Authors Note: Spoilers ahead.
There is something about the Action Shonen genre that captures the masses. For most people, it is their first glimpse into anime. A conflict-packed show full of violence, insane story arcs, and heroines that never really get their romance feelings hashed out. For me, the show that got me to where I am today was Bleach, and my love affair for Rukia. However, even with the Naruto’s, and One Pieces, there is one man who has famously taken a different stance on the usual cut and dry genre. Watanabe, Shinichiro. With shows like Cowboy Beebop, Carol and Tuesday, and Space Dandy. He has made quite the name for himself in the world of anime, making instant classic while staying true to the sound and Hong Kong inspired action scenes. Out of this lineup of classics one happened to fall on my plate not so long ago, the 2004 hip hop inspired Samurai Champloo . Now I am going to be straight with you, when it comes to Shonens I rarely fuck with them. Mostly because if you watch enough anime you kinda figure out their whole bit, and while some people still find them fun, I for one do not. So when this show came down the pipeline I wasn’t a thousand percent on board, but when push comes to shove I sat down one weekend and watched all 26 episodes, and I loved every second of it.
We start on this journey with a DJ scratch full time jumps that make the first episode the most annoying out of the 26. It wasn’t enough to turn me off of the series but I knew right away if this show plays out in the dynamic of two timelines jumping between each other I wasn’t going to make it past three. The first episode does set the tone well however, throwing you into a hip hop driven time jump into Edo Japan where you meet a wildly reckless criminal, Mugen.
An outlaw with wild hair, interesting style of cloths and way more muscle than brain. He wonders the land picking fights to see if there is anyone out there that is stronger than he is. The first thing that really stands out about Mugen outside of his cut throat personality is his fighting style. Wild and reckless burst of blade and speed that sole purpose is to keep his opponent on their toes. Clearly having no formal training in any one field we get to see this play out when Mugen roughs up some rabble-rousers in a tea house before attacking Jin, a well-trained samurai as he enters.
This is the other side of the coin, where Mugen is wild and reckless. Jin is thoughtful and precise, but still every bit of deadly. Dedicating his life to his skill Jin knows little of the world outside of the dojo he used to live at. Coming to terms that this whacko that just attacked him isn’t going to back off they start a fight in the tea house, matching each other’s skills to a T. This comes to a boil however when they accidentally start a fire, burning the whole joint down leaving Fuu without a job.
It is at this point the real Shonen masterpiece starts to come together. Annoyed and with no reason to stay in town Fuu helps the two heathens escape execution for the damage they had caused. (Granted they pretty much did on there own but we aren’t going to take that from her) With their lives sorta kinda in debited to her, she makes a deal, at the flip of a coin they will either be able to kill one another right there and then. Or they will follow her, on a journey to find the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers.
It wouldn’t be much of a show if they won the coin toss so we know how this goes.
So I am going to keep this straight. I could rant and rave about how the action scenes are great and how each show breaks down a certain aspect of one of the main three. But I won’t because it doesn’t. This show is in the Shonen hall of fame because it simply is that, a Shonen. Episodes come and go passing the same old, travel, eat, fight, try to get laid, save Fuu, travel, eat, fight. So in order to keep my sanity, I am going to keep this as neat as possible. Instead of looking at the story as a whole 26 episode cluster, I am only looking at the arcs with the addition of the Yankee’s filler. I want to take a look at the show if it was 11, not 26 episodes. That’s because those 11 arc episodes really make this show stand not only high in the Shonen world but an idol in action anime.
Hellhounds for Hire, the first arc of the series kicks off almost right away in episode three. Starting the episode Jin and Mugen get tired of the yammering Fuu decide to split leaving her behind as they both run in different directions. Annoyed and defeated Fuu gives up stumbling into the city with no money or clue to where they may have gone. Now this leads her the most big brained idea ever to give what little money she has to sage that simply tells her, “Beware of vases.”
Now, taking this over-literal as literally anyone who talks to a sage would Fuu begins to wander around town accidentally bumping into a guy who, go figure, drops and shatters a vase. Apologizing but having nothing to pay for it Fuu is quickly whisked away and thrown into the town brothel to pay for her debts. Now clearly this was a shakedown and not a surprising one but at this point I was actually kinda annoyed that this was the plot point Fuu was destined to be. The woman who gets hit on by weird pervs and is always in trouble. But 2004 was a long time ago, feminism in any media had questionable footing and the damsel in distress was literally the foundation of any Shonen. So with that, I took to heart what her part in this story was, and came to terms with it.
Changing back to the other two we discover they had found themselves working with warring Yakuza groups in town. Mugen found himself with a crew of lucrative but ruthless up incomers trying to work the city over. Jin, with an old school group who champion honor and tradition. They quite literally find themselves in gangs that bluntly represent who they are as people in the perspective at this point in the show.
