I have a feeling this review is going to be about a hundred words long.
Why? Well, come on, be honest. Is there any point in me going into any great length on it? I mean, the minute I answer The Question you’ll be off, either straight to the store to buy a copy, or to your room to lock yourself in and watch reruns of Sailor Moon until you can get over the disappointment (or cultivate enough denial).
It’s the only question that matters, after all. Whether Shinichiro Watanabe has managed with Samurai Champloo what he managed with Cowboy Bebop. It’s funny that an anime director should command the kind of celebrity status that Watanabe does, and therefore suffer all the accompanying pressures to perform usually ascribed to the ‘higher’ art forms. Samurai Champloo was the first title to be licensed outside of Japan before it even went into production in Japan (how’s that for expectation?) and the belief that it would be as good (if not better) than the director’s previous effort was unshakable.
Of course, it’s futile to compare something to anything that’s come before it, particularly if one wants to avoid the normally pointless reiteration of past successes. And part of Watanabe’s success has been to stand out, to walk to the beat of a different drum. As a creator, he seems to be nothing if not an innovator and a risk taker. It would have been beyond disappointing if he hadn’t tried something new with Samurai Champloo. But is it new?
There is the same radical mix of styles that the director handled so brilliantly in Bebop — Rap and Hip Hop fused with feudal Japan, rather than Jazz and Blues with the outer reaches of space. It’s so Watanabe, the idea that anime music can be a quirky, cool, edgy contrast to what’s happening on screen, not just a description of a scene but the whole soul of a series. The Bebop soundtrack, under the inestimable Yoko Kanno’s hands, became cool funk jazzy blue. With talent like Tsutchie (from Shakkazombie) and the stunningly smooth RnB artist Minmi, Champloo is nothing but fresh and new and now.
Then there’s the same devil-may-care characterisation; Mugen might have been cast from the same mould as Spike Spiegal, except where Spike tries not to care and still does, Mugen actually doesn’t care in the first place (well, mostly). He’s all physical chaos and raw edge, a fact that the action directors make full use of in the numerous, awe-inspiring breakdance fight scenes, and the only thing that seems to perk him up above sprawl-mode is the possibility of a good fight.
Which Jin, civilised but decidedly rogue samurai, gives him quite happily on first meeting. This man is a calm surface with dark waters, mysterious and worldly. Or maybe it just seems that way because he doesn’t talk all that much. Fuu, ex-izakaya heart-on-her-sleeve waitress and now bodyguardee to the two unlikely heroes plays referee and tamer both, giving them the direction their lives so obviously lack as she searches for the elusive Sunflower Samurai.
The pattern and tempo of the narrative as well — episodic stories overlaying a longer term vision involving mistakes and pasts and choices and pain, shot with moments of humour and irony — is also a familiar rhythm. There’s a similar sense of cause and effect, of the impact that the three characters deliberately and unknowingly have on the people whose lives they touch in passing. And of course, there’s the overall design style. Bebop drew its stylish inspirations from Film Noir and American Jazz; Champloo is all street, from the scratch-cuts between scenes to the hip graffiti designs of the eyecatches (the stills that lead into and out of the ad breaks). The inventiveness with which Watanabe mixes it up between the old culture and the now culture is endlessly inspiring, subtle one minute (mobile phone straps hanging from Fuu’s kaikan knife) and not so subtle (rap versions of nogaku songs to introduce episodes) the next.
So, roughly one hundred words or so later, you’re still waiting to hear the answer to that question right?
Is Samurai Champloo as good as Cowboy Bebop?