Friday, August 7, 2009

Have you watched Samurai Champloo?

I am quite nearly a complete geek. Comic books? Kid's stuff. Video games? That's practically mainstream. But the addition of a fifteen year affection for anime quite nearly renders me irredeemably geeky.

Thank goodness I gave up MMORPGs, or there would be no escape.

Lately, I've been re-watching Samurai Champloo. If your exposure to Japanese animation begins and ends with never-ending merch-pushing series like Naruto and Pokemon, you have no reason to think there's much, thoughtful value in the medium. What was it James Cameron said about Ghost in the Shell?
"...a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level or literary and visual excellence."
If you look closer at the industry, a ton of excellent stories are told as one-shot series. One or two seasons of shows - only as many as are required to tell the story the creator envisions - and more than a few qualify as top-of-the-line, adult entertainment.

Anyway, back to Champloo. It's not entirely adult - it courts the young adult/early 20s market. Created and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (previously he made Cowboy Bebop - another series worth owning), Samurai Champloo is... well, in simple terms it's a period piece told in Edo-era Japan. Folks carry swords and swords are awesome.

"Champloo" is a mispronunciation of a Japanese word in the Okinawan dialect - "chanpurū" - which literally translates to "something mixed". It's also an Okinawan dish - a stew - a tasty melange of different flavours.

And so is Samurai Champloo. It mixes painstaking historical accuracy with comedic revisionist history, a hip-hop soundtrack, tropes of the Samurai genre, slapstick comedy and some of the best goddamn action sequences you will see in any medium, anywhere.

If you're in the States, you may have already seen the show on Adult Swim - if not, it has a widespread DVD release, so it's not particularly difficult to get a hold of. My suggestion is, at very least, to watch the first episode.

All I needed to see was the incredible fight sequence between Mugen and Jin, and I was sold. Well, not exactly.

I had to rewind it and watch it around five times - it's seared into me. Mugen rushes Jin and slashes for the head - Jin ducks and slashes for Mugen's feet. Mugen leaps over the cut, over Jin, kicks off the wall and descends from above in a somersault-slash that Jin evades by backstepping and for a moment they're back to back before leaping apart and pausing.

They're both surprised. It seems like the first time these two masters haven't killed their target with a single, effortless cut. They're perfectly, evenly matched, and total opposites. Jin, the elegant, dojo-trained master of practiced form. Mugen, the kinetic berzerker. And then, they really go at it. God, it's spectacular.

Mugen and Jin don't ever truly fight again - but that's okay. At least once an episode, one or both of them get a chance to showcase their skill. Sometimes a sequence lasts all of five seconds, but when the rest of the narrative is so well-drawn, it doesn't matter. I love the show, I love the stories, I love the characters.

There was a PS2 game, but I can't recommend it - I love Samurai Champloo, but it is the clinical definition of button-masher, and in some sections is nigh-unplayable. (A sub-par video game based on a popular TV or movie property? Impossible!)

I do wholeheartedly recommend the anime. It's twenty-six episodes long, and while a few of them are a bit disappointing it still has unforgettable stories, characters and action. Once you've grown attached to Jin, Mugen and Fuu over the course of the series, the three-episode finale is absolutely gripping.

I cannot suggest immersing yourself in this series enough.

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