Alibi V.14 No.20 • May 19-25, 2005 

Idiot Box

Slice 'n' Dice

“Samurai Champloo” on Cartoon Network

To my limited understanding, “champloo” is an Asian stir-fry. It's meaning is similar to our word “stew”--basically a mishmash of whatever ingredients are at hand. Now that we've got the metaphor in place, we can get a clearer understanding of just what “Samurai Champloo,” Cartoon Network's newest imported anime series, is all about.

The show is the latest, long-awaited offering from anime fan fave Shinichirô Watanabe, who was last seen producing several segments of The Animatrix as a follow-up to his cult hit series “Cowboy Bebop.” Fans of “Bebop” are probably already way ahead of me. (Aired in Japan in 2004, “Samurai Champloo” was recently released on DVD here in America, courtesy of Geneon Entertainment.) Even so, “Samurai Champloo” is different enough to start gathering its own rabid fan base, independent of “Bebop” followers.

Like “Cowboy Bebop” before it, “Samurai Champloo” has no inherent respect for genre. The series consists, more or less, of historical samurai action, but--as the pre-show credits clearly state--this thing has no illusions of historical accuracy, and we're just going to have to deal with it. “Just shut up and watch,” the pilot episode advises. Sage advice indeed.

Jin and Mugen are our main characters here, a couple of hotshot rogue samurai wandering around feudal Japan looking for fights to pick. Eventually, icy Jin and hotheaded Mugen bump into one other. Since they're the two biggest badasses in the land, they naturally draw down on each other. Their duel is quickly interrupted by assorted angry rivals who want them both beheaded. Shortly before their execution, however, they are rescued by a slightly daffy teahouse hostess named Fuu who “hires” them both to hunt down a mysterious “samurai who smells like sunflowers.” Their bloody contest put on temporary hold, our two anti-heroes hit the road in search of adventure.

The Hero-like swordplay, though amazingly propulsive, isn't the main draw here. Watanabe plays fast and loose, giving the whole enterprise a unique anarchic vibe. Current slang, breakdancing and even Jin's fancy designer eyeglasses all break the stoic mood of the traditional samurai epic. Just as jazz provided the backbeat for “Cowboy Bebop,” hip-hop gives “Champloo” its own unique flavor. The show is even “mixed” like a DJ would mix a record. Scene transitions are carried out through visual crosscutting, rewinding and “scratching.”

Outrageous humor, stunt-filled action sequences and some truly gorgeous animation (with design help from Kazuto Nakazawa, who contributed the animation sequences to Kill Bill) combine to make “Samurai Champloo” a wild and particularly tasty Asian dish. Get it while it's hot, people.

“Samurai Champloo” airs every Saturday night at 12:30 a.m. on Cartoon Network.