Screen & Page: Sounds of the Battlecry in ‘Samurai Champloo’
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and selling it overseas. But what about the anime shows or film that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
This week, we're exploring the unlikely but absolutely incredible fusion of hip-hop and samurai storytelling known as Samurai Champloo!
Before we start talking about 2004's Samurai Champloo, please hit play on this YouTube playlist:
OK, now that you know the sublime bliss of the late Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes, we can begin. Nujabes' music --- along with his cohorts Fat Jon, Forces of Nature and Tsutchie --- weaves and pulses throughout Samurai Champloo, and it's crucial to understanding the feel and tone of the series.
The 2004 show, animated by the now-shuttered Manglobe, was written by Shinji Obata, with character designs by Kazuto Nakazawa (AKA the guy behind Kill Bill's anime sequence) and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe. That last guy is the genius behind Cowboy Bebop, the anime that made anime for adults a concept in the West, and the first breakout success for Adult Swim.
Fans of Bebop will recall that series had a jazz sensibility courtesy of composer Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts, composed of famous jazz musicians from America, Europe and Japan. Small wonder that, after he wrapped up Bebop in 2001 with the feature film Knockin' On Heaven's Door --- and after directing a couple of segments for the 2003 anthology The Animatrix --- Watanabe wanted to do something with America's other great musical gift to the world: hip hop.
Thus, Champloo. Taking place in an Edo-era Japan (1603-1868) full of modern hip-hop and Japanese culture, the 26 episode-long show follows three travelers: Jin, the stereotypical, stoic ronin (think Leonardo or Usagi Yojimbo); Fuu, a young, easily exasperated girl fond of food; and Mugen, a brash, cocky killer from Okinawa (or the isolated Ryukyu, as the northernmost region of Japan was known back then), whose fighting style mashes breakdancing with Brazilian capoiera.
The three unlikely companions meet when Jin and Mugen get in a fight and burn down the teahouse Fuu works at. After saving them from execution, Fuu enlists the two as bodyguards to help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The two agree, promising to kill each other when the job is done, and they and Fuu set off on a journey that sees them confront beatboxing samurai, huge gay Dutchmen, and all kinds of assassins and killers.
Much like Bebop, there's a backstory dipped out for the main, badass guy voiced in English by Steve Blum; Mugen, like Spike Spiegel before him, turns out to have some sort of criminal past. (Jin also has a pretty big skeleton in his closet that comes back to haunt him on some occasions.) But by and large, these are either stand-alone episodes or two-parters.
Really, each episode of Champloo is like getting a new mixtape. You've got some idea on what to expect, but by and large, the end result thrills you every time. Watching Champloo is a visual and auditory treat. Good music, astonishing fight scenes, good characters; it's everything you want out of a weekly TV show and then some.
The Champloo manga, written and drawn by Masaru Gotsubo, takes a different tack than Tiger & Bunny did. Where that manga devoted itself to retelling the show from a slightly different perspective, Gotsubo only does that with the first chapter, a retelling of the first episode, "Tempestuous Temperaments," with some restaged fight scenes.
Otherwise, these are entirely new stories. Gotsubo not only nails the look of the show but gets the character voices down too. Mugen is a cocky a-hole, Fuu is a klutz, and Jin is just too old for this junk.
The manga was released in two volumes and an omnibus by Tokyopop in the States, and while most Tokyopop books are pretty expensive and out of print, I highly recommend tracking down the omnibus through your local library. Like the Hellboy Library Editions or a DC Showcase, this is a good book to get lost in.
The stories are all compelling, but probably my favorite is about this Russian samurai haunting a bridge whose plan is to kill 1000 people and take their swords to become a "Samurai Master," despite repeatedly being told that's not a thing. It reads like Blade of the Immortal if everyone was taking the piss out of it the whole time. It's great.
Gotsubo also captures the show's sense of action with his own sense of flair. The way his ink lines capture the swordplay action of the show is particularly inspired.
So while it might take a little effort to find, if you like the show, this is definitely the manga to pick up. If possible, put on a Nujabes record like, say, Modal Soul, while reading. Or do that for anything, really. My point is Nujabes is great, and so is Champloo. Together, they're the Reese's Cups of anime and manga; two great things that go great together.
Samurai Champloo currently airs at 1:30AM EST Saturday nights on Adult Swim's Toonami block and is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming on Netflix and Hulu. The manga is available in print from a variety of retailers and your local library.