Saying this as someone who doesn’t have nearly enough experience with his work, Watanabe has always been a mixed bag for me. Both in the sense that I’ve never really known what tone he would go for, nor the approach his visual and narrative presentation would take, which makes them a very compelling figure in the anime scene. ‘Samurai Champloo’, being his first directorial work after ‘Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heavens Door’ and having a very similar perspective to the genre series, takes place in the Edo-era of Japanese history and blends a samurai story with the hip-hop culture of early 2000s Japan. Following the aggressive and anarchic Mugen; and the stoic and collected Jin, who after a bet is forced to help the bright and ditzy yet irritable Fuu, find “the samurai who smells of sunflowers”, which sounds about as cryptic as it is.
Vague spoilers ahead
And not too dissimilar to Cowboy Bebop, the vibe of the series is its highlight for a large segment of the series, and the low-key yet dominant opening to the series certainly sets this tone well. Its usage of lofi hip hop is a big contributor to this, yet never feels like a superficial take on the genre, tackling themes relevant to its history that I certainly appreciated. This combined with its more rebellious cast (more or less) differentiates itself from both of the genres it takes clear inspiration from, which is a quality of Watanabe for sure.
Although having its climactic moments, the presentation of the series complements its low-key feel. Although mystical and excessive at times, the action scenes are grounded through a very natural choreography and foundation. The storyboarding from Sayo Yamamoto, Watanabe himself, and all of the other countless artists working on the project excel in both the dramatic action scenes of the series, yet I would say almost more so for the personal drama that occurs between the characters. And although this drama was often not especially compelling to me, it certainly elevated it.
This leads us unfortunately to my main issue of the series which could be described with Fuu’s character. Although set up as a fairly agentive character, she spends a lot of time crying after Mugen and Jin, falling into romantic subplots and being abducted by the antagonist of the week, nor does she being 15 help the matter. Not to insinuate that she has to be a master of martial arts to earn a major role in the series, but the repetition she introduces gets old after a few episodes. This issue is also accentuated by how untraditionally written the other two lead characters are, especially Mugen who should have no emotional nor logistic reason to risk his life for a girl he barely knows. The characters’ relationship starts off too intimate to really believe in, and although this issue fades as the series comes to a point where their relationship should be naturally personal, I can’t overlook it.
And considering this, I think the last third of the series does a surprisingly good job of avoiding these issues. The personal arcs the characters go through feel better structured and fit better later in the series, the “elegy of entrapment” being a highlight of the series personally. And although I didn’t feel as emotionally resonant to the finale of the series as others might’ve been, I really appreciate how, especially Mugen, is developed through these episodes in a manner I didn’t expect.
Samurai Champloo may have its repetitive issues but excels in direction, which is to be expected