Strangely enough I was never much of a fan of Cowboy Bebop, I watched a few episodes but never seemed to get into it. Contrary to this, from the same director Shinichiro Watanabe comes Samurai Champloo, an anime that I deeply enjoyed and is easily one of the best animations I have ever experienced.
I am to understand that 'Champloo' means 'mix' and that is certainly the case here. This is a tale of feudal Japan and samurai in all its traditional culture and context blended with a hip-hop soundtrack and ghetto-punk sensibilities. It sure makes for an interesting combination, but I'm sure for many viewers this may be hard to look past and may seem disjointed, however I feel that it creates a show that is never stale and although is filled with deep emotional content, never takes itself too seriously or seems too laboured. Some of the tracks used as backing compliment the action sequences perfectly as well, and seen as this is a show about samurai, viewers will be expecting great fight scenes, and this definately does not disappoint. Another aspect of this anime is that it isn't afraid to borrow aspects of other cultures and settings to help with its storytelling and to keep things fresh.
The general plot is that on a chance encounter, a waitress named Fuu rescues two wandering ronin to help her look for 'A samurai who smells of sunflowers'. Mugen and Jin act as her bodyguards throughout their travels as the three stumble upon many challenges and adventures. It will be worth noting that this show is far more episodic than a lot of other anime in that although there is a general storyline, each episode usually shows a single substoryline, often unrelated to the general plot. However this shouldn't be offputting as each episode shows great character development and often provides clues as to finding the sunflower samurai, on top of that each episode is brialliantly written and never seems forced or samey. Champloo takes us to many settings, from Yakuza hideouts, to brothels, dojos to graffiti tagged houses. No moment is a wasted one and each is very enjoyable.
The characters are very likable, which is great considering this show tends to focus more on that aspect as opposed to storyline. Fuu is a headstrong, yet kind young woman. Mugen is a brash, arrogant warrior, who is skilled at break dance inspired sword play and has a habit of getting on people's nerves, who tends to solve (or rather create) problems with his sword. Lastly Jin is another greatly talented samurai, who is calm and collected and serves as a complete contrast to Mugen. One of the best aspects of this show is the great chemistry between the three main characters. Often in episodes, each would get their own sub-storyline which cleverly entwine with eachothers' and it is nice to see how three completely different personalities handle situations.
Samurai Champloo is not without its emotional impact. Some episodes are very harrowing and have had me close to tears, the soundtrack switches to more traditional Japanese music at these times to fit the mood beautifully. However it is not all doom and gloom as this anime certainly has a good sense of humour, I've yet to meet someone who isn't entertained by Mugen's hasty actions. Episodes such as 'War of the Words' and 'Baseball Blues' are very amusing and yet clever at the same time, these contrast well with other episodes like 'Misguided Miscreants' and 'Elegy of Entrapment' which are very powerful and really make their mark on you, unlike a lot of anime.
Taking a couple of steps away from the average anime style, Champloo is very well drawn and animated. It's style is somewhat unique and really gets gives the characters more life than most other anume. The painted background art is serene and does a good job in transporting you into the setting of Feudal Japan, this show is very much a feast for the eyes without relying on obvious computer enhancement techniques; this looks like more classic animation. I would consider this an action oriented anime, and the fight sequences live up to this and are consistantly impressive throughout the entirity of the series. Being that Mugen and Jin are both very different, it's nice to see the animators bring their two completely opposite fighting styles to life, be it Mugen's capoeira-esque fighting or Jin's precise martial-arts.
Overall this show is absolute genious, and although a couple of episodes (one of which being a recap episode) slip from greatness. The rest of it easily makes up for it. I think I'd be right in saying that most anime viewers would not be happy about the more episodic storyline Champloo has, as most anime have quite long story arcs, however by no means is that a bad thing, as it is well written and the voice acting is stellar (I watched the subbed version). This is one of the few anime in which every shot matters and has been put in there for a reason, there is no wasting time or random frames added in for the sake of it. This is the reason I praise the director so highly for Samurai Champloo is such a well thought out, well executed show, that has its roots in traditional culture and animation and yet manages to be totally unique. Anyone with any sense should check this anime out, for it is nothing short of brilliance.