I caught Samurai Champloo as it aired back in 2004, and though I liked it enough, it didn’t impact me as much as I hoped it would. Though maybe that’s not entirely true, as the soundtrack did indirectly change my life, thanks to the composer Nujabes introducing me to instrumental hip hop and providing a soundtrack to my life for the next few years.
I recently re-watched the show and felt compelled to write a retrospective/review of the series. While watching Jin, Mugen and Fuu traipse around 19th century Japan getting into ridiculous adventures, I realised Shinichirô Watanabe’s follow up to Cowboy Bebop is one of the most subversive animes ever made. Taking a staple genre, dressing it up in anachronism, but continually tackling subjects often avoided by the medium.
It takes 25 episodes until a character literally says “I was born in the wrong era.” Champloo is basically saying Japan’s lofty samurai era was actually a crap place to live for common people like us actually thank you very much.
It’s a divisive show that tested the patience of many viewers, drove others away entirely after a few episodes, and frustrated people who were too used to watching a plot move characters forward for 26 episodes. Champloo doesn’t even have characters who move the plot forward. The hook of how the three disparate characters end up travelling together through Edo period Japan is just that, it’s a hook to draw you in.
Samurai Champloo is about, and also not about, three characters hunting a samurai who smells of sunflowers. There’s an episode late into the series which features two street gangs having a graffiti battle across town, and though somewhat amusing also served no benefit towards the journey of the three characters. So if you hop into any forum thread you’ll see a multitude of complaints about it. However, the point of the episode is the same as the theme running throughout the entire show: people from a bygone era rebelling against authority and social norms in a way 21st century people do: through counter-culture.
I’ve gained a new appreciation for this show. It’s been so so long since I saw it, but rewatching it I realise how the story is about how incompatible Tokugawa era Japan is with our way of life; all the things we take for granted were rare luxuries back then. This is an obvious fact for anyone with a remote understanding of Japanese history, but still, the show rams it home with stark contrasts. Each episode highlights a 21st century aspect of our lives, a form of freedom (creative, sexual, geographical, etc) that characters in the 19th century yearned for despite the odds.
It’s set in an era ruled by rigid order, social rules and hierarchies. Stifling to the point of causing grief among the downtrodden populace. Yet a populace we should not treat as foreign aliens. The show asks us to emphasise with them; they were just like us. Some of them had our modern spirit and ultimately struggled to exist in such a society as a result. Our heroes are a ronin, vagabond, and an orphan. Fighting against their era’s rules with a modern spirit.
One of the things I love about this show is how the three characters hate each other for the majority of the 26 episodes, but their hatred gives away inch by inch. They initially try to break apart, to run away from each other, but situations conspire to brig them back together, until a turning point where they actively make a choice to stick together, grudgingly recognising that they are of the same fiery rebellious soul. This is infinitely more satisfying than characters who automatically stick together from the outset. Another theme of Champloo is that travelling a journey with strangers can bring you together like family.
Champloo is more known for its scenes that are juxtaposed with modern quirks such as people beatboxing to humorous and surreal effect, and scene transitions that look like a DJ playing with their deck.
Episode topics try to cover every area that is barely explored by other samurai-era anime that are more concerned with traditional ‘fight evil’ plots (or even movies for that matter) from the prevalence of the yakuza co-existing with samurai, the tragedy of women forced into prostitution to pay off their husbands’ debts, human trafficking in the art world, existence of homosexuality, persecution of Christians and Ainu, and graffiti gangs with too much time on their hands. There’s even a hilarious baseball game with members of an American expedition that predates Commodore Perry’s by a few years.
Champloo features one of the best soundtracks ever, brought to you by Nujabes, whose life was tragically cut short in 2010. Instrumental hip hop might bring to your mind a certain perception of what to expect, but the soundtrack is a mixture of traditional beats with Japanese influence, floating ephemeral sounds constantly conjure a feeling of melancholy, or ‘mono no aware’, the fleeting transience of things.
The appeal of the show is ‘style over substance’, however that is a great discredit to what Champloo accomplishes. All the modern quirks in historical context are not just there to make the show stand out visually. The show is about entertaining this idea, this hope, that even back in Edo era Japan there were open-minded people fighting for creativity, individuality and basic human rights. Sure, most of them didn’t last long, but they didn’t die without a fight. Banzai!