Set in feudal Japan but with an anachronistic hip-hop vibe, Samurai Champloo concerns Fuu (voiced by Ayako Kawasumi), a downtrodden but gutsy young teahouse waitress who hires two chalk-and-cheese rogue samurai: feral rascal Mugen (Kazuya Nakai) and stoic bishonen Jin (Ginpei Sato) as reluctant bodyguards. Travelling across the country, the bickering trio share an array of lively, picaresque adventures as part of Fuu’s enigmatic search for the “samurai who smells of sunflowers.”
Eagerly anticipated by anime fans, this was the talented Shinichiro Watanabe’s follow-up to his hugely successful retro-Seventies space adventure Cowboy Bebop (1999) and did not disappoint, incorporating a streak of engagingly irreverent humour from his madcap meta-spoof Excel Saga (2000). The high concept here is chanbara (samurai movie) meets hip-hop, a conceit extended beyond the outstanding soundtrack into the style of the anime itself. The action jumps forward and backwards in time accompanied by the sound of vinyl scratches as though a DJ were re-mixing time-and-space before our eyes. Like Cowboy Bebop, the imagery exudes retro-Seventies cool, lifting ideas from vintage acid jazz album covers as much as vintage chanbara movie fare. Yet far from simply a gimmick, the self-consciously anachronistic conceit enables Watanabe to convey how the story’s core ethos to embrace life and live for the moment resonates both in feudal Japan and on the contemporary streets.
Again as with Cowboy Bebop there is a strong outlaw sensibility. Our central protagonists are all rebels in their own way, thumbing their noses at authority and initially maintain a shaky alliance wherein it appears each could abandon the other at any given moment. However, Watanabe underlines that these dishevelled ronin embody the traditional bohachi code far better than the various self-loathing samurai and corrupt officials they meet. Mugen and Jin are hot and cold polar opposites yet embody both sides of the samurai archetype. Meanwhile young Fuu proves the central catalyst. She keeps the boys in line and serves as their nagging conscience. Ably voiced Ayako Kawasumi, Fuu proves among the most engaging heroines in anime. While the plot does not shy away from the fact this period in time was a seriously hard one for women (at one point Fuu is abducted by sex traffickers) she stays feisty and resourceful where others are bleakly resigned to their fate. In a typically surreal anime running gag, Fuu also inexplicably hides a vicious flying squirrel up her sleeve as a concealed weapon.
Lifting story ideas from classic chanbara films, Watanabe segues from edge-of-your seat action into drama and screwball comedy, retaining a pleasing amount of the humanistic ideals found in vintage works by Akira Kurosawa and old Zatoichi films. He concocts an array of suspenseful, often ingenious episodes while slick animation, particularly throughout the dynamic action scenes, leave this among the most energetic anime in recent years. It is worth watching alone for the priceless scene where Mugen yells at a bunch of villains to ignore the time-honoured martial arts movie convention of attacking one by one and just all rush him at once!