sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society
cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed”
Few things age faster than fashion or style, but attitude lives forever, since so much can be encapsulated in that single word. Say samurai attitude, or hip-hop attitude, and a galaxy of meaning comes to mind for each one. In theory the two should have nothing to do with each other; where's the Venn intersection between 47 Ronin and "Cash Rules Everything Around Me"? That's the grand experiment at work in Samurai Champloo, seeing how the rōnin and the b-boy share a space, how the cultures and sensibilities that gave rise to each can mix and create something new. The show itself is a glorious jumble: a cheerfully anachronistic period samurai adventure, a road movie, an anti-romantic triangle (most of the main characters can’t stand each other, hilariously so), an experiment in combining past and present aesthetic sensibilities, a comedy, a drama, a stone cold classic. It felt that way back in 2004 when it first dropped, and it still feels that way in 2019 by way of Funimation's priced-down Blu-ray reissue.
Two lone swordsmen
Watch a DJ at work: he drops the needle seemingly at random, backs up, overlays beats from two records you’d never think to play on top of each other. The same thing happens in Champloo right from the first episode, where we start with an execution in progress and then jump back 300 years—er, 24 hours—to see How It All Got Started. And it starts almost like a setup for a joke: These two guys walk into a bar …
Enter Guy Number One: Mugen. Hailing from the wild island of Ryukyu, he lives to fight—not just with his sword, but with a whirling martial-arts style that could be breakdancing or capoeira or maybe both at once. He saunters into a restaurant to feed his belly and ends up crossing swords with a gang of local toughs who run crying to their daddy. Too bad Daddy just happens to be the local magistrate.
Enter Guy Number Two: Jin. Taciturn and refined, a rōnin who lets one sword-blow do the work of ten, he walks into the same restaurant and crosses both swords and paths with Mugen. He’s got no patience for the self-important and the arrogant—in fact, earlier in the day, he made mincemeat out of a few nobleman’s men and has earned enough bad karma from them to insure he’ll end up in as much hot water as Mugen does.
And now bring a third character into the mix: Fuu, the waitress at the shop where they collide. Mugen got her out of a tight spot when some local no-goodniks started feeling her up, and so when he and Jin are rounded up and thrown in the pokey to be beheaded at dawn, she cooks up a plan to break them out there. In return for setting them free, she asks two favors of them: 1) Don’t kill each other, and 2) help her seek out someone important to her—a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.”
The good, the bad, and the ditzy
Call them the Good, the Bad and the Ditzy. Except that each one of these labels, convenient and outwardly accurate as they might seem, are wrong. Jin’s reserve and upstanding poise may be a cover for a betrayal that reaches all the way back to his roots as a student of the sword. Mugen may flip his nose and act like he doesn’t give a damn, but his buck-wildness conceals depths he doesn’t even sense at first; it takes an earthquake or three for them to become exposed. And Fuu’s no bubblehead: right from the git-go she’s got resourcefulness, tenacity, and a cheerful certainty that everyone in her newly-minted circle of friends will do the right thing, even when they’re mostly musing about how to either ditch her or lop each other’s heads off.
Mugen and Jin do not like each other, and they’re not all that enamored of Fuu either. Small wonder the first thing these two lone swordsmen are able to agree on is that they should go their separate ways as soon as humanly possible. Trouble is, every time they do that, the winds of fate keep blowing them back onto the same road. E.g., when Fuu’s kidnapped and pressed into service at a whorehouse, Mugen and Jin end up serving as bodyguards to rival factions in the same district, and the three of them run, run, run for their lives together once again. Somehow all of this lunacy allows the three of them to grow that much closer together, so that by the time the series draws to a close and their respective fates loom, it’s genuinely poignant and has real weight—it’s not just another stop for the show’s plot bus.
