Crossing Genres with “Samurai Champloo”

romanticHave you and your friends ever come up with stupid ideas for combo films? Like zombies in space, or Batman in a western, these ideas are often something that’s just joked about or pursued in fiction. But there are some visual works out there that take the leap and challenge the norm, crossing unlikely genres to create something that will either be amazingly insulting or awesomely brilliant. Luckily for us, “Samurai Champloo” falls in the latter.

Blades and Beats: Strange but Great

“Samurai Champloo” is a road trip story through the Edo period of Japan, with a twist of hip-hop inspiration. Samurai fights are fought to a beat, the soundtrack itself reminds you of the 90s music scene, and there’s even homages in episodes to street rapping, graffiti, and dance-offs.

Still trying to wrap your mind around that? Take a look at the show’s opening credits below, and you’ll see what I mean:

“Samurai Champloo” is the work of the ingenious anime director Shinichiro Watanabe. If his name sounds familiar, he’s also been the brains behind “Cowboy Bebop” (another great genre-cross!) and “Kids on the Slope” (a jazz music drama). With “Samurai Champloo” included, it’s clear that the man loves his music, especially the sporadic kind that can’t be replicated like jazz and hip-hop. Couple that with the character designer from the animation sequence of “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and you have yourself a truly fascinating recipe for success in this show.

“Samurai Champloo” is the story of two wandering samurai named Mugen and Jin. They get into some major trouble in a small town and find themselves awaiting execution. And who should free them, but a young waitress they ran across earlier, named Fuu. In exchange for helping them break out of jail, Fuu makes a deal that they must help her find the “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Thus their journey begins.

What I appreciate most about Watanabe’s work is that his shows are condensed to a single, stand alone season; they’re typically 26 episodes long, and that’s it. The story ends. No second season, no OVA, and rarely does he approve a manga adaptation. Compared to long-lasting shows on TV nowadays, his are given the same care and attention as a best-seller novel; concise, crafted, and classic.

The Incomparable Soundtrack

Aside from the brilliant animation, the true shine of this series is the music, written and arranged by TSUTCHIE, Nujabes (RIP), Force of Nature, and Fat Jon. It’s the whole backbone of the world-building, crossing hip-hop with Japanese instruments. It’s one of those mash-ups that you didn’t know was missing from your life until it showed up on your TV screen. It’s jazzy, but with more percussion and a fusion of electro-synth beats that are pretty common in mainstream hip-hop as well.

I appreciated that the music played a more direct role in the story of these three characters as well. While the plot of Watanabe’s “Kids on the Slope” was centered around music, and “Cowboy Bebop” was inspired and synced to jazz, the line between the music and the world in “Samurai Champloo” was blurred. The setting was feudal Japan, but oftentimes you would see background characters that were dressed as though they walked straight out of a Compton/Harajuku fusion factory. There was beatboxing, a graffiti battle, and Mugen’s fighting style is a mix of traditional sword-swinging and breakdancing. Take a look at a scene from the first episode below to see for yourself:

This show also has one of the most perfect ending songs that have graced my ears. In America, we don’t give the same attention to credit songs that we do for opening sequences on our TV shows, but anime gives both bookends a place of respect. “Samurai Champloo” ending song is called “Shiki no Uta” by Nujabes and MINMI, and is breathtakingly beautiful. It keeps the main theme of the show’s music, while also offering a bittersweet end to each episode as we yearn for the next. Please give it a listen:

Ch-ch-ch-Check It Out

“Samurai Champloo” has already gone down in history as a classic anime to be remembered and reviewed for years to come. I will even go as far as to say that it’s a perfect “gateway anime” for those just getting into the artform. It’s a far cry from the more crazy series’ that are out there; it’s a rare fusion of opposite art forms that both respects and evolves them to a whole new level.

Want to see more cross-genre anime? Check out some of the ones below. I may even review these in the future:

  • Wolf’s Rain (adventure/dystopia)
  • Trigun (sci-fi/western)
  • Gurren Lagann (comedy/sci-fi)
  • Psycho Pass (thriller/sci-fi)
  • Code Geass (thriller/dystopia)
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