Samurai Champloo Vol. #1 (also w/box) -

Anime/Manga Reviews

Mania Grade: B+

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  • Audio Rating: A
  • Video Rating: A-
  • Packaging Rating: A
  • Menus Rating: B+
  • Extras Rating: C
  • Age Rating: 16 & Up
  • Region: 1 - North America
  • Released By: Geneon Entertainment (USA), Inc.
  • MSRP: 29.98/39.98
  • Running time: 100
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
  • Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
  • Series: Samurai Champloo

Samurai Champloo Vol. #1 (also w/box)

By brettbarkley     July 18, 2005
Release Date: January 11, 2005

The Review!
I was initially interested in this series when I learned it featured the directorial talents of Shinchiro Watanabe, whose work on Cowboy Bebop I enjoyed greatly, and the artistic vision of Kazuto Nakazawa, whose work intrigued me in the exceptional Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii) animated origin sequences in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Linkin Park, Breaking the Habit video. However, after only the title sequence, I recognized this clearly was no Cowboy Bebop, or anything I’d ever seen before; this was something totally unique and I could not wait to see more.

Both the English Dolby 5.1 and the Japanese DTS 5.1 boast truly spectacular and play an integral role in the viewing experience. With the sounds of swords slicing the air, finger bones snapping, and a propelling mood soundtrack coming at you from the front and rear speakers, it’s very easy to be immersed in the Samurai Champloo experience. I found myself particularly fond of how the soundtrack itself is so thoroughly enhanced through the stereo experience. The voice work is spot-on and I found it to only enhance the overall mood of the scene and experience in general. In short, I found no technical issues with the audio presentation.

After having noted the depth and quality of the graphic design on the disc front and back covers, I was perhaps most excited by the level of visuals promised. I was not disappointed. First, the 16x9 anamorphic transfer was truly vibrant and immersive. The many vivid colors are produced brilliantly, with no discernible loss in the transfer. I did note a very few instances of blocking, particularly on quick camera pans, but nothing to truly detract from the visual experience. In short, the visuals produce a truly realized and beautiful environment and none of the subtleties or boldness of the color is lost.

Geneon employs a standard black keepcase for Samurai Champloo Vol. 1, but the graphic design of the package truly makes this one a winner. The cover, while not immediately recognizable by a bold logo (the logo is actually a bit obscured to the middle rightmost edge), it is the art and design elements that make it work. The cover displays the three main characters, Fuu, Jin and Mugen in various states of action akin to their unique personalities (i.e. Mugen full of wide-eyed fury and danger, Jin a vision of stoic composure adjusting his glasses, and Fuu, tooth-achingly sweet as ever, looking back at the viewer from between her legs.) Two other primary characters from the first disc appear, the prefectural Governor from episode one and Ryujiro Sasaki, the amputee from episodes one and two but with some beautifully rendered and arranged traditional lettering and line work.

Featuring an interesting layout, a catchy hip-hop sound loop and brief animated clip-show pieced from each of the four episodes on the disc, the menu stands out as a nice work of design, while speaking directly to the heart of the show; the juxtaposition of the new and the old, the traditional and the non-traditional. The layout of the menu showcases an interesting montage of traditional style Japanese Sumi line work around the periphery of the screen, and the Samurai Champloo logo barely visible in the upper right. PLAY, SETUP, SCENES and EXTRAS are arranged across the bottom of the screen, skewed and scrawled in a font very reminiscent of graffiti-style lettering. A simple star in the same graffiti style serves as the cursor.

But while the menu design is nicely done, the functionality and layout are not, at times, without their problems, particularly on the scene selection page. The episodes are divided in to four generic chapters: Opening, Part A, Part B, and Ending. I was slightly disappointed when I found scrolling through the chapters does not change the still image on the page, which would have served as a nice means of guiding the viewer through the episode. However, this is truly minor compared to my biggest issue with the Scene Selection menu, which was the inclusion of the episode list below the chapter section. This forces the viewer to scroll through the four episode chapters, then through the episode list, select an episode, then back through the chapter list to the particular chapter he or she is searching for. This could be potentially confusing, and while it’s likely a minor complaint in lieu of the very attractive design of the menus, it’s still an issue.

