here alone makes this old man graceful, serene and approachable, which in turn, makes him a freaking awesome assassin. This dude walks with Jin through the rain and is like, “I really enjoyed our evening together, so if I had it my way, I wouldn’t kill you. But that’s business,” and I was just floored by how complex, dynamic and interesting they made a generally meaningless character. The emotional tie then made the battle even cooler.
Overall, emotion is handled incredibly well throughout the show. It bolsters plot points and characters because it feels like each fleshed-out person has their own unique soul. That type of emotional care made me really invested in several elements and episodes.
I’m a simple man. On the first watch of a show, I don’t really care for big ideas or themes. That kind of breakdown reminds me of high school English class, and I couldn’t be bothered to relive those memories. When it comes to shows like there, I usually just let the ideas rise to the top or, even better, a show makes me want to look up the little details and themes. Here, that didn’t really happen.
Because of the setting, there’s an obvious significance placed on honor and duty, which is hard to ignore. I guess there’s an avenue that explores how everyone is bound to something, whether they know it or not, but meh. That idea seems lazy to explore in any medium. It pretty much says “Well, these guys are gonna do this thing because they have to do it.” We’re bound to more things for reasons other than having to do something. That’s usually secondary to relationships, personal values and more.
There’s a less-explicitly explored theme of feeling small, though. To me, I really got the vibe of insignificance as the trio moves from village to village. They start over every time, scrapping for money and being seemingly faceless most of the time. Jin and Mugen are these badass, unkillable swordsmen that piss a whole bunch of people, but in Edo Japan, it’s so insignificant. These two guys are one of many running around it feels like, and there’s never this massive entity hunting them down for no reason, like a lot of shows and movies do.
To do a speed round, the show also tackles ideas of womanhood (which is strikingly different from our world today. Like, duh), balancing romance with duty, forgiveness, growth, acceptance and more. A lot of these ideas are thrown into the mix, but never really stand on their own. Like yes, I could write about how Fuu tries to destroy the boundaries imposed on women in Edo Japan. Yes, there are moments in the show that reinforce this. No, it never feels truly important. These small, minor ideas seem like side characters and none of them are ever really broken down in an episode or two or three. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but there wasn’t enough focus given to big ideas or themes. A lot of the energy was instead poured into the narrative and characters. That’s cool, and it worked for me, but if you’re looking for a lot of simmering to do over a show, you may not find it here.
When I started watching the show, I honestly thought it was only 24 episodes because I didn’t scroll down enough. It ended up being more, but I expected a conclusion at 24. That in mind, the show had its slow points. A lot of it works in vignettes, or little adventures that all add up to the plot. It made the episodes super easy to watch on their own, but it felt like a lot of leg work watching several at a time. I was more than happy to be one-and-done with it. That said, there’s also some episodes that you could just remove and nothing would change. I recognize some of these truly add to character development, but others just weren’t my cup of tea.
Oh, and after episode 24, I desperately looked for an evil plothook or a big bad evil guy or literally anything. I was teased through like 6-8 episodes until there was some semblance of a final villain which was rushed and sloppy. Eh.
Before diving into the show, you have to recognize the animation style for what it is: early 2000s. Personally, I really like the gruff, grainy nature of it all. It kind of reminds me of those Daft Punk music videos, but instead of singing aliens, you’ve got a samurai cutting a dude in half. To be honest, it’s not for everyone. I know there are folks who are going to think it’s old and crappy and sloppy, but I don’t care. You’re the one reading my review, right? Well, there’s a vinyl-like vintage attraction that I really dig surrounding it. I think it even got better with age.
That doesn’t mean it goes without its flaws. Some shots have some sloppy, barely passable animation. Faces are contorted, details are hazy. While that forced you to notice the beautifully-drawn backgrounds, it was still distracting. But let me give a full sentence to the backgrounds: holy cow, were there some beautiful scenes in this show. There’s such a rich dynamic surrounding traveling through different cities in Japan that makes having enticing backgrounds super important and the show handles it incredibly well. Each location feels different, but cohesive (which ties into worldbuilding as well). I salute the art and animation team here.
The world of Samurai Champloo is what it is: Edo Japan. This period, which is like 1600-1850 or so, has all of the cool samurai parts of Japanese culture, but has the added complexity of the rest of the world knocking on Japan’s door to trade, modernize and assimilate. In one episode, you’ve got Hishikawa Moronobu (who painted woodblock softcore porn pretty much) and Vincent Van Gogh referenced back to back. In another, you’ve got Alexander Cartwright, an American athlete known as the founder of baseball. You’ve got the Dutch guys and their wooden cogs and the crazy missionaries trying to push Christianity on the locals. This stuff is all very real, and it’s cool to know writers did their homework.
But the world is slightly augmented here. You see things like tagging popular in cities, but it’s tweaked to describe how it relates to Japanese street clothing (which is super popular today). Being able to accurately turn the real world and its history into a convincing, new story is tough to do as it is. It takes things like voiceovers and snippets to explain them. However, when you can expand upon it in a way that feels tangible, but is slightly askew, it adds so much more depth to it. I really enjoyed looking up more history and seeing themes I knew about in the world grow and change. Japan here felt rich, and I was along for the ride.
Instead of being a tool to set a mood, music is integral to Samurai Champloo, and one of the main reasons I picked up the show. With it’s Nujabes-inspired (and later produced) music, hip hop blends so well into the Edo setting. It’s kind of like oil and vinegar mixing together to make a beautiful salad dressing — yeah, they’re cool on their own and total opposites, but tossing them together was surely the right move. There’s freaking beatboxing, the episode about tagging (which is a 90s, early 2000s idea pressed on the setting) and more that just feel right. When the mood needs to change, Samurai Champloo isn’t afraid to put the hip hop on the back burner for something more sensitive, which shows a musical maturity that doesn’t take away from the show.
And seriously, I couldn’t name a more badass style of music to accompany a samurai-on-samurai battle. These start off slow until they hit decisive moments of blade on blade, and the heartbeat-like tempo fits right in. Orchestra lovers or metal heads, get lost. This is the way to go.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||4||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||5||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||3||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||2||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||3||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||3||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||3||3|
The show does so much right, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t invested in it. However, because it drags you so close, you get picky, and I think if you like anything enough, they deserve the criticism. I will absolutely revisit episodes to watch the midnight rainy duels and the spin-kick combat mixed in with traditional tropes, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The show does a lot of the little things right, and that adds up. It’s different than a lot of contemporary anime I’ve taken note of, which means whether you’re a fan or not, it’s worth a watch.