Friday, 20 May 2011

サムライチャンプルー / Samurai Chanpuruu / Samurai Champloo

The first episode seemed to me to promise something great. After the success of Cowboy Bebop, the director, Watanabe Shinichiro, was given a new project with an extremely high budget. The animation was stunning, the fight direction inspired, the characters well-designed and expertly voiced, the story – three misfits thrown together by tenuous circumstances – fairly interesting and the anachronistic humour of inserting elements of hip-hop culture into 17th-century Japan gave ample opportunity for laughs. But SamCham suffers from the same flaw as Bebop – no story. There’s a loose framework: the characters are searching for ‘a samurai who smells like sunflowers’, and get into all sorts of scrapes on the way, but ultimately, the series was totally episodic. This made for an extremely varied quality – sometimes good, solid stories were told in one or two episodes, sometimes it degenerated into terrible slapstick, as when the drifters were forced to play baseball against some visiting Americans. Yup. We also had to endure ogres, fake Christian missionaries, graffiti artists and beatboxers. The hip-hop elements were funny as incidental details. Over a whole episode, less so, especially when you just want to know when the real plot is going to kick in.

But in the end, it was an excuse to have two hyper-powered, pretty much invulnerable heroes (who survive stabbings, massive explosions and various other grievous injuries unscathed) going around kicking arse. Okay for a while, but it gets old quickly. Especially since the characters weren’t that good to begin with. Mugen was essentially Zoro from One Piece (with the same voice and everything), except less likeable. Jin was the strong, silent type, which was fine, but didn’t allow for much development. Fuu was the everyman character, but the injected plot device of this sunflower-smelling samurai that she keeps whinging on about despite never seeming very personally involved made her rather irritating.

The show was at its best when showing traditional fight scenes, such as when Jin battles a blind woman who is nevertheless an expert with her weapon on one of those Japanese bridges that has a gap between every step. Hard to swallow, perhaps, but extremely impressive nonetheless. But good fights can’t make up for a deficiency in plot, and that’s what really matters. A shame, because I was hoping to genuinely love this show.

It will find an audience with people overawed by pretty clashes and bangs, who like superpowered heroes who never really seem to be in much danger. But for people who want a little more substance, I would advise looking elsewhere.

(originally written 3.11.05)

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