From Shinichiro Watanabe, the writer/director of 'Cowboy Bebop,' utilizing the art/design of Kazuto Nakazawa, most recognizable for his work on 'Kill Bill volume 1,' comes 'Samurai Champloo,' an anime of epic revisionary historical reference. Set in Japan's Edo period, the show blends modern hip hop influences into the landscape and characters, creating a unique vision of the past, with a mood akin to the popular 'Afro Samurai' series.
This is a tale of self discovery. A youthful waitress named Fuu enlists the assistance of a pair of vastly differing samurai in her search for "the samurai who smells of sunflowers." Mugen is the wild child of the bunch, a breakdancing, fluid artist with a blade, with a demeanor not befitting the wild grace of his sword movements, while Jin is the reserved ronin, classically trained, with traditional blade movements and personality traits befitting of a proud warrior. Their journey will be plagued with missteps and odd characters, some good, some evil, but as time goes by, the trio will discover that the friendship they unwittingly forge is possibly the greatest payoff.
'Champloo' has a tough act to follow, as Watanabe's previous work is considered in some circles to be one of the best anime created, in terms of story and soundtrack. While coming nowhere close to the legacy and power of its predecessor, 'Champloo' still has great appeal, with an immersing story line, a subversive sense of humor, and a fantastically twisted eye toward history, while not caring if it strays from a proven formula.
The character interaction is strong, as the three protagonists are introduced in the first episode, with a split tale converging in a dual between the two soon-to-be partners. Each of the three leads have fully fleshed out backstories (that are slowly revealed through the show, though oft alluded to), creating the ability to understand each character and their passions through little wasted time (in fact, each back story moves the plot forward, a novelty, to be sure). You come to expect things from characters, and telegraph actions before they happen, which may seem trivial, but it shows the connection that the show can instill into its viewers. Whether the current episode features gang warfare, pin-up trafficking, an eating competition or other contest, or even samurai feuds, you know what you're going to get from the trio, though the slight changes in all three (all for their betterment, of course) do lead to some small surprises. The ways each don't fit in to the society around them, partially from the altered history element of the show, and partially due to their own idiosyncrasies, is telling.
The plot meanders, somewhat in 'Bebop' fashion, creating a show that doesn't have to be viewed sequentially, with individual episodes that can be appreciated for their tale outside of the larger arc, though many move the story forward in baby steps, light hints, clues, references and allusions. Sure, some episodes stop the story dead, particularly in the second season (the eighteenth episode on), with tales of zombie laborers and the precursor to baseball taking entire episodes with zero plot progression (though, honestly, 'Baseball Blues' has some of the funniest scenes in the story, and has some truthful insights into the game, like dog batter, with a tiny strike zone mimicking the real life Eddie Gaedel, a midget pinch hitter).
The trip through a twisted interpretation of Japanese culture and history has more downfalls than just the occasional non-sequitor episode. I judge any anime's strength by that of it's antagonist (if any exists), and that's the biggest downfall in the series. The early episodes have minor villains who take up an episode or two, but besides the quest for the sunflower smelling samurai (who isn't a known hero or villain for the majority of the show), there is no recurring character even referred to. The rulers of the country and their henchmen play the occasional part, but they're sparse, and therefore cannot be the villains. By the time the final set of episodes come along, a series of villains step up and change the story, as the only few who have ever been able to put a hurting on Mugen and Jin. It seems convenient, that suddenly the few men and women who could hold their own show up at the end (just like RPG's are loaded with weak villains and bosses in the beginning...), with no backstory, no reference or hint in the show, and we're supposed to care.
Additionally, the ending of 'Samurai Champloo' is an extreme cop out, and reminded me of the 'G.I. Joe' animated movie. History lesson time: After the death of Optimus Prime in the theatrical 'Transformers' cartoon movie created plenty of upset customers, the 'G.I. Joe' animated feature also had a prominent character (Duke) face his mortality. Ultimately, Duke survived a poisonous snake stab through the heart, in what felt like a move to avoid further upsetting the audience. 'Champloo' feels just like that. The finale of 'Cowboy Bebop' did close some doors, to never be reopened (as the film adaptation had to take place between episodes rather than after the series took place), but it did so with grace and power, with the conflict between hero and villain reaching an emotional and physical climax. This finale feels cheap, forced, and like it would have been done justice if it went the 'Bebop' route, regardless of fears of repetition. The payoff in one show is golden. The payoff in this show, fool's gold.
