Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Samurai Champloo

Considering it as a text, as any good Liberal Arts student is taught to, Samurai Champloo can be interpreted as much as a commentary on the encroaching Westernization of Japan during its Edo period (and echoes in modern times) as it can be about family and friendship, and the changes those can elicit in people. It seems only appropriate, then, that I begin this by talking about college and one of my friends.

As huge fans of Cowboy Bebop during our early college years, a friend and I were eager to dig into the next series from the same creators when it was released in the U.S. While Bebop mixed scifi with a kind of Western/bounty hunter/jazz aesthetic, Champloo promised to be an irreverent mash-up of street/hip hop culture and wandering samurai tales. Since Japan has had a complex interaction with the West for hundreds of years, it seemed clever to juxtapose the initial 'opening' of Japan to the West with some ultra-modern Western cultural influences on the country. I ended up taking a course later in college called Post-War Japan that made the parallels and socio-political implications that much clearer. Anyway, the friend and I liked what we watched of it, but we never got past the first two DVDs, and eventually said friend and I graduated and drifted further and further apart.

Having recently finished the rest of the series, the two main things that strike me about Samurai Champloo are 1) it goes to greater tonal extremes than Bebop ever did and 2) it's a more “traditional” anime in a few regards. Bebop had some lighter/sillier episodes, such as 'Stray Dog Strut' and the justly famous 'Mushroom Samba', but by and large it was a much more serious series than most anime tend to be. Perhaps “mature” or “sophisticated” are better adjectives to use. There's a subtlety to some of the episodes that consistently catches me off guard, even during subsequent viewings, and almost all of the character arcs don't play out in the obvious, trite ways. Champloo, though, falls from time to time into the amusing-but-inessential-episode dilemma. These are the episodes of a series that are merely meant to be amusing and have no bearing on the characters' development or the main plot line. The baseball game and zombie episodes of Champloo, for example, are irrelevant to anything that happens before or afterwards. Speaking of irrelevant, the blood/violence factor is ratcheted up a notch or two in this series, thanks in part to the period appropriate weapons, but it all rings hollow and lacks true consequences. Mugen and Jin seem to get messed up and nearly die every other episode with no long term ramifications. What's more, the tragic endings to episodes like 'A Risky Racket' felt more forced than the poignant and bittersweet tone to Cowboy Bebop.

As for its more traditional feel, that's partially due to the usual anime stereotypes of over-exaggeration of facial features and emotional reactions. Part of why I think Cowboy Bebop is a more mature series is simply because it only has about half of the usual over-the-top anime expressive stuff. Mostly, though, Champloo is more traditional for the way its story progresses and ends. With Bebop, you had this long simmering character arc with Spike: Vicious and Julia were, respectively, the antagonist and romantic interest who popped up throughout the series. The friend I spoke of earlier expected that Spike would end up with Faye at the conclusion, since they're two of the main characters. This would be the obvious, traditional approach, but Bebop subverted that. Champloo may not end (SPOILERZ) with Fuu hooking up with either Mugen or Jin, but it allows all the main characters to survive. While it's true that having them go off without remaining together was an interesting way to end the series, it still feels traditional in the sense that they have all completed their growth as characters and learned all they could from each other, tying up the loose ends of their pasts in a mostly-neat bow.

My other issue with the series was its over-reliance on two-part episodes. There's fully four of them, and that's not counting the finale, which is practically a mini-movie in its own right since it's a three episodes long. There's nothing wrong with two parters in principle, it's just that they often felt unnecessary here. Champloo tries to juggle too many stories at a time rather than focusing on one character or event. When Bebop dipped into two parters, it was for epic story arcs that involved the main Spike/Julia/Vicious thread. Too often Champloo's two parters could've been edited down to a single episode if the focus were tightened. The final three-part episode is particularly egregious in this regard, since it suddenly throws in both a main villain to harass all three main characters and a group of villains out for revenge on Mugen specifically. None of these characters had appeared before, so it comes off as arbitrary and rushed. Mind you, Champloo had some loose ends—the hired killer that Jin is unable to defeat earlier in the series, the crazy-or-not Native American-type guy who Mugen says he's sure is still alive even after the dude dives over a cliff while on fire(!)—that never come up again but would have felt like excellent pay-offs if they were worked into the conclusion. Instead we got a bunch of villains thrown in at the last moment to give Mugen and Jin cool villains to fight. This type of thing happens in videogames all the time, but boss battles serve a purpose there. In an anime series, it's just cheap, unimaginative, and, well, traditional to a fault.

Unfortunately, that sense of “cool” things being thrown in just for the sake of being cool is most of what I took away from my finally-completed journey through the series. Samurai Champloo's chief flaw is that it spends too much time on getting appearances just right and not enough on the underlying personality and substance. However, I'll be blunt and say that I liked Champloo. It feels like this has all been about how the series didn't live up to my expectations, or how it wasn't as good as Bebop. I didn't intend such a thing, but it's hard to help it. Bebop is my gold standard for an anime series, and unless something is so totally unlike it as to be barely comparable (like Neon Genesis Evangelion), it's tough not to complain when the standard isn't met. The fact that this series is from a lot of the same people, and has many parallels in the characters and overall pacing/feel, doesn't make it any easier. Champloo is very similar to the album that comes after the best album by one of your favorite bands; you still like it quite a bit, more than most other albums, yet it doesn't have the same originality and magic, and suffers by comparison. As with such albums, the greatest praise I can give Champloo is that it when it's at its best, it matches its brilliant predecessor. There are some incredibly arresting moments to be experienced in Champloo, like the tense, mostly dialogue-less ending to the two-parter 'Misguided Miscreants', as well as some engaging stories and unique characters that are artfully executed. While I ultimately will keep Bebop as my gold standard, I still consider Samurai Champloo a must-watch for even the most dilettantish anime fans like myself, and a steadfast silver standard to boot.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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