Mugen’s reason is simple, he likes to fight, picks a fight, wins said fight, getting the attention of Rikiei Nagatomi, the new gangs boss. Exciting for the chance to get out there and fight some more Mugen jumps right in, though only for a short moment. Realizing that Nagatomi’s goal was money and power Mugen gets just as quickly turned off and leaves after learning they in the end can’t find him worthy fights.
Jin, however, I think was a little more complicated. Running into a shop keep who offers him food, Jin listens to the tells of a time where peace was an understood thing in town and how Nagatomi’s gang threatens it. This all comes to a boil when he runs into a (child?) Sousuke Kawara, the heir of the Kawara gang the old school Yakuza that has been harboring peace. Brandishing his sword against men of Nagatomi whom carry the IOU for Osuzu, the daughter of a carpenter who fell on hard times and couldn’t pay his debt. Kawara quickly gets roughed up by the group until Jin steps in easily taking them in a fight.
Naturally, this gets Jin caught up in this little gang war and decides to help the kid get the woman back. This becomes complicated when he discovers at this time Mugen is still helping the Nagatomi gang and enthusiastically fights him forcing Mugen to become reckless killing members of his new ‘gang’. This starts the whole dilemma with Mugen but Jin stays true to form, taking a retreat and planning another form of attack.
Unfortunately, this is kinda upended by Sousuke when he recklessly kills one of the gang members for roughing up Osuzu.
Trying to avoid an all-out gang war the two gangs come to an agreement and risk it all on the roll of the dice. Granted all of that goes south leading to the death of both heads of the gang, but virtually the destruction of Nagatomi’s. One of my favorite things about this arc honestly is the shift in Japanese life. It represents two sides of the Yakuza coin and a clear shift in the Edo era. Two sides that show the vast world of crime to be cutthroat and backstabbing. Or upstanding to a code. I believe this to be a true look at the organization of crime internationally. It has always been a power struggle between bosses because even after years of peace, someone will want to take it for themselves.
Following that arc is Misguided Miscreants which is a fucking masterpiece of two episodes and the definition of what masterwork Shonen is. I have thought about how to phrase the opening to this for quite some time. Thinking over words and phrases so I could paint what I really feel about these two episodes but ultimately came to terms that I am going to just have to be blunt. This is Wanatabe at his finest and this is the only time in my life I had not only rewatched the two episodes myself but showed it to people close to me.
So before I delve into the story I want to first talk about screen time. When it comes to cinematography, animation, and choreography there is this thought at some point, ‘why is this on the screen?’ Now what I mean by this is the sound that is being played, or scene that is being shown the best placement by the director? Could any of these actions work better elsewhere? In a nutshell did the show use up every second of its screen time to max out what it possibly could?
This was the first take away from these two episodes. Every color, every sound, seemed to be right where it should be. This time management is something that I cannot recall seeing in the history of me watching this medium. The angles, the animation, the dialogue, all felt right. And at no time, at any point, did I find my mind not focuses on what was in front of me.
Alright now that I have worked this up in an insane amount, let’s jump into the actual content of the story. So this is a dive in headfirst into Mugen’s past life. A rollercoaster tale of betrayal, murder, and loot that leaves you in awe as it tells why the wild-haired man is the way he is.
Born of the Ryukyu Islands, he was born a criminal. Someone fated to be a cut-throat or dead by the time he was a teenager. Not knowing his parents he grew up in a world where every day was a fight for survival, making him a bit of a loner and distrustful of others. However, this doesn’t mean when necessary he will turn others away. Such one event is when he runs into pirate Mukuro who offers him a job. Taking it he quickly finds out Mukuro played him, leaving him for dead.
This brings the first episode opening to a beach scene in which Fuu happily runs into the ocean to play while Jin and Mugen look on. It is at this time the camera pans to show a girl down the shore from them, a girl who looks up in shock as she notices Mugen. It’s at this moment we meet Mukuro’s sister Koza, a girl that at the time was set up to be bait for unexpecting travels the gang could rob. Being quick-witted the two (Fuu gets caught naturally) dodge a net and the ambush quickly showing to be too much of a match for the ragtag pirates. It is at this moment Mukuro shows himself seeming gleeful to see Mugen as he needed someone of his skill for a job.
Being burned once already, Mugen naturally wasn’t in the mood but after being challenged to a challenge of extreme chicken, he is forced to help out after losing the gamble. Understandably this is upsetting for Jin and Fuu who want nothing to do with any of these guys and feel right away they are up to no good.
Stubborn as always, however, Mugen heads on with the plan. It was pretty simple, they would smuggle Mukuro onboard a state ship full of gold, and once inside he would set off some bombs signaling Mugen to start a ramming maneuver in their pirate ship, boarding the state ship. Hearing an explosion he starts the ram slamming into the state ship only to be met with arms guards ready and aiming. Frustrated that the plan wasn’t going as it should, it is at this time Mukuro comes up to the deck killing the guards with a man named Shiren, a guard on the ship and Mukuro’s inside man.
