I don’t have much anime experience. Maybe that’s a bad thing. I don’t know.
I’ve only watched three anime series in their entireties: Cowboy Bebop, the popular in America, not so popular in Japan, Japanese anime that has been played on Adult Swim off and on for the last 15 years or so; Trigun, the renowned series that may just be one of the best TV shows I have ever seen; and Samurai Champloo, which I just finished a few nights ago. The fourth anime series I’ve been intimately involved with, Sword Art Online, is currently half eaten. Maybe I’ll throw it in the microwave and try and finish it someday.
Because my experience is so limited (there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of anime shows and anime enthusiasts out there) I feel like maybe I’m not the right person to critique an anime. But maybe that makes it more REAL. More GRITTY. Because I’m A NOVICE. Because I DON’T KNOW SHIT.
So without further ado, here it is: A NOVICE’S REVIEW OF A TEN YEAR OLD ANIME SERIES: SAMURAI CHAMPLOO.
Samurai Champloo was conceived and created by Shinichiro Watanabe in 2004. Watanabe was previously known for creating Cowboy Bebop, a 1998 anime that fell flat in Japan but became a cult favorite in the U.S., due largely to late night airings on Adult Swim. Samurai Champloo follows three characters as they travel across feudal Japan. Two of them are fierce samurai warriors: Jin, the strong, silent one, and Mugen, the loud, crass and wild one. They serve as bodyguards for a 16 year old girl, Fuu, as she travels towards Nagasaki in search of a mysterious “samurai who smells like sunflowers.” As is typical of many animes, each episode has the characters facing different challenges and adventures, while a larger, more important theme/storyline is always visible in the background. In this case, the large storyline is simply that they are taking a long trip across Japan.
The show mixes genres, old and new, together. Hip-hop and jazz play a large part in the feel and mood of each episode, and the animation is startlingly beautiful. Dark, vibrant colors mix with the music to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere; in some ways, each episode is like an extended music video. But this also detracts from what it actually is: a TV show with characters and plots. Sadly, what Samurai Champloo has in aesthetic beauty, it lacks in story and depth. It doesn’t take long for the stories and characters to become very predictable; in the end, these really are glorified music videos, as harsh as this may sound.
Watanabe’s previous show, Cowboy Beboy, was similar in layout: three characters, two male and one female, went on a series of adventures over a period of 26 episodes. Much like Samurai Champloo, the show was never really interested in the deeper, more philosophical theme or storyline behind the series; it was a very much an episode to episode, story to story existence. But Cowboy Bebop, despite having a lack of depth, was fun. There was a sense of wild creativity and freshness with each episode; there were numerous nods to famous movies and cultural occurrences. It never took itself seriously, but it could be dark and dreary if it wanted to be. The viewer never knew where a certain episode might go.
But Samurai Champloo lacked any sense of story, freshness or creativity. After episode 16 or so, watching the show became a chore, because it was pretty clear what would happen: the trio would meet some dark and evil characters on the road, Mugen and Jin would have to fight and probably kill some bad guys, and in the end the characters would probably learn some sort of lesson. Even the comedic side plots became predictable; they liked to gouge themselves on food to the point of sickness; Mugen was always trying to get laid and steal stuff; and Jin had some vaguely philosophical things to say about the journey. None of the bad guys were memorable; there was none of the awesomeness of the villains that we saw in Trigun, or even Sword Art Online, a show that I stopped watching midway through.
To sum everything up, this was a show that was afraid to take any chances with its characters, and suffered because of it. In the second season of The Sopranos (SPOILER ALERT!) the writers decided to kill of Big Pussy, one of the most memorable and likable characters from Season 1. While Big Pussy was missed, it made the show stronger overall; it made it seem real. Anyone could die. At anytime. Even Tony. There was no inkling ever that anything could ever happen to the characters in Samurai Champloo. When you already know what’s going to happen or not happen to the characters in a TV show, it gets pretty boring pretty fast.
Chuck Klosterman, a writer for Esquire and Grantland.com, once wrote an interesting article about the television series Lost, and how the island where the survivors were stranded was filled with abnormally strong characters: Locke, Jack, Sawyer, Sayid, etc, etc…It was something that as viewers we wanted to pretend was normal: it was normal that this many mentally, physically strong leaders would somehow be on this plane. Of course it wasn’t normal; of course Lord of the Flies, with its long list of weak followers, was a more realistic look at humankind. But we liked watching Lost. We like strong characters. The characters in Samurai Champloo became too strong, to the point that they were robots. None of the bad guys or women they met were nearly as interesting or strong as they were; there was never any doubt that they would survive their battles. There was never any intrigue. There were never any real pots, never any real danger. All we were left with as viewers were glorified hip-hop music videos with beautiful, amazing artwork. Which is fantastic, if you’re into that. But I like my stories to actually be stories. I like to feel something about the characters I’m watching. I like to watch plots unfold. I like to be surprised once in awhile. In 26 episodes, Samurai Champloo never once gave me the satisfaction I need as a fan of TV shows.