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Samurai Champloo Newbie Review Part One—Episodes 1–14

Where I am hooked on another anime series ... well, kind of.

One person looks mad scared, another not so much, and a third looks confused.

I am compelled to confess that, in an ideal world, I’d planned to write this months ago and much closer to my last newbie recap for Cowboy Bebop (whose ending still has me reeling). Instead, it’s now mid-April, I’m only beginning the FIRST HALF of my review (newbie review*) for Samurai Champloo.

Basically, I suck.

I read a lot of comments in my Cowboy Bebop reviews that the obvious successor once I’d finished that anime was Shinichiro Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo, based on Masaru Gotsubo’s manga, and on a shallow surface level, I can see why. Beyond sharing the same showrunner, with this being his first series after Bebop, and Steve Blum (the voice of Spike) taking on another key role in the English voice cast, the similarities end with another unlikely band of travelers and a vignette style of storytelling. Otherwise, for better and for worse, the series is very much so its own entity from the music, artistic style, and characters that its biggest narrative comparison is what can seem like a meandering pace.

At this point in my unfortunately disjointed viewing experience, I’ve finally encountered my first two-part episode event, and I think it could be a turning point for the series. Finally, in “Misguided Miscreants,” we’re being given some backstory on Mugen, easily the brashest character, and it’s livened the series up a great deal. Before I move onto part two however, I want to list off some of my thoughts I’ve had up until this point:

Such as it was with Cowboy Bebop, the music the show utilizes to tell its story and influence the mood is a highlight. I might even go as far as to say that the music is even more integral to the very essence of Champloo than Bebop.

The soundtrack to the series has become my go-to playlist for when work seems tedious.

Nujabes and co.’s music strikes a happy balance of moments that are light on their feet with a fantastical undercurrent that also manages to highlight the severity of the action taking place rather serenely on-screen. It’s mood music that always brings out the strongest elements of any given scene. More than the show itself (so far) the music has struck a chord with me. I’m a connoisseur of film and television scores, and this one is unlike any I’ve listened to before while also hitting that melodic but epic note that I adore.

This time around, we’re following runaway waitress Fuu, who seeks the man who smells of sunflowers; Mugen, a hot headed ex-pirate; and Jin, the stoic young “ronin,” which the internet tells me is a samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period in Japan. So thank you, anime, for providing me with interesting nuggets of information that I can whip out a moment’s notice to impress a crowd with.

This leads to one of the other highlights of the series, which is the magnificent attention to historical detail worked into the show, something that is less than pivotal but a great grounding element of Samurai Champloo. While I won’t delve too far into my pretend, Wikipedia-based “knowledge,” I do love that everything from the symbols to settings has some sort of historical context, no matter how stretched and fabricated it became due to artistic liberties. It gives the world a greater sense of identity, which is good, since we spend so much time there compared to Bebop’s world jumping.

I’m enjoying the focus on the main trio, although there isn’t one I’m in full fan mode for yet (like I was for Faye almost immediately), but the peripheral characters seem to land very strongly with only a few exceptions here and there. At around the halfway mark, I’m worried about how it’s only now that we’re learning anything about Mugen. What’s more, it’s bothersome that, 14 episodes deep, the biggest characteristics I can attribute to the main three involve Fuu’s ability to endlessly eat and Mugen and Jin still wanting to fight one another. At this point, there needs to be more substance or, at the very least, some sort of attachment to them as characters and the journey they’re taking.

Interesting artistry and an admittedly superb score can only garner so much goodwill.

My biggest gripe so far is the overall treatment of the female characters. Fuu, the lead, has been sexualized constantly, and it’s made all the grosser when the viewer realizes she’s 15. This is something I’m hoping to see either change or simply not happen again, because beyond the fact that it’s gratuitous, the main plot is also technically her story, and she deserves to be the emotional weight behind it and not just the punchline. This isn’t helped much by the fact that all the other characters who come in and out of the episodes have either largely played villainous seductresses or victims placed in captivity in brothels.

So, not good.

Where the show is redeemed is in the action, which is kinetic and graceful in its execution. The fighting style of Mugen is vastly different from that of Jin’s, and they’re animated to further represent that. Mugen’s fight scenes are shown in a fury of swirling colors and motions, while with Jin, we’re actually able to see it all play out in greater depth.

It’s entertaining. I enjoy watching it (when I’m not being lame and forgetting to), and Mugen, at the very least, is wildly fun, and I can’t wait to learn more about him in the next episode. My guess (tentative guess at least) is that this is where the story will become perhaps a bit more serial. I don’t need there to be a large, overarching story, but I need some storytelling core or relationship dynamic to latch onto so that the show is easier to binge.

Stylish, lethargic, and graced with one of the best television scores I’ve ever heard full-stop, Samurai Champloo has been a fun enough watch so far for this anime newbie (I think now I’ve seen three series in their entirety in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Attack on Titan, and Cowboy Bebop), but I’m still waiting for something or someone to hook me in.

I’ll be interested to see how quickly all of you were hooked on the series!

Look for Part Two of my series newbie recap to come soon! And please, please, please recommend some other anime shows that I should add to my queue!

(image via Fuji Television/Funimation)

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