'Samurai Champloo' tries to be everything to everyone, with a mix of random stories and themes that can be related to by many groups, cultural or otherwise. The tales and misadventures of religion, killers, assassins, even baseball playing yankees may not all appeal to the same viewer, but fans of the genre are sure to find plenty of nods and fun situations, and characters to root for. Sure, the show takes the easy way out a few times (a clip show? Really?), but even then, we find out how much time has elapsed in the tale, to get a better sense of the danger the characters are living in, making it worthwhile, if even for something so minor. While an unworthy predecessor to Watanabe's masterwork, 'Samurai Champloo' is still a very good series, for anime fans or film fans alike.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Samurai Champloo' arrives on Blu-ray from FUNimation on a three disc set, housed in a slide out box. There are two disc cases, with the first housing two discs (with disc one sporting episodes 1-9, the second 10-18), and the third in its own case (containing episodes 19-26). The set is reported to be Region A locked. There is a single pre-menu trailer on each disc, but all three are skippable through the top menu button.
"The absence of proof does not always mean the proof of absence."
Before 'Samurai Champloo' even hit stores, there was already buzz about the release, with rumors of excessive DNR application purportedly ruining the detail levels of the program, with off color depth. Was the buzz accurate (think 'Gangs of New York'), or were rumors of its demise a "tad" exaggerated ('Gladiator')?
Perhaps a little bit of both.
With an AVC MPEG-4 upconverted 1080p (in 1.78:1) transfer, 'Champloo' is a bit of a video mess. The series will never look sparkling like many more recent shows do, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be presented in anything other than its natural state. Tinkering with video elements is never a good thing, and there are plenty of reviews here that prove such.
Color banding is evident, even in skin tones in close up shots. Solid colors and clothing don't suffer as much from banding as background elements. Some dancing grain looks like artifacting, but it isn't (while some light artifacting looks a bit like grain at times). Flashback grain looks awkward, as it doesn't remain constant. Some sequences have a light brightness flicker, while others sport solid lines that will fade in and out in small patches, possibly due to some of the tinkering. Some shots come through fuzz, lacking any clear definition, as well. While all of this can sound like there is another issue at hand, the DNR issue becomes loud and clear when grain freezes in place hideously, shifting every few seconds rather than constantly.
Items in distance shots, or in zoomed close ups have a blocky appearance, while others have a light color bleed around any exposed skin. Black levels vary in this moody program, but all look natural in their environments. Colors are wide-ranging, but not often all that bright (to be fair, though, the show isn't exactly sunshine, puppies, and kisses). In the baseball game, there are a few instances of heads disappearing, but this could be the fault of the animation, not the most egregious DNR ever.
While a few recent FUNimation titles have had some controversial/unpopular audio choices (lesser audio tracks, with dubs receiving matrixed lossless, and natural language tracks receiving lossy stereo tracks), 'Samurai Champloo' bucks the pattern, providing dual lossless 5.1 tracks for both the Japanese and English dub tracks.
Each disc in this release defaults to the English dub, and on discs one and two, the chapter selection and language choices are the only menu options. Fans will have their preferences, as does this reviewer. The majority of this review is based off the Japanese track, though the dub track has been sampled (mostly because of the presence of the great voice actor Steve Blum). There are a few mistranslations in the subtitles, words out of proper context, like choosing "of" instead of "off."
Dialogue is clear throughout, regardless of the volume levels of the soundtrack or effects, perfectly comprehendible (technically, since I can't really comprehend Japanese...semantics!) and clear in its inflection. Some yells and loud noises in the English mix had a bit of unnatural pop to them. Localization in dialogue through random speakers isn't utilized constantly, but the effect is done in appropriate moments and matches on screen action. Rears also get nice soundtrack bleeds and atmospheric effects, while light, creating a nice room filling sound.
Bass levels can be a tad light for the soundtrack, and can be underwhelming, though as the series goes on, the bass does pick up just a bit. The few moments of gunfire in the program have a distinct pop, stronger than those of explosions, which are pretty weak.
A big pile of nothing, that's what the extras amount to. While the score for this section may seem low compared to how many items are listed here, the fact of the matter is this release is pretty much bare bones, and that one star is generous if anything.
Fans of 'Samurai Champloo' and Shinichiro Watanabe should already have this series on DVD, so the question on whether it's worth the upgrade is a tough one. The audio is quite nice, but the video has some serious issues that prevent it from being a surefire recommended title. Will 'Samurai Champloo' ever look sparkling? Considering the source material, no, but what we're given here is a bit less than a commendable effort, one we'll all have to hope FUNimation doesn't use as a basis for other releases.