Miscellanea and Ephemeron
11/13/2005 Archived Entry: "Anime reviews: Samurai Champloo, Vol. 2 and 3"
Review by Kelly S. Taylor
At first, when you hear the rap theme music paired with the wood-block print-like graphics of the Samurai Champloo's introduction, you're going to think, "What an interesting choice the translators have made here..." Nope. The rap is original. These people are serious about their anachronisms. Shinichiro Watanabe, who also worked on Cowboy Bebop and the Animatrix, directs the series. Chief designers include Kazuto Nakazawa (Kill Bill Vol.1) and Mahiro Maeda (Last Exile, Blue Submarine No. 6). If you can mentally combine the quirky, hip attitudes of all these projects into one very quirky, very hip series and set it in feudal Japan, you've got Samurai Champloo.
This is one anime that lives up to its "mature" rating because it's truly a narrative for grown-ups -- not just because they throw in some cuss words and nekkid cartoon ladies. The basic premise is simple. Fuu, a teenaged girl, enlists the aid of two rogue warriors Mugen, and Jin, to track down a samurai who smells of sunflowers. (Do sunflowers have a smell?) After that, things get funky. In these two volumes, they encounter such diverse personas as a gay Dutch trader who tries to pass as Japanese because he thinks Japan is the capital of Man Love, a blow-hard warrior who travels with his own human beat-box so he can rap his challenges, and a group of war-like monks who plan to use marijuana to conquer the world. The humor of the series, although outrageous, is not the zany-goofy-stupid stuff of most anime. Samurai Champloo's humor is much like that of the Kill Bill series -- subtle, off-kilter, and often juxtaposed against extreme violence.
The series is not merely humorous, though. Some episodes, such as the one in which Jin has a brief affair with a woman whose husband has sold her into prostitution or the one where Fuu forms a bond with a doomed young pickpocket are bittersweet and poignant. This picaresque series is hard to put into the box of any established genre. It's a historical drama with surprisingly modern elements smoothly integrated. It's an action series that doesn't glorify violence. It's a comedy that's often very sad. It's its own thing.
From a short description, the characters seem to be standard issue. Fuu is a na´ve, capricious female. Mugen is a rebel without a cause. Jin is the strong and silent type. In practice, however, they are remarkably three-dimensional and unique. Fuu is simultaneously intuitive and flighty, greedy and generous, romantic and hardheaded. Mugen is pure anarchy, continually wobbling the line between wonderful and despicable. Jin is a jaded ronin, who despite himself still hopes for a redemption that he knows will never come.
If you've read other articles by me, you know be for a subtitle-hugging, Japanese language version snob. Don't take it lightly, therefore, when I say that I found no significant difference between the original voice acting and the English dub. Perhaps because they are asked to interpret well-written dialogue instead of Dragonball Z-style grunts and groans, the English language actors do a wonderful job of bringing their lines to life. The voice director skillfully chose performers with pitch and tones very similar to the originals. I've got to admit, when voice direction and acting is this good, I'm like the rest of you. "Screw the subtitles!" I will shout like a normal person on the happy day that all English dubs reach this level of quality. "Who wants to read when they don't have to?"
The artwork, though bold and graphic, is more subtle and nuanced than the average anime. Samurai Champloo seems to owe more to Ukiyo-e than to Walt Disney. Character design is executed in simple clean lines, but never descends to the merely cute. The series' color palette includes the usual fire engine reds and lime greens, but frequently dips into sepia tones as well.
The DVDs are attractively packaged. The cover and incidental art is feudal-fabulous. Don't ignore the inserts inside the front cover. Open them up for stylishly presented essays from the creative team. In Volume 2, Fat Jon, DJ Kent, and KZA talk about writing the wonderfully distinctive soundtrack. Volume 3 gives writer Dai Sato a chance to discuss the freedoms and restrictions of writing a historical drama in which one "researches, then throws the research away." As is true of most collections of episodes from an anime series, Samurai Champloo's "Extras" section is fairly stingy. Line art galleries are the only real "bonus" material there. However, since the liner notes pleased me so much, I won't complain.
Overall, there's precious little to complain about in Samurai Champloo. It's a brilliantly creative series whose sophistication doesn't overwhelm its offbeat playfulness. In short, Samurai Champloo is what every anime should want to be when it grows up.
The Wapshott Press
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