With all the great things this disc has going for it, this is one of the areas in which I was disappointed. Featuring only a battlecry Promo Video, two teaser trailers and several Geneon previews, I must admit I was hoping for more. In addition, Geneon did include a Staff Interview with Chief Writer, Shinji Obara as a disc insert. However, while offering an interesting chance to learn Mr Obara’s perspectives and goals on writing for television in general, and anime in specific, this insert would likely have been better served as a disc Special Feature, particularly in lieu of the limited number already included.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
From the very title, Samurai Champloo (where “Champloo” refers to the spontaneous mixing of disparate elements, particularly in cooking, the throwing together of things at a seeming whim, to the ends of producing something new, different and palatable) we are given an idea of what to expect. When viewing Samurai Champloo, one will easily note the manner in which these very different and unique elements combine to form the larger whole. The mixing of the warring states period of feudal Japan with urban hair, clothing and accessories, music and street slang works in a way that completely surprised me. I guess the pre-opening warning not to expect a historically accurate portrayal of feudal Japan wasn’t lying, was it?

The setting of the show will be generally familiar to any fan of the traditional serial wondering samurai epic, set roughly in the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Edo Period (1603- 1867), at which time Japan was held under tight control by the Tokugawa shoguns. While this series takes place after the civil war, there is still a measure of lawlessness and wondering samurai roam the countryside, serving whichever master will pay the most. Into this setting, the three main characters emerge, each a product and a seeming anachronism of their time. Fuu is a traditional waitress in a Japanese Teahouse, but is also fiercely independent and capable in her own right.
Jin is strong and silent, an expert swordsman, yet clinging to a sense of training and honor somewhat outdated in this setting. Mugen is strong-willed, wild and dangerous, yet he too has a sense of honor and duty beyond his seemingly constant self-centered motivations. Both Jin and Mugen's introduction scenes begin with a fight, but for very different reasons, which go far in establishing their characters. Jin seeks to defend who he sees as an unjustly condemned man, and Mugen as a means of feeding himself and providing an adequate challenge for his own pleasure.

The character designs are fantastic, diverging widey from the norm. Mr. Nakazawa has produced some very unique and interesting characters in his work on Samurai Champloo. Fuu is rendered to reveal an aspect of her inherent cuteness and naiveté. From her eyes, which are larger and softer than any of the other characters in the series, to the very subtle rose coloration on her cheeks, her character resonates loudly in the design. Jin reflects his more traditional samurai nature, dressed in a simple kimono and sunglasses. Mugen is perhaps the most fantastic in design, wearing shorts, and a shorter-sleeved variation on the Kimono. He has tattoos at the wrists and ankles, and wears steel-soled sandals, which aid him in his many swordfights. These are truly not the traditional samurai.

Along these lines of the graphic elements integral in defining the characters, I’d like to urge the viewer to pay special attention to the use of the very organic hold lines around the characters (the bold black outlines), particularly in relation to the vibrant colors and shifting of scenes and mood. Note how the lines shift and change as the characters move, giving them a truly beautiful kinetic feel. The motion becomes real, something you can feel, and removes the characters from their backgrounds while also expressing their reactions to the settings around them. Occasionally Fuu will almost become lost in a scene, the hold lines thinned (a good example would be Episode two, Part B, with Fuu in the shed), reflecting her own innocent nature and ability to be caught up in the world around herself. This is truly one of my most favorite aspects of Samurai Champloo, and something some viewers may miss the first time around.

But the development of the three main characters is not content to simply rest on the solid foundation set by the great design work, but rather through very solid voice actor casting and direction. Occasionally you’ll find a show in which the voice acting plays such an integral part in building character and personality that you come to immediately know the leads without the necessity of back-story. Samurai Champloo does that with incredible success. The three leads, Fuu, Jin and Mugen are voiced by Kari Wahlgren, Kirk Thornton and Daniel Andrews respectively. Each of these actors has a wide range of experience in the field, with perhaps the exception of Kari Wahlgren, though her work never falls below the standards set by her counterparts in the least. Flawlessly, these three actors build and define who these characters are and make their interactions work with seeming ease. And what a great treat to discover Cowboy Bebop alum Beau Billingslea (Jet Black) and Wendee Lee (Faye Valentine) were featured as guest voice actors in the first two episodes!

