Samurai Champloo Vol. #1 (of 7) (Mania.com)

By:Bryan Morton
Review Date: Monday, August 29, 2005
Release Date: Monday, September 05, 2005



What They Say
Mugen's a buck wild warrior - violent, thoughtless and womanizing. Jin is a vagrant ronin - mysterious, traditional, well-mannered and very strong as well. These two fiercely independent warriors can't be any more different from one another, yet their paths cross when Fuu, a ditzy waitress, saves them from being executed when they are arrested after a violent swordfight. Fuu convinces the two vagrant young men to help her find a mysterious samurai "who smells of sunflowers." And their journey begins. This is a story about love, friendship and courage... NOT!

The Review!
Having watched this first volume of Samurai Champloo back-to-back with a volume of Cowboy Bebop, I have to say there are certainly some similarities - no bad thing, given how good Bebop is. The question is, are there enough differences to make this a good show in its own right, away from the comparisons with its famous stablemate?

Audio:
A good selection of audio options are provided here. The Japanese audio is provided in both DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 formats, while the English dub is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. I listened primarily to the Japanese DTS track, which was a joy to behold - while dialogue doesn't make too much use of the surround channels, background effects make good use of the soundstage and provide depth and atmosphere to the audio. Most of the music also makes use of the full soundstage - while I'm not a huge fan of hip-hop music, the pieces used within the show aren't bad, and effective use of the available channels helps make them more appealing. There were no obvious problems with the audio track. I spot-checked the Japanese 2.0 and English 5.1 tracks at various stages - these appeared to be similarly free of problems.

Video:
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Samurai Champloo looks as good as it sounds, with vivid colours, nicely details backgrounds and nothing obvious in the way of problems or encoding defects. Subtitles are provided in both song-and-signs and full translation tracks - MVM's standard yellow-on-black font is clear, although possibly a little on the small side.

Packaging:
No packaging was provided with our review copy.

Menu:
Samurai Champloo's menus are the simplest I've seen in a while. The main menu is primarily a simple orange background (there are a few details drawn on it, but not enough to make it feel anything other than plain). A clip from the show's soundtrack plays in the background. Episode Select, Extras and Setup sub-menus are provided. There are no transition animations, so everything is quick to use, but the menu text is often very hard to make out - red and yellow text on an orange background is not a good combination, and left me straining to read some of the options that were available.

Extras:
Extras are something of a disappointment. A selection of promo clips are provided - you get two short trailers along with the longer 'Battlecry' promo video. None of these clips are anything particularly special, and with the usual clean opening and ending credits having been omitted, there's a definite dearth of worthwhile extras.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
Samurai Champloo is the latest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, who was also responsible for a certain other series by the name of Cowboy Bebop. There's been a bit of debate amongst fans about just how much Champloo has been influenced by Bebop, with fairly strong opinions on both sides of the discussion.

Two obvious differences to get out of the way: where Bebop brought us jazz and bounty-hunters, Samurai Champloo focuses on samurai and serves its tale up with a large dose of hip-hop music. Just the mention of hip-hop may be enough to put some people off - I've always found hip-hop to be very much a love-it-or-hate it genre, with my own opinion being the latter. Maybe I'm getting old. Thankfully, most of the music used in the series so far hasn't been too bad - I'm no fan of the opening theme, but other than that the background music fits in well with the scenes where its used, meaning that the music shouldn't spoil your enjoyment.

Which brings us nicely to the samurai. Mugen is a wild-child fighter with not a lot of regard for anything other than his own well-being and desire to prove to himself that he's the best there is. Jin is a ronin, a samurai with no master who wanders the countryside looking for opportunities to make a living. By chance, they've both arrived in a town where the local lord has taken to abusing his authority - while the townsfolk under his control are used, abused and killed as he and his son see fit, he's able to do as he wishes with no fear of reprisal. It's a situation that seems to be the norm in the time Samurai Champloo is set in. Mugen pays a visit to a local teahouse just in time to prevent waitress Fuu from falling into the clutches of the lord's son - for a fee, of course. Jin, meanwhile, has had a run-in with the lord himself after witnessing his mis-treatment of a local peasant. Both men soon end up in the lord's prison, facing a death sentence, but Fuu has reason to make use of them, and tries to arrange their escape in return for their help.

Mugen and Jin develop an instant dislike for each other - it was their eagerness to fight each other that originally led to their capture, with Mugen determined to prove himself against Jin's sword. They're almost the exact opposites of each other - Jin places a lot of emphasis on the samurai's code of honour and proper sword techniques, while Mugen has very little regard for either, but their contrasting styles make them very much a complete fighting package on the rare occasions when they're fighting together instead of against each other. Fuu's the bond that will eventually keep them together, with her search for the "samurai that smells of sunflowers" being her reason for keeping both men by her side.

After escaping their planned execution, the three reluctant companions head out into the countryside in search of Fuu's samurai. They're followed by another samurai Jin had injured during an earlier fight, who is out for revenge and lays an elaborate trap to take down both Jin and Mugen. Between poisons and assassins they have a hard time surviving but eventually are able to continue their travels, bringing them to a town where the yakuza gang that has been in control for some time, the Kawara gang, are facing a challenge from the newly-arrived Nagatomi gang. With the two groups facing up to finally settling who is in control of the town, Jin and Mugen end up on opposite sides (suits Mugen just fine - another excuse to fight Jin), while Fuu finds herself working in the local brothel as payback for breaking a valuable jar.

While the setting and the characters give Samurai Champloo its own distinctive feel, there are also some elements here that hark back to Watanabe's previous work on Bebop - Jin, Mugen & Fuu together have something of the chemistry that made Jet, Spike and Faye work so well, even if their personalities are quite different, while the choreography of the fight scenes also have a noticeably Bebop-y feel about them. If you want to see Champloo as "the son of Bebop", those similarities will probably be enough to prove the case, but it's really not that simple.

These episodes do a good job of introducing the characters, fleshing out their personalities and giving them a reason to be together. Past that they're quite light on plot, but the interactions of the characters and the various fighting scenes provide more than enough to keep the attention and make this a show that's worth watching.

In Summary:
Comparisons with Bebop are in some ways unavoidable, but while you'll probably find some ways of comparing the two, Samurai Champloo is best treated as it's own show. It has its own atmosphere and a group of likeable characters, wrapped up in a world that adds to the appeal. The soundtrack won't be to everyone's taste but isn't obtrusive enough to be a problem. Put it all together and the result, while nothing spectacular, is definitely fun to watch.

Features
Japanese Language DTS 5.1,Japanese Language DD 2.0,English Language DD 5.1,English Subtitles,'Battlecry' Promo Video,Original Trailers

Review Equipment
Panasonic TX-W28R30P 28" widescreen TV; Pioneer DV-626D player; Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: A
Video Rating: A
Packaging Rating: N/A
Menus Rating: C
Extras Rating: C
Age Rating: 15 & Up
Region: 2 - Europe
Released By: MVM Entertainment
MSRP: £19.99
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Samurai Champloo