It's hard not to be immediately endeared with at least one of the characters. With me, it’s Mugen: he’s a walking emblem of the show’s little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that ethic. Mugen even looks “mixed”, with his frizzy near-‘fro (not quite of Afro Samurai proportions, but still striking) and his dusky complexion. The guy’s a force of nature—he swills liquor by the casket, he likes his ladies fiery and hard to tame, he disdains pretense and embraces insane challenges, and he’s the only fighter that’s managed to ruffle the normally unruffled Jin. In a live-action version of this material, he might well have been played by the half-Japanese, half-Brazilian Teah—he of Takashi Miike’s City of Lost Souls (itself a paean to the mixed populations of Tokyo) and Dead or Alive 2. But he's not one-dimensional. A key two-part episode delves into his past, which is as violent and shady as you'd expect, and when it comes back to haunt him, his choices are as wounding for us to watch as they are for him to make.
Every great show I have seen finds ways to not let its formula turn into a, well, a formula. Champloo invents endlessly, sometimes in free defiance of anything remotely resembling historical accuracy (e.g., when the main characters are roped into a baseball game), but also by way of balancing the ridiculous and the sublime. Sometimes side-by-side, as when Jin falls hard for a woman he saves from a bad life (and, startlingly, gets into the first fight where we see him allow himself to lose), while Mugen tries to train a beetle to enter an insect sumo match for fast cash. They rake in the bucks, but Jin blows it on visiting the girl so he can lead her to what amounts to a bittersweet freedom. Even the inevitable recap episode has a twist: it comes when Mugen and Jin stumble across Fuu's diary of their adventures, but there's a right cross of a punchline waiting at the end.
Cut it up, DJs
Most everyone who has seen the show has commented on its look-and-feel—the mélange of modern urban-jungle and samurai-era visual tropes, which are gleefully mixed and matched right from the opening credits. Some individual bits don't work as well anymore — the way a DJ scratch is used to splice some scenes together, for instance — but those are irritants, not deal-killers. An incredible number of talented people worked to give the show its signature flavor: Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop and so much more), Dai Sato (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), and tsuchie (also of Bebop). One name in the credits, all but unknown in the West at the show's debut but since having rocketed to anime superstardom, is Masaaki Yuasa — he of The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, The Tatami Galaxy, Kaiba, and Mind Game (my vote for the best animated film of the last decade, hands down). His signature super-duper-deformed style can be glimpsed in an episode where the cast winds up stoned out of their minds when Mugen fends off a coven of warrior monks by setting fire to their prized marijuana field.
The one area where the show's flavor is most pronounced, and longest-lasting, is the music. Outside of Yoko Kanno's work on Bebop, Stand Alone Complex, and Macross Plus, I have a hard time thinking of any other show before this one where the soundtrack seemed so integral to the goings-on. Champloo was scored by multiple hip-hop artists from both sides of the ocean: tsuchie, Fat Jon (of Five Deez), Force of Nature, and the late, great Nujabes (t/n Jun Seba). The lo-fi hip-hop aesthetic they used for Champloo has only grown more popular, timely, and relevant since. Countless YouTube stations broadcast homebrew low-fi hip-hop grooves 24/7 now, and consequently it's impossible for me not to think of the show in conjunction with it. The score and all its associated material sprawls across three CDs, and there's barely a week that goes by when I don't play at least some of it. If that isn't cultural staying power, I don't know what is.
On seeing Champloo the first time back when Geneon released it Stateside, I was confident it would be one of those shows that would never fall completely out of print. A decade and change on, I was right: the show not only has been consistently kept in print by Funimation, its North American licensors, but readily available on a plethora of streaming outlets. That makes it function not only as an anime staple, but as a perennial starting point for people with no awareness of anime, or awareness of Japanese culture generally. (The riotous English dub track helps even more.) Samurai tropes can seen ceremonially forbidding to the uninitiated, but Champloo relies more on general flavor than minute details to work. We don't all know, say, Yoshitsune (although the show goes out of its way to explain at one point by way of a rap-group Greek chorus), but we all know swords, bad-asses, and wild style. Some things remain forever borderless.