Previously, we explored a basic formula for anime of the sports variety, but like any truly deep medium, anime has many tricks up its sleeve. Anime is our best bet at looking inside Japanese culture, but it is also a comfortable vessel from which Japan views the rest of the world. In making this observation, we are all set to look at a cultural artifact that has been created for both the Japanese and outsiders alike. Samurai Champloo is the anime in question today and we’re going to see just how it juxtaposes traditional and contemporary concepts and narratives, while also having the best opening theme in anime ever.
Samurai Champloo creator Shinichiro Watanabe is a tour-de-force in Japanese anime circles. If Hayao Miyazaki is the beloved Steven Speilberg type then Watanabe is the genre-bending, pop-culture reference dropping manic Quentin Tarantino type. He seamlessly integrates anime and manga with music and influences from other worlds. Watanabe is best known for Cowboy Bebop, a free-flowing space opera inhabited by a gang of bounty hunters and the most atmospheric jazz you’ll ever hear.
Samurai Champloo, on the other hand, is rooted in a magical realism-tinged vision of a period of Japanese history (specifically, the Edo period) that is flooded with hip-hop beats. Now, I realize that we have plenty of examples throughout world cinema of film merging with music. However, what Watanabe does with Samurai Champloo goes a step further than most.
The basic plot of Samurai Champloo is built on a very hastily assembled trio. One could argue that the main character is the ditzy and insecure Fuu, with her quest to find “the Samurai who smells like sunflowers”. Fuu was flung headlong into her quest as the tea shop she worked in was chanced upon by a wild-looking ruffian named Mugen, who picked a fight with a local goon/yakuza type (I forget which) and the whole thing escalated quickly.
Somehow, the urbane and ever-so-sophisticated Jin, who was just passing by, got involved in this crazy brawl and squared off with both the goons and Mugen. The place burns down and the goons manage to chase the two around before capturing them both. Fuu makes the decision to leave on her quest to find the “Samurai who smells like sunflowers” now that her place of work has burned down, but she needs help on her journey. She decides to free the two swordsmen who are now waiting to be executed by the goon squad. Fuu rescues Mugen and Jin, on the one condition that they help her on her quest. The trio maintain an uneasy relationship throughout the rest of the show. Zip zap zoom, day is saved, episode one is in the bag and Bob’s yer uncle.
The rest of the 25 episodes are about the quest through Japan to find the “samurai who smells of sunflowers” but nobody watching this show really cares about that. Why you should be watching this show is because of the craft and story behind this gem of an anime. As stated previously, this show is an anachronistic take on the Edo period in Japan that lasted from 1603 to 1868. Without going into too much detail about what can be considered one of Japan’s greatest eras, here are some excellent key developments from then. The Edo period is named after the old name for Tokyo. The old capital of Japan has always been Kyoto but when Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of all of Japan, he moved the seat of power and the kingdom’s capital to Edo. This place was a tiny fishing village but it soon turned into the biggest city the world had ever seen.
The Edo period was akin to the Renaissance in Japan, with war in the kingdom almost coming to a complete end. The country was closed off from the outside world with trade taking place only with the Dutch at a few designated ports in Japan. Nobody left Japan and nobody came in, which made the whole thing rather weird. This is the era where arts, culture and society truly flourished, such Ukiyo-e (pictures of the “floating world”, little postcard paintings that depicted Japan as the “floating world”, look it up). Kabuki, fireworks, brothels, manga and a whole lot more came to be during the Edo period. Society become more open about sex, samurai and social constructs, so it is no surprise that the Japanese are profoundly influenced by this period. And the ultimate highlight reel of the Edo period is Samurai Champloo.
Fuu, Mugen and Jin manage to meet and play around with almost every single aspect of this explosive time in Japanese history. It’s like making a single season TV show about the Renaissance and meeting Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Francis Bacon and Hieronymous Bosch in consecutive episodes. And remember, all this happens with the most exquisite hip-hop score playing in the background.
Legendary producer Nujabes provided the score and original music for this show with the help of numerous other players such as Fat Jon, tsutchie, Shing02 and more. The show is infused with bright colours that pop even more with a nod to the Edo period art influences, and hip-hop is more than just a gimmick here. Every so often, you’ll catch glimpses of hip-hop and street culture in Samurai Champloo. Whether, it is random beatboxing side characters, an entire episode around street art and graffiti or just street fights, there is no question that hip-hop has somehow invaded Edo period Japan.
This show is so bold in how it presents the different cultures that the name is in fact a dead giveaway for what you should be really looking out for. “Champloo” in Watanabe’s area of Japan means, “To mix together” and that’s exactly what the show is. We can review and talk about the characters, their arcs and journeys but the star of the show is the setting. The story is entertaining enough and the folks we see in it are impressive as well but don’t get too hung up on finding “the samurai who smells like sunflowers”. He’s not why you should be watching this show. You need to watch this show to see how crazy Japan could have been with a dash of hip-hop to make it interesting. If only history class was this colourful and utterly bonkers.
Scribe: Siddhant Mehta
Captain's Log: Siddhant Mehta is the editor at large at Geek Fruit. You can talk to him on hiw Twitter, @Siddhant_Mehta.