The first episode titled, “Tempestuous Temperaments” is told is a magnificent non-linear style, interspersed with scene breaks the visual equivalent of a DJ’s looping and mixing of sound, covered by record scratching audio. It truly must be seen. The episode opens with the Jin and Mugen about to be executed and then, in a round-about manner, flashes back to the prior day, in which we learn the strange, violent and slightly humorous way in which the two first came in to contact with one another and the part Fuu plays in it all. We also get the first glimpse of a deadly rivalry between Jin and Mugen I suspect will play a large role in the future of the characters and the show. From their fiery first meeting and subsequent arrest, we follow Jin and Mugen through a serious of tortures. It seems during their battle of egos, the son of the local prefectoral Governor was killed. In this “Department Store of Torture”, that is an offense punishable by death—death and a great deal of torture. Fuu attempts to stage a humorously doomed to failure break-out, but manages to explain her motivations for wanting to free them and, therefore bind them to her service. She wants them to help her find someone—a samurai who smells of sunflowers. However, as she fails to release them, they are wearily resigned to their looming execution. And it is at this point when the story comes full circle, to the opening execution scene. Jin and Mugen manage a spectacular escape from their executor and stage an uprising against the Governor’s men. This scene also includes a very clever break dancing homage that, combined with Mugen’s swordplay, is simply dazzling. Meanwhile, Fuu, who has been desperately trying to manage a means for the pair’s escape, finally produces the goods and the fireworks she brings to the conflict allow the Jin and Mugen to escape the near-overwhelming odds. When Fuu finally catches up to the two outside the city, they’re once again ready to resume their battle to determine the better swordsman. Fuu, however, reminds them they still owe her their services and the three make a hasty departure with a very large and very angry mob at their heels.

The remaining three episodes of the disc rest firmly on the premise established in the first; that of the wandering band of unlikely companions on the search for the samurai who smells of sunflowers. While the general idea uniting the characters may seem a bit flimsy, particularly in lieu of how easily Jin and Mugen determine to abandon Fuu at the beginning of the third episode, only to return to the party by the end of the fourth, this does not truly detract from the entertainment value of the overall story. One could view this as a necessary plot device in exploring the characters and why they’ve been drawn together. Mugen truly defines the nature of the group in episode three, when he says, “I guess no matter how hard we try…fate’s gonna keep throwing us back together.” And trust me, he doesn’t mean it in a corny way.

Episode two marks a strong change of pace for the series, both in terms of content and storytelling. First, the story is told in a very linear path, without the brilliant scene-breaks as employed in the first. I was a bit disappointed by this, as I so loved the standard set by the first episode. There was certainly ample opportunity to utilize this device, so I’m not certain why it was neglected. One could argue the creators did not want to overuse a good thing, but I still wish something would have been done to stay closer to a general artistic theme in handling scene changes. The second departure rests primarily in the mood. The first episode was very upbeat, fast-paced and continually retained a sense of humor, while I found the second to be a bit slower and lacking the same irreverent attitude toward life and death. This change was largely due to the shift in tone as the story builds toward the inevitable conflict between Mugen and a disfigured giant who is little more than a pawn for revenge. And though I expected the giant to fit the beast-with-a-heart-of-gold formula and understood how the story would be resolved, I thought the episode worked in how it better revealed Fuu’s character, which speaks to a larger impression of the first four episodes. If one recognizes these episodes as serving the largely goal of character development, it becomes much easier to overlook some of the more glaring plot devices.

In terms of the overall story, while the great action sequences abound (just check out the sword fight in the bamboo grove from Episode 2), and are done incredibly well, the episodes do manage to weave in complex themes of loneliness and alienation, duty, leadership, honor, and maturity, all the while entertaining with a keen sense of humor. Some may be put off by the disjointed connection between episodes, as the episodes don’t necessarily occur one after another, but this speaks more to the nature of the wandering samurai tale, than to any fault of the creators. So while the final three episodes were a true joy to watch, I found myself pining for the artistic direction, fierce handicam action sequences, and wicked humor of the first.

In Summary:
Unlike any samurai you’ve ever seen, Samurai Champloo puts the genre in a completely new light. Not content to simply rely on a unique perspective, or the juxtaposition of traditional Japanese samurai themes with a modern urban angle, Samurai Champloo layers its strongly character-driven plots with incredible sound and stunningly vivid visuals. Fans of the more artistic and experimental anime will have no trouble finding something to enjoy in Samurai Champloo. And for the fans of the traditional samurai epic, enough of the samurai action remains intact to appeal to you. This series will likely not appeal to fans of more passive anime, and with a fair amount of violence and foul language (on the English language track), it is definitely not intended for a young audience.

Review Equipment
34” Sony FD Trinitron Wega HDTV KD-34XBR910 and Sony DAV-FR9 5-Disc progressive scan home theatre system.


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