Pissed Mugen starts putting the pieces together yelling at Mukuro asking him what the fuck is going on, only to be met with a barrel full of explosives tossed onto the ship while the sails of the state ship drop allowing it to pull away. Around the same time as this, Fuu and Jin rush towards the scene being tipped off by Koza about the trap. But as they arrive at the dock they find themselves helpless as they watch the ship explode, Mugen’s silhouette vanishing in the light.
This airs in the second of the two and honestly, I think the better. Turning towards Mugen’s POV we are taking on a ride of vibrant color, sorrowful song, and fighting against the grip of death. A beautiful and breathtaking combination of animation, color, sound, and just pure bitterness that lies within Mugen’s heart. It is this scene that leaves me to give this episode the slight lead over the first and honestly it’s a spectacle that cannot be confounded to words. Or at least I fail to have the skill to. It is something that truly has to be enjoyed within the animation, and this alone is worth watching all 26 episodes of this beloved series.
The second part of the series follows more Fuu and Jin. As she searches for Mugen and Jin is asked by Koza to please kill her brother, avenging Mugen. Taking her up on it he goes with her as she meets up with Mukuro at the hiding place. As she is lead inside Jin appears demanding Mukuro draw his weapon before making quick work of him. But with his dying breath, Koza’s brother lets out a slight laugh, saying that both of them had been played a fool. Instantly realizing the meanings of the words Jin slams open the door to the shed only to find it empty. Koza and Shiren had pulled a fast one, taking all the money for themselves.
By this time Fuu had found Mugen washed up on the shore and did her best effort to fix him up. But while she was out looking for food the pure rage that burns inside him forced him to his feet, limping to find the man that did this to him. Unfortunately, he never gets the satisfaction, being approached by Jin who tells him he had killed Mukuro but they had been played, and Mugen was the only person who could set it right.
This sets the stage for the final scene. Koza, holding tightly to Shiren, who comforts her about never leaving her side. As they walk through a gloomy backdrop before Mugen slowly limps into sight in front of them. Horror struck, the two of them are unsure what to make of the scene until Shiren attacks, falling quickly to Mugen’s blade. Seeing the last man whom she had to protect her Koza falls to her knees, willing to accept her fate. Without Mugen, her brother, or Shiren, there would be no way she would survive in this hell, she was weak, she needed someone. And with that realization Mugen simply walks past her, leaving her to her true horror, being alone for the first time in her life in a hell she’ll never survive in.
Lullabies of the Lost bring in the third arc and an overall good one generally speaking. Deciding to stop helping Fuu the three split up, naturally leading to Fuu getting in trouble. Doing a face dive off a waterfall she finds herself in the care of a mysterious man named Okuru that saved her life and fed her. Around the same time, Jin is confronted by his own past, a fellow student named Yukimaru who was out for Jin’s head.
We see a bit of a backdrop into Jin’s past with this as time and time again he avoids the fight with Yukimaru, stating he does not wish to kill him. Jumping off the same waterfall Fuu had to evade him. Doing this he happens to find Fuu’s shoe and decides to see if he can find her. Through a mixture of a police force hunting him and Okuru storytelling himself we discover he is a wanted man, accused of killing his whole village including his wife and daughter. Refuting this, he claims they died of an illness that was covered up by the shogunate.
Leaving Fuu to rest Okuru continues his journey before she is found by Jin. Sadly at this point, Yukimaru had caught up to them and demanded Jin fight him which ends in his death. Leaving Jin in a state of grief having admitted that Yukimaru was like a brother to him.
The arc comes to a close as Mugen hunts Okuru wanting to fight him hearing he is a skilled archer. Cornering him they are all approached by a police force near a cliff edge which engages with Jin, Mugen and Okuru. Being hit by a flaming arrow Okuru seems unphased in his dead eyes as he kills the policeman while ablaze, and seeming no care in the world walks to the cliff edge, falling off of it closing out the arc.
Elegy of Entrapment is another fantastic take that exists in this show. It doesn’t stand up to Misguided Miscreants but it is definitely a work of art. Following the crew, they stumble into an inn that is having a performance by a drifting blind bard named Sara. And I want to make a side note, if you are a sub watcher like I am, her voice was wonderful, moving on. So they listen to this heart-wrenching tale and are later visited at the bar by the woman. Naturally, heathens come and try to shake her down and she refuses help due to her not wanting anyone to take pity on her. This face of course falters later in the night as she warms up to Fuu, Jin, and Mugen who is very interested in sleeping with her.
