Samurai Champloo Vol. 1
Emru Townsend · December 9, 2004 | To tell the truth, I've never understood the enduring connection between martial arts and black popular culture. I'm sure that somewhere, a culture critic who dismissed "Kung Fu Fighting" and Jim Kelly as flash-in-the-pan '70s trends is bewildered at the enduring popularity of Kung Faux. And now there's something new to freak out our hypothetical pundit: Shinichiro Watanabe's Samurai Champloo.

You might recognize Watanabe's name: he was the director of the deservedly praised Cowboy Bebop. Having watched the first two episodes of Samurai Champloo, it looks like he's having a great time doing the same thing he did with his earlier series: melding a particular genre with a particular music style, and seeing what happens. Like Bebop, even the series title suggests this cross-media combination; Champloo is the Okinawan word for "mixing"—in this case, taken to mean hip hop.

Unlike the still-forthcoming Afro Samurai, which borrows from the side of hip hop that celebrates excess and casual misogyny, Samurai Champloo reaches back to the musical style's roots and revels in its legacy of inventiveness and recontextualization. In "Tempestuous Temperaments," the first episode, scruffy rogue Mugen confronts the corrupt governor's son and his entourage of abusive constabulary. Mugen looks like an angrier, nihilistic version of Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel, but it's the governor's son who looks more interesting. With hair cut short and dyed blond, a wisp of a beard, a pair of earrings, and a kimono with stripes down the arm (suggesting that Adidas operated in feudal Japan), he's an MP3 player short of being your typical hip college kid. Their language is definitely modern in vocabulary and cadence, to the point of Mugen taunting the constables by calling them "bitches."

Then as the music starts to fade in and all hell starts to break loose, Watanabe decides to intercut to a nearby battle between another wandering swordsman, the disciplined Jin, and the corrupt governor's men. But rather than the expected jump cut, he does the visual equivalent of a scratch mix, moving sound and video back and forth as he switches from one scene to the other.

Samurai Champloo Vol. 1
Geneon Entertainment, 2004
Originally released in 2003
Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
100 minutes

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It's basic, but it's a revelation. In Cowboy Bebop, Watanabe transposed jazz's languor, sensuality, or excitement to the visuals as needed; here, he embraces the controlled chaos, the cut-up mixes between different source materials.

At least, that's true of the first episode.

In the second episode, "Redeye Reprisal," there is exactly none of this inventiveness. The plot is so conventional as to be, well, dull. Even the series premise, that Mugen, Jin and the ditzy waitress Fuu, who have no particular love for one another, are travelling together because of promises made, feels a bit like a retread of Cowboy Bebop. The only standout in the episode is an ultra-polite assassin, who has one of the best dub performances I've ever heard.

It's tempting to think of the episode as padding, but knowing Watanabe's work in Bebop, I was prepared to think of it as more of a setup for future episodes, awkward as it is. And, in fact, it's practically announced as such at one point.

The seven Samurai Champloo DVDs will be released throughout 2005, with the seventh and final coming out in January 2006. If "Redeye Reprisal" is the fluke I think it is, this is going to be a very interesting year.

DVD Features: English subtitles; "battlecry" promo video; teaser trailer.
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