Samurai Champloo.... what the hell does that name mean? I still don't know, but since it's by the guy who did Cowboy Bebop it's certainly going to be worth a look. Of course resisting comparing the two, when they do have such a similar flavor and style, could be hard.
The setting is feudal Japan.... sort of, there's enough anachronistic references to let you know not to take it too seriously. And in this land we meet two men, polar opposites in character, and alike in only one aspect. And that is that both of them are ice-cold killers, people who have faced and delivered death so many times that they have lost touch with `normal'. Always ready to live or die in a split second, the only thing they can trust are their own skills and strength. Thus, when they meet, it is inevitable that they will fight to see who is the stronger and who has finally met his match.
... At least that's what should happen. But in this case a young girl, who in some ways instigated the meeting, decides they should both be her companions. And through some fast (and loud) talking, a challenge, a bet, a rescue, and some other interruptions that prevent them fighting that's what ends up happening. Both of them not so much guarding her as wandering in the same direction as she seeks the "Samurai who smells of sunflowers". And along the way, as is the case with all such road movies, a variety of interesting things happen.
Let's get one thing out of the way, it's really rather good. I'll get onto the "but" later, but this is really watchable anime. The stories are very well crafted, the combats are dramatic and well animated and the characters are fantastic. The main characters being the absolutely ice-cold Jin, a person always observing and thinking but who keeps his thoughts and emotions to himself. He's polite. elegant even, but his swordsmanship is superbly deadly. On the other side is Mugen, someone who never learnt control, manners or restraint. He's full of a wild energy, a hatred of authority and limits, and always ready, even eager, for violence to erupt. His style is as wild as he is, acrobatic and dramatic, but effective and confusing to those he faces.
And in the middle is Fuu. It is her odd quest that is, in theory, the core of the story. However in practice her job is to be the emotive one, to end up getting into trouble, and primarily to keep the two mains from killing one another. It's exactly like a inverse harem comedy, her primary role is to explain why Mugen and Jin would actually stay in each others company. The main problem is that while she's quite likable she's nowhere near as cool, or as talented, as the guys. Thus she actually ends up filling a relatively minor role in many of the stories. We do get to meet some females who can earn respect from the guys, which means they end up outshining her too. In this quite combat based show she's generally the spectator.
Which is as good a intro as any to the "but" part of the review. I'm not sure if this is me being helpful, or just being obsessively picky, but I guess that's the problem a reviewer always faces. The summary is that this is great anime... but it's not as good as cowboy Bebop.
There are basically two reasons why and they somewhat overlap. The primary is that these guys are basically bums following fuu's quest because they have nothing better to do. As a result there's little teamwork and even less direction. They basically wander through the landscape and the story has to come to them, and give them some pressing need to be involved. It means that they are extremely passive relative to the story, and some rather unlikely events (generally involving fuu-chan) have to occur to drag them into some stories. And when the stories are over the events fade into the background and are forgotten, unless they are needed to generate some more enemies for future episodes. We only really discover the reason for Fuu's quest, and Jin's wandering, in the second last episode. The conclusion, at the end of a three part mini-arc, is intense but ultimately rather meaningless.
The other is that this show is denied much variety in environment. Having set the foundation in "samurai costume drama", and the limits of movement to "walking pace", the environment tends to blur after a while. It makes it seem unlikely they could really get into that many weird situations in such limited time. Even more it seems the creators got bored themselves and started to come up with wilder stories, and some over-acting characters, to make it more dramatic. This can lead to some very silly episodes of which the US-Japan feudal baseball match is unarguably the worst. Even the fights become more and more fantastic as time goes by.
In simple terms this very loose association of skilled but private people worked better in bebop. There they had a loose common purpose (getting a bounty) which meant they had to work together sometimes, towards a goal, in a novel and intrinsically interesting environment. This series just doesn't seem to gel as strongly, and the rather weak conclusion is fairly symptomatic of that. The "rap" element, such as "scratching" the anime, doesn't really seem to pan out either... in fact that particular visual trick doesn't make it past the first episode from memory.
Of course, "not quite as good as Bebop", even if true, isn't really much of a criticism. And that's probably a better way to see it. This is a very skilled anime that is extremely pleasant to watch, rather addictive actually. The characters of Jin and Mugen partly overshadow Fuu simply because they are so strong, and the action and humor are great. If you liked Bebop, which covers a rather large number of people, I'd gladly recommend giving this one a try.
Spectacular production values, that's one thing the show can certainly be proud of. Strong character art and the ability to make it move well and show strong expression. The environments are well rendered and the action is just amazing. Extremely complex choreography in the many and varied fight sequences. And this vision of swordplay, of fast movements and flashing strikes, is both visually entertaining and believably deadly. Many of the opponents are rather interesting characters in their own right, which is of course expressed in how they fight. The voices selected are superb in establishing the character with the guy playing Jin doing an amazing job of making his relatively few utterances rich in depth. The music is also great, although the English lyrics in the open and close are a little bit weird.
On reflection I couldn't help wondering if the music style had quite a lot to do with the differences. The blues music used in cowboy bebop had a lot of varied and powerful moods which really shaped the flavor of some of the events. Rap, other than perhaps rebellious youth, doesn't really have the same variety and intensity of ambient mood... it's more "up-front" and word driven.
It's edgy, streetwise..... samurai action. The mood is very modern, the plot is rather basic involving wandering around feudal Japan getting into strange and dangerous adventures, but the writing and action are very nice. We actually follow three main characters, 2 very different males and the young female who stops them from killing each other. definitely worth a watch, especially if you liked Cowboy Be-bop.