Building their relationship they decide to travel together, resting as Sara sings her songs to the amaze of everyone around. It is during this time that you learn she has a son whom she had lost due to being blind. A single-blind woman would never be fit as a mother. But as they travel further their paths lead different ways. Taking Fuu aside Sara asks if she minds if Jin or Mugen go with her when they depart, to help her along the way. Reluctant she agrees Jin can go and the party officially splits ways.
With Jin leading Sara after sunset they find themselves on a bridge in which Jin has a feeling not all is what has been said up to this point. All this comes to the truth when Sara strikes engaging Jin on the bridge and turning out to be a highly skilled assassin. What follows is one of the better fight scenes I think the show has, making up for the movement and narrow bridge it forced Jin to react in ways that aren’t ideal. Coming to terms she is above his league he cuts the bridge in a last-ditch effort to make space leaving both of them falling into the ravine below.
This comes as a shock to Mugen and Fuu that get word the next morning that the bridge collapsed and it seems there were people on it. Starting their search they find clues of Jin but he is nowhere to be found, but then they run into Sara. Naturally, they take her into their care again but one night, when alone with just Mugen she challenges him as they both take stance on the river bank. Another top tier fight scene takes place ending with Mugen being badly wounded, only saved by Fuu who throws herself on his body before Sara can finish the deed. It’s at this moment you see the human in Sara since she is technically supposed to kill all of them including Fuu but she leaves letting both of them live.
This arc closes out on a rather flat note, however, as Sara comes to terms with her son being dead throwing her fight against Mugen as he lands a fatal blow. All and all I think this is the best action arc out of the series as far as choreography and like I stated how Sara comes into the team was a fantastic show. But it did end leaving at least for me something to desire.
NOW WE GET TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE BEST FILLER SHIT I HAVE SEEN IN YEARS.
Baseball Blues is a flex history take on gunboat diplomacy and the New York Yankees getting their assess kicked. I do want to also note the episode before this which was all about tripping on mushrooms ended with a massive meteor hitting the earth causing a mushroom cloud, if I didn’t know better, I feel there might be some reference here.
Alright so this episode is set up on scuff gunboat diplomacy and instead of it opening up trade with Japan by force, the navy is challenged with a baseball game. USA wins, well Japan trades, but if this ragtag group of misfits win, the US of A better git the fuck out. Add in some real scuff English, old school xenophobia, and nothing like a bunch of fat white guys, I mean this was comedy art in the making.
So putting this group together Kagemaru is tasked to get his team up to the sport that is baseball, as the New York Yankees are on their way to challenge them. And honestly, it devolves in just straight-up violence and underhand tricks that are so out there but reminiscent of actual biases it brought me to tears. It was an unexpected surprise leading up to the final arc of the series and honestly as someone who hates 1. Groundhog day 2. Recaps and 3. Fillers, I gotta say this one won my heart.
Evanescent Encounter, the three-episode arc that finishes out the series honestly holds no punches. I think I’ve made it rather clear which arc is my favorite but that by no means this is a scuff ending. Tying up loose ends I forgot even know existed the strongest horrors within the shogunate hammer hard down upon the three travelers as the story comes to a T and the overarching reasons come to life.
At this point, we know that the Samurai that smells like sunflowers is nonother than Fuu’s father. What we are unsure of but is heavily implied is why he indeed abandon his wife and daughter. As this arc plays out it becomes confirmed, Fuu’s father is a Christian sympathizer and therefore a traitor to the lords. I am not going to lie, I was really impressed when this show took this turn. Don’t get me wrong, I live in a world where evangelical’s did hella damage, but when we are talking about Edo era Japan, there was a lot going on. (I will make note of one episode non-arc that played on religion for profit)
I am not going to sit here and rant about any spiritualism or what I even believe. But the precaution of Christians is no different than any other spiritual belief. Samurai Champloo took a hard look at this big picture with this arc, showing that religion world wide has always been a case for judgement.
It looked at honor and tradition vs power and greed that took place in the first. It looked at criminalizing and the worth of an island in which everyone was born damned like it did in the second. It looks at being alienated in the face of a government that failed in the third. It looked at the desperation of being handicapped even though when one isn’t, to do what they can for their loved ones in the fourth. Then finally, it looked at how all of these together, in one messy bunch, brings out the worst in all of us. How heroes of honor fall and at the end of it, even with how cliché it is, friends are all that matter.
Samurai Champloo is a hell of a show. It has a lot to unpack but is full of wonderful sound and imagination to keep one engaged. It is a hard take for a 2004 world that I hate to say stands up today in some respects. The Hip-hop element is there, the cursed lineage is there, the having nothing to lose is there, the desperate search to be validated is there. In short Samurai Champloo is an artwork of struggle and bias paired with a great soundtrack, a great director, and a great sound.
And do to that I want to end this, simply saying. Samurai Champloo is one of the greatest action shonen I have ever seen, and it will always stick with me. 8/10
Thanks for reading!