Six years after the incredible Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe returned to television with his directorial follow up, Samurai Champloo. Music, along with Watanabe’s familiar thumbprint could easily be seen, making this a much watch for many fans, outside of Japan that is. What many don’t realize is this nearly didn’t finish its planned run, potentially leaving it uncompleted.
The show centers on three characters, Mugen, Jin, and Fuu in late Edo-era Japan. Mugen is a wandering swordsman who is loud, impetuous, and slovenly. Jin is the polar opposite, a proper ronin who adheres to form and edict. Fuu is a young waitress they encounter who saves them from being executed after their fighting accidentally killed the magistrate’s son. Now in her debt, she has them help her search for the samurai who smells of sunflowers.
Music is as important, if not more so here than in Cowboy Bebop. Setting an anachronistic tone, hip-hop is predominately used, with music from Nujabes, FORCE OF NATURE, Shing02, and others. The show quickly sets the tone with opening track Battlecry from Nujabes, making my top 5 opening songs list. Though this firmly takes place in the late Edo period (1850 ish, maybe), there’s plenty of elements that counter this. Historically accurate references are constantly seen, such as Ukiyo-e paintings, mentions of the Shimabara Rebellion, or the Dutch East India company. Though these are accurate as far as existing in that time, some of these events were separated by years.
Several other modern oddities are present, mostly in the character design. Mugen is entirely a modern creation (his earrings, clothes, etc.) Jin’s glasses, though they existed near the end of the era, go against some other references. Many of the side characters act more like modern gansters, rapping and such. None of these detract from the show in the slightest. Everything fits together perfectly. If Mugen was in an accurate Edo Japan, he’d stick out terribly. Here, he fits the world and world fits him, making the show more endearing.
The show, released in 2004 in Japan, made the typical rounds abroad. Funimation Entertainment released the DVDs in the standard customer exploitive way, with only three episodes per disc. Near simultaneously, the show aired on Adult Swim.
Though it was met with much fanfare abroad, the show nearly didn’t complete its initial run due to waning popularity. It ran from May – Sept ’04 before being pulled at episode 17. Honestly, I could see why. The story was overly simplistic, with not enough material to carry it for the full 26 episodes. The concept could only take it so far. Many of the teen-numbered episodes were outright boring. Episode 23, “Baseball Blues,” was the worst offender. The ending turned the series around, but many of the preceding episodes were a flagrant waste of time. In January 2005, the show returned, burning through their remaining episodes.
Funimation did a fantastic job dubbing the series, as expected. Kirk Thornton was cast as Jin, doing an exemplary job showcasing his quiet reserved nature. Kari Wahlgren wonderfully encapsulated Fuu’s bubbly nature. The only bit of casting that didn’t work for me was Steve Blum as Mugen. Don’t get me wrong, Blum is a fantastic actor, voicing entirely too many characters to name. One in particular he returns to though, is Wolverine. Since Mugen is supposed to be a 19 year old, rebellious kid, his voice doesn’t fit. I never once got the impression he was meant to be young. Honestly, I would have put him closer to 30. Great performance, only, it offset the character a bit.
Samurai Champloo is a decent followup for Watanabe. Many of the ingredients that made Cowboy Bebop so endearing are readily on display, sans the story. Watch the show, but once it gets boring, skip to episode 24, the first part of the finale. You won’t be missing much in between.
Think Blum’s voice fit Mugen? Get bored in the middle too? Comment below!